The world needs ditch diggers too, and that’s equally true in the multiverse.
Unfortunately for every Invincible we have a Marrow. For every Onomatopoeia we have an Effigy. Zoidberg bless the comic-creating guys and gals who try their darndest to bring to new blood to our four color ink world. Evolution is the key to survival and we should all be thankful to these artists for trying to bring something…ANYTHING…new to our miles and piles of tried and true comic series without having to slap Bat, X, Spider, or, now these days, Lantern on it.
Success, like with most things in life, is rare, though, and usually these capes get hung up relatively soon. Like it or not, these early retirements are usually warranted. It ain’t easy to make the Fantastic Four, otherwise everyone would be doing it. Most pioneers bit a lot of dust before seeing Oregon. That’s the trade-off for trailblazing and whether it’s right or wrong, it’s true.
But that doesn’t always mean it’s fair.
Sometimes lead is turned into gold, but, unfortunately, not everyone is there to bask in its glow. Occasionally truly great concepts emerge from the dust, but are still too obscured to get noticed. Blame the fans or fates, the problem still persists. So today I’m going to highlight some characters that deserve a second chance at the spotlight. These are some of the better bulbs that unfortunately burst a bit too briskly, and I hope revisiting them today makes somebody notice.
Ready? Set? Go again.
My obsession with Grant Morrison’s JLA run is…well…it’s an obsession. It was one of the first comics I ever read, introduced me to so many comic characters I had never heard of (Big Barda? Adam Strange? Sandman?), and is still that one comic I compare nearly every other superhero comic to. What can I say? You never forget your first.
One character that popped up throughout was Aztek: The Ultimate Man. I had never heard of the guy, but with Morrison’s habit of plucking the most obscure of characters out of whatever random issue of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen they appeared in decades before, I just assumed he was another silver age star brought out of retirement to battle whatever imagination to reality conceptual villain Grant cooked up that week.
Later I found out that Aztek was actually a Morrison (and Mark Millar) original, and was pretty stunned he was almost permanently a bit player. Yeah, he had his own solo series for about twenty minutes, but that was it. And then Grant (spoiler alert) killed him off in his final JLA storyline. Sure, it was cool, but what a loss.
I like to think of Aztek as an organic Iron Man. Powered by a four-dimensional mirror (oh, Grant…), Aztek’s armor and helmet gave him a multitude of abilities such as flight, strength, intangibility, and even some goofy stuff like density manipulation and bodyheat camouflage. By bucking the (as I like to call it) Marvel trend of trying to base their characters’ abilities in science and making Aztek a magic/science hybrid, Morrison was able to let his imagination run naked through the tulips with what Aztek could do.
This fascinating power set along with a killer origin story really set Aztek apart. You see, Aztek, real name Uno, had been raised since birth by the mysterious Q Organization to be the champion of the Aztek god (Scrabble super word score coming up, Unrealtors) Quetzalcoatl to eventually battle their enemy, the Aztec god Tezcatlipoca. Uno completed training and came to the United States adopting the identity of recently deceased doctor Curt Falconer, and, hey, found his way onto the Justice League. Well done, Uno. You’re number one.
Aztek is superhero conception at its finest. Borrowing from myth (Superman and the Jewish folklore hero: the Golem), along with a wee sprinking of pseudo-science (radioactive spider…sure, why not?), and added in a healthy dose of possibility for imagination (Oan power rings), he gave birth to a character that was limitless in ability, potential, and where his future may go. And then he blew him up. Damnit, Grant.
An Aztek series could have seen him travelling back in time and discovering the start of the Q Foundation millenia ago, or traversing dimensions when his mirror gets shattered, or just busting skulls with his buddies on the Justice League. When you have a character who can do nearly everything, you can do nearly anthing. And Aztek deserves extra special credit because he wasn’t another gritty, street-smart tough guy character. He had depth, maturity, and a mission beyond VENGEANCERARGH!!!!!!!!! Only from a mind as explosively creative as Grant Morrison’s could such a gem of possibility be forged, but alas.
Who knows, though? With the new 52 and Multiversity going bananas right now, maybe our pointy-headed hero might undergo a rebirth. Maybe he’ll be this universe’s version of Psycho Pirate post-C risis, having remembered everything that was but having to adjust to everything that is.
Or maybe he’ll just bump his helmet on every door he walks into. Either way, I’ll be thrilled.
Alright, so maybe a character aping a character who aped a character isn’t the most unique idea, but Toxin really did have something special going for him.
The “son” of Carnage and the “grandson” of Venom, Toxin was the 1,000th symbiote of their line and because of the breakdown that occurs throughout the…blood(?)line, Venom feared Toxin would be too out of control and dangerous and urged Carnage to kill the offspring after it was born. Instead, weakened by “giving birth”, Carnage bonded Toxin to NYPD officer Patrick Mulligan, resolving to kill Mulligan and his symbiote later.
At first it seemed Toxin would be another run-of-the-mill kill-em-‘up symbiote schlock character, but after a chance encounter with Spiderman himself, Toxin instead decided to fight against his symbiote urges and fight for the angels. Being bonded with a human so dedicated to righteousness and justice, Toxin’s dichotomy was only made stronger and his stories that much more compelling.
Whereas Aztek is a great example of comic creation, Toxin, to me, is a perfect example of comic evolution. If we must borrow from what has come before, let’s find something completely new to do with it. Much like Cassandra Cain or Kyle Rayner before him, Toxin found a way to reinvent the wheel. Marvel took a lot of chances by creating a symbiote character, a comic trope so quickly associated with mayhem and evisceration, and nearly making him a pacifist. Utiltizing Toxin, much like they did with Venom, as a Spiderman who kills would have probably made him more profitable, but credit to creators (the vastly underrated) Peter Milligan and Clayton Crain for taking a chance and in doing so creating an infinitely more interesting character.
And really, allow me to gush some more about how genius this character really was. Instead of the “we” nonsense you see with most symbiotes, Toxin had two distinct personalities frequently battling for dominance. Call it a dysfunctional take-off on Firestorm, it still worked beautifully. And, really, how many times do we see a cop as a superhero (sit down, Nightwing, that was nearly two decades ago)? Much like Daredevil, Toxin explored that funny little line between lawful peacekeeper and vigilante that, sadly, doesn’t get looked at too often in superhero comics.
Toxin was a character I never would have believed I would’ve liked if you had told me he was the son of Carnage. In fact, I think the proliferation of characters like Carnage or really any character that’s an EVIL VIOLENT version of an established hero is a problem in the industry as it promotes laziness and relying on shock value. Boring. Toxin, on the other hand, was legitimately conflicted and his demons often haunted him. It’s hard to make that work organically, but with Toxin it seemed effortless.
Unfortunately, Toxin’s host Patrick Mulligan was killed and then Toxin bonded to Eddie Brock and blah blah blah, whatever. Cop trapped within a killer (or vice-versa depending on how you look at it), is far more intriguing than giving a tired, overused character a new costume.
Come on, someone kicking around 616 can resurrect a dude fairly effortlessly, right? If DC can have jewelry bring back the dead, surely Dr. Strange’s got a potion.
I have never missed a comic book series more than I miss Common Grounds.
Technically not about a single character, Common Grounds took place in an imaginary (aren’t they all?) world of super heroes and villains where both groups were welcome to grab some java and a pastry at a chain of coffee shops called, of course, Common Grounds. The series took a nice, hard look at tropes and trends throughout comics and sought to better understand what we really looked for and loved about superhero comics.
You know that argument you’ve had with your friends about how much the Flash would have to eat to maintain muscle mass when he’s busy running around the world in a picosecond? Common Grounds goes over it. Ever wonder what might happen if the Joker and Batman decided to grab some lunch and talk about what makes each other who they are? We gotcha covered. Want a comic that’s not afraid to have men and women in capes and cowls talk about race, regret, getting old, and a number of other topics superhero comics love to pretend don’t exist? This is your series.
Though only having a criminally low number of issues (freaking SIX!), Common Grounds left a huge impression on me as a reader. Superhero comics are usually action-packed romps and while there’s nothing wrong with that, give me something that tries to be meaningful any day. And this miniseries was absolutely that. This is the comic to give your civilian friends to show them that funnybooks can have depth. This is the series that actually needs its own TV series. This is the comic that tops every underrated comic book list I’ve ever written.
As silly and outrageous as some of the Common Grounds characters may be (Acidic Jew? Hillarious), the series had one thing going for it consistently: truth. The characters felt real despite whatever wacky superpowers series writer Troy Hickman might’ve thrown at them because their problems were honest. They were super powered beings having to face problems they couldn’t laser beam into submission. I’ll take that villain over some Armageddon-causing robot Nazi jellyfish any day.
If we can’t have an ongoing, how about another miniseries? Or…a one-shot? Or anything, I’m desperate. My visit to Common Grounds barely filled me up. I need another serving.
And that’s it for this volume, Unrealtors. Who do you think deserves a second shot? Let’s hear it!
Adam Esquenazi Douglas is a playwright who was born in Texas, grew up in Arkansas, was raised by a Jewish man and a Cuban woman, and, somehow, he doesn’t have an accent. His plays have been produced across the United States from Los Angeles to New York City, as well as in Canada and Japan.
He is co-host of two podcasts, The JimmyJew Podcast Extravaganza and Schmame Over Level 2, which can be found at http://jimmyjew.libsyn.com/ and http://schmameoverlevel2.libsyn.com/ respectively, as well as on iTunes. He is a contributing writer to www.GamersSchmamers.com.
He currently lives in Brooklyn where he drinks far too much coffee.