Alex Grand and Sebastian Guidobono’s ‘Journey Into Mexico’ is an all-ages graphic novel weaving together Latin American mythology and Mexican history. Well informed and of serious intent, it struggles to harmonize the two aspects, achieving breadth, but struggling to develop characters and nuanced storytelling. However, the result is an interesting experiment, reminiscent of 90’s Vertigo projects. With colourful art and jaw cracking action, it will appeal to traditional comics fans who like a little historical righteousness with their supernatural punch outs.
Alex Grand and Sebastian Guidobono’s Journey Into Mexico is an all-ages graphic novel that marries Mexican history with Latin American mythology. Set in the early 1830s, it reinterprets the succession and jockeying of power between presidents Vicente Ramon Guerrero Saldana and Anastasio Bustamente y Osegura as a mythical struggle between Supay (the God of Death) and Quetzalcoatl (a God embodying political harmony).
Other key historical figures that play a part are Pio de Jesus Pico IV, Francisco Picaluga, Jose Antonio Facio, and especially Lucas Ignacio Alaman y Escalada. Central to the story is a boy who discovers and embodies the spirit of El Fuego (The Fire), an avatar that Grand has invented to stand for light, fire, and justice. El Fuego travels, flies, and teleports with his sombrero, shawl, and mystical guitarron, fighting the various demons and fearsome mythological creatures Supay has unleashed upon Mexico. In the process, El Fuego rights the imbalance of power that prevails and ushers in justice.
Both aspects (the mythological and historical) of the story are rich and interesting but don’t meld together well. The historical aspect seems strongest so let’s examine that first. Grand seems really to have taken an interest in the Afro-Mexican Guerrero who abolished slavery during his brief tenure and then was betrayed by his friend Picaluga who sold him out to the very reactionary Bustamente and Alaman. It feels that this by itself, if fleshed out with Grand’s natural intelligence and knowledge, could have filled up this slim volume if he’d focused on that with a fine toothed comb. Alaman as a driving political force and totalitarian influence behind multiple presidents is particularly interesting, both to us and evidently Grand himself. However, in the volume as it exists now, there is not enough time, texture, or tension given to the building of these characters and their various political interplays. Too much of the information is narrated through caption boxes or monologues and this may be disorienting for a reader who has no familiarity with the period. That is not to say it is confounding – one can definitely follow – only, it needs more dramaturgy and narrative development.
The mythological aspects are extremely rich also. A fair number of Latin American deities are invoked and woven into a single universe: Kinich Ahau, Inti, Huitzilopochtli, Tonatiuh, Mixcoatl, the aforementioned Supay and Quetzalcoatl. There is also a host of horrors from Latin American folklore: everything from Chupacabras to Alux Elves to Mexican Death Fairies. El Fuego moves from territory to territory, fighting these nightmares that have been allowed to enter our world – the membrane between the two worlds has been weakened by Supay through the perfidious execution of Presidente Guerrero. In some ways, this might be reminiscent of Alan Moore’s American Gothic storyline in The Saga of the Swamp Thing or a more general title from Vertigo that followed in its wake.
As with the handling of history, this exploration of mythology is appealing but there’s too much breadth and not enough depth. For us to be really invested in the characters and story, the characters need to be developed more, they need to be more individualized and personal; the dialogue needs to be more natural – even if the beings speaking it happen to be supernatural. The action sequences are also too general and broad – we don’t really get a handle on the personas of either El Fuego or the boy he inhabits – Grand is more interested in archetypes than personality. We aren’t given an involved understanding of El Fuego’s specific powers or the workings behind his guitarron. Is it a mystical instrument that keys into celestial harmonic energies, is it simply a tool of immense power like Green Lantern’s ring, is it a personal power object like Morpheus’ mask, or something else entirely? How does it all work?
That being said, the story has a certain serious intent behind it which kept me engaged, even if the intent is sometimes muddled. The tale is broken into discrete chapters. One of my favourite elements is the series of maps that begin each chapter graphing El Fuego’s odyssey, the characters and where they are, and who’s dead and who’s alive. I was especially grateful for the glossary at the end which had synopses and origins for both the historical and mythical elements of the story. This is what Grand excels at – an intelligent, informed overview that synthesizes historical knowledge. Having known his adroitness when it comes to comics history, it’s hard not to think of him as a ‘lecturer’ foremost and as a narrator second. I want to emphasize again that I love both aspects behind the tale (the historical and the mythological) and they seem soundly researched, but I think Grand would play more to his natural strengths if he brought that informative aspect to the foreground. It belongs on centre stage. It’s more memorable than the actual action and conflict exhibited in the story.
The art by Sebastian Guidobono is fine – it has a dynamic quality that is rendered in a popular mainstream vein. The bright colours are appealing and enhance the breakdowns, making them pop more than if a muted or less all-ages palette had been chosen. It’s obvious that the creators have a love for classic adventure comics and wished to indulge that – there’s no harm in that. The creators cannot resist throwing in rocking sound effects and melodramatic dialogue while their characters duke it out. However, the heart of the book really belongs in its fascination with history and culture and that’s what the reader will remember.
I was wondering if Grand might be Latin American himself but a small passage in the back reveals that he’s Iranian American. Why then did he pick Latin America as the source material for his tale? What did he want to say with it? Are there connections to things that happened during Donald Trump’s regime? All these questions remain vaguely unsatisfyingly unanswered. In another vein, I was curious what Grand’s own personal beliefs are in terms of the spiritual connection between the worlds beyond ours and the everyday events we experience. The use of the term Nagual makes me think of the writings of Carlos Castaneda; though conclusively derided and debunked, Castaneda did a very good job of making the reader unsure what was real – his writing spooked you out and made you suspicious of reality. What are Grand’s own beliefs regarding the spirit world – is this evocative of that or simply a lark, an entertaining tale? What are his own political and philosophical thoughts? All of these things can be developed and discussed further.
Perhaps his future efforts and writings will expand upon them.
Journey Into Mexico by Alex Grand and Sebastian Guidobono is now available through Comic Book Historians Press.