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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