Sword of Azrael 1 Gatefold CoverJean-Paul Valley is one of my favorite characters in comics by a long margin. Created in anticipation of the “Knightfall” crossover trilogy that saw him take over as Batman for a year, Azrael became a hated symbol of 90s grimdark. But Jean-Paul is so much more than that. In fact, Jean-Paul was not only a refutation of Dark Age thinking but became an active example of the alternative. Over his ten-year story, Jean Paul became a unique and interesting character, examining concepts as varied as non-violence, childhood abandonment, addiction, toxic masculinity, and elective family.

Jean-Paul is a very special character in my mind, and yet he doesn’t have a lot of fans. So, if you’ll indulge me a bit, I’d like to take you on a tour of Jean-Paul’s world. If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll make a few new fans and you’ll walk away with a new character to nerd out over. If not, we can at least make fun of this character’s weird history together. So come with me and let’s take a walk.

This week we’re going to take a look at where things started for Jean-Paul, the 1992 mini-series Batman: Sword of Azrael. As in many superhero origin stories, the Jean-Paul of Sword of Azrael isn’t fully formed yet. However, Denny O’Neil’s vision for the character is definitely present and, perhaps more than it knew, Sword of Azrael lays the foundation of the character.

Sword of Azrael OpeningOne thing to be said about Sword of Azrael is that it definitely knows how to get your attention. The book opens with a splash page of the titular crusader. It’s a striking image with a lot of narrative force behind it and it immediately establishes one of the greatest elements of the Azrael character, namely that he is an enormous ham. Appropriately enough, Azrael is introduced chewing scenery. Better still, it’s that perfect kind of ridiculous where it feels awesome despite being utterly farcical.

Unfortunately for Azrael and his semi-badass monologue, he is promptly shot several times through the chest by a heavy-set, hairy man in a distressingly low-cut bathrobe.

Luckily for Azrael, he manages to dive through the half-naked man’s window and onto a horse. Unfortunately for Gotham, that horse is part of the Founders Day parade and promptly tramples four people on live TV before bucking its armored rider.

Our wounded knight manages to crawl to a nearby alley and knock on the door, at which point we’re introduced to this charming so-and-so.

Jean-Paul and Ludovic

This is Azrael’s son and he has no idea what’s going on.

The Azrael merely has time to insist that no one find out about him and commands his son to open a package he left with him before dying.

So we’re eight-pages in and things have not gone well for anybody. Azrael is dead, his son is having the weirdest day, and the man in the bathrobe – who goes by LeHah – has had his eye slashed open.

But the one percent are struggling too. You see, Bruce Wayne rather liked that news anchor that was trampled and so Batman is on the case!

Before long, Azrael Jr. is whisked away to Switzerland by the Order of St. Dumas to be trained as their next avenging angel. There he is met by a bizarre dwarf-like man named  – hyeh – Nomoz, who reveals that Azrael Sr. has been preparing his son for this through hypnotic suggestion since childhood.

At the same time, a suspicious Batman follows LeHah to Switzerland. LeHah is the lapsed treasurer of the Order who has raided their accounts and struck out as an arms dealer. This is actually kind of interesting, presenting LeHah’s atheism as his shield, but things soon get rather literal. LeHah starts to see the image of the…Dumasian(?) devil, Biis, who commands him to murder his compatriots.

At this point LeHah loses much of what remaining interest he held for me, personally. He’s just not interesting enough as a character and subjugating him to the unseen entity of Biis doesn’t do him any favors. I will say that O’Neil does do some interesting stuff with faith and religion in this miniseries. It’s never stated whether LeHah’s visions or the Order’s theology have any validity. Most signs point to no but there are a string of coincidences that definitely make divine and demonic intervention seem possible.

It’s only here that Azrael obtains his famous costume. I once read an article by an original Azrael fan who spoke about the power of the cover to Batman: Sword of Azrael #1. I kind of see what he meant. A cover would have held a lot of weight in the pre-internet world and that costume, boldly placed front and center without Batman, must have been something at the time.

The suit undeniably does have some serious excess about it, but it’s restrained enough to hold up for the most part. The mask and hood combo is great and it has a fantastic silhouette, something that will be repeatedly pointed out visually over the course of this miniseries.

Angel in Flames

But the Azrael suit isn’t just an excuse to draw a crazy cape. Though we won’t have it spelled out for us for a few more issues at this point, donning the Azrael costume activates the angel’s powers, giving him enhanced strength, speed, and even minor regenerative abilities beyond a normal human’s. One of Sword of Azrael’s greatest flaws is that it isn’t terribly clear about the new character’s abilities and limits. At first we merely have to make due with Nomoz’s insistence that the Azrael armor has a totemistic element about it, allowing the wearer to symbolically become God’s angel of vengeance. It’s cool idea and it was probably pretty mind blowing at the time; at the least, O’Neil’s handling of it seems to imply that he was expecting readers to struggle with the idea. This is an element of the character that I think has aged rather well. While early examples like Sailor Moon and Power Rangers still hadn’t landed in America yet, the anime revolution made the idea of a character’s costume being tied to their powers much less surprising and access to the internet has, directly and indirectly, led to greater understanding of totemistic traditions.

The two pairs of Azrael and Nomoz and Batman and Alfred give LeHah chase but the first confrontation leaves no time to change into their costumes and LeHah escapes with a captive Bruce Wayne.

In the aftermath, Nomoz captures Alfred, leading to what is, by far the best part of this miniseries, Alfred acting as shoulder angel to the avenging angel. Keep an eye on Jean-Paul’s relationships with his father figures. It’s no accident that we see a lot more interaction between he and Alfred than with his actual father in this mini.

In order to catch LeHah, they have to find him and, like an adorable second grade teacher, Alfred coaches Azrael through detective work 101. Nomoz is none too amused. “Azrael does not think. Azrael -hyeh- punishes,” he shouts, leading Alfred to introduce the familiar but enjoyable core of the character, “Perhaps this Azrael does both.” Alfred is promptly proved right and Azrael feels so. Fucking. Pleased with himself.

Goldstar 1

He gets a gold star.

When LeHah steals the Batsuit in an attempt to “sow confusion and discord” (a plotline that probably would have made more sense if the members of the Order weren’t already mysteriously unaware of their treasurer’s defection), Bruce sees his opportunity.

Bruce's Demon

The best part about this little mindgame is that it totally fails. Bruce nearly gets himself killed. Especially with the computer-brained “BatGod” waiting on the other side of the Knight Trilogy, it’s kind of fun to see Batman flat-out misjudge a situation.

Lucky for him, the cavalry arrives. It’s only at this point that we finally get to see Azrael in action and it is certainly a shock. In a bit of truly un-Batman-like behavior, our avenging angel kills six men and a dog, flat-out sticking his wrist mounted knife through one of their torsos!

With only half an issue left in this four issue miniseries, O’Neil drops some crucial bits of information that probably should have come up earlier. Donning the costume doesn’t just allow access to The System’s abilities, but actually activates a secondary personality.

Summon Azrael

That’s not something you just slip in there casually!

Alfred then asks his new compatriot’s name and Azrael responds that he can’t remember anymore. It’s right about this time that you notice that the name Jean-Paul Valley hasn’t been uttered once in this entire miniseries.

Just as a crazed, naked LeHah is finally attempting to murder Bruce, Azrael bursts in and promptly sets LeHah’s oil refinery on fire. Nomoz commands Azrael to leave but Alfred’s pleas reach the man inside and he rescues Bruce.

Emerging, Azrael is berated by Nomoz for dishonoring his role as an angel of vengeance, but Azrael removes his helmet and declares “I am not an angel. I am a man. My name is Jean-Paul Valley. That was my father’s name too.”

The ending is a clear statement of the miniseries’ core struggle, namely Jean-Paul’s attempt to define himself. On one hand that’s a classic and important theme of literature that sees Jean-Paul trying to carve out his own destiny, as distinct from that laid out for him by his Father and the Order. On the other, Sword of Azrael is presenting an externalized inner conflict that sees Jean-Paul trying to assert himself over his own destructive and, very literally, judgmental impulses. The degree of distinction between Jean-Paul and Azrael will be a recurring issue for the character as time goes on, but here, in his earliest incarnation, O’Neil stops short of explicitly calling Azrael a split personality and I think that was, at least somewhat, intentional. Both metaphorically and literally, Azrael is a part of Jean-Paul and one that can and does save the day. Azrael is not only Jean-Paul’s great power but his great responsibility and even more so than the Demon and even some versions of the Hulk, he has that responsibility not just because he’s the angel’s jailor, but because he and Azrael are one and the same.

This is undoubtedly the greatest strength of the character and, by extension, the miniseries, but I meant what I said: the series’ core struggle is Jean-Paul defining himself. Sword of Azrael’s middle chapters are comparatively slow and, with Batman sharing the spotlight, there isn’t as much time for character development as there probably should be. Jean-Paul feels somewhat phantasmal. Critical elements of both halves of the character are present but ambiguous and O’Neil often communicates his character through hints and archetypes. As a result it’s hard to get the full impact when Jean-Paul says that he’s losing himself to Azrael, because we never got a chance to get to know him.

The one thing we absolutely know about Jean-Paul is that he’s a computer programming student in Gotham City, but nothing about Jean-Paul suggests he’s from Gotham except the story’s need to get Batman involved. It’s nearly impossible to say whether he’s a Gotham native or just there for school. By extension, that means that we have almost no understanding of the relationship between Jean-Paul and his family, not even whether they live in the same city (or country) or ever have. This notable ambiguity would later form a big part of the character.

The major oddity of this story is the dialogue. There’s nothing really wrong with the content, but the formatting is definitely strange. All throughout the series, characters’ dialogue is split between several balloons. “LeHah’s Mention of “Dumas” clinches–,” Bruce begins in one panel, only to wait until the next to add, “–A connection between him and the angel.” There are examples like this peppered through the whole miniseries and as time goes on it feels stranger and stranger, especially as some of them correlate to changes in the action while others do not.

One other thing that does set this series apart is the artwork, courtesy of an all-star team of Joe Quesada and Kevin Nowlan. There is some impressive 90s hair and it’s hilarious to examine what the archetypes of ‘action hero’, ‘news anchor’, ‘nerd’, and more looked like in 1992, but you can’t deny that there are some really gorgeous panels. Jean-Paul’s first transformation into Azrael is represented in a particularly impressive psychedelic splash page that conveys the force and motion that Quesada was clearly aiming for and does a lot to seed the concept of Azrael for O’Neil.

Jean-Paul's First Transformation Into Azrael

It also helps that Quesada and Nowlan are really good at drawing fire and explosions. Those come up a lot.

Though Sword of Azrael is a solid introductory mini-series, it isn’t a surefire path to Azrael fandom. Though it’s all in there somewhere, neither the ‘rules’ of Azrael nor the character of Jean-Paul are very clear. Introducing Azrael required a lot of really interesting concepts to be brought into play, but they wouldn’t find full expression until “Knightfall” and beyond.

The individual issues of Sword of Azrael are still easily available, often at extremely reasonable prices, and you can find the slim trade paperback from 1993 on many bargain shelves. However, during the writing of this article, DC announced Azrael vol. 1: Fallen Angel, collecting the entire miniseries and a chunk of the Azrael Solo series for a $20 release in January.

In the grand scheme of the character, the mini establishes Jean-Paul’s overarching themes and introduces LeHah and his criminal empire as well as Nomoz. It also gives us the first appearance of the Order of St. Dumas, though when next we see them they’ll have a much different flavor.

Still, the groundwork was set. Not only for “Knightfall” but for where the character would go afterwards. Jean-Paul would almost immediately appear in Batman and Detective Comics in order to establish him as a rising force within Batman’s inner circle.

It wouldn’t be long at all before Azrael would take a much larger place on the stage.

Next week we’ll look at the event that skyrocketed Jean-Paul to stardom, for better or worse: Knightfall.

Advertisements