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Codex Black – Adventurers In Cemanahuac

Camilo Moncada Lozano writer/artist
Angel De Santiago colorist
324 pages

Two loners become friends and fight monsters while on a journey to solve a mystery!

Codex Black is the story of two young people whose paths seemingly cross by accident. Having just turned fifteen, Donaji (Great Soul) decides to leave home in search of her father. Seventeen year old Itzcacalotl (Obsidian Crow) is a newbie warrior and lover of crows. They come from very different backgrounds and lead different lives. The two adventurers will overcome their initial doubts and differences to become friends and continue Donaji’s quest traveling through Cemanahuac (the Indigenous known world) while accompanied by the deity Chicahualitzteotl (the god of fortitude and health) as they come to face supernatural threats.

Camilo Moncada Lozano started Codex Black as a webcomic serialized on the popular Tapas platform in May, 2017. Just a few weeks short of its sixth anniversary Codex Black debuts in print as an initial title in IDW’s new lineup of books for Young Adults and Middle Grade readers. To make this edition extra special Lozano’s original art appears in full color for the first time and the book is packed with over sixty pages of new material but more on that later.

There is much to like in Codex Black. Foremost on this list are the story’s two main characters and the ways in which Lozano develops them to show their similarities while playing their contrasts against the other. In her remote Zapoteca village of Quie Yelaag (Cloud Mountain) Donaji is beloved by all and considered the most courageous and toughest; a hero who saved the villagers’ lives from the god of cold and ice. One day her father Chinapii simply appeared in the Zapoteca village and came to Beelia, who excels at weaving. On the other hand, Itzacacalotl is an orphan who doesn’t remember his parents and was treated as the butt of jokes by other boys who also attended the Telpochcalli (House of the Young), a school training boys to become warriors in service to the expanionist Nahuatl Triple Alliance, the forerunners of what we call the Aztec Empire. Being viewed as unreliable and inept by fellow warriors, and worse, not being missed by his fellow warriors, doesn’t prevent Itzcacalotl from his dreams of becoming a hero.

Exploring gender roles is another method Lozano uses to make his two protagonists more fully rounded. Donaji earned quite a reputation for winning every wrestling match against the village boys even without the benefit of enhanced strength that comes from wearing Chicahualitzteotl’s “supernatural” poncho. The concept of a god inhabiting a piece of clothing initially threw me bit until I remembered superhero comics have all kinds of devices like Dr Fate’s helmet, Batman’s utility belt and flight rings. Chances are readers middle grade and Young Adult readers won’t bat an eye at the idea. Donaji also seems to have no interest or skills in weaving, a role traditionally taken up by women. Itzcacalotl has fighting skills even though he’s less muscular than other males. Lozano gives the boy an interest in art and shows that he’s a skillful tailor by having him create clothing for Donaji and learning to weave at the suggestion of Beelia, Donaji’s mother. It’s tempting, for me at least, to interpret these traits as clues about Itzcacalotl ‘s sexuality. However, Zapotec men do weave, as is the case with the men of Teotitlán del Valle in the state of Oaxaca, so Lozano may simply be showing how gender roles can vary across cultures and time which is an admirable choice to my mind. Showing a male lead character expressing masculinity differently from the norm is a great example whatever Lozano’s motivation behind the decision may be.

Codex Black communicates a message that feels even more important and urgent for teens and young adults to know given our current times. That message is one of respect and admiration. While I have talked more about Donaji than Itzcacalotl, Lozano takes care to show Itzcaclotl as a hero in his own way. Lozano goes one critical step further though in the relationship between the two youths. Where many authors would resort to making the relationship between a female and a male characters a romantic one Lozano keeps this as a strictly platonic friendship. Further, Lozano adds another dimension to the friendship by having Itzcacalotl profess to Donaji that she’s become his personal hero and Lozano takes great care to depict in several scenes the boy’s appreciation through actions and not just words.

You may be wondering if there’s any action in Codex Black because up to this point all I’ve talked about is the characters and the historical setting. Codex Black is very much a Hero’s Journey story. Along the way the young adventurers encounter a menacing giant bat monster not once but twice, meet new people, fight a thief, experience a chance encounter with the Zapoteca king, and finally a nightmarish supernatural being called the Night Axe whose fearsome appearance causes paralysis in his victims. All the while, an occult group conducts mystrerious rituals that will come to affect the young heroes.

Lozano’s dedication to research is impeccable. Usage of the original languages for names of people, places, objects, and ideas makes for a more immersive reading experience. Don’t worry though as translations are provided in discreet footnotes. Carefully drawn scenes of daily life, rituals, and customs are organically woven throughout the narrative adding visual interest. A number of special features round out the book to create a bigger picture of the cultures while also piquing reader curiosity and imagination. These include a name glossary of characters and locations; articles providing historical context for the story’s setting and supernatural beliefs. An essay by the author on the origins of Codex Black completes the book.

The art style of Codex Black has animation qualities to it which seems perfectly natural given that Lozano has a background in that medium. Contour lines describe everything fom figures and objects to clothing, trees, plants, and the landscape. If you have ever looked at Indigenous imagery — codices, reliefs, objects — you’ll have noticed how intricate clothing and items in general were. Lozano has a great ability for using that contour line technique to convey the elaborateness of Indigenous fashion in a very clear way that’s quite lovely. Another wonderful idea was his decision to adapt the centuries old art style to draw several passages. Codex Black was originally presented on Tapas in black and white with gray washes. Thanks to the coloring of Angel De Santiago the art is presented in color as a bonus for the new edition. Depending on the scene and the mood, Santiago varies color palettes between vibrant and cheerful to deeper, somber hues. Santiago relies primarily on a decorative style with uncomplicated lighting to match Lozano’s simplified line work.

Codex Black with its character driven narrative, positivity, and emphasis on friendship will also prove enticing to readers as well as anyone with an interest in Indigenous American cultures and mythology or have a general curiousity to read historical fiction.

Check out these other sources about Lozano’s Codex Black work!

Codex Black was released on April 7th. Look for a copy at your local comic shop or bookstore. You can also find a copy through Bookshop, IndieBound, or if you prefer, Amazon.

April 17, 2023
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