Sometimes great comics just slip under the radar. Either the creatives aren’t well-known enough yet to break through the clutter of an already crowded shelf, or a book’s tone and style is just a bit ahead of its time, or who knows what the reason is; it just doesn’t click with the comic-reading audience at large, and winds up going away well before its time. In the upcoming months, we’ll be looking at a few of these instances beginning this week with a prime example of a book and character that never caught on, but really should have: DC Comics’ AZTEK THE ULTIMATE MAN.
Created by writers Grant Morrison and Mark Millar and artist N. Steven Harris, AZTEK was a captivating melding of mystery, action and attitude wrapped up in a post-modern package, with just a hint of DC Silver Age nostalgia infused into it. Debuting in August 1996, AZTEK introduced the readers to Vanity, the newest of DC’s “imaginary cities” (and one of the few located on the West Coast), and her newest protector, a mysterious fellow who arrives in the city with no name, no identity, no job or home; only his armor and helmet, and a mission, to protect the citizens of Vanity.
As the story progresses, the nameless stranger has his first encounter with one of Vanity’s homegrown superheroes, an brutal vigilante sort known as Bloodtype, who’s viciously beating on a rather quaint, innocuous bank-robbing supervillain who calls himself the Piper. Bloodtype, by the way, is a not-so-subtle comment on the kinds of superheroes that were all too popular in the ‘90s, all shoulder pads, pouch belts and ammunition.
The new hero in town steps in to prevent the Piper from being murdered in cold blood, and rather quickly puts down Bloodtype. While tending to the badly wounded villain, the hero learns that the Piper’s name was Curtis Falconer, and he’d had just moved to Vanity and was about to start his new job as a doctor at St. Bartholomew’s hospital, and that the only reason he’d returned to crime was that his daughter had been kidnapped and was being held hostage. Before he could continue, the bank is rocked by another explosion, and both the Piper and Bloodtype were dead, and our hero, whom the newspapers will soon dub “Aztek” (since his helmet has a slightly South American tribal look to it) decides to take up Curt Falconer’s name and identity, and suddenly has a life and a job in Vanity.
So what can this Aztek fellow do? Well, as we would slowly learn over the course of AZTEK’s criminally short 10-issue run, Aztek had been trained from birth by a mysterious organization known as the Q-Society, and was at the height of human mental and physical conditioning. What was the Q-Society’s deal? Well, they believed the return of the dark shadow god Tezcatlipoca was an inevitability, and that when his opposite number, the god of light Quetzalcoatl, returned, he would need a human host to inhabit in order to defeat Tezcatlipoca. That host would be the Q-Society’s champion, and one is constantly trained and at the ready, and such has been the way for centuries. The Q-Society’s champion (namely, our boy Aztek) is handed down the helmet and armor, which grants the wearer an amazing array of powers, all of which are mentally controlled by the aforementioned helmet, which also contains within it the memories and experiences of all the previous champions, a psychic assault which would drive the wearer mad were it not for the mental techniques taught by the Q-Society to allow the champion to handle the strain. As for the otherdimensional armor, it provided the wearer limited super-strength and flight powers, as well as everything from plasma beams to invisibility to x-ray vision, as well as a kind of AI autopilot that would kick in should the champion be somehow incapacitated.
All this, and yet Aztek finds himself uncertain and confused in his new role as the hero of vanity, partly because his sheltered life in training with the Q-Society had left him ill prepared for life in the big city, and partly because the city itself seemed to be against him, and everyone else, as Vanity was apparently constructed as an experiment in psychological architecture, with the buildings designed in such a way as to create maximum discomfort, with the result being Vanity’s five-times-higher-than-normal suicide rate. (This bit of info, by the way, came from one of the clever in-continuity reference pieces that were included in AZTEK’s first few issues, in this case a book review written by the son of Vanity’s founder. This device, borrowed from Moore and Gibbons’ WATCHMEN, is one of my favorite ways of providing backstory for a new series in an entertaining and innovative manner, one I wish more creators would make use of.)
All of the business about Aztek’s origins and background, by the way, was doled out slowly over the first few issues, allowing the reader to slowly piece together the mystery of just exactly who this Aztek character was, while at the same time allowing the reader to identify with Aztek as he tried to adjust to his new life in a brand-new and bewildering city. Naturally, in a nod to longstanding comic-book tradition, the second issue of Aztek’s new series saw his first guest appearance by another superhero, in this case Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, at the time one of DC Comics’s newest and most popular (and most controversial) characters.
And also as usual, it looks as though there will be the de rigeur misunderstanding and fight when the two characters first meet, but Millar and Morrison nicely subvert the cliché, while at the same time giving their neophyte hero a shot of much-needed credibility. Later in the issue, Kyle gives our then-still-nameless hero some encouragement, and a bit of advice:
Aztek was kept pretty busy in his early days in Vanity, including an encounter with Death-Doll, a superheroine-turned-CIA assassin who also happened to be the girlfriend of the deceased Bloodtype, and decided to express her grief to Aztek, with extreme prejudice. Aztek also tried some alternative crime-fighting techniques on the streets of Vanity, such as simply paying off muggers not to mug somebody. In cash.
Aztek also tries to get a social life going in his new “Curt Falconer” identity with a nurse from the hospital named Joy, but a call to duty during dinner, combined with his own near-complete social ineptitude, puts the kibosh on any grand romantic plans.
Things go from bad to worse when Aztek is confronted by the Lizard King, a former Q-Group champion, the alternate for Aztek’s father. As it turns out, when Aztek’s father fell in love with a woman in Vanity, the Q-Group ordered his second to kill him. When he refused, he was psychically maimed and ejected from the society. Redubbing himself the Lizard King, he maintained his commitment to defeating Tezcatlipoca despite being ostracized bythe Q-Group, and now needed to steal Aztek’s helmet and armor to do so. Unfortunately for him, he succeeds, and without Aztek’s special training, the countless voices in his head swiftly overtake his sanity.
The series had a remarkable capacity to shift tone on a dime. One minute, the series would be indulging in a whimsical funny aside like Aztek’s filling out of his governmental super-hero ID form…
…and the next, we ‘d get a horrible shock ending, such as here, where we discover what the Lizard King’s biochemical treatments had done to Aztek’s would-be girlfriend Joy.
Damn. That’s creepy as hell.
Aztek gets further put through the wringer when the Joker visits town for his vacation (as he explains in the story, every year he likes to take a trip to somewhere even worse than Gotham City – the year before, it had been Rwanda), although he receives an assist from the Caped Crusader, who comes away with a surprising amount of respect for Vanity’s new hero.
However, the accumulated events of the previous few weeks have taken their toll on Aztek, and he’s snatched up by his minders in the Q-Group for rehabilitation, which is about when we (although not Aztek) discover one of the primary patrons of the Q-Group: Lex Luthor.
When Aztek returns to Vanity, all his needs have now been met by Lexcorp, including a posh new place to live and 24-hour chauffeur service, as well as some sort of low-level hypnotic suggestion placed over the entire city to protect his secret identity. What was Luthor’s vested interest? A hint had been planted in an earlier issue, in which Aztek engaged in a hostage rescue at Vanity’s wax museum, and noticed an internal note near the Aztek dummy reading “Aztek model not to be displayed in Justice League exhibit for two months.” As Aztek himself says, hmmmm…
Luthor’s grand scheme is confirmed in the next-to-last issue of the series, after he engineers a meeting between Aztek and Superman. Luthor is looking to place a friendly face in the newly reformed Justice League:
Luthor’s wishes are fulfilled in the final issue of the series, although not by his own hand. Instead, the Justice League, which was on its own carrying out a membership drive, is impressed by Aztek’s performance when their old enemy Amazo attacks his hospital, after having trapped the League in their moon-based Watchtower. With previous positive encounters with Leaguers Kyle Rayner, Batman and Superman, Aztek’s membership is a done deal, and we’re treated to just a hint of what’s never before been seen: the Justice League initiation ceremony.
In a sweet little nod to continuity, it’s revealed that the oath is taken in the presence of the costume of the Crimson Avenger, the Golden Age mystery man described by J’onn J’onzz as “the first of our kind.”
And with that final image of Aztek preparing to take his place among the World’s Greatest Super-Heroes, AZTEK THE ULTIMATE MAN ended, with the remainder of his tale taking place in the pages of Grant Morrison’s JLA series. So why didn’t the series survive? No one can really say. I think some of it was timing. Grant Morrison hadn’t become the comics megastar quite yet he would later become, with his JLA series (which really catapulted him to top-level stardom) only having been around for a matter of months, and his groundbreaking work on THE INVISIBLES hadn’t caught fire yet with readers or critics. As for Mark Millar, he was even less well known at the time, with only a few issues of SWAMP THING under his belt. If this same series had come out two or three years later, with JLA at the height of its popularity, or even later, after NEW X-MEN and THE AUTHORITY had hit, I think we’d have been reading about Aztek for a lot longer. And while AZTEK’s realistic artstyle by N. Steven Harris suited the book perfectly, it came across as a little cold and foreign, and wasn’t really flashy enough to get the book more attention. I also think the “AZTEK THE ULTIMATE MAN” title might have worked against it, sounding a little old-fashioned for ‘90s comics readers to readily embrace.
Still, Aztek didn’t entirely vanish. The good folks at Warner Brothers Animation saw fit to include Aztek as a member in their JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED animated series, and while the first and second seasons mostly saw him filling out crowd scenes, Aztek actually had a few lines in the third-season premiere, sharing screen time with Superman and Hawkgirl investigating the escape of Lex Luthor in the episode “I Am Legion.”
And take a look at this: if you’d told me when the series premiered that someday I’d be able to walk into a Target and buy an Aztek action figure, I’d have said you were insane.
So what did happen to Aztek? Did he ever find out about Luthor’s involvement in his super-hero career? And how did his stint with the Justice League go? Those, my friends, are questions to be answered in my long-awaited coverage of the Grant Morrison JLA run, which, as it happens, is slated to begin next week. So come on back.