1984: Aztec Ace

Aztec Ace (1984) #1-15 by Doug Moench, Dan Day, et al.

Aztec Ace is the end of the first phase of Eclipse Comics, in a way. Up until now, the vast majority of Eclipse’s (not very massive) output has been dominated by refugees from Marvel Comics, who left because they didn’t like the editorial strictures over there, or left because Marvel wouldn’t let them retain ownership of their work, or both.

Unless I’m misreading the chronology here, Aztec Ace (created by Marvel writer Doug Moench) is the last one of these. By 1984, the Marvel/Epic line was well-established, and many of the creators that had fled to Eclipse (and other independents) went back to the mothership’s nicely furnished outhouse. (To mix metaphors in a Kenwood blender.)

Anyway, Aztec Ace is about a time-travelling guy with a kick-ass sidekick, and they go around the, er, time-stream to fix things in a ship that’s bigger on the inside. Half the letters on the letters pages are “you know that this is Doctor Who, right?”, but Moench claims to have never seen it, and he never watches TV, anyway.

The first issue is 52 pages long, and is reproduced somewhat iffyli: So many of the finer lines of the artwork (by Michael Hernandez and Nestor Redondo) just disappear. Which makes me wonder whether this originally was intended for an album-sized graphic novel instead of the start of a standard-sized comic book series. The aspect ratio is closer to standard comic book size, though, so if that’s the case, they’ve zoomed and cut the artwork, too…

Since it’s a comic book about time travel, we get a few of these jokes, but not too many.

Moench introduces us to the concepts in Aztec Ace very nicely by not really introducing them to us at all. He drops us straight into the story, without explaining how things fit together. But he’s also got the Bridget character, who’s as much in the dark as we are, so we slowly get to understand how things work by having Bridget learn them.

So we’re kept on the edge of total befuddlement for quite a while, and I can easily see many readers being put off by that. “This doesn’t make any sense! Waugh! Where’s my Garfield comics!” (I’m not being snooty at all here, am I?) But I love that kind of stuff: Vagueness is reality. Clarity is fiction.

Reading this, I’m reminded of techniques Alan Moore would use later.

The layouts in the first two Hernandez-pencilled issues aren’t very exciting, but there’s a couple of these fun pages. The layouts would become much crazier when Dan Day took over in #3.

The first issue includes a text page with a dialogue between our protagonists that’s fun, and I wondered whether that was going to become a regular feature, making Aztec Ace even more of a precursor to Alan Mooredoms than it is, but no.

Another recurring theme in the letters page is “why are you advertising for the NRA on the covers?”, but that’s the stamp of the National Recovery Administration, the New Deal thing set up by Roosevelt in the 30s. It was apparently an idea by editor cat ⊕ yronwode.

Since it’s a time travel book, we get to visit a lot of famous people and events from history, and Our Heroes either help getting events to unfold as they should, or stop The Bad Guys from stopping those events from happening.

Here’s Ben Franklin, or rather his “ebonati” clone. Yes, “ebonati” is a pun on “illuminati”. (Dark/light.) Yes, Moench is very punny.

And, of course, we get a lot of rules for time-travelling, neither of which make much sense, but, then again, they never do, do they?

The doorway to the time-travelling space ship is inside a phone-booth in these issues. Yes, I think at this point Moench was basically trolling the Doctor Who truthers.

As I said up there, Moench only did the “meanwhile, in the future” bit once. Instead he introduces each scene shift (and he shifts constantly, often more than once per page) with one of these nonsense semi-puns in those pink boxes. They’re mostly half-skewered versions of sayings and titles of things you half-remember, but can’t quite place. Or at least I can’t place them.

Moench does give us some straight-up info dump pages, though. The weird thing about them is that he manages to info-dump all over us without boring us silly. These comics are so dense: Reading these 15 issues took me, like, 3x the time it would have taken to read 15 modern commercial comics. And it’s not because all pages are like the one above; they’re not at all, but there’s so much going on that you really have to pay attention.

A couple of readers make the comparison to Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg! comic book, which was published around this time. And I get that: That one was also an early exercise in information overload. I re-read it a few years ago, though, and was surprised by how tame it seems now. Everything in American Flagg! has been imitated and digested now, while Aztec Ace, in comparison, is still way out there.

Moench says that he’s got three file drawers filled with notes for Aztec Ace, and it reads like it. Almost every issue has 28 story pages (leaving room for two letters pages and two in-house ad pages), which is more than most, and every one of those 28 pages is crammed with ideas and schtick and action.

Geez! Aztec Ace increased its orders between issue 2 and 3? That doesn’t happen much these days…

Heh. The editorial page notes that Don McGregor was interviewed for WNEW-TV in New York, and that they’re lugging an edited version of the footage taken for that spot to conferences.

You know the thing about those drawers filled with notes? Yes, you often get multiple quotations from high culture sources starting each issue. Pretentious? Fun? I’m leaning towards fun.

But those semi-puns in the pink boxes…

It sometimes feels like pure logorrhoea.

On the other side, why not?

Aztec Ace, weird as it was, was apparently selling at the top of Eclipse’s lineup.

They finally found a name for the line-wide Eclipse editorial printed on the inside cover. *phew*

I haven’t said much about Dan Day’s (and Nestor Redondo’s and later Ron Harris’) artwork, and strangely enough, neither does Doug Moench on the letters pages. When Day made his debut in #3, I had expected an introduction or something, but Moench didn’t mention him at all, and he continues to not do so until Day’s leaving. Which is downright bizarre, in my opinion, because Day’s so wild and crazy in his layouts.

Now, I don’t know what the scripts from Moench looked like. Perhaps he described each page layout in detail. In which case, he’s an amazingly visual comic book writer. But, if on the other hand, these layouts are mostly from Dan Day’s brain (and I think they are; we’ll come to that later), then he deserves a lot more attention than I’ve seen given to him.

I mean, just look at that two-page spread. Not only are we getting two concurrent scenes (the green inset panels are Bridget and Head talking), but between those we’re getting Ace running away from some guards. But if you look closely at those one, you see that it’s a continuous city scene we’re seeing, where Ace is moving around in space and time, with the inset panels working as panel borders.

It’s fun, interesting, perfectly clear when reading, and so way beyond the call of “Ace runs away from guards while Bridget talks to Head”.

(Dan Day’s more famous older brother Gene Day worked with Moench on Master of Kung-Fu at Marvel in the 70s.)

Moench enjoys trolling his readers a bit. We’re promised an action-packed next issue…

Or perhaps it’ll just be a moody mysterious piece.

Guess which one.

The prevailing mood throughout the chaotic antics of Aztec Ace is one of melancholy. Travelling through time gives you a lot of leeway to write about life and death and stuff, you know.

That issue, though, says “Day” on the cover, but the credits claim that Michael Hernandez is doing breakdowns and doesn’t mention Dan Day at all. Weird. So it’s an unannounced fill-in issue?

And while it does have strangely-shaped panes, it has none of those hog-wild layouts, which points to Day being responsible from them.

Moench does scenes like the one from time to time, leaving us wondering whether that’s a historical character we’re supposed to recognise, or whether this is a foreshadowing of future plot lines. In this case, I was rather annoyed, but it’s not an inherently bad storytelling strategy.

In one issue, we get this on the inside front cover: An explanation of who the historical characters featured are.

Of all time travelling plot lines, the one where you arrive to early is an inherently bad one: When she established the project these people were working at, she knew that there would be a deadline coming up (Cortez arriving in America), so why didn’t she just establish it earlier? Or is she didn’t, arrive later?

“Makes. No. Sense.” says me in Comic Book Guy’s voice.

Like I said, these comics are jam-packed with story pages, so there’s no room for backup features. We only get this three-page feature in a single issue.

Moench admits that his approach to Aztec Ace is a very different one that he had used on his comics at Marvel. Less maudlin and more intellectual, perhaps? He says that if Aztec Ace fails (commercially), he’ll… do something else. Or leave comics.

Gotta get some fourth-wall breaking references in. This is the mid-80s, after all.

On one of the later issues, Aztec Ace dresses up like a super-hero and does the only sensible thing while jumping around on rooftops: Says “Whee.”

In #13, Moench announces that Dan Day is leaving after having done “a very nice ten-issue run”. And that he’s “improving”. *scratches head* Is it just me, or is that kinda bitchy?

But we’re promised pleasant, perhaps even spectacular surprises in future issues. What could those be!?!?

Well, I don’t know what the spectacularity (that’s a word) he was referring to might have been, but it’s sure not the artwork by Mike Harris, Art Nichols and “Tom Yeats” as he’s named in the credits, but I’m guessing that’s the same person as Tom Yeates.

Gone are all the fun layouts, and instead we have totally pedestrian almost-competent standard comic book art.

Even the dialogue seems to devolve precipitously. Instead of intricate banter, we have this leaden stuff. Did Moench just give up when Day left? Or was he uninspired by the artwork?

And then Dan Day is back on #15! What? And so are the layouts and the snappy dialogue. Weird. There’s no letters page, so there’s no explanation, either. Reading the indicia, the non-Day #14 was published in June 1984, which #15 is in September, which is the longest delay between issues, so I suspect… drama…

Even the layouts that aren’t over-the-top are fun. Here we’re reading the long panels to the left downward, and then when we come to the bottom panel, we have speech balloons poking out to the right, which leads our eyes up the legs and then lets us take in the entire figure of Cary Grant. Reading it, it’s so natural and seems effortless: Our eyes aren’t led astray even if they don’t proceed in the normal order.

And that’s it. Final issue. No explanation or warning. So what happened?

When writing these, I try to keep my mind pure and oh so virginal by not looking up other articles about the comics while writing, but wait until this bit, where I’m basically done. But Aztec Ace is so much fun and so weird that I had to.

And found basically nothing. Only on the Dark Web (i.e., page two of Google Search) did I find out couple of articles on Aztec Ace, and they’re both pretty new. Here’s one on #7 and here’s a more thorough one on #1. (The latter one isn’t bad.) But no reviews from the olden days, not even in The Comics Journal, as far as I can tell.

I did read this comic in my teens, but apparently I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it: I dropped it by #9. I find that so strange now, because it seems very much like other things I liked at the time, but… I didn’t, I guess? I have no recollection of Aztec Ace; when I started this blog series I thought it was an Epic series.

But it’s been a hoot reading it now.

Doug Moench did not stop writing comics after Aztec Ace folded, but has written a huge number of comics afterwards.

[Edit: There’s now a Kickstarter for a collected version of Aztec Ace up, and it looks like it’s going to be successful.]

5 thoughts on “1984: Aztec Ace”

  1. Great Aztec Ace piece! Just so you know, I will be collecting (for the first time) all 15 issues of Aztec Ace in a hard cover collection, which will come out from my IT’S ALIVE! imprint at IDW. Dan Day will return to create a new cover for the collection. In fact, he has already turned in his pencils for the cover, and they look fantastic! Can’t wait to see his finished inks!


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