Comics Review: Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life

I know I’m not doing very much Creative Writing on this site yet, but I want to write about this particular work before I forget. I’ve always been interested in comics: both in particular stories and in comics as a literary art-form and accepted medium. A lot of my own academic studies focused on certain comics works, though I will also admit that I’d been studying them long before I ever applied to York’s Humanities Graduate Program.

So this is going to be a comics review: which is something that I like to do from time to time. Like I said in my last review, I appreciate the difficulty in analyzing a comic: especially when you don’t feel comfortable copying or pasting parts of it for others to see in your review. However, I will do my best to make clear references here, but to also not spoil any of the details.

Unlike my last review, which looked at an examination of a cartoonist creator of a comic strip, this review will focus on a comic I picked up not too long ago. I found Lords of Death and Life at this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival at the booth of its creator Jonathon Dalton. The cover struck me first: with a fallen Mayan man and a priest above him with an obsidian dagger. They are surrounding by Mesoamerican glyphs or pictographs. It looked like the cover of a children’s storybook or an introductory junior level book into Mayan or Aztec culture: much like something I would have looked at in back when our class examined the Aztecs back in elementary school.

It’s storybook illustrations did catch my eye, but I admit I almost didn’t buy the book: even when talking with its creator for while. Very few books at this year’s Festival intrigued me enough to buy anything with the little birthday money I had left over. However, something called me back to it. And I noticed there was a small review by Scott McCloud on the back cover talking about how Dalton’s book was “an intoxicating fusion of ancient design and modern imagination.” Scott McCloud is not only a well-known cartoonist in his own right, but he is also a comics-scholar that wrote a series of books talking about the comics medium in and through the comics medium–as comics themselves–such as Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Making Comics and the rest.

The reason I mention this is that he, along with the legendary comics creator legend Will Eisner–considered by some to be the grandfather or godfather of the comics medium–point out that many ancient cultures possessed a sequential pictographic format of telling stories, or recording language. I believe both Eisner and McCloud look at Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan friezes as examples of a “sequential art” used to depict stories and record information.

This is another thing that I found so fascinating about Dalton’s comic. He actually incorporates Mayan or Mesoamerican glyphs into his comic. There is an entire section of panels that tells a part of the story as if the reader is looking at a Mayan frieze. At first, this can be very confusing until you realize that he has a very handy glossary at the end of his book which also tells you which glyphs he had learned and which ones he also had to make some creative approximations or guesswork for. If you don’t know about this, however, the beginning can be very confusing: especially when the main character Mol Kupul keeps referring to the date of each day from the Mayan understanding of time.

I also don’t know what to say without spoiling the story, but as I read on I was greatly impressed with where the plot went. You begin to see that a series of seemingly unrelated events are actually quite related and there is a truly epic battle at the end of the narrative, followed by an ending more bittersweet than Mayan chocolate drunken out of a golden cup of blood: so much so that I think it really opens itself up to the potential for a sequel and one I would definitely not mind reading.

If Lords of Death and Life has any more issues, it would be that there are many Mesoamerican cultural references and names of which many readers might not be familiar and would have to greatly pay attention to or reread carefully to get full reading comprehension. Also, the speech of the spirit character in this work–the uay companion spirit–is more than a little over the top and sometimes choppy. However, Dalton does succeed in bringing you into a whole other world with the interaction between Mayans and Aztecs and he definitely plays with your expectations as to what will happen. Also know that by the time the story begins, it is already over and you as a reader are only beginning to find out how everything transpired. It is an excellent storytelling device and it gives you a peak into how an ancient Mesoamerican mindset functions as well.

I am very impressed with Jonathon Dalton’s work here. He manages to make a comic that goes back to the basics or the essentials of the form’s creation, and tap into that place where ancient pictographs and modern comics both parallel each other and meet. He has made something special and I wish I had talked with him more about it: though I take solace in that he signed the book I bought from him with an ancient Mesoamerican monster growling out my name. I think more people need to know about his work and more of it–along with information about him–can be found on his website here: where he has a few more comics and a work in progress.

I’d definitely give Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life a four out of five stars. I just find it incredible that one person could have done this much illustrative and written work along with all of the research to get there.

Now, hopefully next time, I will have a story of my own to begin here. Perhaps even a series.

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