"They don’t make 'em like this anymore." Both a true and false statement. But first, let us discuss what ‘this’ is. The Complete Aztec Ace is a crowdfunded Dark Horse/IT'S ALIVE! collection of the entire 15-issue run (plus extras) of a 1984-85 Eclipse Comics series by writer Doug Moench, initial penciller Michael Hernandez (aka Michael Bair), majority penciller Dan Day, majority inker Nestor Redondo, and others.1 The series chronicled the adventures of time-travelling Caza (aka "Ace"), who goes back from the 23rd century to fix mistakes (paradoxes) in the timestream, most of which are caused by the wicked villain Nine-Crocodile and his followers, the Ebonati.2 During the first issue, Caza picks up a lovely young woman named Bridget Kronopoulous (seriously), who becomes his companion, and at this point everybody has probably started shouting "DOCTOR WHO!" Caza’s time-ship is bigger on the inside. According to the most invaluable asset on all the internet, the Total Eclipse blog: “Moench claims to have never seen [Doctor Who], and he never watches TV, anyway.”3
All of which is to say: this sure does sound like one these TV/movie pitch comics that inhabit so much of today’s direct market. The kind of thing you’d see announced with a Netflix deal already on the horizon. I mean, this exact concept probably wouldn't fly in America today without angry BBC lawyers attacking the studio with legal summons and cups of tea, but at the time it was the kind of high-concept thing that had Quantum Leap beaten to the punch by five years. Comics made for television.
So, at least in comic book market terms, Aztec Ace was ahead of its time. It was an early ongoing series from Eclipse, a company built on the back of graphic novels, limited series and high-minded reprints of classic material, and seemingly predicted (in general direction) 95% of the output of companies like Image, BOOM!, Vault, TKO, Aftershock etc. And yet, at the same time, Aztec Ace could only be a comic book. This is a work that utilizes the medium for its full strength - probably over-utilizes it. Like many of his Bronze Age ilk, Moench is an over-writer. He never uses one word when a dozen could do the job. He asks his artists to cram each page with panels and details (all sorts of unusual layouts result). Even simple ideas, like time travel, are made complex through a combination of detailed plot mechanics and vague explanations. Slugs are vital to the story, for some reason.
Also, did I mention the words? I did? Good! that would give you a clue as to how this series goes. Words, words, words. So many words. Speech balloons abound, caption boxes galore, thought bubbles… not so much. Leafing through this big collection, I can scarcely see a single panel with no words in it; I didn’t even bother looking for a silent page. This series was obviously produced with the single-issue format in mind; trying to read it in big chunks is strenuous. It’s not as overwhelming as, say, Don McGregor (another early adopter at Eclipse) but neither is it very far away.
Aztec Ace throws us right into the middle of the action without explaining things. There isn’t any proper origin story for Caza himself, and the backstories of the other main characters (Bridget and Nine-Crocodile) were semi-revealed only as the series neared its (unplanned) end. Mostly the series just throws ideas at the reader and lets them work it out on their own. The "Five-World" concept, a layered reality in which each layer of planet Earth represents a different epoch of history, could fill out a whole series by itself; here it’s just another thing in issue #1.4 One of the Ebonati turns out be Jack the Ripper,5 who is also pretending to be an Aztec deity. There’s an evil Ben Franklin. References abound to old comics, old movies, old books.
Dan Day, who does most of the heavy lifting throughout, is given some truly difficult tasks: not only are the concepts themselves often oblique—it would be interesting to see the scripts and compare them to the finished product—but he also has to draw a lot of details into all those tiny panels. He does fine work at that. Oh, one could certainly complain that the mind-blowing visuals aren’t as mind blowing as we'd like them to be.6 Or that characters are rather stiff, especially early on. Or that they have a tendency to pose in a manner that doesn’t quite fit the tone of the writing (despite the apocalyptical level of threats, characters always appear rather relaxed about the whole affair). These issues never quite resolve, but also can't entirely detract from the sheer effort that is put into every page of the series. Day never seems to cut himself any slack; just like on the writing side, everything is always dialed up to 11.
It is certainly a work that never bores the reader. On both the writing and art side, every issue tries something new, something big, something bold. Does it always work? No, not even close, but there’s something to be said for a 40-year old series that still feels more advanced than so much of today’s direct market work. The especially sad thing is that the series was cut off just as it was finally shifting into high gear. The first year or so, which is basically one long storyline dealing with the machinations of Nine-Crocodile and Bridget’s secrets, feels over-stretched. An odd decision is made to separate the two main characters just two issues after they've gotten together. The final three issues are probably the best of the lot, with decently-compressed plots engaging with the temporality of both the comics and movie businesses. The last issue in particular sees probably Day’s best work on the title. The story ends as it began, by not really explaining anything.
There were talks of sequel miniseries, a spin-off from the 1988-89 Total Eclipse company crossover event, which never came to be. Still, Aztec Ace #15, a wild and exuberant ride through the golden age of Hollywood, turned out to be a rather appropriate finale, at least in thematic terms. The characters become lost in a maze of art and entertainment, trying to remain true to themselves while being pulled apart by alternate versions of themselves created by a corporate behemoth which doesn't quite understand their appeal. It’s tempting (especially on the pun level) to say Aztec Ace was 'ahead of its time' - that it might have been a bigger success a few years into the Vertigo era. However, I believe, just like Caza does, that it could only be as it was. Some things are not meant to succeed. Moench and Day and Redondo and company made something as they wanted to make it, and sometimes that’s enough.
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- For reasons never properly explained, the only credit on the cover is for Moench himself. While it’s true that the non-writing creative talent shifted throughout the series, you’d think that at least Dan Day, who contributed either cover art or interior pencils to 13 out of 15 issues, would get up-front credit. Alas.
- That’s a pun on Illuminati. If you don’t like puns and wordplay, this is probably not the series for you.
- In the middle of the series, the door to the time ship is hidden in a phone booth; make of that what you will.
- Think of how long it took Alan Moore and J.H. Williams III to explore all the different spheres in Promethea!
- Speaking of Alan Moore...
- Chris Bachalo would nail the feeling the art here tries to evoke in the 1990s run of Shade, the Changing Man.