The influence that Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition has on Henry Barajas and Bryan Valenza’s Helm Greycastle #1 is readily evident on its cover: A band of misfit adventurers ready to cause trouble. But while many D&D games are inspired by standard western fantasy tropes, Barajas and Valenza inject Mesoamerican history and culture into this sword and sorcery tale.
Our adventurers are tasked with saving the last dragon prince, who’s being held prisoner in the Aztec Empire. It’s a simple premise, but as the barbarian hero Helm Greycastle exclaims, “Like it’s ever that easy!” As a D&D player myself, truer words have never been spoken. Quickly, the party soon finds themselves entangled in a conspiracy to take down Montezuma III, beloved ruler of New Tenochtitlan, Mexica.
As far as high fantasy goes, Helm Greycastle is quite standard. There’s the typical misfit party of adventurers, each with their own schtick. Our first introduction to them is when they’re in the process of raiding a temple. Unfortunately, that’s about it. There are some emotional beats, but, for the most part, this issue doesn’t give readers a convincing reason to care for these adventurers. Instead, the story becomes much more interesting when it dives into Mesoamerica and the Aztecs who inhabit the land. And because the Aztec Empire was once a real place, there’s a real sense of a longstanding history, politics, and culture within the pages. References to a Flower War, dead Gods, and a pact between a ruler and his people all serve to flesh out their world in comparison to Helm Greycastle’s side of the world.
Despite the lack of compelling characters, penciller Rahmat M. Handoko’s character designs add life to the heroes. From giant, metal spiked shoulder pads to flowing fur capes, this is classic high fantasy drawn right. The chaos of battle is also captured well, but Handoko’s pencils really shine when the party is gathered together Avengers-style. This extends to the Aztecs, whose attire and weaponry is significantly different from Helm Greycastle and his party. The two groups look like they’re from two different worlds thanks in part to Bryan Valenza’s colors, which accurately depict the style of the Aztecs. Whenever the focus is on the Aztec Empire and its people, the pages feel unabashedly Mesoamerican.
Most people will be very familiar with the sword and sorcery found in Helm Greycastle. However, I suspect many will be unfamiliar with Mesoamerican history and culture, myself included. This is where Helm Greycastle succeeds in its first issue. Pencils and colors by Handoko and Valenza, respectively, breath a lot of life into the clashing characters and cultures. Seriously, those obsidian-bladed maces are something I want to use in my own D&D game. Fortunately, future issues seem to be promising a stronger focus on the Mesoamerican aspect. The book also comes with a free D&D 5th edition one-shot for all you tabletop nerds (I say that last part out loud as I look into a mirror). But if you’re looking for a new perspective on the standard western high fantasy setting, then Helm Greycastle #1 may be worth checking out.
Helm Greycastle #1
High Fantasy Concept6.5/10
- Writer: Henry Barajas
- Artist: Rahmat M. Handoko
- Colorist: Bryan Valenza
- Letterer: Gabriela Downie
- Cover Artists: Rahmat M. Handoko, Bryan Valenza
- Editor: Claire Napier
- Senior Editor: Elena Salcedo
- Script Assistant: Claire Napier
- Designers: Sasha E. Head, Vincent Valentine
- Publisher: Image Comics