Monday, September 19, 2016

Azrael and the Quest for a Series Identity

One of my stupid bucket list items was at some point to read the entire series of DC's Azrael comic books that were put out from 1995-2003.  I previously discussed one run near the beginning of this blog.  At the time those were pretty much the only issues I could get from DC's website because they hadn't digitized the rest of the series.  A couple years later they digitized the ten issues or so connected to the Batman No Man's Land saga.

So the stupid thing is there are 100 issues and they digitized #36-#40 and then #50-#60 (approximately) and left it at that for years.  Wouldn't common sense say to start at the beginning?

But finally in the last six months or so they started to digitize more issues.  Except they started at about #61 where they had left off on the No Man's Land comics.  Every week they'd add a couple more until they got to issue #100.  Only THEN did they start to go back and start at #1.  So the upshot is that even at this point they're still missing some issues in the middle, from #41-#49. It looks like it might be a while before they bother to digitize those either.  I was able to get #41-#46 from EBay for about the same as digital but for some reason issue #47 is crazy expensive, as is the Road to No Man's Land collection it's included in.  So at the moment I still have 3 issues to read.

Anyway, a month or so ago they had the sale I had been hoping for, a buy one, get one DC comics sale.  So I could go and scoop up all the issues they had digitized for half off.  Finally I could (mostly) complete the item on my bucket list.  Over a few days in August I hunkered down and read all the issues I hadn't read, which thanks to their idiotic scheduling was about #1-#30 and #61-#100.  (Plus the bonus issue #1,000,000, part of a line wide #1,000,000 promotion in the 90s.)

The results?  Meh.  A little disappointing.  Here was the main problem to me:  like the character of Jean-Paul Valley, the series was always searching for an identity.  Originally Azrael was an assassin for the evil cult of the Order of St. Dumas, sort of an Illuminati group.  Father would pass the mantle to son and that person would become the next Azrael to slay the Order's enemies.  In the original miniseries, young Jean-Paul Valley receives the Azrael armor when his father is murdered and then he winds up joining Batman.  He then became Batman in '93-94 after Bane broke Bruce Wayne's back.  (And unlike the later movie there was no one to just punch Bruce's spine back together, so he needed a replacement.)

Issue #1 picks up after Jean-Paul has been defeated by the original Batman (or sort of defeated himself by waking up to the fact he was losing his mind) and he's just wandering the streets of Gotham.  Eventually he saves a homeless drunk who used to be a shrink named Brian Bryan. (Ha.)  They end up going to search for the Order of St. Dumas to find out about Jean-Paul's past.  This takes up the first 8 issues, at the end of which Jean-Paul discovers he's not even really human; he's a hybrid of human-primate-other animals all grown in a lab, which as you'd expect drives him crazy again.  But eventually with the help of Brian Bryan and the renegade Sister Lilhy of the Order, they bring down the Order.

And that's where it all sort of sputters to a halt.  Because now there's that eternal question:  What do we do now?  That's something writer Dennis O'Neil spent about the next 75 issues and six years trying to answer.  O'Neil tries different things, like having Azrael do missions from Batman.  After No Man's Land, he and Dr. Brian Bryan set up a mission in Gotham to help poor people.  Sometimes he sets up shop in a different city; in the later issues he's kind of like a one-man A-Team for a brief time.

Around issue #50 with the No Man's Land tie-ins, the title changed to "Azrael:  Agent of the Bat" to emphasize the Batman connection.  The costume changed to a dorky white one before about twenty issues later it changed to a red-and-gold one more like the original.  These changes were symptomatic of a series that was flailing around to find a working formula.  But a new subtitle and new costumes were not really going to do the trick because of the other major problem:  a lack of decent villains.

Every great superhero has a rogue's gallery.  Superman has Lex Luthor, Brainiac, Bizarro, etc.  Batman has the Joker, Penguin, Two-Face, and so on.  Spider-Man has the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, etc.  Captain America has the Red Skull.  Thor has Loki.  The Fantastic Four has Dr. Doom.  So on and so forth.  Who does Azrael have?  No one really.  Batman villains like the Joker, Ra's al Guhl, Bane, and Two-Face show up every now and then but there really weren't any original villains who could become rivals.  In later issues he fought pretty ordinary criminals who were menacing the small town of Ossaville.  While some of these adventures were kind of fun, they weren't the sort of thing to give the series iconic status.  None of those crooks could really go toe-to-toe with someone who had been Batman for more than a year.

Speaking of, Batman appears a number of times in the series.  He's usually a total dick to Azrael.  Basically every Batman appearance he says something along the lines of, "You screw this up and I'll put you down like I should have done years ago!"  Thanks for the vote of confidence, chief!

Other than Batman, none of DC's other major heroes ever pay Azrael a visit.  Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, or Green Lantern never cross paths with Azrael.  None of their villains pop up either.  Other than the Batman line events, Azrael was never a real part of any other big DC events in the late 90s or early 2000s.  They kind of just shoved him in his own little corner of the DC universe.

Zombie Azrael in Blackest Night
Azrael's A-Team gig ends when he suddenly develops superhuman strength for...reasons that are never really explained.  Then for...more reasons...he starts seeing St. Dumas and thinking he's Batman again.  This does lead to one hilarious scene when he barges in on Sister Lilhy and demands she cook him dinner.  She promptly cooks up some spaghetti-and-rat poison.  (You go girl!)  A couple of slick operators take advantage of Azrael to create a cult.  The series ends with Jean-Paul Valley starting to snap out of it for...reasons and get his sanity back.  Someone else pretends to be Azrael and Jean-Paul sacrifices himself to save that Azrael from a sniper.  Whether he really died or not was settled in Blackest Night back in 2009.  Sort of a bummer way to end your series.  And other than two disappointing spin-off issues of Convergence last year, he has stayed dead.

Second Azrael
There was another Azrael series only in that a dude named Michael Lane worked for the Catholic Church in some Assassin's Creed-looking suit.  That didn't make anywhere near 100 issues.  The Azrael character did appear in a couple episodes of Gotham last season, though I have no idea who was in the suit and I don't really care.

An interesting piece of trivia I discussed with Tony Laplume was that Dennis O'Neil (the legendary writer behind Batman and Green Lantern/Green Arrow in the 70s) wrote all 100 issues of the series, plus the original miniseries.  That kind of commitment isn't the norm for the comic book industry, especially a title that isn't creator-owned.  It's not a record or anything, but it was not standard operating procedure.  Though I think by 1995-2003 O'Neil didn't really have tons of other projects to devote himself to.  While the commitment is nice, you have to wonder if another writer coming in might have been able to find a way to make the series work better.  Maybe having created the character and steered him through the whole Knightfall/Knightsquest/Knightsend thing in the Batman comics, O'Neil was too close to the material to fix the inherit problems.  We'll never know.

In the end I will always think the character had a lot of untapped potential.  And a really cool costume.  Flaming swords!  I talked before about Azrael's influence on the Tales of the Scarlet Knight series, in particular in that there was an Order and the armor would pass on down through the centuries.  It'd be nice if he got a reboot in DC's Rebirth.  Maybe an animated movie or a place in the DC Cinematic Universe.  One can hope, right?

2 comments:

  1. It's always good to finish a bucket list item.

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  2. I remember I read the first Azrael miniseries a long time ago. Dennis O'Neil was the writer and Joe Quesada was the artist. I have read a few issues of the ongoing series, but not as many as you have.

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