Jul 20, 2022
I've referenced it numerous times, I've linked to it on my blog, and I've expounded upon it as a major focal point of my spirit work, but I've never actually discussed it on its own terms, about what it actually is. I'm talking about my graphic novel, Aqupaunk.
Back in 2005, in my sophomore year of high school, I didn't set out to create a piece of explicitly polytheist and animist graphic storytelling. I was bored, dyslexic, and struggling with the vague, unspoken discomfort of a blond-haired, blue-eyed woman from the Midwest teaching me Spanish at school because I never learned it at home. Ironically, was told I'd need it in order to have any hope of getting into a USC or U of Cal college.
In spite of needing the help of my Korean classmates to pass the class, I still had a strange fascination with languages, the way the grammars, and even the phonetics themselves, could convey entire volumes of meaning about the cultures that spoke them. My adolescent dabblings in witchcraft taught me in very profound ways that language had the power to make and break realities, and I knew Tolkien's rich tapestry of subcreation was held together with the warp and weft of invented languages. So having bitterly given up learning Spanish several months into the schoolyear, I instead spent my time in class building a language instead. It was a rebellion on several fronts: I was rebelling against an education system that was unable to accommodate my learning disability, I was rebelling against the white Midwesterner at the front of the class, I was rebelling against the weight of ancestral history that cut me off from learning, by immersion, the language of my peers in the only way my brain would be able to absorb it.
'Conlang' is short for "constructed language", and refers to any language system that is deliberately engineered rather than organically developed through real world use. Famous examples include Klingon, Esperanto, and Tolkien's Sindarin Elvish. Mine went through many names over the years, but in its current form, is called Sennan ['ʑɛnːæn]: it means "God-given".
Throughout highschool, I began writing a mythos for the speakers of this conlang in fits and starts. In my sophomore year of college, in the midst of a more acute personal crisis 3000 miles from everything and everyone I knew, I formally began Aquapunk as a way to dig me out of my despair... and after it served that purpose, I just kept going.
Foudnational work on the comic went hand-in-hand with my rediscovery of polytheism after the teenage years I spent as a deist. In fact, without the comic, which has its roots in my struggle with inherited trauma in a Spanish class, and which was later developed to celebrate and reify Mesoamerican aesthetics, I would not be the follower of the Teteo that I am today, nor would I have any relationships to my ancestors - and in fact, I might not be a practicing theist at all. But I couldn't put the pieces together yet, and for the first few years I thought I was making something that was simply "cool" and "fun" as I tested out infusing my philosophies and interests into storytelling. With aliens and fight scenes of course, but novelty wears off after a while and I had to start asking a question.
What was the point of the story, I began to wonder? Was it merely a dumping ground of thoughts? I was an author who believed in things. I knew there was more to the world than what was being presented to me, so I starting prodding the plot in a direction. Interestingly, my protagonist was going through the same thing, and asking the same questions: "I believe in things. What is the point of my story?" Soon, he began asking other questions, and making other decisions. He started getting in touch with his own gods and spirits, and like me, was trying to reconnect with his ancestors. Except... that his actions (when originally written and drawn) preceded mine, sometimes by many years. I wasn't making the comic, the comic was making me.
On a surface level, I knew I wanted to create a work of fiction that took polytheism for granted, as if its author couldn't fathom even a fantasy world where it was any other way. I wanted polytheist and animist values and philosophy to saturate the work such that it was dripping with the numinous. But because of the nature of the story I wanted to tell, I had to come up with a fictitious pantheon, and tell it without humans. My focus was prosocial commentary foremostly, so I couldn't be trapped by allegory and I didn't want to risk readers seeing particular historical moments or real individuals in my characters, because each one draws on a multitude of familiar sources.
Does that weaken the religious appeal? Maybe. If people are looking for polytheist fiction to learn about their Gods, then they might be disappointed. But if they want something that looks at Gods from a different angle, from a queer author who sees worldbuilding through a queer lens, then they might be alright. It's a memetic work that aims to be in right relationship with the author's real life. In this way, I think we should be able to count honest, respectful offerings of fictional gods as polytheist in theme if not spirit. The gods of this world came from years of contemplating the story's setting and applying my own working, living, breathing understanding of how a polytheist mind interacts with creation. So while it is a story told about non-humans, the cosmic rules that govern the movements and relationships that the deities have with their people are thus consistent and should feel very familiar. There are no "gods of x" here, and no aesthetic cults. Everything is lived-in.
I never intended the pantheon to be worshipped, I should say right now. I never even intended them to become egregores, and that any spiritual recognition a reader might have, I hope, would be used to deepen the understanding they have with their own real Gods. Specific magical pains weren't taken to ensure this, and I never saw the need to; I was treating them as intellectual constructs and nothing more. Even in the story, they're appropriately distant, speaking to their followers through sign and symbol, animal and augury. Real polytheists know what it feels like to recieve messages from the Gods like that, and I try to convey that very real and palpable sense of awe and wonder that we're so grateful to experience in our practices.
Outside of the pro-polytheist story, the work that's gone into the comic itself has been an offering, a ritual, and a work of magic for my real Gods and Spirits. In fact, the comic itself is a home for one of my now-closest Spirits, who is one of the characters. I've even had readers encounter Him!
In the future, I don't think I'll be able to make another serious work of art or fiction without tacitly refrencing my own pagan/polytheist/animist/ancestral experience. It will be present in all my stories - numinous Beings will be characters to be explored, Their historical myths will be echoed, if not referenced and honored, Their complexities and mysteries made palpable in Their tales - because They are in all created things. Without a doubt our Gods are pleased at seeing Themselves reflected in our worldly works, and I want to give Them that pleasure to the best of my ability.
I do still think we should treat carefully with mimesis, though. Mimetic works in media are often works of escapist entertainment rather than convivial entertainment - in other words, it's their aim to make their audiences forget the broader world for a while and most importantly forget the weight of their obligations (to family, work, school, spiritual practice). In polytheist cultures, entertainment didn't have that express purpose, and it might be argued that it didn't, or couldn't, even exist. Even in games of vice or lewd tales the Gods were present, even in the most racuous theatric or poetic performances were done with the knowledge the Powers were watching. Escapism as we know it today, the flight from the world itself, might actually be a Christian invention. Because what is ascension to heaven in death but the greatest escape of all?
Ultimately, there can be no death of the author, then. We, and therefore our webs of relationship and committment, are implicated in everything that we make. There is no "should", we have to own it.
Reflecting on our early explorations of paganism as tweens, a now-lapsed and agnostic friend of mine would occasionally poke fun at 12-year-old me because I asked, of everything, "but what does it mean?" She, of course, was referring to the fact that once my eyes were open to the numinous, I was want to look for signs, well, everywhere. It was a little silly. But looking back, I think it was ultimately good because I was asking questions of my environment, and figuring out just how everything was in relationship. I was becoming cognizant that everything is speaking to everything else, including us. Part of being a religious specialist is in having developed the dedicated tools to listen.
Aquapunk started out as a cry for help. As a teen, I was a lost Chicano, a child of an ethnic heritage that forgot itself. In college, I was a lost artist, far from home with no stories to tell. Like my protagonist, I was escaping pain, and looking for purpose in places that had none for me. In the end, we both rediscovered our Gods and ancestors, as well as the hidden truth of our heritage, raw and bloody, and found our real selves in the tending of it.
And creating works as implicated participants in an ecology of spirits is resistance. Chandra Mohanty, a feminist scholar, describes the shape of resistance in the developing, othered world: "[It] is not always identifiable through organized movements; resistance inheres in the very gaps, fissues, and silences of hegemonic narratives. Resistance is encoded in the practices of remembering, and of writing." By simply infusing our every work and action with our whole being as theists and animists, as agents of disrupted folkways, we resist the dominant culture and communicate our reality to others.
So I can't separate this story from my religious work, nor my religious trajectory. It moves in perfect step with me and my web of relationships, and it is already paving the way for the next thing, which will be a devotional graphic novel to a God that is demanding that I understand Him better in a big way. Is it a coincidence that He was the primary tutelary God of my ancestors and is Who guided them home from their exodus from Aztlan? Maybe, maybe not.
Art should make us happy; this is a maxim I don't dispute. But perhaps when it's said, we should think about what art is, that it doesn't exist for us. Art is communion with others, a gift; by its nature it is reciprocity. So really, it's reciprocity that's making us happy. It's the reaffirmation that we have a place in our communities, and in creation itself, and that we willingly gift pieces of ourselves in order to participate in the conversation that all things have with all other things. We can't run away.
Because even in "away", wherever that is, the Gods and Spirits are there too.
Lannan Chicue-Cuauhtli is a devotional huehuemexicatl, painter, graphic novelist, and printmaker living in Musqueam territory, Canada. Founder of Numen Arts.