Atl, an aztec comic book heroine

Mexico is the home of tequila, mezcal and lots of other good stuff, but if we take a step few step back from our glasses, Mexico is so much more! Here at TequilaList we try broaden our minds and gain a better and deeper understanding of Mexican culture beyond and before Mexico became Mexico. The last ten years have revealed archaeological findings from prehispanic cultures in an enormous amount. New scanning technologies, computerized analysis etc. have helped the diggers provide a more comprehensive understanding of what life was before the conquests.

Here in Europe we have a long and excellent tradition for creating comics.One such, danish, comic artist, Lina has taken an interest in Aztec and Maya culture. And while present day maya culture is still vibrant and very much alive, the mayans and aztecs of prehispanic times are no more. But through art and storytelling they can once again be brought back to life and through stories we can gain better insight, be entertained and broaden our horizons.

We have made an interview with Lina who has published the comic book Anepantla, In the Temple of the Rain God in 2021. The comic book is still only available in danish, though. Anepantla recieved the prestigious Claus Deleurant Award in 2022 for best debut comic.”.

The cover of Anepantla, In the Temple of the Rain God

The year is 1480. Large areas of Central America are dominated by the Aztec Empire. Thanks to an ambitious alliance with two city-states, the empire has been able to conquer both land and power. But this otherwise strong alliance is being threatened by another people known as the P’urepecha. The two peoples have long been rivals, but the P’urepecha grew in ressources, which greatly worried the Aztec emperor, Axayacatl.

Meanwhile, a young, aztec woman from  Xochimilco known as Atl travels to the Aztec capital to play music at Axayacatl’s royal court. She is not interested in the intrigues of the court but is drawn by the mystical Rain God and the secrets that hide in his temple.

Anepantla is the first part of a trilogy. The next part is set for publishing in 2024.


Who are you – name and age?

Lina Rosé Saxtorph

Lina Rosé Saxtorph

My name is Lina Rosé Saxtorph. I am 24 years old and was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. I studied abroad in Scotland for three years and spent last year working in both Turkey and Greece before returning to my home-base in Copenhagen.

Do you have a formal background in design? An education as a designer?

I don’t, actually. In terms of visual art, I am all self-taught. Funnily enough I do have a degree in another artform, musical theatre, a career which I pursue outside of illustrating and storytelling.

Denmark is about as far from Mexico it is possible to be and still be on the same planet… what made you take an interest in precolumbian cultures?

I have always had a heart for history.

When I was younger, I loved learning about Ancient Egypt and read many stories set in that time period. As I got older, I was exposed to fiction set in different other eras as well, and one film in particular really captured my interest – The Road To El Dorado. Not exactly a movie known for its historical accuracy, I’m aware – in fact I have been known to critique the movie for its questionable portrayal of indigenous cultures, but it nevertheless managed to capture the attention of 10-year-old me and made me want to learn more. So learn more I did, and Mesoamerican history has been a passion of mine ever since.

How do you find reference works for buildings, decorations, clothing etc?

Aztec clothing

Aztec clothing

Google is my friend. And books! When I work, I often sit with a pinterest board open on my phone and at least two books open on the drawing table – it’s a bit of a mess. Books that have been my reference stables are:

  • Indian Clothing Before Cortés by Patricia Rieff Anawalt – For clothing references
  • The Codex Mendoza (1542) and the Florentine Codex 1518–1521 – Good overall source from closer to the time period
  • Handbook to Life in the Aztec World by Manuel Aguilar-Moreno – for political life, the Tlatoanis and general society
  • A Scattering of Jades: Stories, Poems, and Prayers of the Aztecs by by Timothy J. Knab and Thelma D. Sullivan – For language and prayer references as well as cultural references for the relationship to the divine (For part two of Anepantla I have used Deciphering Aztec Hieroglyphs by Gordon Whittaker a lot and If you look closely, you will be able to find a lot of the signs from the books on the buildings/in the background.)

Three other sources that have been INVALUABLE for my writing have been ADV Estudio: a project that makes animated 3D recreations of Mesoamerican sites and towns, – (this website is so rich in sources!) and lastly, my friend and colleague Daniel Parada, an indigenous Salvadoran artist and comic creator who has done a lot of work recreating Mesoamerican clothing from sources such as pottery, murals, codices etc. Some of the characters in Anepantla owe their designs to him, as he was helping me recreate what they would have worn when I was first developing the story years ago. Namely the character of Icnoyo, the drummer…

And Nezahualquetzin, the novice priest of Tlaloc, who I since ‘promoted’ to High Priest in the final version of the story.

Denmark has at least one other prominent comic artist who works with the past in a somewhat similar manner as you, Sussi Bech. Has her work been an inspiration for you?

Don’t even get me started! She is probably the reason why I wanted to make comic books in the first place. I basically devoured her work as a young teen and to say that her work and style has been inspirational to me would probably be a bit of an understatement, hehe. Another comic artist that has had an influence in my style has been Isabelle Dethan, whose work is also set during historical times periods. Other artists I really look up to at the moment include Hajime Isayama, creator of Attack On Titan for his incredibly thorough worldbuilding and immersive storytelling, and Sabrina Cotugno and their wonderfully relatable and lovable characters in the comic series The Glass Scientists.

I have been impressed by your willingness to sketch a poltical landscape around the characters in Anepantla. Where do you find information and how do you research for a task like this?

Thank you! I do love some good intrigue. Many of the ‘political players’ of Anepantla are based on historical figures, such as Axayacatl, Tizoc, Moquihuix, and Chalchiuhnenetzin, and some of the information behind their actions are taken from what I could find in Handbook to life in the Aztec World as well as excerpts from Codex Chimalpahín. But most of it is just guesswork. I saw a few descriptions of the figures and thought “Hmm, that would make an interesting plot point” and made up a reason for their actions. For example, I don’t know whether Tizoc was actually disliked amongst the royals, but given that his pacifistic tendencies were seen as controversial at the time and the fact that (spoiler?) his reign was quite short-lived and ended in his assassination, I could piece together parts of what his character might have looked like. I took probably the most creative liberty with the character of Axayacatl, as I wanted to give my own spin on his motivations. In part two we get more insight into his state of mind.

Can you tell us a bit about your working style? Do you work digitally or is pen, brush and paper involved?

I love working traditionally with art, and the base of most of my artwork is watercolours. Anepantla is no different, especially since water is a running (pun not entirely intended) theme within the story. Everything is drawn by hand, inked and later coloured with watercolours. I then scan everything and touch it all up digitally. Lately, I have found myself working digitally a lot more and so it’s likely that as the story progresses, the digital part of the process will play a larger part, but for the duration of the series, the core of the style is still watercolours.

Here is an example from the story-board stage and how it looks when it has been inked.

Unfinished page from the upcoming part two of Anepantla with nice clean and precise drawings

Food… do we know what these people ate and drank? In the tequila world, pulque is often mentioned as an early alcoholic spirit which was – perhaps – consumed by priests. Do we know anything substantial about these things?

Haha, food is not exactly my strong suit, though there are a few food references throughout the series. But there are many sources out there on what Pre-Columbian food looked like, especially since a lot of Mexican cuisine is a direct continuation of the traditional cuisine.

Anepantla – a finished page

Dishes like Tacos, Tamales, Chilaquiles and Pozole all have their roots in Pre-Colombian cuisine, with staple ingredients such as maíz, tomatoes, beans, calabash, avocado, fish, turkey, and even insects. Not to mention everyone’s favourite, chocolate, which is a Mesoamerican invention!

You are right that pulque (or Octli, as it’s called in Nahuatl) was a huge player in the Aztec alcohol scene.

It’s a milk-coloured drink made of fermented sap from the maguey plant. Many deities were linked to pulque and the process of making it and it also played a significant role in religious festivals, as these were the times where people would drink more freely despite the general societal disdain for drunkenness. It appears that outwardly, Aztec society would often warn against drinking, as it would lead to ‘devastation and an imbalanced life’ but as a whole, it was okay to drink on holidays.

And if you know anything about the Aztec calendar, you might know that there is a holiday every 20 days… so in the grand scheme of things, there were many opportunities to let loose a bit! Priests and nobles as well as people over 70 were also allowed to drink as they liked.


Have you had any chance to see a reception of your work with mexican eyes?

I have been lucky enough to gain a small following of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans on Instagram who have been very encouraging of my art, which I honestly did not expect.

I can totally understand if people are sceptical of some European girl making a portrayal of a historical period and culture she has no direct relation to, but it seems people have been surprised and appreciative of the work I have put in. Some have even offered their knowledge and experience, which I have been so grateful for. A dream of mine has always been to publish my works in Spanish to reach a Mexican audience and of course I also want to see more media out there that portrays Mesoamerican history, especially media written or created by indigenous artists.

If you want to purchase Lina’s album, you may find it here. Note that her own website has a button for language change!

Further reading about mesoamerican history and culture:

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