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Blog geeka o komiksach, filmie, anime oraz nauce i technice - A Geek's blog about anime, film, sci and tech

“Hernan Cortes and Conquest of Mexico”

Cover

There are certain things in our life, that are occurring in our childhoods and are staying with us for the rest of it, inspiring us for years to come. For me one of those things are comic books (or “graphic novels” if you like) that I did read passionately in my childhood in early 1990’s.

One of such comic books was “Hernan Cortes and the Conquest of Mexico” published by KAW publishing house in 1989, by the duo of Stefan Weinfeld (script) and Jerzy Wróblewski (art). Mr Wróblewski was one of the titans of pre-1989 Polish comic book scene, with tremendous portfolio consisting of dozens of comics, both full albums and short stories published over the decades, with very varied styles and genres.

It should be noted here, for non-Polish reader, that one of the biggest paradoxes of cultural life in Communist Party run Poland in the period of 1944-1989 was the fact that comics were on one hand denounced as one of those nasty things from “decadent capitalistic West” but on the other hand Communist establishment commissioned artists for doing comics for both entertainment and propaganda.

The comic mentioned in the title of this post is quite unusual for its time and place: it is not another propaganda piece dedicated to Party, socialism, People’s Army or Militia (police), it is not action or crime drama nor its a science-fiction or fantasy genre. Its subject is the real life historical invasion of mercenary army of hundreds of soldiers led by Castilian noblemen under charge of admiral Hernan Cortes on modern day Mexico and Aztec empire in years 1519-1521, after which these land had become colonised by Kingdom of Spain, causing collapse of indigenous civilisations there.

Cortes character is presented here as one dimensional cardboard cutaway, limited to shouting orders and negotiating with the natives. There is no in depth exploration of personal motives (with exception of thirst for gold) or interpersonal relationships. On one panel its suggested that he and Malinche were sleeping together, but nothing more is shown, because of intended young demography for comic and compressed storyline, leaving rest to reader’s imagination. The fast paced story military campaign is compressed into 48 pages and fact is causing many interesting events to be told by characters only in single panels, like conquistadores having doubts about their chances for succeeding and plotting mutiny, Malinche gathering intelligence etc. On one hand this is masterful exercise in laconic storytelling, but on the other hand its leaving reader with a nagging sense of incompleteness and wanting to know more.

Castilian mercenaries doing their job – just like Waffen-SS.

In my opinion the best thing about the story by Mr Weinfeld is that it leaves the moral judgement to the reader. There is no anvilicious moralising or propaganda (as you may expect from publication from communist era rule), instead what we got here is just a depiction of the pathological greed and ruthlessness of Cortes and his mercenaries, and on the other hand, we see his native allies having the the grudge against oppressive Aztecs. And also we are being shown the gehenna of civilian population, the Cholula massacre and burning of Tenochticlan, and both events has distressing similarity to barbarity of Nazis from World War 2, that people in Poland (including the creators) were too well familiar with. Shocking (for us) religious practices of Mesoamerican pre-colonial peoples, like human offerings to gods or ritual cannibalism, are only showed briefly or just mentioned in dialogue.

The weakest aspect of the story is – mentioned before – compression of three years military campaign, with lots of twists on its way, into 48 pages of single issue comic, at the expense of skipping many interesting events and facts. Also some long standing myths are perpetuated here, like myth about Aztecs thinking that Cortes was a reincarnation of god Quetzalcoatl, contrary to historical sources. The aforementioned compression also causes huge deficiency of knowledge among readers, like we are not told exactly why Totonacs and Tlaxcallans hated Aztecs and allied themselves with Cortes, nor we are given details how Aztec empire (or, more correctly, Mexica’s Triple Kingdom Alliance) was running its business of controlling vassal city-states.

Battle scenes, despite being very brief, are well done, unfortunately they have lots of historical inaccuracies in costumes and weapons department…

Drawing historical comics is difficult because it requires a lot of knowledge about the historical period, architecture, costumes, weapons, etc. Wróblewski dealt with the subject of colonization of another continent quite unevenly. On the one hand, you can see that he tried very hard (e.g. he drew quite well some of the armour of warriors, like jaguar-warriors), on the other hand, Aztec warriors wear war bonnets like stereotypical “Indians” from classic western films, and the famous Mexican “swords” – flat clubs with obsidian blades called macuahuitl – are depicted as maces. The designs of clothes and costumes of the natives seem to be the result of the author’s imaginations and references borrowed from of the costumes of modern Mexican folk dancers, rather than the result of archaeological research. Nevertheless, these flaws were made in good faith, and you can see that he simply lacked the source material and practice.

Wróblewski had to deal with drawing battle scenes, architecture, foreign landscapes and people of different ethnicity. The architecture came out rather average, and we do not see city of Tenochticlan in all its glory. Sceneries are sometimes made in half-assed way, for example there is one panel in which Cortez admires the view of the Aztec capital on Lake Texcoco, but what we see in the frame does not look impressive…

“Splendid!” But… what exactly?

In summary, this comic should be judged in the historical context of times and place of its publishing, that is fading days of communist party dictatorship in Poland. In those bleak times any sort of escapistic entertainment was sought by audience, and any sort of comic book on newsstands were guaranteed to be sold, as an substitute of “The West” and better world. The “Hernan Cortes and Conquest of Mexico” was probably pitched to state-owned publishing house KAW as “edutainment” for kids and teenagers, and thus was green lighted to be printed in astonishing 300 000 copies. It worked for me that way, because as a kid reading this I became interested and fascinated with pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations and cultures of Aztecs, Mayans and others, and as a grown up I sought more complete sources of knowledge on that topic.

What can the comic of the Weinfeld-Wróblewski duo be compared to? There is not much competition, which is surprising for me. We have, for example, adaptation of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, printed in the USA as part of the “Classics Illustrated” series in 1960 (available for reading online at Archive.org) and this American old fashioned comic looks artistically poor, despite being faithful to the literary original and historical realities. The subject of the conquest is also present in the French comic series from the 2000s titled “Quetzalcoatl” by Jean-Yevs Mitton, where a nice classy artwork is combined with ahistorical plot which is a sleazy mix for scenes of sex and violence. Judging by this posts on this blog by Spanish artist, the global competition for Wróblewski’s comic looks rather weak, at least in late 1980’s and 1990’s…

In any case, in my heart, the comic book by Weinfeld and Wróblewski has a worthy successor, which is a web-comic “Aztec Empire” by Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett, that is a world-wide sensation, nominated to the Eisner Prize, and carefully consulted with historical sources and the latest archaeological and ethnographic research. It can read for free here: “Aztec Empire” webcomic. Reading it I have the opportunity to feel myself again like a little boy fascinated by history…

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