It has been pointed out many times, but in a lot of ways, the gods of ancient myth were like early incarnations of today’s superheroes. This is an observation that certainly sprang to mind while reading Lords of Death and Life, a graphic novel by cartoonist Jonathan Dalton, collecting a story that had originally appeared as a webcomic a few years ago. This is a story that contains what many would be consider classic tropes of a superhero comic – an everyman hero who gains incredible powers in times of need, a secret identity, a damsel in distress, a battle with an even more powerful villain – but it takes place against the backdrop of an ancient Mayan civilisation.
Lords of Death and Life tells the story of Mol Kupul, a humble farmer and devoted family man, who is being plagued by vivid dreams of a watery underworld, and visions of a supernatural being known as the Xiuhcoatl. In search of answers, he travels to the city of Xicalango, where he gets caught up in a civil war. And that’s when things start getting really weird. One of the clever things Dalton does is inject modern sensibilities into this world he explores, suggesting that the people of back then weren’t so different from the people of now. We have Xicalango presented as the bustling city, an urban metropolis that looks down on country bumpkins, as if this were the New York City of its time and place. The locals in Mol’s village banter and drop sexual innuendo like co-workers at the office. There are race and class divides, and political power-plays. And so our main character, Mol, remains likeable and relatable as we follow him on his extraordinary journey.
The script may feel modern, but the artwork is pure pastiche, immersing us in the time with layouts and character designs that could have been taken from old Mayan paintings. This almost looks like it could be a historical document, aided by clever design flourishes such as the tribal-patterned page borders and the ancient symbols peppered around certain pages. Because it’s employing this “retro” style (can we really call it retro if the era it’s harking back millennia instead of decades?), at first the style might seem overly simplistic, which could put some people off. But a keener eye will see that, far from taking shortcuts, this aesthetic is quite deliberate on Dalton’s part, and that around this framework he still fits in tableaus of surprising depth and detail. One standout sequence for me is a “waking up in a strange place” beat that turns into a dream sequence, featuring skull-trees and other beautiful/macabre imagery.
The story is a bit slight, and there are places here and there where things feel rushed, or like they could have been fleshed out a little more. But overall, I found Lords of Death and Life to be an engaging tale, and an intriguing mesh of genres. It’s going to be available through Diamond, I understand, so retailers wanting to try out something a little different might want to take a look.