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Saturday, April 23, 2016

Cover Story - Top 12 Azrael Covers

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Let’s talk about Azrael for a second.  Azrael is actually one of my favorite superheroes of all time.  A lot of this has to do with how I made the transition from animated superhero shows to actual adult comics.  One of my first exposures to adult comics was a series of audio Batman comics adapting various greatest hits, and I got a hold of a 3-part set that adapted the entire Knightfall Saga that introduced and established Azrael.  From that point on I was hooked on the character and, as luck would have it, he had an ongoing series at the time so it became the first comic I started buying monthly.  

That’s part of why it does wrangle a bit that modern versions like on Gotham or Arkham Knight seem so lacking.  It’s even more frustrating when so much of Azrael’s story plays like the good version of the Assassin’s Creed game plots so it’s not like he’s a character who needed a harsh reworking.  But, given those things have very momentarily catapulted Azrael into the public eye I’ll take what I can get to excuse a deep dive into the comic series that started me down this path with the top 12 Azrael comic covers.

A little primer here at the start for those unfamiliar with the Azrael mythos- real name Jean-Paul Valley, he was trained from childhood to be the assassin for a secret religious cult called the Order of St. Dumas.  The Order traces their roots back to the crusades and uses advanced brainwashing to secretly indoctrinate people like Azrael as children.  

As such, using his skills means brushing up against his programming, the post-hypnotic suggestions and repressed memories that brainwash him into being a fanatical holy warrior and risk becoming a pawn of his own origins.  Batman basically saw him as a kindred spirit and started training him to be an ally and helping him rise above the darkness of his origin to achieve something better with his traumas.  

All of that actually fits elements of this cover shockingly well given how the villains here seems to be a racist mob.  Azrael’s whole struggle as a hero is fighting against the ideas he was indoctrinated into as a child and trying to be a better person despite the hatred and fanaticism that was forced upon him when he didn’t know any better, it doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels to the way racist generations try to just create more of the same. 

We’re getting into some spoiler territory here but seeing as how this comes from a bad story anyway I don’t really mind.  Eventually Azrael ended up backsliding in his battle against the ghosts of his past and succumbing to a religious mania, much as he did when he took over the role of Batman during the year Bruce was recovering from a broken bat.  He redesigned his costume to blend the iconography of the Batman with his armor and incorporated some more lethal weaponry (yes, more lethal than flaming blade hands that can be launched.)  

This all came together in a very dull story about framing Bruce Wayne for murderer that more or less ended the era of event focused Batman stories of the ‘90s.  However, even while accepting this is kind of a dark moment for our hero the cover is beautifully realized.  Jean-Paul’s madness has always been glorious to behold as he views himself as a modern-day crusader knight so embracing that religious verbosity with this stained glass portrait is a great twist.  I also really like the inter-title of “Holier Than Thou,” it speaks well to Azrael’s obsession with his own claims to legacy and identity. 

Glad we managed to get the Joker in here, even accepting that while Azrael was posing as the Batman he put the Joker in the hospital real bad.  That’s actually what this story was about, if I remember, Joker seeking revenge on Azrael after their last encounter.  I don’t think I’ve made it quite clear how completely psychotic he got at this stage of his life.  

While at first he started losing control in moments of stress, using a little too much force, it quickly escalated to full on hallucinations of his dead father and Saint Dumas, the crusader knight who founded the order Jean-Paul was born to protect.  He even outfitted the bat suit with servomotors to enhance his strength, razor sharp claws, gauntlets that fired bat shaped razor blades, and even a full on flamethrower. 

Stories like this about Azrael dealing with the sins of his past, even if those sins here were just roughing up the Joker real bad, were the real bread and butter of this comic.  It embraced the idea of personal growth as a key to Azrael’s character as he tried to move beyond the religious assassin he was brainwashed to be and the psycho vigilante he eventually became.  I also really like the look of playful menace on the Joker’s face.  This was before the Joker went from “fun bad guy” to “the worst monster in all of history” so you could still do stuff like have him marker a smiley face onto a dude and have it fit. 

I think part of the reason Azrael never really caught on is that his costume is really weird but I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed it.  Something about the fraying on his cape and those big, blockier fingers definitely speaks to me.  Yeah it’s a goofy design but all superheroes are goofy when you get right down to it, the greater test of quality is if the creators can just roll with the goofiness.  That’s part of what makes iconic scenes actually iconic, the willingness of comics to accept their own ludicrous nature but press forward as if they aren’t completely silly and that’s what’s going on here.  

There’s basically no reason for Azrael to be perched on the gates of Arkham Asylum and slicing through the air with his flaming hand blade other than it looks amazing.  Seriously, the complete dedication to gothic iconography and superhero ridiculous on display here goes all the way around to being awesome again.  

I especially like the blend of colors between the oddly purple backdrop, the dark iron of the gate, and Azrael’s burgundy color scheme, that’s a good balance right there.  It was also nice to add that “Enter the Asylum!” inter-title for those who couldn’t read the backwards “Arkham” on the gate.

Another cover doubling down on Azrael’s gothic nature with awesome results.  You get a much clearer view of his costume in this shot, in particular the chest area that seems to trip so many people up.  The big reason for that is that over his armor he’s got a kind of inverse cape marked with flour-delis that add a pop of color to the chest while also confusing the flow of his costume.  Still, his big mitten gauntlets are awesome and I love that he’s always throwing fiery blades around like that’s just something people do.  

This is also easily the most Grim Reapers I’ve ever seen on screen at once.  The Grim Reaper is one of those under-used horror icons like the Golem or living scarecrows that I'm always happy to see show up, even if one of them is completely nude for this cover.  Actually, the really freaky one is the Grim Reaper with a sword on the back right and the lower jaw that’s falling off.  That guy is spooky if only because he’s wielding a sword that’s bigger than he is. 

Okay, this is a great cover in theory but man is it hard for Azrael to emote through his facemask.  His mask is key to assuming the identity of the Azrael, an avenging angel from the Bible and the core religious symbolism used by the order of Saint Dumas he once served, but its solid nature makes it hard to get a read on his feelings.  So, while this cover should be an impactful glimpse of his anger, helplessness, and grief at the death of Tim Drake (he got better,) he kind of looks underwhelmed by the situation.  Like, without an open mouth or clenched eyes to indicate something more he looks a little too much like he’s shrugging.  

As for what’s happening, this was one of several big, natural disaster driven events in the Batman universe that impacted all the other books in the line-up.  In this case, Batman was involved fighting an Ebola-esc plague that had hit Gotham and had its roots in some weird mystery of antiquity that plays like a Dan Brown fever dream.  Azrael was actually really important to the story given his connections to the Order and it wealth of old world knowledge but it’s hardly well remembered now. 

Sooner or later pretty much every comic book does a “hero no more” cover.  The big, iconic, important one is still probably the ‘Spider-Man No More’ cover that this one is specifically homaging.  That’s the cover where Peter’s left his costume hanging over a trash can and is seen sadly walking away in the background that they re-enacted beat for beat in Spider-Man 2.  In this case I think Azrael got the better deal, for a change, as he got to retire on a tropical island and walk into the sunset as opposed to a rainy New York ally.  

This is another good example of using color to segment the cover and afford it greater definition.  The burnt mauve of the sunset contrasts perfectly with the shady green of the trees while the sandy brown beach let’s the bright red Azrael mask pop nicely.  I also like the way Jean-Paul’s long blonde hair billows in his silhouette, that’s fairly accurate to his “Fabio, but dorkier” look. 

I kind of love how much this cover embraced the idea of Azrael as kind of a down market Batman.  Like, after years of failing to get Batman to give up his fight for justice and run the League of Assassins Ras just said “Screw it, we’ll get Azrael to do it.”  I’m not sure that’s totally fair to Azrael but thankfully there is another way he fits into this scene.  As I’ve mentioned, Azrael has a lot of ties to the Order of Saint Dumas, a secret religious order that goes back to the Crusades and has been pulling the world’s strings, basically the same kind of group as the Templars from Assassin’s Creed.  

At this point in his career he was actively opposing the Order so Ras would work as an ally in that battle, especially given his eternal status in the DCU.  Actually, given that Ras is meant to run the same historical group the Assassins of Assassin’s Creed are based on, I have to wonder if this cover didn’t completely predict the plot of Assassin’s Creed.  Weird thought, also weird- how incredibly, impossibly huge Ras’ guards are, those dudes must be on steroids or something. 

Speaking of steroids, you had to expect Bane would show up somewhere in these covers.  For those of you who missed his terrible appearance in Dark Knight Rises, Bane was a super villain concocted in the early ‘90s specifically to defeat Batman.  He was given an inverse of Batman’s origin, a child force to pay for the sins of their parent, along with a super steroid addiction to Venom, a drug Batman was briefly addicted to for a time.  

He launched a one-man war on the Bat for a time and eventually broke his back, causing him to retire and leading to Jean-Paul taking over the role.  In his tenure, Azrael (or Az-Bat as he was occasionally known) actually defeated Bane where Batman failed, mainly by using his razor claws and bat shaped razor blades.  

That makes this cover pretty much on key with the earlier Joker cover, old enemies from Azrael’s time losing control as the Batman coming back to haunt him.  There’s a real sense of addiction to Azrael’s time as Batman, the way it was a period where he wasn’t in control of his actions and many of his current adventures involve the fallout from those actions, forcing him to take responsibility for things he really didn’t have a say in.  

I do really like this reworking of Bane’s classic back breaking cover, mainly because Bane looks slightly more human though still creepy and hulkish.  Also, that little detail of Azrael’s armor snapping under the pressure is a great addition. 

Going back to that idea of Azrael’s addiction to righteous violence, this is a great cover for realizing the risk of a back slide for him.  The framing of the spotlight, his pose ready to impale this guy, and the broken bodies scattered all about the frame tell a very sobering tale of some dudes he’s messed up real bad.  Back when he was Batman he got up to some bad stuff, branding the bat symbol into people, crippling them for life, and even costing a few guys their life.  

Having that guilt hovering over you as well as the constant threat of sliding back into being that person was always key to Azrael’s struggle, especially given how often he threw himself into triggering situations like this one that could’ve easily led him back down the road of his programming.  That’s always what I found so compelling about him, his willingness to risk personal damnation to try and help others and to prove to himself that he was in control, not the abuse that was forced upon him as a child. 

Okay, four things to explain here before even talking about the cover so let’s go.  Firstly- near the end of the ‘90s Azrael was rebranded as the “Agent of the Bat” as part of gearing up for the 2000s revival of the Bat Family imprint with a large team of supporting heroes working with Batman.  Secondly, that header above the logo is for the Bat universe event No Man’s Land, a year-long story where Gotham suffered a devastating earthquake and was excommunicated from the US. 

It basically became a lawless wasteland ala Escape from New York, with Batman and his allies eventually retaking the city.  Finally, the title on the side, Day of Judgment, refers to a different event comic impacting the entire universe.  This was where hell itself opened and took control of the Spectre, a spirit of divine wrath, which basically served as an excuse for heroes to face a bunch of weird ghosts.  Finally, this was during a time when Azrael changed his costume to lessen the impact his brainwashing had on him because of how closely it was built on his costume acting to trigger a separate personality. 

All of that having been said- this cover is great.  The idea of having Azrael go toe-to-toe with the unliving embodiment of the entire order he’s spent his life rejecting was a great call and Dumas is gloriously rendered here.  I really like the idea of him being engulfed in flame given that the Order was later linked heavily to the Inquisition, to the point Az-Bat started using his flamethrower to literally burn unbelievers.  Overall, just a great way to externalize the demons that have always plagued him, pun intended. 

I’ve made it clear so far what I find resonant about Azrael is the way he struggles with an abusive and healthy childhood and trying to define his own identity through reclaiming his heritage without becoming the same monsters that created him in the first place.  It’s an incredibly adult and sophisticated idea for a superhero but it fits perfectly into the Batman mythos.  After all, the entire crux of Batman’s identity is creating strength out of personal trauma and that’s what Azrael is all about.  I’ve shown you the trauma and his psyche throughout these covers but we haven’t really seen the strength yet- here it is. 

This image is so epic I want it airbrushed on a van.  Just looking at this cover automatically triggers electric guitar rifts from the ether it’s that awesome.  Part of that is that heroes on horseback are shockingly cool and evocative, especially those from the Dark Knight’s family.  More than that, it really gets the stable of religious iconography and fire symbolism that informs Azrael.  It’s a form of vindication that way, Azrael finally emerging from the flames like a phoenix as a crusader knight for modern times.  

It’s an image of victory and defiance that’s completely earned and fits perfectly into Azrael’s struggles as a hero.  What’s more, there’s a flaming sword here, for no obvious reason other than that this image was too awesome for the sword not to be on fire.  Azrael: flawed person trying to be better than his origins and kick-ass flaming knight of the modern era- that’s what superheroes are all about. 

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