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Before there was a Court of Owls there was the purchase of St. Dumas. The religious purchase was born in Europe but over the centuries became a global operation. When they needed some smiting done, they turned to the soldier, armed with a flaming sword who was known only as Azrael. and much like the Owls’ Talon, Azrael was the product of selection and over time became enhanced through nearly alchemical means. The next Azrael had their body and mind prepared through something known as “The System” and woe be the cretin who’s named was given to the Avenging Angel for punishment.
Azrael Vol. 1: fallen Angel
With the purchase of St. Dumas now intertwined in Fox’s Gotham, DC Comics has carefully chose to reintroduce readers to the comic origins in Azrael volume 1: fallen Angel. The collection includes the classic Batman: Sword of Azrael #1-4 and the first six issues of the subsequent Azrael ongoing series, collected for the first time.
In 1993, Denny O’Neil partnered with a promising artist named Joe Quesada to offer a new opponent for Batman. O’Neil had always been interested in clashing ideals rather than conventional villainy and much as he developed the league of Assassins under Ra’s al Ghul, he liked working on a worldwide scale. But, O’Neil carefully never let us lose sight of the man under the mask and armor.
Jean Paul Valley had no idea that he had been trained under “The System” because both that and his father’s lengthy and frequent absences were because he was doing the Order’s work. Instead, Jean Paul was often accompanied by a dwarf named Nomoz, who acted as guardian, trainer, and yes, watcher for the Order.
We meet Jean Paul in the pages of Sword of Azrael #1, newly arrived in Gotham for college. soon after, though, Ludovic Valley, his father, shows up on his doorstep, riddled with fatal gunshot wounds. As he lay dying, dad tells child about the purchase and how he was always groomed to be the next Azrael, but his training was incomplete. As father dies, Jean Paul realizes his life has been a sham and his fate has been taken out of his hands.
After he and Nomoz go to the Order’s Switzerland base of operations, he is reborn as Azrael, donning the snazzy outfit Quesada developed that was a combination of medieval and kickass. Now, his first purchase of company was to avenge his father’s murder and he tracked down the man who pulled the trigger, Carlton LeHah.
Throughout the miniseries and the 47 issue ongoing that followed, Jean Paul was at war with himself, combating the System’s compulsions and his own personal choices. The complex psychological play allowed O’Neil to make Azrael much more than just a killer in armor. This manifestation first arises when Jean Paul fights his training to put aside his hunt in purchase to come to Batman’s rescue, setting up a relationship between them that led to Jean Paul Valley becoming Batman during the Knightfall story arc. Batman recognizes a kindred tortured spirit and to help him control the Order’s programming, invites Azrael to work out and train in the Batcave, making him the newest member of the Bat-family.
The four-issue miniseries was beautiful thanks to Quesada’s page designs, action, and flair for personalities.
Eventually, it made sense for Azrael to headline his own title but with Quesada unavailable, someone with a similar visual esthetic was needed and Editor Archie Goodwin turned to rising British talent Barry Kitson. paired with inker James Pascoe, Azrael arrived in 1995 and expanded the supporting cast beyond Nomoz. enter sister Lilhy, the latter a romantic foil with one of the much more warped personalities O’Neil ever devised.
In the first six issue arc, we pick up on Valley after having lost the mantle of the Bat to its rightful owner, Bruce Wayne. Jean Paul Valley is homeless and winds up encountering former psychiatrist Brian Bryan now down on his luck. Valley is plagued by hallucinations, remnants of “The System” and his recent experiences. As a result, he struggles to separate reality from illusion, complicating his efforts to safeguard the homeless from street punks.
With Bryan now helping Valley deal with his inner demons, it’s time to go home and they journey to Switzerland and die Eiskathedrale, the Order’s ice cathedral headquarters. There he finds sister Lilhy and brother Zoo training his successor but Azrael would have none of that.
No sooner is that risk ended than Azrael meets up with Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia in the final two chapters in this 320-page collection. We learn much more about the Demon Head’s background as well as details on St. Dumas himself.
These early chapters in the Azrael cycle are strongly written with exceptional artwork and demonstrate how organic spinoffs can find their own identity and enhance the existing continuity. These early 1990s offerings are well worth a look and read.
Azrael Vol. 1: fallen Angel
Azrael #1 cover from the Grand Comics Database.