This Comic Book Writer Used His Mexican Roots And D&D To Bring Aztec History To Life
Spanish Conquistador Hernán Cortés led a 16th-century expedition that ended in the overthrow of the Aztec Empire in what is now Mexico City.
But what if Cortés had lost? And what if the Aztec Empire featured Dungeons and Dragons-style teammates and supernatural forces?
That’s the alternate fantasy adventure world seen in Helm Greycastle, a new graphic novel from writer Henry Barajas, artist Rahmat Handoko, and colorist Bryan Valenza. Barajas and Valenza co-created this comic, while Handoko was brought on to do exquisitely detailed pencil drawings. They created the book across continents, with Valenza and Handoko both based in Jakarta.
“It’s like a Wu-Tang Clan, if you look at who made this book,” Barajas said. “I was really lucky that a lot of people came through for me.”
The book’s team includes everyone from a bard and a wizard to a bold warrior leader barreling forward, Helm Greycastle.
Color was a key part of giving Helm Greycastle its unique feel. Valenza wanted to use a special rendering style for the comic, and while it led to some missed deadlines, they feel it was worth it. Working across such distances, they also would trade references, including the colors that would be authentic to the society.
“A lot of the times, Mexico looks really brown, or poor, so we wanted to give it life,” Barajas said.
The Writer’s Roots Come To Life On The Page
The writer first became known for his graphic memoir of his great-grandfather Ramon Jaurigue, La Voz De M.A.Y.O.: Tata Rambo — Barajas worked on it for five years. Jaurigue founded the Mexican, American, Yaqui, and Others organization, which lobbied to improve conditions for members of the Pascua Yaqui tribe.
That book came out in Nov. 2019 — and when the pandemic hit, instead of dozens of events set to promote his previous book, Barajas dove into creating something new.
Helm Greycastle is a whole different experience, while still working to elevate Latinx history and culture.
"Helm Greycastle was just a book about survival, and it was me just trying to also survive,” Barajas said.
He recognizes that he has privilege in getting to tell this story.
“A lot of the times, the indigenous people themselves, people in Mexico, aren’t getting these types of platforms,” Barajas said.
How Researching Indigenous Peoples Led To Fantasy Adventure
Barajas also wanted a project that would help him avoid becoming known as the guy who just writes nonfiction comics. The new book still has plenty of research — working on his previous book led him to the history that inspired Helm Greycastle and its bombastic titular hero.
“I found out that the Pascua Yaqui tribe was documented by Spanish priests during the Inquisition,” Barajas said. “My mother’s tribe dated back that far, and it made me realize that I didn’t really know who I was, or where I came from, and the history of the indigenous Azteca people — but also Mexico.”
Barajas said he reverse-engineered how he writes comics, researching the breadth of Mesoamerican history and telling those stories from the indigenous viewpoint instead of that of whites/Europeans.
“The way they wrote it, it was like an action movie — just how they saw this happening, and then it unfolded,” Barajas said.
Building D&D Into The Comic
The detailed visuals are built on everything from what the conquistadors looked like to what an Aztec bedroom looks like. Then he combined that with a personal source of inspiration: Dungeons and Dragons, which he started playing a few years ago.
“It was really life-changing, and it saved me,” Barajas said.
That’s because, when he moved from Arizona to L.A., playing the game let him build a local family of friends.
“While I was playing, I realized, ‘Oh, there are no Brown people here,’” Barajas said. “Then I thought about Lord of the Rings, and why I even thought about playing D&D was, ‘Oh, I get to be Aragorn, or Legolas,’ and those guys look nothing like me.”
Barajas’s elevator pitch for Helm Greycastle: “What if Mordor had a south side?”
“If I were to step into a hobbit bar, they would probably think I’m an orc, because I’m so brown,” Barajas said.
To bring that fantasy world into Mexico, Barajas drew from Mesoamerican history and beliefs in astrology, magic, and potions — omens and elemental gods.
That D&D vibe continues with the book’s back material, which includes D&D-compatible role playing game modules that readers can use to jump into a fantasy world where Brown people exist.
“I’m a Mexican kid from south Tucson. If someone would have told me you could have had three hours of fun with a piece of paper, a rulebook, some pencils, and dice, I’d be all over that,” Barajas said. “This is me trying to say, ‘Hey, here’s a way to learn about yourself, but also play and have fun for three hours.’”
The role-playing aspects also helped the book find a wider audience, moving beyond just comic book stores to include gaming shops. Barajas hopes that wider audience means he’s able to continue the story, which teases the heroes' next big battle at its end.
“What if the Spanish lost? But that’s not going to be the only time they’re gonna try,” Barajas said. “There’s World War II. If there’s a whiff of gold … The first trip is an expedition. The second trip is a war.”
He’d also love to do a prequel showing how this motley crew first meets.
“I’m trying to use my heritage and being Brown as a way to tell more stories, but also find ways to separate myself and say, ‘Hey, I like to tell stories that have nothing to do with who I am.’ Because I think other people get to have that opportunity, and I’m just looking for that agency,” Barajas said.