This title page also conveniently doubles as a sweet heavy metal album cover.
This title page also conveniently doubles as a sweet heavy metal album cover.

Since his debut in 1939, Batman has struck fear in the hearts of criminals.  During the over seventy-five years of the character’s history, by and large the man behind the mask has been Bruce Wayne, a billionaire playboy who shaped his own tragedy into the catalyst to rid the world of crime.  While Wayne and Batman are almost synonymous with one another, there have been a select few others who have donned the cape and cowl.  The most recent was Commissioner James Gordon.  The most notable was Dick Grayson.

The most notorious?  Jean-Paul Valley.

First appearing in 1992, Valley was the unwitting successor of his father’s role of Azrael, enforcer of the Order of St. Dumas.  While Valley was relatively meek and mild-mannered, the subconscious conditioning of the Order’s “the System” would turn him into an efficient, ruthless agent of death.  Though Batman decided to take him under his wing to hone his skills and lead him down the path of justice, it was still surprising to see Bruce choose the untested Valley as his replacement after Bane broke the Bat’s back in Knightfall.  It’s a pretty popular story, and a well-documented one at that, so let’s just say Valley was not the best guy to wear the cowl.

Azrael Vol. 1: Fallen Angel collects Batman: Sword of Azrael #1-4, Showcase ’94 #10, and Azrael #1-7, detailing the first appearance of Jean-Paul Valley, the immediate aftermath of his tenure as Batman, and his subsequent attempt to understand his destiny and rebuild his life.  With his recent reintroduction to the DC Universe and his increasingly larger presence in Detective Comics, now is a great time to look into the man once became the Bat.

Batman: Sword of Azrael # 1-4

“Vanishing angels and sudden death–I retract my earlier statement.  It is exactly the sort of thing you concern yourself with.”

Kicking off the collection is Sword of Azrael, a four-part miniseries from legendary writer Denny O’Neil and artist Joe Quesada.

Yes, that Joe Quesada.  You know, creator of Ninjak and Ash?  Yep, the same.

This miniseries is interesting, because it’s very early Nineties in nature.  I mean, just look at Azrael’s design alone: he has a bunch of pouches, ridiculously huge gauntlets, and not just wrist swords, but wrist swords that are also on fire.  It’s insane and I love it so much.

The story is surprisingly effective, given the somewhat dated nature of the events, but even then not that surprising considering O’Neil is the one helming the project.  We’re introduced to Jean-Paul Valley as his father, a brother of the Order of St. Dumas, collapses on his doorstep.  Valley is baffled, as his father is dressed in some truly strange garb, and that bewilderment is only compounded when he discovers he’s next in line to be the Order’s enforcer Azrael.

This sets Valley on a journey to discover his true nature, leading him to a secluded cabin in Switzerland where he meets a mute giant and a strange gnome-like man.  This is where he learns about his destiny as the Avenging Angel Azrael, and the System that has been subconsciously conditioning him for his entire life.  It’s actually pretty interesting, especially considering Valley’s demeanor.  If you’re only familiar with him through the Knightfall saga, you’d think he’s a bloodthirsty psycho.  Really, though, he’s pretty much the opposite: he’s a super huge dork.

It’s a great contrast that makes the character far more interesting, as it’s only when he’s actually wearing the costume that he goes out of control.  That idea will be the driving force behind his solo series later in the collection, and it’s a  nice twist on the character that people tend to forget.

Valley and Batman’s paths cross when Batman investigates Valley’s father’s death and his possible ties to LeHah, an arms dealer that Bruce hasn’t been able to take down.  I know the idea of a globetrotting Batman isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s something O’Neil does remarkably well.  This is the man who created Ra’s Al Ghul, who by his very nature requires Batman to leave Gotham and go on exotic adventures.  While none of the locales have quite the same personality and vibrancy of some of O’Neil’s better stories from the Seventies, it’s a nice change of pace to see Batman out of the city and tracking down criminals across the globe.

O’Neil’s script is often very funny, too, with great asides from Alfred (the deadpan “a chocolate fajita would be barbarian” should go down as one of the all-time great lines) and even Oracle (describing St. Dumas, “whom nobody else has ever accused of being a saint.”)  It may not be the best writing of O’Neil’s career, and the story does go a bit off the rails in the latter half, but it’s still a solid series that is never boring.

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Quesada puts in some good work too, with a great eye for locations and bulky character models.  He makes great use of flame effects, as goofy as the idea is, and there are some splash pages throughout that are fantastic.  There are times when the book looks almost like a horror comic, making great use of Kevin Nowlan’s heavy inks and Lovern Kindzierski’s colors to evoke some truly sinister shadows.

I liked the story, if I didn’t love it.  It’s a pretty decent introduction to a widely maligned character, and if the story never achieves true greatness it’s at least consistently entertaining.  Not a classic by any means, but well worth a read.

Showcase ’94 #10

Showcase is a great idea, and one that should make a comeback.  The original series, which began in 1956, was a sort of “anthology series” that allowed creators to try out new characters and tell different types of stories outside of the norm.  Several characters made their first appearances in the pages of Showcase, including the Atom, Adam Strange, the Challengers of the Unknown, and most famously Barry Allen’s Flash and Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern, but the series also told stories about more “real life” heroes like firefighters.  When the original run ended in 1978, the Showcase name went on hiatus until the mid-Nineties when it was resurrected for a few years.  The concept was basically the same, with two or three different stories with different characters getting the spotlight each issue, and it was a great way to follow up on different arcs and ideas.

My point being we need more anthology books like that, if for no other reason than to read different types of stories and shine the spotlight on less-used characters.

Showcase ’94 #10 here, written by Alan Grant and with pencils by Mike Vosburg, serves as a pretty decent primer for Azrael.  It takes place immediately after the events of “Knightsend”, finding Valley disgraced and wandering the streets of Gotham searching for purpose.  Valley winds up under an overpass, near where a group of Gotham’s homeless have congregated.  He reflects on his decisions and his recent tenure as the Batman, all while the intimidated group of ragamuffins keep their distance.  One of the homeless men, a Vietnam vet named Legs (who I’ve become more and more acquainted with as I read through a bunch of Grant/Breyfogle Batman stuff) eventually tells Valley the story of how he lost his legs and how, even though he was once viewed as a war hero, society has all but cast him aside and forgotten him.

It’s a bit on the nose thematically, but the story serves its purpose.  By bridging the gap between Valley’s almost uncontrollable conditioning by the System and his upcoming search for redemption, “Aftermath” is a solid if unremarkable little one-off.  Vosburg’s pencils have a pretty rough quality that actually serves the story and setting well, evoking the dirtiness and griminess of one of the forgotten parts of Gotham City.  I always like seeing stories that focus on the “everyday people” of the city, so seeing the point of view of a guy like Legs and his bitterness toward people casting him aside serves as a pretty interesting parallel with Gotham’s vigilantes: everybody is happy that they’re there to save the city, but once something goes wrong heroes are turned on as if they’d never done anything good.

Jean-Paul’s time as Batman has been collected countless times elsewhere, and this fills in those gaps nicely.  It’s a small-scale transition piece that hits on the big points of earlier stories while setting up Valley’s journey going forward.

Azrael #1-7

The fact that Azrael got his own series isn’t really surprising.  What is surprising is that it run for 100 issues.  That’s pretty impressive no matter who the character is, especially a third-stringer like Mr. Valley here.

Less surprising still?  It gets absolutely bananas.

After the events of Knightfall and the previous Showcase story, Valley is relatively destitute.  He has no place to go, so he winds up in a homeless shelter.  Plagued by nightmares and a hazy memory, Valley mostly keeps to himself, though he does befriend a former psychiatrist named Brian Bryan.  Cute, right?

Eventually, Valley is commissioned by Batman, who is a bit guilty about leaving Valley in the lurch, to research his history and try to find a new purpose.  While it’s completely understandable that Bruce would divorce himself from Valley after the latter’s tenure as Batman, it does show that Batman thinks even the worst of men can be reformed.  More than that, it sets up the series’ driving theme of redemption and Valley’s search for it.

All told this isn’t one of O’Neil’s better series, though there’s a lot to like here.  Valley is a pretty interesting guy with a surprising amount of depth, and there are some genuinely funny moments sprinkled throughout.  The best is when Valley tracks down the headquarters of the Order and faces off against another man who was training to be Azrael.  This guy built himself up over several issues as the true Avenging Angel and an unstoppable agent of the Order, so when his fight with Valley concludes it’s a pretty great case of schadenfreude.

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O’Neil tries to give Valley a likable supporting cast with the inclusion of Brian and Sister Lilhy of the Order, though neither one leaves much of an impression here.  Perhaps future installments will develop them beyond “recovering alcoholic” and “girl who has ties to the past/possible love interest maybe(?)”, but I honestly haven’t read any more of this series than is collected here.  Valley himself remains pretty interesting throughout, which is a plus, and his quest for both knowledge and redemption plays well against his conditioning.  When Valley becomes Azrael, it’s only because he has to, not because he wants to, and O’Neil plays with that conflict to great effect.  Some of the other plot details may be lacking, but Azrael himself at least has some palpable depth.

Barry Kitson’s work is fine, though there are some maddening inconsistencies throughout.  Swords never seem to be drawn the same way twice, and some of the proportions are really off (check out not-Azrael’s hands in the above image), but it’s by no means terrible.  Like in Sword of Azrael, there are some pretty neat flame effects and a few good fight scenes.  I particularly liked the design of the European castle headquarters of the Order, though the other locales are pretty nondescript.  The penciling and coloring work suffices, but they could have been much better.

Of the issues collected here, the first three or four are far and away the best.  Once Valley meets up with a classic Batvillain that I won’t spoil, it kind of loses its way, which is surprising given who it is.  It’s in the very end that it just gets a little too bonkers to be enjoyable, as the revelations Valley uncovers regarding his birth are just overwhelmingly silly.  Again, no spoilers, but I won’t say it doesn’t involve a gorilla.

TL;DR version: this graphic says it all.

Spoiler

Thanks, Grigo.

Bonus material: Not much save for a bio and a few variant covers and sketches, including this gem:

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For whatever, guys. Whatever.

Value: You can get either a physical or digital copy for around $13 on either Amazon of Comixology.  For over 300 pages of comics, that’s a pretty good deal, though it’s more of a curiosity than anything.  I’d say it’s a definite buy for fans of the character, though more casual readers will get all they need to know out of more modern stories.  If you aren’t absolutely head-0ver-heels about Azrael, I’d say wait until you can get it on discount.

Overall: An interesting primer on one of the more maligned characters in the Batman family.  It never truly gets great, but I was not bored once, and Valley is an interesting character once you peel away the “I was once psycho-Batman” baggage.  Since he’s joining the ‘Tec team in a few weeks, now’s as good a time as any to catch up on the history of Azrael.  Come for the friggin’ sweet flaming arm swords, stay for the increasingly convoluted backstory, and leave with an appreciation of just how bananas comic books can get.  You may not love it, but I can almost guarantee you’ll at least enjoy it.

SCORE: 7/10