Perhaps it is appropriate to the story that some of the plotting of Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose’s Sacrifice is muddled and leads to confusion. After all, it’s a story about how one suicidal teenager’s epilepsy catapults him into the world of the Aztecs, where he becomes a priest of Quetzalcoatl, enmeshed forever in history. Hector’s seizures and abrupt change of environment must be very disorienting for him, so it could be expected that his story would be a bit tangled up. Unfortunately, some of this confusion could have been avoided with better editing.
Hector has just been released from the psychiatric ward. He’s at a taco shop with his friend Violet when a seizure throws him onto the Black Mountain, a thirty-three day walk from Tenochtitlan during the reign of the Aztecs. The questing warriors who find Hector are unsure whether they should sacrifice him since he keeps puking and seems kind of pitiful. But by the second chapter, the story has moved far forward in time: Hector is now a warrior and a priest, participating in the raid of a village. There’s an argument about a prisoner of war who is a Rabbit Rebel. But who are the Rabbits? And who is the man arguing that the rebel should be killed? We never find out.
While some confusing factors are eventually explained, others are not. The story shifts forward with each chapter, and even when the length of the time shift is announced, it can be jarring. It feels as though we’re missing pieces rather than moving forward naturally within the story. At one point in the book, a main character dies off-page without ceremony and a whole sector of the Aztec’s cultural world is revealed to have ended. There are new relationships and alliances between characters that require adjustment; instead, they are introduced without fanfare, creating a disconnect between the story and its characters. Likewise, the primary conflict in the first part of the book—whether to worship Quetzalcoatl or Huitzilopochtli—is never clearly resolved for the reader, although the characters seem to know what is happening. Hector’s motivations keep shifting as well; one minute he is committed to the Aztecs and then he just wants to go home. Complex characterization is one thing, but it’s another thing to have motivations that surface only when it suits the plot.
That said, it must be hard to fit so much political and historical context into one work and despite my complaints, Sacrifice does have a lot in its favor. One of the most interesting things about the book is the decision to show history in terms of character and story, the messy lives of human beings as they unfold as opposed to the shortened version that usually fits into a history book. Sacrifice has a lot to say about sacrifice, and not just the gory parts, though it can be very gory. It is fascinating to see Hector’s journey from the modern world—in his case, the 1980s—where violence is seen as self-harm and a reaction to personal despair, to the Aztec world, where the worshipers of Tenochtitlan treat death as a sacred ritual and do not kill in battle, and finally to the society in which Spanish conquistadors ruthlessly subjugate and murder others. Though it may be convoluted at times, the story has real depth.
The art nimbly delineates several worlds. Reality is dull before a bright explosion of neon swirls of seizure that lead us to the vibrant Aztec world. Here, nights are inky, dawns are purple, and the sun burns persimmon. Caves are dank and filled with sinuous rock lines while raging rivers are bright turquoise. Blood drips down hot, sun-baked carvings in bright red blots and Monteczuma’s helmet is an unapologetic magenta. The artist’s attention to detail continues throughout several storybook sequences with muted colors, static panel layouts, and thin, even lines.
Although I would have appreciated a clearer designation in lettering when switching from Aztec to English and the inclusion of modern swearing was a bit excessive and strange—“stop your bitching,” “rip your balls off,” and “little bitch” —the concept and heart of this book are so unique that it has stuck with me since I first read it. Near the end, the story gains momentum and its stakes shift; it becomes less about Hector’s navigation of the Aztec culture and more about Hector’s place in history. The tension is real, as are the consequences for Hector and everyone in the worlds he straddles. Sacrifice makes up for its choppy start by delivering an adventure that is unlike most of the others in the comics world today.