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Batman: Sword of Azrael (Review)

This March sees the release of Batman vs. Superman. To celebrate, we’ll be looking at some iconic and modern Batman and Superman stories over the course of the month.

Given how messy Knightfall ended up, readers would be forgiven for assuming that the Batman editorial staff had been making it up on the fly.

To a certain extent, the editors and writers were effectively making it up as they went along. According to writer Greg Rucka, the big Batman events of the nineties were not so much mapped out as loosely plotted. The creative talent had some vague idea of where they wanted to go and what they wanted to accomplish, but not necessarily the particulars of how they would get there or how they would accomplish it. After all, Rucka’s novelised adaptation of No Man’s Land had a different ending to the comic book because the novel had to be finished ahead of time.

All fired up...

All fired up…

Reading Knightfall, it quickly becomes clear that the writers had no real idea about how they wanted the story to unfold. The event has a fairly solid first act, but its second act is cluttered and much of the resolution is messy and unsatisfying. At the same time, it is clear that the writers had some idea of what they were doing and where they were going; at least in the beginning. As much as the sprawling nineties even might bungle the pay-off, it benefits from a very careful and meticulous set-up.

A lot of the key elements of the Knightfall saga were set up and signposted ahead of time. The months leading up to the start of Knightfall in April 1993 were quite busy at the Batman offices. Shondra Kinsolving was introduced in November 1992. Bane was introduced in a special one-shot in January 1993, The Vengeance of Bane, that provided the back story of the new antagonist. Bridging these two milestones was the miniseries Batman: Sword of Azrael, introducing the character who would step into the vacancy left by the broken bat.

Medallion man.

Medallion man.

Azrael is an interesting character in many respects. In terms of the larger Batman mythos, Azrael is a relatively minor character. He was introduced in the early nineties, but never reached the ubiquity of other nineties Batman characters like Bane or Harley Quinn. The character did not feature in Batman: The Animated Series, nor did he make an appearance in any of the films based around the character in during the nineties or the earlier years of the twentieth century.

At the same time, Azrael is not entirely forgotten. Following on from Knightfall, Azrael would sustain his own hundred-issue comic book series that would run through late-nineties Batman events like Cataclysm and No Man’s Land. Over the course of this eight-year monthly series, Azrael would be consistently written by his creator, Denny O’Neil. It seems unlikely that any character written by Denny O’Neil for eight years and capable of sustaining sales for one hundred issues could truly fade into obscurity.

"To Biis, or not to Biis?"

“To Biis, or not to Biis?”

Indeed, Azrael lurks around the fringes the wider Batman universe. The fact that he is a murderous anti-hero likely explains why the character has yet to translate to family-friendly Batman media like The Brave and the Bold or The Batman, but the character has been spotted outside of comic books. The holy soldier plays a significant role in side quests during the popular Arkham City and Arkham Knight games. James Frain will play the avenging angel on the second season of Gotham.

More than that, Azrael has even become a legacy character in his own right. Although there was some lingering ambiguity about the fate of Jean-Paul Valley at the end of the monthly series, a new Azrael would soon appear. Around the time of Battle for the Cowl, writer Fabian Nicieza wrote the three-issue series Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight to introduce psychotic ex-cop Michael Lane as the successor to the mantle. Following the “new 52”, Jean-Paul Valley was reintroduced as part of Batman and Robin Eternal.

Rode a pale horse...

Rode a pale horse…

All of this is to say that Azrael is a surprisingly enduring and popular character who has carved out his own niche in the larger Batman mythology. Indeed, it could be argued that Azrael is truly the central antagonist of the sprawling mid-nineties crossover, that the existential threat that he poses to Batman is the most important part of the story. For all that Bane is afforded the story’s most memorable and iconic moment, he feels curiously tangential to the rest of the story. Bane is arguably more of a catalyst than an antagonist.

It makes sense that fans have come to fixate of Knightfall as the story of how Bane broke Batman. It is a distinctive image in its own right, but the first act of the story is the also the best part of Knightfall. Everybody remembers Bane’s campaign of psychological warfare against Batman because that is the story at its most focused and its most structured; it is the leanest part of the crossover, with its own set-up and pay-off. The first act of Knightfall has a clarity that explains why it is what fans and critics tend to discuss when they talk about the crossover.

"Have you been wearing that cape under your snow jacket for that dramatic reveal, Master Bruce?"

“Have you been wearing that cape under your snow jacket waiting for that dramatic reveal, Master Bruce?”

However, that first act only ran for four months. Knightfall continued for another year after Bane snapped Batman across his knee. For better or for worse, the storytelling meat of Knightfall has very little to do with Bane. It has a lot more to do with the character of Azrael, to the point that the middle act of the saga finds Bruce Wayne and Jean-Paul Valley running in parallel. The Crusade focuses on Jean-Paul Valley’s time in the cowl, while The Search charts Bruce Wayne’s return to health.

This is the central conflict of Knightfall. The massive saga is not so much about Bruce Wayne losing the cowl as it is about Bruce Wayne proving his right to wear the cowl. Azrael is very clearly intended as a dysfunctional substitute, a counterpoint to Bruce Wayne. Azrael is set up to be the flawed choice in this equation; Azrael is the wannabe Batman, to weave a nineties pop culture reference into the discussion about the character. Sword of Azrael is very much about setting up that idea ahead of time.

Running the guantlet...

Running the guantlet…

In his introduction to the collected edition, editor Archie Goodwin discusses how careful the editorial staff had to be in introducing the character:

At the time we published it, we couldn’t really make it clear to anyone how important it was going to be. Plans had been made for Batman’s future. Changes, dramatic changes were coming to his life, and Azrael was going to play a major role in them. But there as no way to reveal very much about that without giving too much away. The best we could do was hint that Gotham City was getting a new hero and Batman wouldn’t be able to ignore it.

It is a nice example of how the writers and editors had at least put some thoughts into the basics of how this mega-arc was going to work.

Heated debate...

Heated debate…

(It is worth comparing the planning put into the basic set-up of Knightfall with the chaos unfolding during The Death and Return of Superman. While both events open relatively strongly before descending into disjointed chaos, at least Knightfall has the courtesy to properly foreshadow its convenient resolution ahead of time. The use of Shondra Kinsolving to heal Bruce Wayne’s damaged spin might not be the smoothest plot development in the history of comics, but it at least feels like a better resolution than “I was just sleeping.”)

Sword of Azrael is a four-issue miniseries intended to introduce the character who will step into the role of Batman over the course of Knightquest and who Bruce Wayne will vanquish in Knightsend. Although fans were not aware of what was coming, a four-issue prestige miniseries that is very clearly the origin story of a new Batman-like character written by Denny O’Neil was very obviously a big deal in the context of the mid-nineties. Even without knowing where the character was going, it was clear he was going somewhere.

Down to Biis-ness...

Down to Biis-ness…

From the start of Sword of Azrael, it is quite clear that writer Denny O’Neil and artist Joe Quesada have fashioned the eponymous antihero as an ersatz Batman. The visual design rather consciously mirrors that of Batman, albeit with the mouth covered (rather than exposed) by the night. While Batman is a “Dark Knight” in a figurative sense, Azrael is affirmed as a literal murderous knight of the Order of St. Dumas. Oracle confirmed that the Order “fought in the Crusades”, making him a literal “Caped Crusader.”

Azrael is presented as a character of tremendous will. “Imagine the will power it took for him to keep going… the courage,” Bruce states on examining how far the wounded knight managed to make it. “What kind of man is he?” Alfred reinforces the connection to Batman by responding, “No one on Earth is better qualified than yourself to answer that question.” These similarities are reinforced by visual cues throughout the story, most notably in the square boxes used both for the devoted followers of the Order of St. Dumas and for Bruce Wayne. The certainty of true believers.

Flame on...

Flame on…

O’Neil’s script seems to suggest that both Batman and Azrael are zealots in their own way, investing their faith in something larger than themselves. For Azrael, it is the order of St. Dumas. For Bruce Wayne, it is the idea of Batman. Sword of Azrael renders this thematic connection in visual terms; at one point the seal of the Order of St. Dumas is reflected in Jean-Paul Valley’s glasses, while the next page reflects the bat-signal in the glasses of Jim Gordon. The comic suggests that Bruce and Azrael are perhaps not so different.

As he tortures the Caped Crusader towards the climax of the story, it is almost as though the villainous LeHaan sees some of his demonic possession reflected back in the face of the billionaire playboy. “I’d wonder if you weren’t courting the demon I serve instead of Biis,” Bruce teases at one point. “Some would say I’ve been riding one since I was eight years old.” Although Sword of Azrael firmly delineates between Bruce Wayne’s moral authority and that of the Order of St. Duman, the miniseries suggests no small overlap.

"I shall become a demon..."

“I shall become a demon…”

In fact, the origin story beats underpinning Sword of Azrael are instantly familiar. A father is murdered by a gun, with the comic focusing on the son sitting by the lifeless body crying “father!” The son is left an inheritance, a parting gift from the deceased father. “There was money,” the narration reflects. “Forty thousand dollars in various currencies and a letter — directing you to a small airfield in Switzerland.” Money that allows the son to take a trip around the world so that he might mold his body into an instrument of justice.

Jean-Paul Valley’s trip abroad is explored in Sword of Azrael, while O’Neil’s script is careful to reference Bruce’s time overseas. O’Neil was, of course, one of the writers who really emphasised the globe-trotting nature of Batman. Indeed, the script of Sword of Azrael suggests that the two dark avengers even had similar areas of study. Bruce confesses, “While other guys were… chasing girls and listening to rock and roll… I was learning mind-control… from funny-looking old men in faraway places.”

X-treme Batman villains...

X-treme Batman villains…

Indeed, there is even something of the Joker to be found in the demonic antagonist who lays siege to the Order of St. Dumas. Driven insane by events, the villainous arms dealer LeHaan takes on the persona of a devil. With his face painted white and his mouth formed into a twisted grin, LeHaan feels like another example of the miniseries’ “religious-themes funhouse mirror” of the larger Batman mythos. Of course, that funhouse mirror is filtered through a very particular aesthetic.

As much as Azrael and LeHaan might represent a twist on classic Batman iconography, that twist is very firmly rooted in the early nineties. At one point LeHaan is even seen holding a giant gun like a Rob Liefeld protagonist. The decision to give him a single scarred eye evokes the design of the murderous mutant antihero Cable. There is more than a touch of the Punisher to be found in both Azrael and LeHaan; this is particularly obvious with the use of skull imagery in LeHaan’s character design.

Face off...

Face off…

The new characters featured in Sword of Azrael are decidedly kill-happy, with Azrael playing like a nineties antihero with little time for jail or rehabilitation. The climax of the story features Jean-Paul Valley willfully leaving LeHaan to die, a sort of superhero original sin. This nineties aesthetic was clearly intentional. As Denny O’Neil reflects of the genesis of Azrael:

“We wondered if our notion of hero was outmoded,” he says. “Looking at other media, not only comics but popular movies, heroes seemed to be not a whole lot different than the villains in that sometimes the only qualification for heroism that the hero seemed to posses was the ability to commit wholesale slaughter and wisecrack about it. Which is antithetical to my idea of hero. I’ve always thought physical prowess has to be balanced by some kind of soul.

“We’d been wondering for a long, long time, with his stricture against killing and his Boy Scout morality, if our hero was outmoded,” O’Neil continues. “So instead of continuing to avoid the question, we decided to confront it and put out there a Batman who was as genuinely nuts as our Batman was sometimes accused of being.”

This is clear from the outset. Azrael is a deconstruction of a nineties antihero rather than a straight example of one. The character is clearly designed as a flawed Batman surrogate from the outset. Sword of Azrael is surprisingly candid about this. As if to illustration how flawed Azrael is, the opening pages of the comic feature a top-of-his-game Azrael being casually gunned down by an unimpressed would-be victim. (“I do not think so, Mister Angel.”)

Batsh!t crazy...

Batsh!t crazy…

There is something quite effective in that opening image of Azrael, designed to make the character as impressive or imposing as possible; only to have his target brutally dispatch him with a few well-placed shots. LeHaan is not even a supervillain at this point, he is simply sitting in his chair looking decidedly unimpressed with the light show in front of him. For all that Azrael looks cool, the character is not very effective. Perhaps this is a larger point that O’Neil is trying to make.

Once comic book characters stray into something approaching “grim and gritty”, they lose a lot of the appeal and the magic. Trying to imagine a “darker” and “more serious” Batman undercuts the character. After all, Batman only happens to fair well against gunmen because he is a comic book character and that brings certain protections. Trying to put Batman in a grounded crime story runs the risk of defeating the character’s purpose. This is particularly true in case of Azrael, who is just as ridiculous as Batman (flaming swords!) but just more violent.

The devil you know...

The devil you know…

Even more than The Death and Return of Superman, Knightfall is a quintessentially nineties comic book event. As with so many mainstream American comic book narratives – like Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers or Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis – the saga essentially literalises a conversation unfolding about its central characters. Batman is one of the most enduring and popular comic book characters ever, but was he drifting out of touch with the comic book audience of the nineties? Did readers want a tougher or more brutal Batman?

Perhaps more unsettlingly, was Batman actually keeping in line with the broader tastes of the decade around him? Was Batman in the process of being transformed into something darker and grittier? Had the legacy of The Dark Knight Returns seen a fundamental shift in the portrayal of the character away from the conventional hero portrayed by Adam West and a fixture of classic comic books, towards something all the more ambiguous and uncertain? Was Batman becoming more of an antihero than a hero?

Pretty cowl, eh?

Pretty cowl, eh?

The nineties would become the era of the so-called “batjerk”, an anti-social and masochistic take on the Caped Crusader. Batman was prone to “go it alone”, as if worried that Robin was cramping his style. Bruce was prone to dismissing Superman as an overgrown boy scout in a more cynical world. This darker portrayal of the lead character was undoubtedly what some fans wanted in an era where mainstream American comic books were increasing anxious about being seen as “childish” or “uncool.”

However, how much was too much? It is a question that many Batman writers have struggled with in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns, struggling to strike the right balance between the inspirational superhero and the grumpy loner. Greg Rucka touched on it in The O.M.A.C. Project, Grant Morrison made it a focal point of Batman and Son, Scott Snyder touched on it in Death of the Family. However many writers might address it, that darker side of Batman exerts a strange gravity from which writers can never quite escape.

"This looks like a job for...

“This looks like a job for…”

Sword of Azrael represents one attempt to make sense of this larger trend involving the Caped Crusader, by offering readers a glimpse of a more “extreme” version of Batman. Azrael is a version of Batman who is not just violent, but lethal. Azrael is a version of Batman who is not just devoted to his mission, but who is devout in his crusade. Azrael is a version of Batman who has not just become mechanical and detached from the world around him, but who has literally been programmed into a soldier.

Of course, in spite of all this, there is a sense that DC were hedging their bets with the character. Denny O’Neil has made it clear that there were originally no plans to continue with Azrael beyond the events of Knightfall. Unlike Bane, O’Neil has suggested that the writers and editors saw Azrael as a one-shot antagonist designed to serve a very particular function rather than a potential recurring player. However, the miniseries makes a point to develop the world of its central character. Jean-Paul Valley is treated as a sympathetic lead, and given a fleshed-out back story.

Swordplay...

Swordplay…

The result is an odd comic book, one that renders Azrael perhaps a little more nuance than he really needs to be. It is possible to read Sword of Azrael as a sincere attempt to introduce a new anti-hero into the larger Batman mythos, a reading that might not have been the intent of the authors but is supported by the one-hundred issue monthly series that followed. As a result, some of the comic’s critiques of the nineties anti-hero trend feel a little hypocritical. At points it seems like Sword of Azrael might actually want its character to stick around.

The miniseries could be seen to undercut Knightfall to a certain extent. It creates a tension within the arc that the editorial staff have mapped out, muddying the waters somewhat. It is interesting to wonder whether the staff had considered Azrael as something of a bellweather; if the audience had responded extremely positively to his role in Knightfall, would the course of the arc been allowed to change in midstream? It is impossible to know, although the fact that this sort of tension exists explains how the second and third acts of Knightfall could get so muddled.

Sword of Azrael is far from Denny O’Neil’s strongest work on Batman, even if it does set up his most steady stream of writing credits in the nineties. The plotting is very loose, and the story feels over-extended at four issues. At one point, Batman is almost blown up by the Order of St. Dumas, saved not by skill or prowess but by the contrivance of “a dangling wire.” Having Bruce captured by LeHaan so that Azrael can save him feels like a conspicuous example of having an established character shill for a new one by way of endorsement.

Still, in spite of these issues, Sword of Azrael is an interesting snapshot of a moment in Batman history. It was the time at which audiences seemed to want a blood-thirsty Batman, and the comic book company decided to give them just that.

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4 Responses

  1. Azrael has his defenders. The nineties was also when Batman began coming up with more esoteric, even mystical, reasons for not killing criminals. Also, The Long Halloween cemented the idea that the Joker and others were a counter-reaction to Batman. An interesting but inherently flawed idea.

    • Yep. I think your on to something when you talk about the context of Azrael. While Knightfall has its problems (lots of problems), I do admire some of the ideas underpinning the arc. I think it got away from the editorial team, but what they were trying to do was quite clever and self-aware, particularly at a time when mainstream comics were hardly embracing irony and self-reflection.

  2. Knightfall concerns Batman being defeated by an evil version of Batman (Bane), who is then defeated by an evil version of Batman (Azrael), who is them defeated by Batman.

    • That is a very good point. Although I think one of the smarter aspects of Knightfall is the way that Bane is treated as a red herring, a narrative feint quite similar to his use in The Dark Knight Rises. In The Dark Knight Rises, he is obviously a stalking horse for Talia. In Knightfall, the narrative uses him as set-up for Azrael.

      (Of course, the irony is that Bane actually made a greater impression than Azrael, becoming the crossover’s breakout character.)

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