It seems like an awfully long time since we found ourselves under the Ultimate Man’s protection. Think back. Waaaay back to the mid-90′s. The comics industry was beginning to drag itself out of a self-inflicted slump of pointless speculation and multiple foil variant covers. Chains and guns were beginning to lose their appeal and the world was rotating towards a newer, shinier vision of superheroes. Pop, rather than Metal was going to be the order of the day in the lead up to the Millenium it would seem. Superheroes were going to be fun again. No more torturing paedophiles or deacpitating rapists. At the forefront of this movement we have Waid’s hyper-fun Flash and Impulse comics; Busiek’s Astro City with it’s progressive nostalgic vision of meta-comics; Robinson’s Starman that sought to build an engrossing and believable mythos for his pet character, whilst never forgetting that being a superhero is first and foremost fucking skill. Moore was shaking off the dust of self-publishing and gearing up his ABC assault. Miller’s DK2 lurked on the horizon ready to introduce his bezerko psychedelic bigfoot parable on the world. And somewhere lurking at the sidelines was Morrison and Millar’s AZTEK.

Of course the big daddy of the then ‘new’ wave was Morrison’s JLA a flagship title for DC that suddenly catapulted Mozzer from cult status to the position of slightly bewildered uber-writer he now occupies. Surely at the time he must have been considered a wild card option, but Morrison took the ball and fucking ran. And ran. He produced a breakneck vision of the JLA that finally nailed how to write Gods as rounded and likeable characters. Occasionally sloppy but always dazzling it was thrilling, contemporary and most importantly enjoyable. Steeped in DC lore without losing new readers, the epic and lunatic stories he produced in his 3 and a bit years on the title set a benchmark that was hard to live up to. But AZTEK, a somewhat different proposition, disappeared in a little puff of pixie dust after only 10 issues.

Imagine a comic by either of these two lasting only ten issues today. Boggles the mind. But back in 96 two Scottish mavericks, one with a track record but a wilful disregard for convention, the other a relative newcomer hungry to make his mark whatever it took, weren’t anywhere near as bankable. So when AZTEK appeared out of the blue, trailed by an extremely tongue-in-cheek house advert (“Helmet – cool huh? “) it was met with bemusement. Yet it represents one of the earliest signals that things were about to change for the better. AZTEK’s post-modern playfulness, the gentle prodding of genre expectations was, looking back, extremely prescient of the way superhero comics would be produced for the next 10 or so years. It’s by no means a perfect comic, rather a rough edged prototype for the coming spectacle of DC 1,000 000, Seaguy, The Authority, Superman, Marvel Boy and the Ultimates.

Re-reading the trade recently I was in two minds how I felt about the strip all this time later. On one hand there’s a tremendous nostalgic rush reading these forgotten comics. On the other there’s the fact that whilst enjoyable they are somewhat flawed in execution. I’m not sure whether it’s an uncertainty of tone or a disparity between script and art, but whatever it is AZTEK just doesn’t quite gel. The Morrison/Millar writing partnership was always a slightly awkward beast. Their run on the Flash was fun, harking back to the throwaway pop science and 4-colour fun of classic Flash stories, but sometimes it veered too far into silliness and slapdash storytelling quirks. Their Skull Kill Krew mini for Marvel was trashy and obnoxious in precisely the right amounts (especially to someone raised on 2000ad), but again a tad flimsy and undercooked. Swamp Thing was better, but Millar really shone once he and Morrison had separated – I still maintain those are some of his best comics, bringing a gleefully gruesome slant to a comic long in need of an injection of proper horror. Their Judge Dredd was pretty bad in all honesty, one of the scant few times Morrison has misjudged a character in my opinion ( I guess Dredd will always be Wagner’s baby – no-one else ever quite gets the tone right). And Vampirella, whilst posessing a certain lurid sub-Mario Bava charm was ultimately dissappointing and *ahem* tossed off. I always got the vibe off two mates making themselves laugh and egging each other on to ever more ridiculous extremes. Can’t begrudge them that, but it nonetheless produced some uneven comics.

Which is not to say AZTEK doesn’t have it’s charms. It’s a distinctly quirky little book, full of great ideas and a refreshingly uncynical protagonist. ‘Curt Falconer’ is a classic blue-eyed, blond hunk – much like Buddy Baker before Morrison put him through a post-modern mangel. But unlike Baker, Falconer is closer to a child in his disposition, having spent his life hidden away being trained up as the Ultimate Man, by the mysterious Q Foundation (shades of Philip Wylie’s bonkers pulp ‘classic’ Gladiator). His wide-eyed enthusiasm and confusion at the grubby, sordid city of Vanity is endearing both to the bemused civilians he encounters and to the readers at large. Particularly charming is his attempt to stop a mugging by paying the muggers the money they would have made from the crime out of his own pocket. Likewise his encounters with other DCU heroes are pleasingly good-natured. Green Lantern helps to pick a cool name for AZTEK, and Batman wants to know about all the hyper-tech that power his ludicrous special suit. There are no pointless fisticuffs, and the writers manage to incorporate the necessary ‘big’ (ie sales increasing) guest stars without it feeling gratuitous.

There are also a gaggle of new villains for the titular hero to wrestle with, alongside seasoned baddies such as Parasite and old uncle Joker (whose extremely enjoyable appearance is in keeping with Morrison’s current vision of the character – in this instant he’s Cosmic Joker, a slightly less terrifying proposition than the Clown at Midnight…) . In particular Death Doll from issue 3 registers highly, partly because of her striking character design. Her origin as a clean cut all-American sidekick, transformed into a make-up encrusted CIA-funded cyborg hardbody (see: Elektra Assassin) is a clear metaphor for the scuzzing up of comics that happened in the post-Watchmen wasteland of the early 90′s. The unfortunate Piper from issue 1 is also a throwback to more innocent times, with his little robot Pipe helpers. His subsequent pounding at the hands of the sadistic ‘hero’ Bloodtype is another indicator of the disdain that Morrison and Millar hold for the current state of affairs. Synth, the bipolar hitman (genius one day, simpleton the next) is a typically Morrisonian concoction, put to good use.

Aside from the lurking threat of the ‘Shadow God’ that never quite materialised (although it was linked to Mageddon over in JLA eventually) possibly the main ‘villain’ seemed to be the city of Vanity itself. A sprawling nightmare, Vanity was designed to confuse and confound even longtime inhabitants. Built to the eccentric design scheme of the city’s forefather Clarence Vane, there was definitely an underlying threat ingrained in the city’s architecture itself. M+M clearly had big plans for this aspect of the strip (much like James Robinson’s beloved city of Opal in Starman), but sadly it was just one of a number of threads left dangling by the title’s premature cancellation.

As stated earlier there are a number of nice self-aware touches in AZTEK where the writers fondly acknowledge some of the conventions of the genre whilst subverting them to good effect. The supervillain alarm and subsequent drill in the theme restaurant that is as common to the wearied inhabitants of Vanity as a fire alarm; the discussion over AZTEK’s superhero name by the newspaper editors that echoes a board meeting in the offices of DC or Marvel; these moments offer a wry commentary on reader expectations and comics tradition whilst never detracting from the story itself.

Nonetheless the fact that remains that a lot of AZTEK just doesn’t quite work. One of the major problems is, sadly, the artwork. On the plus side N Steven Harris’ angular distinctive style was a refreshing change from the steroidal grotesqueries of the Image-era artwork. It certainly gave AZTEK a unique feel, and at his best the odd angles and perspectives he employs are invigorating and highly original. However sometimes the artist’s basic storytelling skills are lacking and the results make things hard to follow. Certain choices over which panels to emphasise mean that major plot point are lost in the mix. Odd facial expressions and lack of background detailing heighten the sense of dislocation. Harris certainly improves as the series progresses mind. Compare the early issues with the final JLA-themed issue and you see a book that’s really starting to synergise. Which makes it doubly sad that this proved to be the final story.

The responsibility for the book’s frequent awkwardness doesn’t solely lay at the artist’s feet of course. Millar & Morrison must shoulder at least some of the blame. The writing doesn’t quite seem to know where to position itself – is it homage or satire? The tone occasionally lurches from bubblegum fun to brutality within the space of one issue. The dialogue, whilst striving for knowing coolness often seems trite and irritating. This particular tic has bedevilled a number of writers to this day – stand up Warren Ellis! Stand up Mr Millar! It often renders the characters into simple mouthpieces for the writer, and as such they end up sounding identical. (A problem that bugs the shit out of me about Tarantino – for someone so celebrated for his dialogue, you’d think he could at least attempt to create some vaguely believable or discernibly different characters) It doesn’t help that the one trait common to all these characters seems to be that of ‘smug asshole’. And some of the dialogue in Aztek just clunks. The stylistic tics evident in the comic have receded (in the case of Morrison, whose Seven Soldiers is one of the most invigorating and emotionally resonant takes on the superhero genre of the last 15 years) and become exacerbated (in the case of Millar, who despite posessing undeniable flair, still writes the most irritating sounding people in comics).

(Digression – I’d be interested to know how the writing duties were shared with the two creators. Did they work out an overall plan for each issue together and then one of them dialogue it? Did they take it in turns? I guess it’s ultimately academic, but I’ve always been curious how a writing team functions. Wagner & Grant, Giffen & DeMatteis…some of my favourite comics have been created by commitee, and I’d love to know the actual nuts and bolts of how they go about it.)

As it stands, some issues of Aztek work better than others. The aforementioned Joker tale is enjoyable and manages to at least find an entertaining take on the Clown Prince of Crime. Batman is played as the encouraging, if gruff, mentor figure Morrison cultivated in the pages of JLA. I like the idea of a crimewave inspired by Burroughs’ cut-up technique, although I imagine it sent certain fanboy elements howling in apoplexy back to their Chuck Dixon comics. The Amazo/JLA story (#10) is good, especially the spin on TO Morrow and his most notorious creation’s relationship. Similar territory to the ‘Tomorrow Woman’ JLA story. The Synth and GL issue (#2) is neat enough. The Lizard King two parter is less good. Although it gives some vital backstory on the shady Q foundation, it just hangs together a bit awkwardly. The Lizard King himself fails to rise above generic ranty-psycho status. And the first issue (always a killer to get right) is a bit of a mess, spending too much time with the Piper and Bloodtype and leaving Aztek as a bit of a blank space. Which I guess was kind of the point; to create a hero from scratch, secret identity, codename and all. Nonetheless it doesn’t have the drive and coherence it perhaps should.

But all quibbling aside there were plenty of great ideas and nifty concepts in AZTEK, achieveing more than some series do in far longer runs. Overambition is never a crime, and I get the feeling that had it lasted a bit longer the series had plenty of interesting avenues to explore. As it stands it remains a minor work in both writer’s canons, but one that served as a dry run for what was to come over the next 10 years. For better or worse.

Gone but not forgotten…

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11 Responses to “Whatever happened to the Ultimate Man? – Morrison and Millar’s AZTEK”

  1. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    Yeah, the first issue of Aztek I acquired was actually #10 which on its last page trails a bunch of shit that obviously never happened – The Quizler!! Aztek’s lost brother!! the Super-groupie!! (I think that’s it, but I’m doing this off memory, so it obviously made an impression) and it wasn’t immediately very clear until you gave the letters page a good read that that was it. It is a stilted read, but one I’ve no end of affection for – he looks so fucking cool, for a start and I was just about wetting myself years later in delight to see the (toyetic) model in the, frequently excellent although, Jesus, Dini and McDuffie cannot write comics, JLU cartoon.

    Over the piece, though, I think I do prefer Zauriel, though his mini (JLA: Paradise Lost) isn’t nearly as strong. I fucking love Zauriel, truth told; there should’ve been a long-running series for him over the last eight years, really.

  2. Qthgrq Says:

    You’re gonna have to fully articulate that Zauriel love one day, big man.

  3. Brett Says:

    If I remember correctly, Morrison and Millar plotted each issue together and each one scripted alternating issues. The credits would read Morrison and Millar for odd numbered issues and Millar and Morrison for even numbered issues I think, the writer mentioned first being the scripter for that issue.

    Going to have to pull these out again when the hardcovers for Grant’s JLA come out. I will be honest and declare that my fave Aztek bits came from JLA proper; Luthor revealed as the secret benefactor, disabling 10 nuclear bombs in the Watchtower in 3 1/2 minutes(!), his successor blowing up her 5D powered helmet in ‘Rock of Ages’, wearing the surgical mask and operating on Jemm along with J’onn. While Morrison (and Millar) seemed to struggled with the tone and how to write him in his own series, he absolutely made him shine in his JLA cameos.

    Was always disappointed that he was written out in the epilogue of ‘Rock of Ages’; it seemed that along with Green Arrow, and Kyle to a lesser extent, that there was going to be a faction to the League that weren’t the 24/7 ‘big 7′ type hero, but were still just as effective as the icons regardless. Steel sort of filled this role in the end, and Kyle obviously did, but Aztek and Green Arrow were even more unorthodox super heroes than they were.

  4. Kevin Huxford Says:

    I bought every issue of the series and bought the collection recently. I wish the pages in the collection looked as sharp as the images above, but I’m still happy with it. Really wanted to see where they could have taken the character.

  5. [email protected] » Blog Archive » The Lightning Round Says:

    [...] The Mindless Ones take a look back at Grant Morrison and Mark Millar’s Aztek, The Ultimate Man. “Imagine a comic by either of these two lasting only ten issues today. Boggles the [...]

  6. Matt Says:

    IIRC, the Giffen/DeMatteis team functioned something like this: they’d come up with the plot, Maguire would draw it, and DeMatteis would dialogue it. If you read it, you can sorta see how that rhythm works out; it gives their dialogue a unique feel because you could tell DeMatteis was basically running a goof on whatever page he got back, and so you’d have three or four balloons crammed into a panel, just for the sake of a joke.

    Great piece on Aztek.

  7. Squashua Says:

    Aztek. My absolute favorite comic book alongside Hitman and Resurrection Man in the good mid-to-late 90′s DC heyday. Aztek was sorely underused, even in JLA. The long hinted-at Luthor reveal in his final issue, the strange 2-person combination villain from that group who used to fight The Outsiders, all the cool connections hinted at that never came to fruition. Sigh. Certainly the book was questionable at times, forcing you to go back and re-read panels (maybe it was partly the fault of the art), but I loved it.

  8. The Beast Must Die! Says:

    The mid to late 90′s period of DC sure looks like a Golden Age in light of the recent Didio-helmed shite-fest…

  9. Bots'wana Beast Says:

    Definitely – around ’96-’99 is a total halcyon period in DC superhero comics; the 1,000,000 crossover is a perfect snapshot, really – of thirtysome tie-ins, probably only about one in five is actively unenjoyable. And that’s not even getting into WS or ABC stuff.

    The Chase issue from that event is emblematic to me as something it might be worth digging in back issue bins for the original 9-10 ish run of. The Waid Flash, Starman… happy days, that I mostly missed out on initially.

  10. Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Three Fools - Part 3: Morrison’s Joker Says:

    [...] N. Steven Harris, Aztek the Ultimate Man (ably assessed by my fellow Mindless, The Beast Must Die, here) was Morrison’s first ongoing superhero gig and his only man in pants book to implode in a [...]

  11. Von Says:

    I lived for the Morrisson JLA back then and I’m a huge GL fan. I started in bc my dad liked GL and bought me a book one day. I’d never actually read anything but TMNT books at that point, and I fell in love. I think my first issue was Hal in Reign of the Supermen, and then Kyle for the next ten years. They threw Kyle into other books to get him more popular, and I guess it worked bc all of a sudden, Kyle was the dude that they sent to new books to boost sales. He showed up in Hitman which was awesome, superboy, etc, but then he popped up in Aztek. I bought it solely bc I was a kid and I had to have everything Kyle was in. But I couldn’t get into it, and I thought Aztek looked retarded. However, Aztek 10 w/the JLA, and his chair sitting adventure in Rock of Ages, and I was an instant fan. I ended up loving his costume, and his story was different in a great way, no matter the missteps of having shared creators. But then he gets out of the chair in rock of ages pt.6(of 6) and resigns? Then they bring him back to fight his ultimate foe like 20 issues later only to *Spoilers*
    ……..kill him off? And never bring him back? What the Fuck? I know Morrisson loves his creations and wants final say, but I don’t know of any fuss he made when DC brought Damien back from the dead so quickly, so why not give Aztek a shot again? They missed the boat on a new 52 resurrection, but now they’re doin the new doc again….and a lot of it …..A LOT of it looks like horseshit. So maybe knock off a Bat or Supes family title or two and let’s get some Ultimate Man action! I don’t care how gay that may sound….I want it! Oh and maybe they could, w/effort this time, do something with Zauriel, stop plans to kill Kyle and get him a fresh writer, get some blue & gold goin on, have lobo get rid of his twink counterpart, get animal man back in the spotlight or at least put him in JLDark w/his buddy Swamp Thing, find Simon Baz, lose John Stewart, and get fucking Geoff Johns on more than just one book!!! I don’t want this new world where Bizarro is a kids book, top billing goes to Starfire and Harley Quinn, Batman or Jim Gordon wears a giant mech bunny suit, Wonder Woman covers all visible skin, and Supes’ ethnic origin magically changes and he gets too lazy to put on a suit, just jeans and a super T-shirt , size Xtra Medium. Holy shit. Sorry. What was I … Oh yeah Aztek, bring him back, do a new JLI & throw him in it. Don’t let jurgens write it tho.

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