Henry Barajas laughs when he describes how he launched his recent Latinx fantasy book, Greycastle Helm.
“What if Mordor had a south side?” Said Barajas. “What if the world of The Lord of the Rings had a south side? “
The 32-year-old graphic novelist envisioned a world where the Aztec Empire still exists and a group of misfit comrades come to the rescue of the last dragon prince.
In Greycastle Helm, Barajas wanted to portray characters he had never really seen in the The Lord of the Rings or the game Dungeons and Dragons, some of his favorites growing up.
“I wanted to create something that challenges the Eurocentric fantasy genre while making it organic – and also incorporating Mesoamerican history,” he says.
Growing up near the border between the United States and Mexico, Barajas says he “had no idea of Mesoamerican history and that it had not been learned.”
Now he’s trying to bring this story to his books.
Barajas now lives in Los Angeles, but his roots run deep in Tucson, Arizona. It was there that he fell in love with the comics.
His family would watch Antiques roadshow on PBS and see comics sold for thousands of dollars. This caused them to buy boxes of comics, thinking they would find something to sell. Most of the time, they weren’t worth much. But he won something else.
“This is how I acquired a good part of my morale,” he says. He read about racism and overcrowded prisons at Spider Man, mental health in Batman and feminism in Wonder woman. “Things that weren’t in my regular studies when I was a kid,” he recalls.
By the time Barajas was 17, he was working as a bill collector to help his family. During and after work, he spent his time learning all he could about comics.
At 23, he worked as a journalist at Arizona Daily Star. A few years later he got the idea for his first ledger.
“Growing up my family would always tell me that my great-grandfather had done something amazing. But they didn’t really go into detail. [about] what it was, ”he said.
Barajas dug into his family history and discovered that his great-grandfather, Ramon Jaurigue, co-founded the Mexican American Yaqui and Others (MAYO) organization in Tuscon, Arizona.
During the 1970s, the group pushed Tucson City Council to improve conditions for members of the local Pascua Yaqui tribe – a group that has lived in the area for hundreds of years. Barajas says that in 1978 his great-grandfather helped the tribe achieve federal recognition.
“It’s not an everyday thing where you can tell people that your great-grandfather helped one of the last Native American tribes achieve federal recognition,” he says.
All of this is recounted in Barajas’ 2019 graphic novel La Voz De MAYO: Tata Rambo – which is all about the efforts of his great-grandfather, who was nicknamed Tata Rambo.
Barajas says he feels proud to share his family history.
“It was really important for me to tell a positive story about the indigenous and migrant communities here in Tucson. [and] in this country – and to spotlight not just a civil rights activist, but a WWII veteran, ”he says.
The graphic novel is now read by students, can be found in libraries and the Smithsonian gift shop, and has seen Barajas speak at comic book conventions across the country. Now he gives advice to young writers.
“It’s just about being a good person and telling your story,” Barajas told guests at San Diego Comic-Con in late November. “People want to hear your story.”
J. Gonzo, the illustrator of the book, still does not believe its success.
“It sounds surreal,” he says. “I still can’t figure it out. “
After years of trying to find his niche as a writer, Barajas says he has finally found his voice.
“I’m very lucky people are paying attention and I use my comics to tell stories that I consider important,” Barajas said.
He recently worked on a Avengers comic book for New York City, which encouraged young children to get vaccinated. Now he’s working on a short project for DC Comics – showing others like him they or they can also be superheroes.