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.

With “Knightquest: The Crusade” Jean-Paul truly became the star of his story for the first time. “Knightquest” would see Jean-Paul struggle with his programming and his own morality as he learned what it meant to be the Dark Knight.

It was important for “Knightquest” to define Jean-Paul’s flaws. The story is at its worst when AzBats is just universally horrible and violent, but the tight continuity of the event allowed for a rather interesting fall from grace. One of the first warning signs we see in “Knightquest” is that Jean-Paul enjoys being Batman.

It has been said that Batman is a hero out to make a word where he doesn’t need to exist. At a fundamental level, Batman is self-destructive. Fittingly, the first sign that Jean-Paul isn’t cut out for this is that he kind of isn’t. AzBats’ mission isn’t to erase his purpose but to discover it.

AzBats enters this story outraged by a gang of street toughs. He weighs their motives for lashing out and finds them wanting, teaching them how fun violence is when they don’t have the upper hand. But, when they’re dispatched, Dixon wonders, “Who makes him more disgusted? The predators or their prey? Since ruining Bane there’s been no one interesting to confront. Just street thugs and their victims.”

From the first scene, Dixon reveals Azbats’ hypocrisy. He rages against their lifestyle of violence “for fun and profit” but immediately reacts with disdain to the victims, himself distressed that the fight wasn’t fun.

Retiring for the night, Jean-Paul is awakened by a dream of Saint Dumas, founder of the order that made him into a weapon. You can tell it’s a dream because half way through Jean-Paul realizes that he’s naked. 

St Dumas Vision I

Yes, even Batman has that dream…

There’s that word again. “Nothing”.

Like a socially awkward teenager with a B+, Jean-Paul gives up on sleep and immediately starts doodling some hardcore mecha armor. That’s right, the AzBats armor has only been featured on 30 pages so far and Jean-Paul’s already tinkering with a new model.

Before long though, Tim Drake arrives to borrow the car his wealthy neighbor Bruce bought…for him…yeah…

In any case, Robin is perfectly happy to take the car and leave, but Jean-Paul tells him that he’s not welcome. Robin reminds Batman that he’s supposed to be keeping an eye on him until Bruce returns, but Jean-Paul simply answers, “If he returns.” Tim is stated to be fifteen in this issue so perhaps that’s why he shoots back with “You know, your attitude sucks, Paul.” But this apparently is too much for AzBats and he fires a batarang at Tim’s head, howling, “Not Paul…BATMAN.”

Jean-Paul goes full out Rorschach on the kid too. “I’ll wash the scum of into the sewers.,” he growls, taking the teenager by the neck, “I’ll take them all down. So many that hell won’t hold them.” That’s some avenging angel talk, right there. “They will fear me as they NEVER feared him!”

Though it’s not included in the Knightquest trade, this scene flows directly into Robin #1 (smooth marketing, Chuck), and that’s a shame, as it means many readers probably never see this bit and it’s very interesting. Completely at AzBats’ mercy, Tim decides to go down fighting and stabs him with his shuriken. Though it’s not enough to break the mad Batman’s grip, Jean-Paul releases him anyway.

Robin 1

“This is scarier than when he was trying to kill me.”

Tim wisely decides to get out there and floors the accelerator, leaving Jean-Paul sprawled on the cave floor. “Come back,” he cries, “I can make you understand. I’m only doing my best! I’m only doing what’s right…

Jean-Paul’s desire to “do what’s right” would be evident in the next story, “The Tally Man”. “The Tally Man” is one of my favorite “Knightfall” chapters and I actually reviewed it for this blog a while ago. I originally wasn’t planning on covering it here, but in reading over the issues again, I realized that its importance to “Knightquest” as a whole is too great to ignore. I’ll try not to repeat myself too much.

The Tally Man opens similarly enough to Detective Comics #667, with AzBats dispatching a gang who are threatening a random civilian. The difference is that, this time, he feels remorse.

Know Thyself

Do…Do new age supply warehouses not advertise on the side of buildings in your town?

While he certainly takes liberties with how to enforce it, Jean-Paul still sees himself as enforcing “the way of the bat”. Though his relationship with Bruce Wayne is becoming more complicated, less openly respectful, he utterly respects his creation. And though he’s increasingly comfortable in the role of Batman Jean-Paul wants to know who he is. So, following up on the events of “The God of Fear”, Grant, more than a little awkwardly, introduces an easy device with which to explore that concept.

Grant is, by far, the writer who makes the greatest effort to explore Jean-Paul’s powers and abilities. While I can’t blame other writers for most often using The System as a quick equivalent for Bruce Wayne’s years of training, one thing that makes AzBats so interesting is that this Batman has something that the original does not: super powers.

Grant introduces a lot of cool ideas about what The System can do. Over the course of this story we see Jean-Paul’s body reacting on its own to protect him, dulling pain, and calculating trajectories for him. This really helps to define Jean-Paul’s limits. Besides fleshing AzBats out as his own character, I really like how these powers at once make AzBats cooler and more horrifying. Grant clearly saw the degree to which “Knightquest” would be about Jean-Paul losing himself, and seeing not only the mental but the physical effects that the System has upon him brings a new element of horror into the story. Jean-Paul is literally being turned into a monster. Worse, maybe he’s always been a monster!

Unfortunately, Jean-Paul’s journey of self discovery is cut short by the Tally Man, an enforcer for the Gotham Mob. Badly wounded, Jean-Paul barely manages to turn the tide.

At which point he promptly passes out.

Once again Jean-Paul has a vision, but this time the figure before him is more familiar. The voice of his father – or is it the System in his father’s voice? – awakens something within Jean-Paul and Azrael puts the Tally Man down. AzBats has the Tally Man at his mercy, but Jean-Paul refuses to kill. The System goes haywire and when he awakens he finds the Tally Man lying before him – alive, if you can call it that.

Azrael Not Batman

In the clarity afterwards, Jean-Paul is stunned. “I don’t believe I did that! Not to another human being…even one who was trying to kill me.” That doesn’t sound like the AzBats we’ve seen in Batman and Detective Comics. Here we find someone more akin to the Jean-Paul we knew before “Knightfall” started.

“The Tally Man” is one of the first Azrael stories to draw a distinction between Jean-Paul and the System. At times it’s seemed as though this is just who Jean-Paul is or, at least, that he believed in these quickly satisfying, totalitarian solutions under the influence of The System, like an alcoholic or someone with a rage issue. But Shadow of the Bat #20 explicitly establishes that Jean-Paul is dealing with foreign, intrusive thoughts.

Though it hardly follows the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, there is a distinction between Jean-Paul and Azrael’s thoughts. The separation between Jean-Paul and Azrael also casts AzBats’ insistence that he is “Not Paul” but “Batman” from Tec #668 in a new and ominous light. Here, again, Paul uses the same language, this time to separate Batman from Azrael. With “The Tally Man”’s confirmation of Jean-Paul’s illness, it begins to become clear that there are multiple versions of Jean-Paul. Azrael and Batman are clearly delineated. AzBats is not merely the interplay of the two but the product of The System and the concept of Batman, just as Azrael is Its response to the theology of St. Dumas. It’s doubtful that readers at the time noticed these hints and uncertain that DC’s vision for the character at the time aligned with any of this. However, these elements are by far the most interesting interpretation of AzBats in “Knightquest” and, thankfully, they were to be the ones that would be carried forward.

Doug Moench’s Batman was next and opens with St. Dumas repeating his call to arms to Jean-Paul (and to the readers of Batman). Though Jean-Paul’s mental state is still shaky, Moench writes an AzBats who feels much more in control of himself. This story also reminds us of how crafty AzBats can be.

Though the Azrael programming calls for direct action, as Batman Jean-Paul was much more willing to use trickery and manipulation than out-and-out detective work. Batman #501 sees him trying to place a mole within the Gotham underworld, boldly blackmailing one of the Dons. In response the mob calls in Mekros, a renegade member of the CIA’s MK Ultra program. When Mekros gets the better of him, Jean-Paul plants the idea that the Dons aren’t planning to pay in Mekros, sending him after his own employers. In fact, while Jean-Paul is fighting his urge to kill, he seems pretty fine with allowing Mekros to do it for him.

Mekros follows a trend of faint parallelism in the early foes of “Knightquest”. Jean-Paul and the Tally Man were obvious foils and the Trigger Twin story Dixon had been building was based on discovering a secret about your childhood (in this case that you have a twin). Mekros is the most obvious parallel, with his self-hypnotic programming and high-tech costume, but other than this he’s about as generically 90s as it gets. Take a shot if you’re playing the Doug Moench government conspiracy drinking game though…

Finally AzBats takes on the Trigger Twins, using the subway rocket to foil an old fashioned train robbery. It’s a fun little story but it’s not too memorable and not all that important in the grand scope of Azrael or the Knight Trilogy.

These first stories of Knightquest are a mixed bag. The Tally Man, in my view, is an objectively good comic, if not without its flaws. On the other hand, Mekros’ 90s genericism knows no bounds.

Mekros

Just slap some useless seams and a couple of pouches on him and you’ve got a blockbuster first issue that will headline bargain bins for decades.

Overall these aren’t especially memorable issues, even Robin #1 deals with Tim chasing down carjackers! But of course Tim had only needed to be introduced because a contingent of fans (and Jim Starlin) had previously made the argument that Batman was better without a partner. But detective needs a Watson to exposit to and AzBats needed someone to react to his madness. Both problems were answered by Jean-Paul’s declining mental state.

Beginning to externalize The System did a lot to give these stories a clear arc. Just as Bane was the overarching threat of “Knightfall”, The System is the real villain of “Knightquest: The Crusade”. Of the adversaries AzBats faces in these stories, the Tally Man is really the only one who poses a serious risk to his safety and even he only manages it because he gets the drop on Jean-Paul. The danger in these issues isn’t to AzBats. It’s not a question of whether he’ll defeat his enemies but how many people they’ll hurt before he does. This is especially clear in AzBats’ dealings with Mekros, who starts shooting freely once his primary programming is foiled.

And through all of it, perhaps because of it, the concern is whether any of them will make Jean-Paul mad enough to make him follow through on his threats and put them down for good.

It’s also interesting to notice how much of a checklist each of these stories seems to follow. I don’t know if it was a new experiment, but the choice not to number the issues within Knightquest was definitely a step against the norm of comic events. I think this choice was likely made to give readers a break after the 19+ issues of “Knightfall” that each suggested equal importance with the numbers branded on their upper corner. Either way, this simple change inherently suggests that not every issue is necessary and allows readers to merely follow the series that they prefer, which is especially significant considering that there was no assumption of a discounted collected edition. It’s comparatively a fairly modern way to run a crossover.

"Sometimes its only madness that makes us what we are" - Batman, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth

“Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are” – Batman, Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth

In order to ensure that readers weren’t missing out, it seems that each of the series would introduce similar concepts. Each of these stories features a System-driven hallucination of St. Dumas or Jean-Paul’s father, at least one moment where a character comments on AzBats’s increasing brutality, and a seeming validation of AzBat’s efficacy. The message, it seems, is that AzBats is taking things too far but that this may be just what it takes to deal with the post-Bane crime of Gotham City. Still, Jean-Paul’s unbalanced mental state tips the scales against him.

I think there’s something fascinating about having a Batman who is explicitly struggling with a mental illness, even a highly fictionalized one. The story kind of portrays this as a factor towards Jean-Paul’s unworthiness, but fans of the character know that the question of Batman’s sanity has been a cornerstone of the Modern Age Dark Knight since at least Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. It’s just one more way that “Knightfall” is about fine tuning Batman, about defining just where the lines Batman can’t cross lie.

Batman is about lowering a light into the darkness. Batman strives not to remain above the crime and filth and struggle of Gotham, as Bruce Wayne is so able to do, but to wades into it without allowing it to pull him to its level. The moral of Batman is not to deny your madness, but to never let it or anything else change you into someone you don’t want to be. I would argue that, right from the beginning, Jean-Paul’s fatal flaw is that he’s trying to be someone he’s not. He allows himself to be swallowed by the iconography of Batman, insisting that things like compassion and self-care are luxuries he cannot afford. And, in the end, it dooms him.

These first issues of “Knightquest” set the tone for what will follow and represent a subtle but dramatic shift in Jean-Paul’s narrative. Even as the writers positioned him for a fall towards villainy, the depiction of Jean-Paul’s mental illness sowed the seeds of his eventual redemption and of a war for the soul of Batman.

Next time we’ll look at Jean-Paul’s encounters with some of Bruce Wayne’s classic villains as Gotham pushes back against the new Batman.

AzBats-Joker Preview

Advertisements