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Comics You Should Own flashback – Aztek, The Ultimate Man

Another blast from the past! Fine, quality, comics entertainment! Who doesn’t love that?

03-24-2010 04;58;32PM 03-24-2010 05;00;23PM 03-24-2010 05;03;59PM 03-24-2010 05;05;57PM 03-24-2010 05;07;34PM 03-24-2010 05;09;11PM 03-24-2010 05;10;58PM

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.

03-24-2010 05;12;45PM 03-24-2010 05;14;25PM 03-24-2010 05;16;14PM

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.]

46 Comments

I’d never heard of this, and now I desperately want it.

The only Morrison/Millar collaboration I’ve read is Skrull Kill Krew. Did they do anything else together?

Millar got his American start on Swamp Thing, and Morrison co-wrote the first four issues (#140-143). I would say it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever read by Millar, which is kind of sad, as it’s so early in his career.

Tom Fitzpatrick

March 30, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Wasn’t the fate of Aztek resolved in the final story arc of Morrison’s JLA run?

I could be wrong, it was years ago.

Millar/Morrison also did a few Flash issues.

I really want this but have been unable to find it.

I just found New Year’s Evil Prometheus today!

I believe that’s mentioned in the article, Tom

Morrison and Millar also did a run on Flash together in the middle of Mark Waid’s run.

I didn’t like Aztek, on the very simple grounds that I didn’t like the art. If I don’t like the art, I can’t get through the story. It’s too bad, really.

Yeah, I forgot about Flash. Not bad.

Spencer: Well, it just got collected about a year ago, so I imagine it’s a bit easier to find. Unless it’s not longer in print?

Great series that ended far too soon. I was thrilled DC collected it.

Now if they’d do Hourman…

It’s funny, the comment “Aztek proves that readers don’t want what they say they want,” isn’t accurate for me in the slightest. Back then I was perfectly happy to read whatever x-book was crapped out that week, and I didn’t want any weird or strange fare. Now though, I’m perfectly happy to ignore most of Marvel and DC’s main output and focus on their odd like titles that take place in the strange corners of the shared universes, and I’m thinking there are a ton of people in the same boat.

@ Tom:
yup, in JLA #41 (2000) the last part of World War III. The god he was supposed to fight was Mageddon.

I remember reading this for the first time. The ‘Sweet as Joy!’ line really creeped me out. Buy this.

Millar also contributed some stuff to Morrison’sJLA run (or filler stories when Morrison’s weren’t ready), and they did some ‘2000 A.D.’ stuff together; there’s a lot of uncollected stuff there, along with a Judge Dredd trade called ‘Book of the Dead’ (not bad if you can find it cheap), and there’s a Dredd paperback coming out later this year which includes at least one their stories (I can’t find anything that specifies which yet).

Also, Vampirella; most of the stuff they did for that was collected.

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FunkyGreenJerusalem

March 30, 2010 at 9:10 pm

I’m moving house on Friday, and as every comic fan knows, you really start to hate that you have comics when you’ve got to pack them up, and move them.
Aztek is actually probably going to end up on my cull list – it was 90’s good.

Billy Bissette

March 30, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I didn’t read Aztec at the time because it seemed like every other generic new hero book.

I have always been intrigued by Aztek. Where did he first debut? Was in it his own series?
I would love to see a temporary moratorium on referring to Grant Morrison (or any writer for that matter) as a god, god or god-like. I just can’t tell whether it’s tongue in cheek or not.

am i the only one that wasn’t dazzled by this series? i didn’t think it was bad, just very forgettable. admittedly, a huge part of the problem was probably that morrison wasn’t given a chance to really develop the series and see where the plot threads would go–if his animal man was cancelled after only a handful of issues, it might not be remembered very well either.

but animal man still had issue #5, which would have been a classic even if the series had been cancelled immediately afterwards. and if you look at series’ like starman or chronos (my two favorite “brand new character” series of the 90’s), they show that you can write for the long-term with lots of plot threads and plans for long arcs, but without sacrificing great stories right off the bat. aztek seemed to be set up for the long term, but there was no short term greatness.

i suspect millar was more the problem, and i just like him less and less as the years go on. i agree with a previous poster that his swamp thing run is by far his best work (come on dc, let’s get this in trades). i also have a soft spot for his ultimate line stuff, which was fun because of the thrill of reinvention, but after that… yikes. civil war was great in concept, atrocious in delivery. old man logan was not only awful, but it was a complete rip off of unforgiven. red son had a lot of cool moments, but somehow the meat of the story seemed to get left out. and that’s really millar’s work in a nutshell: he tries so hard to have a glut of cool moments in his work, that the stories get left out, and it’s just like hopscotch from one cool moment to the next. but a cool moment loses all impact without buildup, and millar seems to have forgotten that. it’s like he’s retroactively joined the jeph loeb school of comic writing.

if morrison would’ve written aztek by himself, i bet it would have been better.

anyways, anyone interested in reading aztek, i’m actually selling the complete run on ebay right now, all in NM condition, for a very good price. check it out here: http://cgi.ebay.com/Aztek-1-10-Complete-DC-series-Grant-Morrison-Millar-JLA_W0QQitemZ230454717295QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item35a82beb6f

John Lewis, Jr.

March 30, 2010 at 10:57 pm

I was starting to sicken of the whole stereotypical 90s comic books thing at the time I saw house ads for this. The costume and the lack of will to impulsively buy EVERY #1 made me skip. A shame…need to dig up the TPB.

@ Greg Burgas:

I don’t think AZTEK failed because people lie to themselves about what they want.

More likely, it was simply the art. Marvel is smart in the way they lock up as many artists as possible. DC has long been challenged to get quality pencillers on all their top titles. Second and third tier titles are often wanting. It almost inevitably why interesting, well-written DC experiments fail.

Greg this article made me think of 3 Aztek moments ironically NOT in his book but in JLA:

1. Luthor telling the “truth” to Aztek about the financing of his armor and the society behind it: I may loathe Morrison’s storytelling lately but in that moment you can actually feel the young hero’s heartbreaking as he hears this from Earth’s Greatest Villain. On top of THAT, Luthor then teleports nukes into the watchtower…Ouch

2. The Alternate Aztek from Rock of Ages with a wounded Argent in Darkseid’s Zombie Factory on the Moon saying “Argent, Shh! Batman’s going to love this.” while being surrounded by parademons: Simply heroic and I do admit laughing out loud because I knew what was coming next…..

3. Aztek’s death in World War III while freeing Superman within the Anti-Sun: THAT’S how a hero is supposed to go out….fighting valiantly….

I dug the few issues of this I own, but it’s been a while since I read it. Plus, I don’t have all 10, so I didn’t read your whole post (spoilers, y’know). Has N Steven Harris done any work since this? The style is unique but not horrible.

Also, didn’t word get around that Morrison wrote some stuff for Millar when Millar was ill? I’m thinking there’s a specific issue of The Authority (I wanna say 27) that is credited to Millar but apparently Morrison wrote it all. I think Cronin discussed it in a Legends revealed post. Not to cast aspersions, necessarily, but it does make you wonder how much in their collaborations was Morrison and how much Millar, especially with, say, Swamp Thing. Now I gotta dig that run out and re-read it. Damn you, Burgas!

Do Morrison and Millar still get along?

I love most of what Morrison writes, but can’t stand most of what Millar writes. In addition, I can’t stand Millar himself. (I’m wating for this year’s documentary on Morrison to make up my mind about him, as I agree with most of his views and what he says, but he does come across as a bit arrogant sometimes.)

I haven’t read any of their collaborations, but none of them are really drawing me, except maybe Aztek and Swamp Thing (and there are still a few Morrison solo things – such as Zenith, Gothic, some of JLA, the Mystery Play, Vimanarama and Sebastian O – that are higher on my list than those).

I remember reading online that Morrison & Millar basically traded off writing every other issue.

I may be in the minority, but I liked N. Steven Harris’ art. It was appropriately weird, and, as Greg sort of noted, he did an amazing job with the architecture of the city.

This a link to that Comic Legends Revealed article on Morrison ghost writing Authority 28 for Millar that a couple people referenced: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2008/07/10/comic-book-urban-legends-revealed-163/

I thought I’ve read somewhere else that this was not the only time Morrison helped out Millar – and for some reason I think it was earlier in their careers…

I loved this series, but the art was atrocious.

I primarily buy a book for the writing over the art, so it never bothers me, but with Aztek, well.

I TOLERATED the art in this book. The panels were so murky at times, when coinciding with Morrison’s free writing style, I had to re-read issues and panels a few times to understand them, which shouldn’t happen unless there’s an underlying meaning to them. The art DID NOT help this.

The best issue as a case study of the above is the one where the two co-joined Outsiders villains fight Aztek. I had no idea half the time what was going on, the art was so bad.

Still, I loved this book and I feel Aztek got totally shafted in his JLA appearances, considering the plot of the final issue of his series. Zauriel was suck-ass compared to Aztek.

Now I can’t remember if this blog series did Hitman, Major Bummer, or Resurrection Man. I think it did do Hitman. Gonna go check. If you haven’t, you should.

Morrison came up with the ending for Red Son, I believe.

I found Morison/Miller’s run on The Flash to be probably the worst of that volume (and it was fairly bad in general) however this sounds interesting enough that I’ll give it a look. Perhaps it was just their bad luck to come both before and after the real god of all comics, Mark Waid.

OK good, you did Hitman and The Heckler.

The whole point of the Morrison run on The Flash was to use Golden Age Flash to get the pen containing genie ink from Johnny Thunder and into the hand of some kid he signed an autograph for. That was it. I think it introduced the Black Flash of Death, which I thought was just an avatar of The Black Racer, but really that was it. It was all a set-up for the JSA/JLA team-up in Morrison’s JLA.

And they still never explained how Thunderbolt ended up in the pen, or if they did, I missed it. I know he was in there because a genie needed a bottle and the ink corked in the pen sufficed, but honestly, I have no idea why he was in a pen; that wasn’t from his original origin, was it?

@Matt K

Wow, I loved the Morrison/Millar stuff on Flash. There’s a part in the Black Flash story where Wally has to run to the end of time to outrun it. As he speeds through time he sees the under of the solar system with only a man in red boots to mourn it’s passing – always stuck with me.

Mark Black: This is Aztek’s debut, yes. And usually when I refer to Morrison as the God of All Comics, it’s tongue in cheek. He’s my favorite comic book writer, but I also think people place him on a pedestal far too often.

@Greg Burgas – Ah! That makes sense. I was never sure if it was tongue in cheek or not. That clarifies a lot.
Thanks a lot!

Yeah, I really enjoyed this series. It felt like the Omega the Unknown of its time.

Another crashed-and-burned series of the ’90s that I really liked was Keith Giffen’s The Heckler.

@buttler – check out Major Bummer and Hitman, then if you can. Also Resurrection Man, but don’t go out of your way for it.

@Squashua: Also add in there Chronos which was amazing (and really short).

Another Morrison book I haven’t read! Well, maybe I read the first one…? I don’t remember. I should buy the trade…!

Really enjoyed Aztek , but didn’t buy it, as i worked in a LCS at the time. i could read everything & only buy what i really wanted. i think one of the reasons that it failed is that it really wasn’t like anything else coming out at the time. Also, it had an undercurrent of weirdness that turned most people off, as again, it wasn’t like what they were used to.
i liked the art for the most part, but again, its not what most in the 90’s were looking for/used to.

A couple other books that i really liked, but didn’t buy:
Major Bummer
Young Heroes in Love
Chronos [although i didn’t like the art]

Oh, and i LOVED Morrison/Millar’s Skull Kill Krew! Some great & wild stuff.
DFTBA

AverageJoeEveryman

March 31, 2010 at 2:26 pm

I liked Aztec a lot when it originally came out (though my comic shop was spotty and didn’t get them all). Then I got the trade last year and was completely dissapointed. Everything about it was just much worse than I remembered, especially the art.
Also about the Morrisson/Millar Flash. Eh. That’s about it. In reality I like the solo Millar issues better than the team up.

N. Steven Harris currently self-publishes the science fiction series Brotherhood of the Fringe (http://www.nstevenworks.com/)
Its available for purchase on Indyplanet, and definitely worth your comic dollar.

bloodandmetal

April 1, 2010 at 2:50 am

i remember when this first came out and it being advertised as the first Hispanic character but i just read the first 2 issues and there’s nothing Mexican or Hispanic or Latino about it…wtf..the guy looks as white as shit..fucker has blue eyes and blond hair..wtf…i think it says hes from south america.. but no Spanglish or diversaty..wtf…maybe i dont know the whole story..but if he is meant to be Latino then fuck you for doing a horrible job..

Morrison and Millar did several things together and – with the exception of Big Dave – none of it was as good as the stuff they did solo.

Off the top of my head:
Aztek
Skrull Kill Krew
About 9 issues of The Flash
Four issues of Swamp Thing (which improved the moment Mark Millar went solo on the title)

and for 2000AD
Judge Dredd: The Crusade
Big Dave
Really and Truly
Judge Dredd: Book of the Dead

As for the art, it did have a style I liked, but it did always seem a bit amateur.

Aztek= More proof that Grant Morrison does his best work when he’s not allowed to f@ck up icons like Batman.

And Wanted is the only thing Millar’s ever done that has been worth a re-read.

And Wanted is the only thing Millar’s ever done that has been worth a re-read.

Wanted
Red Son
The Authority
Swamp Thing
Superman Adventures
Kick-Ass
The Chosen
Red Razors
Ultimate X-Men
The Ultimates

Na, this was average at best..
Some fancy ideas about the costume, but storytelling never ‘clicked’.

There is more way more Millar than Morrison in this, I think.
And aside from ‘Red Sun’, Millar didn’t do anything good.

Mr Burgas,

Thank you for the write up and kind words. Please don’t feel shy about sharing what you felt about my work. Telling me how it affected you or made you feel is sufficient for me, good or bad. I do this for the love of it and knowing full well it’s for public consumption. So I have to expect the bad as well as good and take it in stride.
And thank you Damien for the plug of my creator owned title. Much props. You can check out my website for other mainstream titles I have pencilled as well as other stuff.

I finally bought the trade, due to its inclusion in this listing. At best, it is blah. Some potential, but it never lived up to it. Definitely not a “Comics you should own”

Just read the trade. Not bad. Good review.

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