Headshot of Guinan (Photo credit: Charlie Chu, formerly of Oni Comics)
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is diving deep–literally–into Aztec culture and customs via the mysterious civilization existing under the waters near Wakanda, Talocan. One of the people the most excited about this prospect is Aztec Empire writer Paul Guinan.
Aztec Empire, an Eisner Award-nominated webcomic created by Guinan and illustrated by David Hahn (with Guinan providing layouts), uses copious amounts of research and Guinan’s love for Aztec history to bring readers into the world of a Mesoamerican powerhouse before and during its skirmishes with Spanish conquistadors.
According to the website, Aztec Empire shows readers how the Aztec and Spanish battles were akin to a human civilization coming across alien invaders.
For tens of thousands of years, people in the Americas had no idea that other humans existed beyond their own continent. Likewise, no hint of Mexico’s existence reached Europe until the 16th century, by which time Mexico had a sophisticated civilization. When Spanish expeditions finally found Mexico, their encounter with the Aztec was a shock for both sides, akin to first contact with another planet. This surreal adventure reads like a fantasy epic that would be literally unbelievable, if not for the fact that it really happened!
That comparison adds a new layer to the eventual battles Talocan will have with Wakanda, since it’s unclear how much either civilization know about each other or how their battles will end.
*Note: The interview was completed before I knew the new name for “Atlantis” in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is “Talocan.” You’ll read more about the history behind the name below.
JUST ADD COLOR: How did you come up with/develop Aztec Empire? And where did your interest in Aztec life come from?
Paul Guinan: I’m both a history buff and a science fiction fan, and so is my spouse and creative partner, Anina Bennett. From the moment I first read about the Spanish invasion of Mexico, I was fascinated by the “first contact” aspect of this story. It’s a unique, epic meeting between cultures from different continents—different worlds—who know virtually nothing about each other. This was an alien invasion that actually happened!
The story has been told many times from the Spanish point of view. Aztec Empire is my attempt to dramatize the events surrounding the fall of Tenochtitlan, but in a more balanced and historically accurate way.
Anina encouraged me to start working on this project when my dad was very ill with cancer. My father was a painter, and I credit him with part of my artistic talent, my love of history, and early exposure to Mexican culture. We used to make regular weekend visits to a Mexican neighborhood in Chicago called Pilsen.
How does it feel to have earned an Eisner nomination for your work?
It’s a tremendous honor, and our whole creative team was excited to be nominated for both an Eisner and a Ringo Award in our webcomic’s first year! I’m still hoping to win an Eisner one day—maybe we’ll get a chance when our graphic novel is published in print.
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever marks the first time we’ve seen the MCU dive into Mesoamerican culture and life via Namor the Sub-Mariner. As someone interested in Aztec culture, how did you feel seeing Namor and Mesoamerican culture on screen?
I’m overjoyed and very interested to see how it plays out in the movie. We’ve seen plenty of fantasy and superhero fiction grounded in European culture—it’s about time Hollywood broadened its horizons. Mesoamerican culture is visually rich, with some amazing mythology and history to draw on. And since Marvel movies take place in a fantasy superhero universe, I’m not concerned about historical inaccuracy in the same way that I am about, say, the Hernán TV series [starring Óscar Jaenada as Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés].
Black Panther is already a very culturally-powerful franchise; for many Black audiences, it represented the first time the MCU finally embraced Blackness in a way that didn’t demean it or belittle it (in terms of not making a Black sidekick, not having a white savior, etc.). How do you think Namor and Atlantis will add to Black Panther‘s cultural cache?
I believe this is the first time any major Hollywood movie (not just the MCU) has depicted a Mesoamerican-inspired culture in a way that doesn’t demean or belittle it. That fact alone is hugely meaningful.
While I obviously can’t speak for Indigenous or Black audiences, the Wakanda Forever trailer is clearly generating buzz. In the Mexican communities I interact with, many people are thrilled to see superhero footage inspired by their ancestors’ culture. The actor playing Namor, Tenoch Huerta, is very vocal about racial and cultural issues. He says he was cast for genuinely inclusive reasons—because representation matters.
It seems like a natural extension of the first Black Panther movie to introduce visuals inspired by another culture that’s been under-represented by Hollywood. As for the long-term impact, that depends on what we all think after seeing the movie.
Are there any Aztec markers you hope to see included in Atlantis?
So far, it looks like most of the visual references are based on Maya culture, not Aztec. As others have pointed out, though, calling the submerged civilization a “lost” city-state named “Talocan” is sort of an oblique nod to Tlalocan—which in Aztec mythology is a paradise ruled by the rain god Tlaloc. If I could pick one Aztec thing for the movie, it would probably be Tlaloc come to life as an elemental god. How cool would that be?!
Also, I should note that there’s no single “Aztec” culture, nor was there anything called the “Aztec Empire” in actual history. What we think of as the Aztec Empire was made up of multiple city-states with different cultures. But “Aztec” is the word most people use today, so I use it for the sake of shared understanding.
If you could write an Aztec-based Namor comic book based on the MCU’s version, what story would you like to tell.
Namor has always represented “the other,” and he has a strained relationship with surface-dwellers. So that theme of culture clash and misunderstanding would have to be central, just as it is in my Aztec Empire series. It would be fun to do either an alternate version of Namor’s origin story or something involving Aztec deities like Tlaloc. Oh, or a story where Namor has to make his way through Mictlan, the Aztec afterlife—there’s a nine-level underworld with some crazy ordeals!