Jean-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.

While many summaries of Batman: Sword of Azrael end with Batman offering to bring Jean-Paul into the Bat-Family, the miniseries was very vague about Jean-Paul’s future. It wasn’t until Batman #488 that we saw what became of him.

Knowing that they couldn’t count on fans having read Sword of Azrael, both Batman and Detective Comics dedicated a pair of issues to introducing the character. With the extent and parameters of The System unknown, Bruce believes not only that Jean-Paul needs his guidance but that without it he could become a dangerous threat. Unable to do it himself due to illness, Bruce entrusts Jean-Paul’s training to Tim Drake. He also sets him up with job in the Wayne Industries security department, which is definitely where you want a nerdy computer science student with a tendency to snap and murder people.

After his first day at work, Jean-Paul finds Robin waiting in his apartment with a new costume.

Jean-Paul Valley Training Costume

It seems that at this stage the normal Bat-office writers weren’t treating Azrael as a separate personality so much as a series of pre-programmed responses, but whatever their understanding was, it isn’t long until The System rears its head. No one is seriously hurt, but Jean-Paul can’t help but leap into action when he sees an opportunity.

In the meanwhile, Bruce begins seeing Dr. Shondra Kinsolving, who prescribes him sedatives. Nothing else can get him to relax! As a result, when a crazed Killer Croc begins rampaging through downtown Gotham, Bruce is incapable of answering. In keeping with his strong feelings about the symbolic power of Batman, Tim Drake determines that if Batman doesn’t respond to such a public supercriminal appearance, it will embolden the Gotham underworld. His answer is to dress Jean-Paul as Batman so that Gotham can see that the caped crusader is still on the case.

Relatively early in his development, Croc was still considered a serious threat and is effectively an immovable object for ‘Batman’ and Robin. When Bane shows up, Jean-Paul is distracted and Croc nearly crushes him. Bane then breaks Croc’s arms and prepares to break Jean-Paul as well, but he can tell it’s not the real Batman and leaves. Jean-Paul only appears in one more panel in this issue, ambiguously promising that tomorrow his training would start “for real”.

The next month, Jean-Paul would be introduced in Detective Comics, once again basically acting as Wayne Enterprises’ personal superhero alongside Robin. Here he’s established as extremely eager to please but unhappy with being underestimated. During yet another attempt at corporate espionage, Azrael is once again overtaken by The System, but this time he nearly takes a chainsaw to one of the saboteurs before Robin snaps him out of it and he mournfully breaks down.

The System Activates

Tim felt it only polite not to point out the irony of saying this to a Robin…

Azrael’s final pre-“Knightfall” adventure sees him checking a lead that Batman can’t follow because “I’d rather not have Batman making frequent appearances around Wayne holdings.” Ah, early post-crisis, how different you were…

Eventually Batman sends Jean-Paul home, but he disobeys and, for once, this is an entirely good thing.

These four issues are solid Azrael adventures that seem to be setting up Jean-Paul’s new status quo. It would have been an interesting way to take the character, but it was not to be, for in the same month as that last Detective Comics story, “Knightfall” began in Batman #491.

Here it seems that Jean-Paul is taking his promise to train harder from a few months back a lot more seriously, telling Robin, “After what Killer Croc did to me, it’s time to get tough.” For some reason ‘getting tough’ requires a haircut, despite Jean-Paul’s hair containing costume and, for even less clear reasons, he has entrusted his hair to this fourteen-year-old master of fashion.

Push ups

Now I see why Robin is famous for his playful wit…

Despite his increasing dependence upon Jean-Paul in the days leading up to the “Knightfall” event, Bruce mysteriously cuts him out of the loop after Bane destroys Arkham Asylum. At one point, Tim actually suggests that Bruce let he and Jean-Paul handle things while he discovers Bane’s plot but is shot down.

Though Bruce captures most of the escapees, he’s unable to save the mayor and capture the Joker and Scarecrow. In his exhaustion, he’s finally taken down by Bane, who snaps his spine in the Batcave.

In the wake of the attack, Alfred asks Jean-Paul to upgrade the manor’s security and to move in to keep an eye on things. Apparently Wayne manner is haunted by a WASPy, fashion conscious ghost, because Jean-Paul immediately starts dressing like a Wayne. But as Jean-Paul is considering what shade of lavender to wear, Tim arrives with a suggestion of something in a slightly more traditional palette.

Jean-Paul Wayne

Something is wrong pretty immediately.

“You think I can do it,” asks Jean-Paul.

“Wouldn’t be here otherwise,” Tim replies.

“I mean… You think I could be as good as him?”

No one’s as good as him.”

“You’re wrong…” Jean-Paul says through a sudden smirk, “I’ll be better.”

It’s another rather sudden shift for the character, but Robin doesn’t seem to find anything unsettling about it, at least until he gets a glimpse of the new Batman in action. Despite his remorse last time he got out of control, when Jean-Paul nearly takes a sledgehammer to a surrendering crook on his first night out, he argues that this is just what keeping the peace requires.

AzBats First Night Out

The face of an emotionally stable man.

Though violent, Batman isn’t as blunt an instrument as Azrael and Jean-Paul proves extremely goal-oriented. He’s uninterested in roughing up street crooks when Bane still has a grip on organized crime and literally barrels through one gunman, sending him flying off of a catwalk, in order to catch a crimelord.

Eventually Tim can’t hold his tongue any longer and gives Jean-Paul a piece of his mind. In what is either a horrid bit of Tim Drake writing or a bit of amazing writing for a fourteen-year-old, Jean-Paul actually manages to silence Tim by essentially calling him a tattletale.

Around this time Jean-Paul makes his first appearance in Alan Grant’s Batman: Shadow of the Bat. I’ve already spoken briefly about the differing ways that the various writers treated Jean-Paul, but even in Grant’s first Jean-Paul story it’s immediately clear that something is different. That’s not to say that Grant is biased towards Jean-Paul. He too was quick to show how aggressive and disrespectful he was as Batman, but Grant was clearly interested in showing Jean-Paul’s side of the argument while he did.

Grant also gets something of a special honor by being the first writer to pit Jean-Paul against a major Batman villain in the form of the Scarecrow. I’m obviously a fan of Grant’s more detailed version of Jean-Paul, but I think that there is objective value in his Jean-Paul stories. Free from the demands of the core series and guided by Grant’s own character driven sensibilities, Shadow of the Bat would frequently try to comment more on Jean-Paul’s themes and personal demons.

This first arc, called “The God of Fear” sees the Scarecrow deciding that free will is overrated and that he has mastered fear enough to be its god. Though it doesn’t fully come together, the significance of pitting Jean-Paul against a ‘god’ out to erode Gotham’s free will is not lost on me, and I tend to doubt that it was lost on Grant. This likelihood is only increased by the presence of Phil Herold, an awkward, blond-haired boy who’s father was murdered by the Scarecrow and who quickly becomes Crane’s mind-controlled plaything. Sound like anyone we know?

Throughout the story, Phil is forced to follow Scarecrow and to give him access to his father’s antique book collection, unable to bring himself to say no for the fear instilled within him. Grant doesn’t write this the best. It feels like out and out mind control rather than fear-based conditioning, but it does allow Phil to watch without any ability to consciously impact his surroundings, a fate that certainly mirrors the automatic actions that Jean-Paul’s god instilled in him.

“The God of Fear” is trying to do a few too many things at once. Batman, the Scarecrow,  Phil, and even Anarky are all playing out their own connected but not fully integrated stories over these three issues. But, when all’s said and done, we have some interesting looks at all three of the masked men.

These issues also represent the first time a writer had really started to scratch the surface of The System, a recurring theme in Grant’s work with Jean-Paul that would be taken up by other writers in time. Despite proving a match for the Scarecrow initially, Anarky’s interference allows Crane to dose Jean-Paul with his fear toxin, allowing us our first look at Jean-Paul’s fears.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the new Batman’s greatest fear is being out of control. “Who am I?” he thinks to himself, “I don’t know myself! I’m clay, to be molded — a robot programmed by the Order of Saint Dumas! My mind — my very being — belong to someone else. […] And underneath the masks — What am I? The answer echoes, spinning in my tortured brain — Nothing! You’re nothing at all!”

Don’t forget that line. Melodramatic as Jean-Paul’s inner monologue might be, it would prove prophetic.

Though Jean-Paul seems to have familiarized himself with many of Batman’s files, enough to know about Crane’s early crimes, unlike Bruce Wayne, he seems unable to power through the effects of Scarecrow’s poison. Crane nearly escapes, but “even as I grovel, helpless, I feel the new program kick in –“

Fear Toxin AzBats-1

Scarecrow’s last ditch effort is to make Jean-Paul chose between capturing him and saving Phil, knowing that, as Robin put it a few months earlier, “Life is sacred to him. In his book, life even beats out justice”. Unfortunately for Scarecrow this Batman has a different view of what that means. “If Scarecrow had escaped, the whole city would have suffered. It was no contest.”

It’s worth noting that, at this stage, Jean-Paul is still very reverent of Bruce Wayne. He feels that he’s Batman now, but an encounter with Bruce in the Batcave demonstrates that Bruce’s opinion still holds significant weight for the young man. When Bruce casually validates his feelings of ownership over the identity of Batman, it settles the matter for him and The System activates. Jean-Paul awakens from a trance-state, having designed complex machinery to improve the Batman costume.

AzBats Design Autowriting

JESUS TAKE THE WHEEL!

Unfortunately what he’s designed are a pair of badass murder gauntlets. Jean-Paul also proves capable of physically producing this tech from whatever materials Harold (Batman’s mute, hunchbacked mechanic, long story) had lying around his workshop. Meaning, yes, Jean-Paul Valley was able to build these in a cave. WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!

Jean-Paul’s sudden ability to design and build complex weaponry does raise some interesting questions about The System, especially in light of Nomoz’s insistence that “Azrael does not think!” back in Sword of Azrael. However, I don’t believe that this is ever addressed. Perhaps its the result of Jean-Paul’s nerdery mixing with The System’s programming.

Either way, now that Bruce isn’t around to reign Jean-Paul in, Tim finally decides that he’s had enough. Tim is very much the reader’s advocate, fighting for Bruce’s honor as the one true Batman. He’s not afraid to remind Jean-Paul of what Batman means and he’s definitely the most relatable party voicing their displeasure with Jean-Paul. That said, if you read enough of this back to back, Tim can start to feel like the Charlie Brown of this universe. His concern about Jean-Paul not allowing him in would have a lot more weight if Bruce hadn’t just done the exact same thing. His saga of dejection and fruitless protest reaches an apex when he discovers that his father has been kidnapped and Bruce has left him alone with an unstable, murderous vigilante via a letter from Alfred which merely reads, “Timothy, have faith, lad. We will find him. Take care of Jean-Paul. – Alfred.”

In any case, Tim’s objections mean little to Jean-Paul, who defends himself with a litany of stereotypical anti-hero talking points, including ‘the ends justify the means’, ‘I do things my own way’, and ‘fight fire with fire’. In a distressingly real turn, Tim asks if Jean-Paul isn’t good enough to do things the right way and he responds like this:

Not good enough - JPV Batman

This is literally followed by a panel of Jean-Paul leaping into the Batmobile shouting “Never again, boy wonder! NEVER AGAIN!” This is practically a domestic abuse PSA at this point.”

The new Batman has managed to put Bane’s lieutenants behind bars, but he’s no closer to taking down their boss. Tim had commented that the gauntlets were “a little more Azrael than Batman”, but it’s all Batman when Jean-Paul springs Trogg, Zombie, and Bird, who all assume that it’s Bane’s doing, and follows them back to their base. And, in an act of delicious disdain, he even signs the note “- B”

Also, at this point, I’d like to direct your attention to this panel of Bane when his lackeys arrive.

Bane - Classy. As. Fuck.

Not for any reason. I just love that it exists.

The fight does not go well. Bane still refuses to acknowledge Jean-Paul as Batman, coolly noting “You are different from Wayne. This Batman kills. So I have brought ruin to Wayne. And his neophyte brings ruin to the Batman.” Even worse, Jean-Paul’s cape nearly kills him when he’s forced to leap from the side of a building into a fountain against the wind.

Despite being rag-dolled, falling from a building, and almost certainly shattering his shin, Jean-Paul decides to just stretch that shit out. So naturally does some pull ups, an exercise that he choses to perform shirtless, BUT WEARING HIS GAUNTLETS.

As he stretches, Tim comes in, finally ready to give Jean-Paul a piece of his mind. In return, the new Batman launches into what is almost certainly a glimpse into the meeting that spawned “Knightfall”.

Knightfall Marketing 1

If this Batman gig doesn’t work out, Jean-Paul has a future in marketing…

Perhaps the most interesting line in this speech comes just after this, though. “…you’ll be just like him– Just like Bane himself,” Tim shouts. “Maybe so– And maybe Gotham will fear and hate me when it’s done. But maybe not.” It’s definitely reminiscent of the final monologue from The Dark Knight. This new context makes Jean-Paul’s argument briefly heroic, but, in an interesting deviation, Jean-Paul’s heroism is undercut by his hope that he will be vindicated. How odd is it that hope is the tragic, selfish flaw? Thinking about it, that question is actually essential to Bruce Wayne’s journey through the Knight trilogy.

Defeated, Tim retires to…the yard? Apparently the whole ‘no costumes in the manor’ thing he yelled at Jean-Paul about is rather literal. Regardless, he’s quickly joined by Nightwing.

It’s strange to think that there was a time when Nightwing wasn’t a Batman character, but, effectively, at this point he wasn’t. In 1993 Nightwing was firmly associated with the Titans and was in the midst of a complicated and lengthy breakdown that saw him prematurely proposing to his longtime girlfriend Starfire and ended with the US government taking control of the Teen Titans from him. In a strong example of just how severe Dick’s estrangement from the Bat-family was (and of just how bad at communicating Bruce and Alfred are in this story) Dick actually had to find out about Bruce’s injury from Oracle. Well, I say find out, but even Oracle doesn’t tell him that much. Nightwing actually thinks that Bruce has already recovered and resumed activities as Batman.

Tim fills Dick in and neither one of them is pleased that Bruce chose Jean-Paul as his successor. When Nightwing insists that Bruce must have known what he was doing, poor, sad Tim decides it must have been his fault then.

You see, Tim designed Jean-Paul’s training outfit to blend Batman and Azrael’s looks but he actually took unconscious inspiration from a recent (and particularly ridiculous) villain called Metalhead. Tim wonders if something about this has triggered The System and caused the change in Jean-Paul.

Dick tells Tim that he trusts Bruce’s judgement and the issue is NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN.

As this is going on, Jean-Paul willingly gives himself over to another System-induced trance in order to continue what he started with the gauntlets. At long last, AzBats is born!

batman500_02

Equipped with all manner of new toys, Azbats squares off against Bane in the heart of Gotham and cuts off his venom supply. Bane’s addiction leaves him off balance and, with some unacknowledged help from Robin, Jean-Paul finally defeats the mad luchador, leaving him begging for death from “Batman”.

Robin worries that Jean-Paul will oblige, but Batman simply growls, “No. You’re broken, Bane. Blackgate Prison can hold the pieces.” Though he is certainly brutal, for Gotham, Commissioner Gordon, and Robin, Jean-Paul has proven that he is still Batman. With Tim’s hesitant blessing, Jean-Paul rushes off into the night that he has won.

Though “Knightfall” got a trade paperback release in an era when those were rare, the subsequent chapter – “Knightquest”, wasn’t collected for eighteen years. Part of the reason for that, I think, is that “Knightfall” presented such a strong arc, and a contradictory one at that. “Knightquest” is the story of Batman’s fall from grace, but the last half of “Knightfall” actually starts with the assumption that Jean-Paul is a stain on the legacy of the Bat and ends with him barely proving this wrong.

It’s definitely interesting to see how strongly the underlying narrative bucked against the idea of another Batman. Though letters from the time seem to indicate a feeling among fans that DC was shoving Jean-Paul down their throats, with the distance of time it’s clear how much the writers disdained the idea of grim and gritty Batman in the mainline books. I mean, there’s literally a scene where Jean-Paul’s existence makes Batman’s dog sad.

That said, I can’t blame readers for disliking Jean-Paul. While the security guard issues present a decent sense of who the character was and would be, he was still fairly undefined when “Knightfall” started and pretty much from the moment it did he suddenly became a huge ass.

It would have been nice if the writers had supplied more of a reason for the shift from quiet nerd to roid-raging jock other than Bane insulting him, but that was the hand Jean-Paul was dealt. It also hurt that DC’s idea to show fans what a darker, Punisher-esque Batman would look like was not especially subtle nor was it necessarily answering fan demand so much as a general trend in the comic industry.

“Knightfall” is especially interesting in the degree to which it both wore its message on its sleeve and the lack of focus it possessed compared to modern comic events. Bane was a fantastic villain and, practically by his charisma alone, made this a classic, but Batman, Robin, and Azrael are all acting effectively as the plot demands. It’s a dated story and not a great Jean-Paul story, but it’s still quite the experience to read through.

Thankfully that’s easier than ever. I own the most recent printings of the original Knightfall collections, “Broken Bat” and “Who Rules The Night”, which are still fairly available, but thanks to Bane’s popularity and changes in DC’s collected editions department, the entire arc and the preceding Batman: Vengeance of Bane one-shot is now available as Batman: Knightfall Volume One for $30. It’s also easy enough to track down the individual issues, though it’s much easier and cheeper to just grab the collections.

Next week we get to Jean-Paul’s first starring roles with the first chunk of Knightquest: The Crusade.

AzBats 1.0

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