Tuesday, May 13, 2008

JLA Presents: Aztek - the Ultimate Man

JLA Presents: Aztek - the Ultimate Man
by Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, N. Steven Harris, and Keith Champagne
DC Comics, 1996-97; collected in 2008.

Hillary Brown: So maybe your plan to brainwash me by making me read all of Grant Morrison is working, or maybe I was in a good mood while reading JLA Presents: Aztek - The Ultimate Man, or maybe it's just got a lot of Morrison's strengths with fewer of his weaknesses. Anyway, I felt amiable toward the book. It's got a nice "fish out of water" thing going on, and it's fairly funny, in addition to containing a lot of Morrison's concerns in more subtle ways. As far as the latter goes, it's so weirdly gentle, which is always something that surprises me in his books. He's got a real knack for mixing violence to his heroes with violence not committed by his heroes, and this comes through even in the first issue of Aztek in which he fights not with a bad guy but with an ostensible good guy, Bloodtype, who is exactly the sort of vigilante jackass with no concern for collateral damage that, I suppose, was popular in comics in the 1980s and early 1990s. It's a good way of doing anti-gritty without getting preachy about it, partially because Aztek screws up kind of a lot. He fails to protect people often, and he falls into traps because he doesn't think too much about ulterior motivations. Basically, there are good things and bad things about being an innocent, which he clearly is (e.g., not ever having eaten in a restaurant before).

Okay, so now the problems, of which there certainly are some. The dialogue can be clunky. The sound effects seem as though they're supposed to be hilarious and vintage, but it's not entirely clear. I'm pretending all that is Mark Millar's doing (and you can certainly fill in some details on Millar, whom I haven't read anything by before), not Morrison's. There's a little much crossover, although it's woven into the plot fairly well, and that can make the series feel jumpy, as does the fact that it ends at ten issues (not their fault). And I'm not nuts about N. Steven Harris's art, which is a little heavy on the square jaws and people being too close to the front of the frame. It's as though the actors can't hit their marks.

Garrett Martin: A lot of on-line commentator types complain about how critics often neglect to mention the art when discussing comics. I think that happens because mainstream superhero art is hardly ever more than mediocre. There are maybe a dozen consistently active superhero artists who deserve notice at any given time, and N. Steven Harris, who I've never heard of outside of Aztek, most likely wasn't one of them back when Aztek was being published. His art is clunkier than the dialogue ever is; his action is a little too hard to follow a little too often, and even scenes of people standing still and talking can be confusing. His character designs for Aztek and the various villains (assuming he designed them and not Morrison or Millar) are pretty good, but for the most part he's just another in a series of underwhelming artists attached to Morrison comics.

Aztek is definitely a bit like Morrison Lite, probably both because Millar co-wrote it and because it's trying to be an accessible superhero series set solidly in the mainstream DC Universe. Some of his themes pop up, like the Silver Age admiration, the anti-grittiness, commentary on the comics medium, the play with various levels of depth or perception (Aztek's "four-dimensional" armor), etc. Even though these elements are there, and Morrison and Millar do present a compelling and unique character in Aztek, I think what they were most interested in was creating this weird new city of Vanity. Vanity is like if Gotham was inherently evil, a city specifically engineered to maximize wickedness. Instead of an asshole dressed like a bat struggling to save some nebulous concept of a city's soul, though, there's this untested naif who focuses squarely on saving both the lives and souls of the individuals unfortunate enough to live in such a miserable city. Batman has hope in Gotham, but distrusts almost every person he's ever met, whereas Aztek realizes Vanity is a lost cause while retaining faith in the underlying goodness of humanity. The Batman guest appearance was a great way to contrast not just the two titular characters, but also the cities that they operate in, and that are both characters in their own right.

It's hard for me to suss out Millar's contributions from Morrison's. All I've read by Millar is Civil War, which was amazingly idiotic. I'm familiar with his on-line persona, though, and he frequently comes off as obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, and entirely too cynical. Apparently he shares Morrison's completely uncynical reverance for Superman, though, and wrote some great Superman comics for kids a few years ago. That's kind of surprising, because everything else I've read by or about him makes him seem like the kind of guy who'd create a character like Bloodtype with no irony whatsoever.

Hillary Brown: Well, many of them do good cover work. It's just that the stuff between the covers can be a problem--lots of standing around awkwardly or, god forbid, absolute hideousness when the artists try to be experimental. I try not to think I'm spoiled by good art, and it doesn't have to be completely realistic, but is it too much to ask even to have the effort that someone like Mark Buckingham puts in? Even when he has the occasional oddness, it's rarely unclear what's happening. Maybe it's the equivalent of shitty, green-tinted, shaky cinematography?

Are you sure Aztek thinks Vanity is a lost cause? I'm not sure he spends all that much time pondering, partially because he's constantly being tested by this or that, which can throw the comic off-balance at times. The Joker episode, for example, has some good elements, but why does it exist? Sure, supposedly to get Aztek involved with the Justice League, but isn't it really to sell comics?

I would have liked to see more on just how and why Vanity is evil. Or, um, why anyone wants to live in a city called Vanity anyway? Is the name too ridiculous? Or are you going to say it's some sort of clever comment by Morrison on the unreality of the comic book universe? Also, why did they start doing the page or two of found text of some sort at the end of the issues and then stop? That stuff is full of interesting, geeky things to figure out. Once it goes away, you think far less about the background (who built this city? why? did they build it on rock and roll, causing its evilness? why do these powerful people want Aztek on their side?) or you try to suss it out from the main narrative, in which it's either really obvious (Luthor and pals discussing it) or nonexistent.

There really are some lovely jokes, though, including ones about comics that I'm pretty sure I even got, as in Green Lantern's guest appearance, in which there's a gag about his ring malfunctioning and creating super-lame stuff. I'm not opposed to a har-har, wink-wink bit. Mostly, I think of Aztek as being like The Return of Jezebel James, Amy Sherman Palladino's last series, which was canceled after three episodes aired. It wasn't quite as cut down in its prime, but both had hints of greatness without really ever getting to achieve it, some good character work, an interest in messing with your expectations, and flawed execution. Neither should be over-romanticized, but there's definitely some charm there.

GM: Vanity is a pretty bad name, I won't disagree. They try to give it some sense with the Charles Vane backstory, but still. And I might be mistaken, but doesn't Aztek know the truth about the city? About how it was planned and why? He's sent there because it's where he's supposed to face the ultimate evil, the city was designed specifically to bring forth the ultimate evil, and Aztek is one of the few who specifically knows that, so that's why I said he's written off the city itself. But maybe I'm misremembrin'. I imagine they would've developed Vanity a lot more had the series not been cancelled so quickly. The freshly cancelled All New Atom series had a similar setting, with Ivytown becoming this offbeat, Twin Peaks-ish 'burg all full of that there whacked-out craziness. Gail Simone wrote it, but it was launched with an "ideas by Grant Morrison" credit, so maybe some of the ideas for Vanity were being recycled.

Crossovers are a fact of life for a young series, and invariably they play out as an established hero making sure the new guy's dick is long enough to handle whatever shit is going down in Whereversville, US of A. Obviously that's the business reason for the Joker / Batman cross-over, but Morrison and Millar made that work in a way that seamlessly furthered what they were already trying to accomplish. Most comic writers don't care enough to make crossovers or guest appearances work as smoothly as this one.

And man, yes, it is a funny comic, and without being overly quippy. The humor comes from the weirdness of Vanity, and from Aztek's unfamiliarity with mid-'90's American livin', and from situations and stuff. Things happen in Aztek that aren't supposed to happen in superhero comics, and those things often made me chuckle and/or guffaw. In that regard it's not like a sit-com with mid-air punching; it's a humor that's specific to the medium in which its distributed. But not in a totally-for-fanboys way like Fred Hembeck (who is thoroughly awesome of course). Like we were talking about earlier, Morrison can be fucking hilarious when he wants to be, but it's rarely ever in the form of "character makes intentionally funny and/or witty remark". The humor's situational, and also based on the reactions of everyman characters like Animal Man and Cliff Steele to all the crazy bullshit that's breaking out around them. So maybe Morrison treats humor like he does violence, as you noted above; it's something that his lead characters react to or have perpetrated upon them?

HB: Yeah, it's really not that clear, I don't think, in the comic that Aztek knows exactly what's going on with the city. He definitely knows some evil is coming and specifically there, but I'm not sure the line's drawn causatively for him. It also sort of makes me think of Dark City, although I don't remember that awesomely--I just remember stuff about evil and the city having a kind of organic life of its own. So... does Glasgow suck or something? Isn't that where both of these dudes are from? The whole "evil city" thing doesn't seem to fit particularly well with Morrison's usual concerns (except, I suppose, that it's dehumanizing).

I'm not sure that Morrison treats humor like violence, unless you also mean that he thinks there's too much of it and it's too glib, so he tries to make it come naturally from situations rather than applying it on top like a gloss. I'm pretty much okay with both humor and violence no matter where they come from.

GM: I don't think anybody paying attention to the superhero comics of the last thirty-odd years could ever think there's too much humor in 'em. I was only comparing how Morrison uses humor and violence in relation to his characters, and how they're rarely intentionally responsible for either.

I've never seen Dark City. And I think you maybe focus a little too narrowly on what seem to be Morrison's "usual concerns". Yes, there are themes that have been running through his work since the '80's, but he's also written hundreds, if not thousands, of comics since then, most of which, like Aztek, are basically corporate work-for-hire. Not all of them are going to be about personal philosophies like The Invisibles or The Filth. Of course the power that environment has upon the individual is one of his recurring themes, and the concept of an evil city can easily fit into that. Makes sense that Morrison would be excited to muck about with Kirby's Fourth World, since Apokolips and New Genesis are the DCU's ultimate extension of "you are where you come from".

HB: How does that work, though, as far as corporate work-for-hire goes? Does someone else come up with the story, and he just writes the script? Credits of all sorts, not just on comics, could stand to be more comprehensible, even if that made them much longer. I really do want to know who's responsible for those Don Martin-esque noises that result from Aztek hitting a wall, for example.

I really don't know anything about this Fourth World stuff. Do you think that hurts, as far as enjoyment of this comic goes?

GM: There's absolutely nothing Fourth World-related in Aztek. That could hurt your enjoyment of Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory, although Kirby was dealing greatly in archetypes straight out of Joseph Campbell, so even without reading his thousand or so pages of comics you can maybe tell what's going on.

Okay, with work-for-hire, the writers generally come up with everything, both the plot and the script. The editors let 'em know what they can and can't do, what characters they can use, what they can do with those characters, etc., but generally the credited writer does actually write the comic. Now, editors do often come up with ideas, and those ideas are often forced on the writers, but that usually happens more with cross-overs and with books or characters that have been around for a long time and are very central to the company's fortunes. I doubt there was much editorial interference with Aztek, beyond them requesting appearances from Green Lantern, Batman, and the Joker. And nowadays both Morrison and Millar are big enough names to probably force through almost anything they want. But when Morrison started on JLA in 1997, I bet he had to work with editorial more than he was used to. Other than the quick cancellation, Aztek is probably pretty close to the story Millar and Morrison wanted to tell. What I meant by calling it "corporate work-for-hire" was to contrast it with Morrison's semi-creator-owned comics at Vertigo, which theoretically are more personal and thus better examples of his themes. Plus, again, he does have a co-writer, who I'm sure came up with much of what happens in Aztek. And even among Morrison's DCU stuff, Aztek is an anomaly, and maybe not the best example of his themes, since the "superheroes as inspiration / evolutionary advancement of humanity" bit works better with iconic folks like the Justice Leaguers than with some anonymous dude in a pointy helmet.

And oh, Letterers draw in the sound effects, but writers often request specific words to be used. So no idea who was entertaining themselves, Chris Eliopoulos or Morrison and Millar.

HB: So, to boil down what you're saying, this book is okay if you know nothing, pretty good if you know a little bit of the very very basics (who the Joker is, how superhero stories tend to work), and maybe not that much better if you know a lot? Also, it has about as much to do with South American ancient religious mythology as Q the Winged Serpent does. If people want to be mildly elated while reading a smart mid-90s superhero book, then sad that it flickered out too quickly, they should put down their dollars for the paperback.

GM: Yeah, pretty much.


Karate Media said...

OK, since no one is discussing anything in these here comments, I'll go ahead and ask a process-oriented question...

This Aztek collection was released last Wednesday, and you guys wrote this up less than a week later.

OK, I know it doesn't take long to read 10 issues, but is a week too brief a period to review this collection? Unlike single issues, there is no time-sensitive concerns with reviewing a collection, not to mention that a bound collection implies a certain permanency - moreso than single issues, which still seem somewhat disposable despite the fact that they cost $3.

This isn't a complaint, just a thought. The writing here is always well thought-out, don't get me wrong. I'm just bored enough to discuss processes....

hillary said...

I don't think it's too brief. Honestly, if we could review stuff _before_ it comes out, I'd love to. That's how reviews often and should work. It's partially a discussion, but it's just as much a way to let you know whether or not you're interested in purchasing this new thing.

Karate Media said...

Hillary -- well, yes -- but in most cases (at least in my experience) reviews that coincide with a work's release are based on *advance* copies of the work. I'm under the assumption that you guys are just buying these on the day of release...

(wait, that's what you're saying, right. oh well...)

It's just interesting that something that was released over the course of a year gets reviewed in a week. Like I said, the review wasn't lacking, I was just interested in your take on the process -- I'm assuming, though, that an advance copy would arrive much earlier, giving you more than a week to read it.

hillary said...

Yeah, I'm sure it changes the experience somewhat, but these things read fast, and I am greedy. A single issue usually takes me about 15 minutes to read, give or take, so that's one reason I prefer trades. Also, this isn't quite like the difference between watching 24 on DVD and watching it episode by episode. That's not saying it couldn't be, but Aztek isn't exactly prone to cliffhangers.

Sean said...

Look at Morrison's name at the tip top, with co-writer Millar small at the bottom. Funny. The Millar affiliation is what's keeping me from reading this.

garrett said...

It's just interesting that something that was released over the course of a year gets reviewed in a week.

Aztek might have been released over the course of a year, but it doesn't take a year to digest or comprehend. And there really weren't many cliff-hangers, so I don't think the anticipation aspect of serialization needs to be considered here.