Aztecs, Blood Ritual and Murder: Sam Humphries on SACRIFICE
by Dan Casey on September 3, 2013
Sam Humphries be currently crushing it on Marvel’s off the beaten path team books, Avengers A.I. and Uncanny X-Force, but one of the most important pieces of his rapidly growing canon is a mini-series he penned with artist Dalton Rose called Sacrifice. Originally a self-published series, Sacrifice is a coming of age story that quite literally takes us through the ages as depressed, Joy Division-loving teen/Donnie Darko cosplayer Hector has an epileptic seizure which transports him back to the era of the Aztec Empire, a condition from which Humphries himself also suffers. Epilepsy, that is, not medically-induced time travel. What follows is a thrilling tale of intrigue, political machinations and, of course, ritual sacrifice that leaves readers on the edge of their seats and marveling at Rose’s psychedelic spreads.
Now, for the first time, Dark Horse is collecting the mini-series in a hardcover volume. In celebration of the release, I caught up with Humphries to talk about writing such a uniquely personal protagonist, the formative powers music can exert on us, and giving one of history’s most infamous traitors a fair and balanced portrayal.
Nerdist: Given your own experiences with epilepsy, this seems to have an autobiographical quality to it. How much of you is there in Hector? I’m presuming you never traveled back in time, obviously…
Sam Humphries: “Obviously”??? You don’t know my life!
I wouldn’t have written this book if I wasn’t epileptic, and Hector and I have a couple of similarities. But Hector’s struggles are his own, and you can see them on every page. For example, I am very lucky in that my epilepsy is completely controlled by a base-level medication with minimal side effects. However, many millions of epileptics around the world deal with a continual struggle, day-to-day, with seizures, treatments, doctors, discrimination, loss of independence, and a loss of control. Hector’s experience with epilepsy is closer to that than my own.
Most crucially, Hector grew up with Jack in the Box, whereas I did not. Those things can CHANGE a person, man.
N: Have you heard from any readers with epilepsy? If so, what was their reaction?
SH: The effects and symptoms of epilepsy are not always easily detected. And awareness of the condition is rock bottom and sometimes dangerously inaccurate. It can leave you feeling invisible. So it’s been great to connect with fellow epileptics because of Sacrifice. There’s almost nothing cool about being epileptic. So it was rewarding to create a story where epilepsy was an advantage, not some blight of unknown proportions.
N: Initially, you self-published the book, and now Dark Horse is putting out the hardcover collection. What is one of the biggest lessons you learned from the self-publishing experience?
SH: If you want a career in comics, you really gotta take the bull by the horns and make your own work happen. No one is going to give you a gig while you’re sitting on the sidelines, waiting for someone to notice you. You’ve got to get on the field and trade blows with the big boys and girls. Do something special. Get noticed.
It’s not just a career issue, it’s a quality of life issue. Life sucks waiting by the phone or reloading your inbox, waiting for publishers to get back to you. Life is exciting and empowering and fun when you’re making your own comics.
N: This is a real coming of age story through the ages, as Hector must come to terms with his condition and not let it limit him from realizing his true potential. It also has such a distinctly familiar teenage quality with how he deifies a band like Joy Division, giving it the same symbolic power as the Aztec wheel on his back. For me, I had a similar relationship with The Smiths. What is it about symbols and bands like that that resonate so powerfully with us as teenagers?
SH: For me, it was The Replacements. Music has a way of connecting the grist of adolescence to a larger world beyond your family, your neighborhood, your high school. It makes your inner turmoil seem more epic, and more bearable. When no one understands you, your favorite band understands you. It’s something you never forget.
N: Obviously, a ton of research went into this book. How did you prepare to write it, and what sparked your initial interest in Aztec history?
SH: I’ve been obsessed with Aztecs for about a decade now. I’ve got enough books about them to fill a shelf. I’ve studied their military, their justice system, their poetry — I even took an Aztec cooking class. Sacrifice came out of the research, not the other way around. The research has inspired so many ideas… I’ve got four or five additional Aztec graphic novels I’d like to do. Because, y’know, Aztecs are really burning up the bestseller charts right now.
My history with the Aztecs started with a hangover. I was driving from Vegas back to Los Angeles after a bachelor party weekend. I was hurtin’ for certain, and there was tons of traffic. Nothing to do but to sweat through the after effects, and contemplate your sins. Or, stare out at the desert, and imagine what life was like out there before 1492. When I got home, I started looking things up, and I learned that the Aztecs originally migrated to central Mexico from a place they called Aztlan — a place that may have been near Los Angeles. After that, it was over. I was hooked.
N: Ostensibly the book is Hector’s story, but one of the most compelling characters was the Rabbit Rebel, Malintzin. What drew you to her and excited you about her in a historical context?
SH: Malin got screwed by history. Her legacy is that of a traitor, who aided the Spanish in their decimation of the Aztecs. But the Aztecs set the stage for their own destruction, the Europeans committed the genocide, and smallpox wiped out 60 percent of the population in three years. Yet “Malinchista” is a pejorative, and Cortes is a national hero of Spain.
She’s a woman of color who has been reduced to the bit part of a scapegoat of history. It was important for me to cast Malin in the proper context, to place her on the same chessboard as everyone else. I wanted to portray her as a woman who had her own destiny in the face of historical forces, just the same as any of the European men we can name today. Sacrifice isn’t a work of academic revisionism, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to do my part to rehabilitate her as a historical figure.
N: Perhaps most striking about the book is the visual palette and the distinct aesthetic you and Dalton Rose created. How closely did you work with him to craft the visual tone of the world?
I can’t imagine anyone else but Dalton drawing Sacrifice. Our process was very close — lots of back and forth and collaboration. The research and period details were important, and Dalton didn’t shy away from that. His dedication to the Aztec Empire can be seen on every page. But it wasn’t all historical fidelity — Dalton’s psychedelic madness and kitchen-sink realism elevated the book beyond a staid period piece.
Previous to Sacrifice, neither of us had tackled a story longer than one issue. Now I’m writing Avengers A.I. and Uncanny X-Force for Marvel, and he’s drawing Theramin and Fabula for Monkeybrain Comics. We both grew up together on this project, along with Hector.
N: If you had to tackle another historical time period, what would it be?
SH: I’d love to do a book about Joan of Arc.
Sacrifice by Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose is available now in a hardcover collection from Dark Horse Comics. Have you read the book? Let us know what you think in the comments below!