First off, you might wonder, who the hell is Azrael? His real name is Jean-Paul Valley. Without his realizing it, he was born into a society of assassins known as the Order of St. Dumas. The Order avenges crimes using a costumed vigilante known as Azrael, who wields a flaming sword and wears red-and-gold armor. (Does that sound familiar? Except the Scarlet Knight's sword is not flaming. It glows. Take that!)
Anyway, Jean-Paul is just a nerdy computer science college student when one night his father shows up, dying and wearing the Azrael costume. He tells his son that he has to open a packet he's left, which leads Jean-Paul to Switzerland and a chateau in the mountains.
It turns out that unbeknownst to Jean-Paul he's had all this subliminal training since before he was born. It's a system helpfully called "The System" that allows him to completely immerse himself in the personality of Azrael and do things he'd never ordinarily do. Helping him in this is a dwarf named Nomoz, who is one ugly son of a bitch and Azrael's trainer. (Incidentally, the Scarlet Knight's trainer is a ghost, not a dwarf. Ah-ha! But they are both assholes. So there's that.)
The guy who killed Jean-Paul's father is named Carleton Lehigh. He embezzled funds from the Order to start his own weapons business. One of those weapons was Teflon-coated bullets that could go through the bulletproof vest Jean-Paul's father wore beneath his robes. Jean-Paul's father died in Gotham, which puts Batman on his trail. Batman listens in to Lehigh's phone and finds out Lehigh is going to Switzerland, so he and Alfred go off in hot pursuit.
Jean-Paul is training to be the next Azrael when Lehigh and Batman show up. Lehigh uses a rocket launcher to blow the chateau to hell. But of course Jean-Paul and Nomoz escape. Batman and Alfred are also unharmed. During his escape, Lehigh's helicopter crashes and he suffers a concussion or something that causes him to go nuts and think he's the agent of Azrael's mortal enemy, the demon Biis. He decides to get himself a costume and paint his face to look like a skull and then go out to kill the dozen or so remaining members of the Order.
Azrael and Batman leave Switzerland separately but both end up on Lehigh's trail to France. They're too late to stop Lehigh and in the process Bruce Wayne is taken captive by Lehigh. Azrael joins forces with Alfred to track them down. They deduce that Lehigh is going west, which would next put him in London.
For whatever reason, Lehigh decides to kill the next guy wearing the Batsuit. The material of the Batsuit must be pretty stretchy to accommodate Lehigh's gut, which kind of makes him seem comical instead of menacing. Anyway, Azrael gets there just as Lehigh is escaping. Azrael kills a bunch of guards but fails to catch Lehigh.
The next destination is Lehigh's oil refinery in Texas. There he plans to kill Bruce Wayne as a sacrifice to Biis. Azrael is again hot on his trail. By the time he gets in there, a fire has already started. Though Azrael does not rescue people, Jean-Paul fights back against the System enough to wrap Bruce in his fireproof Batman cape and get him out of the refinery before it goes blooey. Hooray, Batman is saved, Jean-Paul has recovered some of his humanity, and the bad is dead...or so we think.
Since this was a scant 4 issue miniseries or about 112 pages, there wasn't a lot of time for deep reflection or anything like that. I didn't really understand where Azrael's new suit came from, except maybe they'd had it lying around. It would have been cooler if Jean-Paul had redesigned it himself. I'm just saying.
After that, for a little while Jean-Paul kicks around Gotham, working as a security guard or something. That is until Bruce Wayne is crippled by Bane. Then he takes over as Batman. He struggles with it, especially after breathing some of the Scarecrow's fear gas, which causes his old Azrael training to kick in. Jean-Paul becomes increasingly isolated and insane, until finally a healed Bruce Wayne takes back the Batman mantle.
From there Jean-Paul goes back to the Azrael role. Though this time he tries to be a kindler, gentler superhero, more like Batman. It isn't working out so well, though, leading Bruce Wayne to get a little pissed at him, especially when Azrael accidentally breaks up an undercover operation by the Gotham PD.
But Bruce decides to give Jean-Paul one last chance to prove himself. The evil Bane has been spotted in Florida and since it was Jean-Paul who defeated Bane before, who better to go apprehend him again? Jean-Paul is eager for the chance to finally show he's worthy of Bruce's trust.
There's a little hitch though when a woman named Lilha shows up at his apartment. If you could find the previous 35 issues of the series you might know who the hell she is. Anyway, she has some kind of history with Jean-Paul and asks for his help in recovering some papers in Mexico City.
At first he thinks with his boner and agrees to help her. Eventually though he changes his mind and runs off the plane and onto one bound for Miami. (This was pre-9/11 where you could do that without being hauled to Guontonimo Bay.) On the plane is Nomoz, Azrael's trainer.
By the time they reach Florida, Bane has broken out his old buddy Bird from jail and with his help tweaked the old Venom supersteroid formula that made Bane so powerful before. Azrael and Nomoz catch up to Bane and Bird on a dock. Rather than take on Azrael directly, Bane first injects Bird with some of the new Venom, which makes him super-strong and crazy.
Azrael defeats Bird but it weakens him for the fight against Bane. So the rematch goes to Bane, who captures Azrael and Nomoz to test the Venom formula on them. It turns out not only is the new Venom powerful, it's also really addictive. After being injected with the stuff, Jean-Paul has to fight withdrawal symptoms while resisting the urge to beg for more of the stuff.
Bane's ultimate destination is his old home of Santa Prisca. There he plans to sell Venom to a general looking to take over the place. With an army of supersoldiers who need Venom to survive, the general figures he can be the unquestioned ruler of the place, the same philosophy of the Dominion in Deep Space Nine.
Ultimately Azrael escapes and defeats some Venom-ed up dudes. Then comes the final fight with Bane. Except instead of going toe-to-toe, Jean-Paul borrows a little from Rocky Balboa at the end of "Rocky III" where he taunted Mr. T to keep hitting him in order to tire him out. In this case Jean-Paul wants Bane to keep hitting him while he continually taunts Bane to show him how weak Bane is without the Venom. Like Mr. T, eventually Bane is weakened.
The ploy works and Jean-Paul feels better about himself for having won not only with strength, but with cunning, like the Batman. Hooray!
Issue #40 then picks up with Azrael taking Bane to Gotham. Except his timing is lousy. Just as they land there's a huge earthquake that rocks Gotham. (This being part of the "Cataclysm" story which beget the "No Man's Land" story arc which probably beget something else because in those days they seemed to just jump from one extended story to another.) Bane escapes in the confusion and Azrael goes after him, which is complicated by the quake and aftershocks. They have a pretty lame fight during which Bane tries to convince Azrael to join him and together they will rule the galaxy, or planet, whatever. Azrael wins again and drags Bane away, but Bane must escape at some point because he's loose again in the "No Man's Land" story arc.
Anyway, these were fun but obviously not essential reading by any stretch. As they always do, the descriptions and covers tended to build up the actual stories more than perhaps warranted. And as far as the art went, my big problem was sometimes from afar Jean-Paul looked like a woman. I mean really the first time there was a long shot of him in civilian clothes I was like, "Who's that woman?" He really should have cut his hair or something. I'm just saying.
|Dude looks like a lady!|
As I've noted in a couple of places there are parallels between Azrael and the Scarlet Knight. Superficially they have the same color scheme and both use a sword (actually Azrael has two swords, one on each arm) though the Scarlet Knight's sword is way better, as is her armor since both are magic. They both have a fantasy-type trainer, unless you think ghosts are real, although Marlin is not at all like those "ghosts" you see on the Syfy Channel; he's more in the Casper mold. Jean-Paul Valley and Emma Earl are both the latest incarnation of a long line of heroes, though obviously Jean-Paul's is by blood--or so he thinks for a while--while Emma's is not. They're both painfully shy and awkward around the opposite sex, though Emma is a freaking genius while Jean-Paul is not. As well, they both struggle to find their way as a hero.
|Zombie Azrael in Blackest Night #4|
From reading Wikipedia I guess Azrael got cancelled after 100 issues. There was some issue as to whether he was dead or not. Then he shows up six years later as a zombie in the Blackest Night series, which confirmed he's dead. Not that anyone ever has to be dead in the comic book universe. There is a rebooted "Azrael" who looks more like the character you play in the "Assassin's Creed" video games. I guess he shows up in the "Arkham City" video game and will probably be involved in the sequel. Anyway, it's a different guy and a lame suit, so whatever.
To wrap up my obsessive compulsive rambling about Knightfall and its offshoots, I'll be going back to the Batman: Venom prequel series next week, despite that Venom is never mentioned in "The Dark Knight Rises" and so isn't that relevant. But without the Venom there would have been no Bane in the comics and thus no Bane in the movie, so there.
Tuesday is Two-Fer Tuesday, where perhaps you can see more of where I shamelessly rip off comic books and comic book movies...