Comics You Should Own flashback – Aztek, The Ultimate Man
Another blast from the past! Fine, quality, comics entertainment! Who doesn’t love that?
Aztek, the Ultimate Man by Grant “The Meso-Americans were the first superheroes, man!” Morrison and Mark Millar (writers), N. Steven Harris (penciller), Keith Champagne (inker), Mike Danza (colorist), Chris Eliopoulos (letterer, issues #1-5), Clem Robins (letterer, issues #6-10).
DC, 10 issues (#1-10), cover dated August 1996 – May 1997.
Morrison and Millar are current gods of comic book writing, but it wasn’t always so, and even their collective will couldn’t keep this strange and glorious title afloat. If you missed it the first time around because you were young and buying every X-book and their various splinter titles, do yourself and favor and check this out. You won’t be disappointed.
Aztek was perhaps ahead of its time. When it arrived, Morrison had yet to turn the DC world on its ear with his astonishing run on JLA [Edit: the first issue of this came out a scant few months before his first issue on that title, and there was some overlap], and Millar was still a neophyte writer finding his way instead of the omnipotent superstar he has become. Morrison had a fine pedigree, of course – Animal Man and Doom Patrol were in the past, and he was in the midst of confusing the hell out of everyone with Invisibles, but he wasn’t the God of All Comics that he is today. If Aztek had come out even a few years after this, it might have stood a chance. Instead, the main character was regulated to a minor role in the Justice League until he sacrificed himself in Morrison’s ultimate storyline (in a very cool way, to be sure).
The ten issues are easy to follow, and do not appear all that revolutionary. Aztek is a hero who arrives in Vanity, Morrison and Millar’s addition to the fine pantheon of fictional DC cities (Vanity, I like to think, is a substitute for my old home town, Portland, Oregon) with a mission to fulfill for his mysterious overlords – stop the coming of the Shadow God, which will occur in Vanity. He needs a job, so he steals the identity of a dead supervillain, the Piper (who is killed in the first issue), who happened to be a doctor about to start a job at the hospital in town. He is given his name by a newspaper (hmmm … remind anyone of anyone?) and goes about thwarting crime in his own unique way while he is waiting for the Apocalypse. As it is a DC book struggling with sales, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner) shows up, as does Batman. Finally, in the last issue, he joins the JLA, who are impressed that he fought the Joker and the Parasite and triumphed. Sounds pretty standard. So why is this a Comic You Should Own?
Well, because Morrison and Millar have a lot more on their minds than a simple superhero saga, and I’m not talking about the overarching story of Aztek saving the world from the Shadow God. What Aztek is, ultimately, is a critique on the darkening and superheroes in general and an attempt to lighten things up a bit. In this regard, its failure means that the complaints we read across the Internet about how people want Silver Age-superheroics are bogus. We don’t want Silver-Age superheroics, because when we get them, we don’t buy them.
How is Aztek a homage and reimagination of Silver Age comics? Just look at the first issue. A group of mobsters kidnap the daughter of the Piper, an old supervillain, so that he will rob a bank for them. The Piper gets the job done with hundreds of tiny, anthropomorphic pipes, who appear to be sentient. He is foiled in his attempt by Bloodtype, a typical take-no-prisoners kind of hero that comic book readers have gotten all-too-often since the mid-1970s and who were, of course, at their height of popularity in the mid-1990s. Bloodtype beats the Piper severely, and then shoots him in the back when he tries to escape. Aztek, who has also shown up, ends up beating the crap out of Bloodtype, who naturally isn’t inclined to listen to reason. Bloodtype and Aztek are caught in an explosion that kills the anti-hero, and the nice thing about his death is that it leads into a different story, this one in issue #3, when his ex-girlfriend, Death Doll, goes after the person she thinks is responsible for his death (Aztek, naturally). What Morrison and Millar are saying with this simple bank robbery is that the Silver Age is dead, and the psycho heroes have taken over. But, they stress, it doesn’t have to be that way. Bloodtype gets what he deserves, as does Death Doll, despite her rather tragic nature. Aztek becomes the city’s hero, and, as we see in issue #3 when he simply gives a group of muggers some money instead of beating them up, there can be a different way.
This theme continues when the Joker comes to town in issue #6. On the surface, it appears that this is a simple Joker story – lots of corpses with smiling faces, weird stuff going on. It certainly is that, but Morrison, who wrote an androgynous Joker in Arkham Asylum, writes a truly creepy and insane Joker here, complete with Silver-Age contraptions like dancing crickets. What the two writers are doing is melding the ridiculous nature of 1950s and 1960s comic books with a modern sensibility – something that others have tried, and although it doesn’t always work, it does here, because in a few short issues Morrison and Millar have been able to create an insane landscape of Vanity, where strange things are built into the architecture. In issue #7, the Joker continues a mad scheme to poison the city even though he has been captured, and it’s a good old-fashioned race against the clock, as Aztek and Batman (guest-starring in a desperate attempt to raise sales) try to find out what the Joker’s plan is. As this is a Morrison and Millar comic, it’s not all fun and games – there is quite a lot of brutality and sadness in this comic, more so than you would find in your standard Silver-Age comic book. This is not, to be sure, Alan Moore’s 1963, a slavish recreation of the 1960s. Therefore, the Piper dies, Bloodtype dies, Aztek’s girlfriend Joy is captured and shrunk, the Lizard King dies. It can be an unpleasant comic book. The most horrific storyline of the book, issues #4-5, deal with the Lizard King, who was supposed to have Aztek’s position. The first part of the book shows a man strapped to a table, hooked up to all sorts of machinery. A man in silhouette explains that he is extracting all the goodness from his prisoner’s body. He also explains that the man will be a “kind of pilot.” Another part of the unit will be his daughter, who is going to be the co-pilot. It’s a very creepy scene, and when we finally discover what the shadowed man (the Lizard King) means, our skin crawls. The Lizard King also kidnaps Joy Page, with whom Aztek went on a date, and shrinks her (it’s far creepier than it sounds). This is Silver-Age strangeness taken to its logical extreme – something Morrison, at least, has always been good at.
For all the horror, both large and small (another unsettling image in the book is when Superman visits a kid in a coma, who has always loved the Big Blue – things don’t work out the way we think they will) in the book, it’s about a hero who wants to do what is right. Aztek, for all his issues, acts heroically and nobly, and cannot understand why heroes like Bloodtype kill meek old men like the Piper. He can’t fathom why the Lizard King would torture a girl just to get to him. This is what makes this book rise above the normal superhero fare. Morrison and Millar never allow us to become comfortable with what is going on. Secondary characters, always important to truly great works, are given a lot more personality than usual. Death Doll isn’t simply a psychopath out to ace a hero; she’s a woman who was once a hero herself and through tragic circumstances was turned into a living Barbie doll. The Piper is a naïve old man who just wants to help his daughter, who may not need it, as it turns out. Joy Page, despite her reputation as the hospital bicycle, is fleshed out so that when she is tortured, we feel horrified. The Joker remains an enigma, but at least his appearance in Vanity is explained well and cleverly. Even Amazo gets more personality than he has ever had, and his relationship with Professor Ivo gets a new twist that makes both of them more interesting. This is something that Morrison can do very well – give people character traits without letting up on the madcap ideas he has swirling around in his head.
The tragedy (if we want to be melodramatic) of Aztek is that it was ahead of its time. It also showed what kind of comic book readers we are. Without criticizing the excess of the mid-1990s, because I was guilty too (I own almost every X-book from those days), Aztek proves that readers don’t want what they say they want. Everyone votes with their wallets, after all, and Aztek lost. Was it too weird? I don’t think so – there were weird moments, but the story was not difficult to follow. Was it too self-conscious? That’s possible – the citizens of Vanity, unlike other people in the DC Universe, know what to do when superheroes show up – but unlikely, as the comic is largely unironic. My thoughts on the matter are that Aztek was too forward-thinking for the mid-1990s audience, while being not quite seeped in enough nostalgia for the good old days for the crowd that wants to turn the clock back to the glorious 1950s and 1960s. It fell through the cracks. It dared to challenge the by-now accepted notion that a hero can and should kill, but it didn’t return to the selling point of the Silver Age that comics were for kids. With Aztek, Morrison and Millar provided a template for how they would rewrite superheroes in the next decade, something they are still doing. Morrison turned his wild mind to the Justice League, which, when you look at it, gave us some of the same things that we saw in Aztek, but with familiar characters. This familiarity made it successful. He later went on the re-invent the X-Men, again using some of the same kinds of things he did here. Millar went a similar route with Wanted, which although stumbles horribly in the last issue, begins as a thoughtful critique of the darkening of the comics scene in the late 1980s [Edit: Despite my loathing for the ending of the series, I still think it could have been a great work because of the early issues]. Aztek is an interesting failure, in that it proves that comics readers don’t mind a little weirdness as long as it happens to Batman or Superman. Give them something that dares to say that the comics universe is a dark and disturbing place and that’s not necessarily a good thing, and they stay away in droves. Aztek is a weird, wonderful failure, but it’s definitely a comic you should read. It has not been collected in a trade paperback [Edit: That was true when I wrote this, but now it's out in trade - a nice move by DC], but I doubt very much whether the issues will be hard to find or all that expensive. Find it and read it – it’s a marvel. Oh, and be sure to check out the archives. They’re always fun!
[Editor's note: I originally wrote this back in September/October 2005, so if some of it seems out of date, that's why. I should point out that back then I was even worse when writing about art than I am now, and I'm still not that good. Hence the lack of discussion of Harris' art, which I enjoyed quite a bit. I was also writing for Buzzscope (now PopCultureShock), and they had a bit of a word count, even though I don't think I approached it with this post, but I was always aware of it. I didn't feel like doing a significant addition to the post that dealt with the art, so you can just look at the pretty pictures and see what Harris' art looks like - you can click on the images to make them all giant-sized, as you well know. Sorry for the lack of art discussion in the actual post! Plus, I'm a bit harsher on the fans than I probably ought to be, so I apologize for that, too. Fans back in the late 1990s didn't necessarily want this - the pining for the Silver Age seems to be a consequence of the rise of blogging. And bloggers are still a very tiny part of the comics-buying public. So you'll have to forgive my grumpiness.]