RETRO REVIEW: Aztec Ace #1 (March 1984)

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Or – “From An Earlier Great Creator-Owned Age Of Comics…”

Comic readers today really have it good.  Not only do we have FOUR major comic labels with dozens of smaller publishers, not only do we have revivals of every conceivable character from The Avenger to Zorro, not only do we finally have a level of respect (at least in terms of dollars moved), but we have awesome creator owned comics like Saga, The Walking Dead and literally dozens more to choose from.  (I could list for days, but it’d only start a fight, so for our purposes, assume my third example was your fave-rave.)  This creator-owned comics revolution is cool, but it’s hardly a new development, if you were around in the Seventies and Eighties.  Want proof?  Hey, no sweat, your Major Spoilers (retro) review awaits!

SUMMARY

Pros
Dense, nuanced, trippy.
Clever dialogue, excellent use of time-travel.
Everything a good Doctor Who story should be.
Cons

It ended all too soon.

Overall Rating: ★★★½☆

READER RATING!

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AztecAce1CoverAZTEC ACE #1
Writer: Doug Moench
Penciler: Michael Bair (Hernandez)
Inker: Nestor Redondo
Colorist(s): Philip DeWalt/Denis McFarling
Letterer: Adam Kubert
Editor: cat yronwode
Publisher: Eclipse Comics
Cover Price: $2.25
Current Near-Mint Pricing: $3.00

Previously in Aztec Ace:  Doug Moench was one of comics’ workhorses in the 1970s, cutting his teeth on Marvel’s black-and-white magazines, as well as creating Deathlok and Moon Knight, as well as the run that made Master Of Kung-Fu famous.  By 1984, he was the regular writer for Batman, but also part of the early lineup of nascent Eclipse Comics.  While Moench wasn’t known for being as out there as his compatriots Steve Gerber or Steve Englehart, he still had enough wild ideas to launch a series about a time-traveling Aztec warrior from the 14th century who…  Well, that’ll become clear as we move along.  We open at Montezuma Conterminus, Tenochtitlan, circa the year 1518, as the man called Caza returns home…

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“…but right now, nothing less than a munched bunch will do.”  Heh.  The fact that our time-traveling hero is first seen after a trip to the distant future for a bag of Fritos sets the stage perfectly for the anachronic madness we are about to receive.  Entering the ziggurat, Caza seeks out his new pupil (we can’t go with companion), a woman named Bridget Chronopolis, who is surprised to find herself enjoying the creature comforts of ancient times…

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Also nice: the blatant and overt sexual tension between our leads.  These days, Bridget’s actions are downright tame, but for the time period, this was HIGHLY-CHARGED comic book erotica, and made it clear that we weren’t dealing with the pre-Crisis DC or rather moribund late Bronze Age Marvel.  (The real madness of the 80s hit later in the decade for the House of Ideas, apropos of nothing.)  Leaving his charge/love interest to be dressed by her handmaidens, Caza returns to his Den of Anachrony for a Coke and some music.  Oh, and by the way, his navigator is the floating disembodied head of Sigmund Freud…

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There’s a real charm to this story, allowing Moench to revel in all his favorite things vicariously (the musical choices Caza makes are pretty sharp for an Aztec), but he doesn’t lose his sense of character and dialogue.  Bridget and Ace have an awkward courtship discussion, which also helps to explain to us that, while we’re at the BEGINNING of their tale, they’ve already experienced the events of their first adventure together.  It’s sweet to see their flirtations, but not so sweet that there isn’t tension between them.  For his part, Caza seems very troubled by Bridget, while she seems a bit too casual at finding herself 400 years in her relative past…

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As the story transitions into the meat of things, it also transitions into a loving pastiche of Raymond Chandler detective stories (remember what I said about Moench’s favorite things?), specifically ‘The Maltese Falcon.’  But, instead of a Falcon, the maguffin is a feathered serpent, and a mook named Rinaldo has a problem with being given an ersatz version of the gold statue.  Detective “T. A. Zek” has an advantage, though, in that when the time/space continuum starts throwing paradoxes, he is ready to take the upper hand…

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Unlike the Maltese Falcon, however, “Zek” reveals that his statue is the geniune article…

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Again with the anachronic order, though, Caza/Zek finds himself haunted by the memory of Rinaldo’s main squeeze, Bridget, before we actually see how they met.  The first time I read this issue, I was totally and utterly confused, but after a couple more pass-throughs, it becomes clear that Moench and company were working on a whole different level for 1984, a level that was clearly (you should excuse the expression) ahead of its time.  Taking off with the idol, Caza is unaware that, as fascinated as he was with Bridget, she finds herself equally preoccupied with the strange detective…

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Michael Bair is a lesser-known light of comic history, and while I remember him mostly for his work on ‘Young All-Stars’ (his Fury and Tsunami were super-hot, I recall), but his work here is simply amazing.  Returning to their contemporary timeline, Ace and Bridget attend the Ceremony of Quetzalcoatl, a ceremony with a familiar centerpiece…

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I’m kind of in love with the way this story gets told, as we now know how the idol was recovered, as well as the whens and wheres, without actually knowing what in the world the actual plot was yet.  Still, the character work and historical references both 40s and ancient are fascinating enough to reel me in and hold me.  As reader, I share Bridget’s shock when the tribe sacrifices one of their own for the favor of their gods, but Caza explains the true nature of what he does: He protects history, as best he can, regardless of his own morality or feelings on the matter.  Had the idol gone missing, the tribe might have torn themselves to pieces, sacrificing hundreds, which would change their interactions with the Europeans, and possibly the history of the Western hemisphere…

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I was first exposed to Doctor Who about the time that this comic book came out, but ironically didn’t read Aztec Ace until a decade or more after its origins, but these days it’s clear that Moench is mining a similar vein.  Amazingly, the romantic story at the center of Aztec Ace prefaces the revamped Doctor Who series as it would premiere in 2005, with Bridget in the role of Rose, and Caza as a Ninth Doctor with a better haircut.  Unlike Rose and Nine, however, their sexual component is overt (and quite charming.)

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The sudden appearance of a massive “Prime Paradox” sends Caza running, as we once again see the effect long before the cause, and Ace and Bridget are quickly sailing the Golden Meld (which, Bridget notes, has a pleasant vibrational effect on her nether-regions) back to the 1940s, where they originally met…

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Moench gives Bridget a very specific speech pattern, and it’s easy to imagine her with a thick Noo Yawk accent, sounding like a gangster’s moll from a Bogart movie, while Caza’s vernacular is all over the place, as befits a time traveler, as we find when he intentionally crossed his own timeline to avoid a paradox…

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Taking a beating (because, entertainingly, he distracted himself), Aztec Ace ends up beaten down by the Ebonati agents of the mysterious Nine-Crocodile.  We also see the interactions that lead to their mutual attraction, and Moench achieves the difficult task of making us believe their “meet-cute.”

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Note the Superman costume hiding Ace’s wardrobe, a nice touch.  Because he saw himself painting the idol black, and the events that followed included that moment, Caza finds that he has to go back and actually PAINT the thing, as his inaction caused the paradox (“doxie-glitch”) that nearly killed them both.  Again, effect predates cause, and the resolution ends with Ace’s ship, the A.C.E. (Azure Crosstime Express) chased by Nine-Crocodile’s agents through time.  After foiling a plot to change time by keeping Big Ben from chiming in 1859, they quickly dart through the Golden Meld through Five Worlds, the ultimate visual representation of time, space and dimension…

AztecAce115Whoa…  Trippy.  Bair’s representation of the five eras of time is super-detailed and weird, and one of the most interesting ways of showing the timestream I’ve ever encountered.  Successfully shaking off pursuit, they finish up by ditching the two Ebonati into time itself…

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And then they had sex!  Yay!  Again, at a time when there wasn’t a lot of sex depicted at ALL, having a relatively realistic adult relationship with sex was quite lovely to read.  As the issue closes, Ace sets right what once went wrong once again, fixing a time paradox briefly mentioned earlier in the book, with unexpected consequences….

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And, with that naked Benjamin Franklin cliffhanger, we fade to black on a weird and fascinating first adventure…  Sadly, Aztec Ace (the comic book) only ran 15 issues, with a large role in Eclipse’s 1988 massive multiple character crossover ‘Total Eclipse.’  I like this as a leadoff issue, setting up as it does a universe where almost anything can happen, but life goes on in a vein very similar to what we know.  Aztec Ace #1 is one of the books that still holds up, even 30 years later, delivering an unusual-but-fascinating story in a strange order and looking great doing it, earning 4 out of 5 stars overall.  Seriously, if you run into this one, snag it, as back issues seem to be pretty hard to find…

Rating: ★★★★☆