This month for underrated hero, I decided to focus on a character that has been traditionally cast as the villain/ anti-hero for the Batman fans, Azrael. Azrael has been around since the early 90’s and has been a player in several major arcs for the Dark Knight. Most famously, Azrael took up the mantle of the Bat after the events of Knightfall when Batman was healing from his broken back.
Azrael’s first appearance was in the 1992 comic arc titled Batman: Sword of Azrael. The original Azrael (Jean Paul Valley) was created by Denny O’Neil and Joe Quesada. Later on in his publication history, Jean Paul was removed as Azrael and the title was bestowed upon Michael Washington Lane. While Lane did hold the title it was only briefly before Valley reclaimed his proper position as Azrael.
Starting out as a villain, it wasn’t until his own series, which ran for a hundred issues from 1995 -2003, where Azrael transitioned from villain to hero.
Azrael is the assassin from the Sacred Order of Saint Dumas, a medieval religious order that splintered from the Knights Templar Order. The Order of Saint Dumas was founded by their leader and Templar Knight, Dumas, during the crusades. Ra’s al Ghul went on an “adventure” with Dumas and described his compatriot as a “vicious man and insane fanatic”.
Jean Paul Valley was not born, he was genetically engineered from DNA harvested from the previous Azrael, his “father”. His DNA was then combined with several other members of the order that had held the title of Azrael. They then took that genetic mixture and added in some genetic information from certain animals; then he was grown in a tank until he was “born”. He grew up with his father Ludovic Valley, the former Azrael, and attended Gotham University in the computer science program, from which he graduated. Throughout his life Jean Paul was subjected to deep psychological conditioning which ever so slightly oriented him towards the Order’s goals. When his father died, Jean Paul was activated by the Order and was called upon to take up the mantle of Azrael. It was after his father’s death that Jean Paul came to learn how he was created and who his father actually was.
During his first mission for the Order, Jean Paul was tasked with killing a rogue member of the Order who had killed his father, Ludovic, and was running a weapon smuggling ring. It was during this mission that Valley first crossed paths with Batman, the latter of which had been investigating Ludovic’s death. When the rogue member kidnaps Bruce Wayne, Azrael allies with Alfred to bring down the weapon smuggling ring. Azrael honed his detective skills and tracked the rogue Order member for a final showdown. When Batman is nearly killed in the final confrontation, Azrael risks his life to save him, showing Batman that Azrael was more than just a killing instrument. After the rogue member was brought to justice, Valley requested Batman’s help in breaking the conditioning instilled in him so he can make his own destiny.
After this Bruce employs him as a security guard at the Wayne Tech headquarters; while Batman and Robin use him as an apprentice crimefighter and begin instructing him on detective work. As I said before, his real pivotal inclusion comes during the events of Knightfall. When Bane breaks Batman’s back, Valley steps in with his own modified version of the Bat suit to take up Bruce’s war on crime. During his stint as the caped crusader Valley comes to believe that Bruce’s tactics are obsolete, and that to truly beat crime you have to fight on their level. He begins using increasingly brutal tactics and even begins to show little regard for innocent bystanders.
Going against Bruce’s orders he defeats Bane using an enhanced battle armour he built while still under the mental conditioning of the Order. As Bruce continues to heal, Azrael becomes increasingly violent and brutal to the point of allowing criminals to fall to their deaths. He becomes angered at Robin (Tim Drake) nearly strangling him before banning him from the Bat-cave. He also seals the cave off from Both Wayne Manor and Drake Estate before openly bad mouthing Commissioner Gordon and the GCPD.
When Bruce hears of Valley’s tactics and exploits he resolves to take back the mantle and title of Batman. After a long and drawn out fight, which culminates in a final showdown in the Bat-cave, Bruce tricks Valley into taking off his armour. Once he has removed the armour, leaving his helmet on ( due to its enhanced night vision capabilities), Bruce blasts Azrael with direct sunlight. Realizing he has been beaten, he asks Bruce for forgiveness. Bruce declares that Valley is to leave the cave immediately. As Valley leaves, he declares Bruce Wayne as the one true Batman. Bruce keeps tabs on Valley over the following months because he saw the potential in him that Bruce saw in himself at a young age. He also recognized that he himself had a role in Valley’s descent into madness, which hits him with just a little bit of guilt.
Valley lives on the streets with the homeless population of Gotham for several weeks. During his time on the streets Valley befriends a man named Brian, an alcoholic disgraced psychiatrist. With Brian’s help, Jean Paul discovers the secret of the order and their true agenda. The pair also aid a young sister by the name of Lilhy to escape from the Order.
He redeems himself by saving several senators from being assassinated prior to No Man’s Land. After seeing his redemption, Batman sets him after notorious hitman Nicholas Scratch. While in pursuit of Scratch, he was unsuccessful in saving a Senator on Scratch’s hitlist. Scratch strangles the Senator minutes before Azrael arrived and framed Azrael for the murder. During No Man’s Land, Azrael assists Batman in maintaining order throughout the chaotic Gotham City. He is given a new suit designed by Batman and sets to work defending Dr. Leslie Thompkins’ clinic during the chaos of No Man’s Land. He begins to have hallucinations of his father and St. Dumas himself, Azrael returns to his original costume before being target by supernatural “miracles”.
In the final issue of his run, Azrael is seemingly killed off. While fighting Scratch and LeHah, Valley is shot by 2 specially coated bullets which allowed the bullets to penetrate his armour with ease. It’s never revealed what the bullets were coated with. While LeHah and Azrael fall into the river, Scratch is arrested for firing the shots that killed Azrael.
While his body was never recovered, there were snippets in various comics that lead readers to believe that Jean Paul Valley had survived his death.
During the DC crossover event Blackest Night, Azrael is shown to be a member of the Black Lantern corps and fights along with the other zombified heroes. There was quite a bit of speculation saying that this could’ve been the previous Azrael, Ludovic Valley; however, the tabloid of Blackest Night listed Azrael as none other than Jean Paul Valley, confirming his death at the hands of Scratch.
While Valley was dead for several years, another was given the mantle of Azrael. He was recruited by a splinter sect of the Order of Saint Dumas called the Order of Purity. This individual was the ex-cop named Michael Washington Lane. Lane was subject to Dr. Hurt’s experiments during the Battle for the Cowl, and appeared as the “third ghost of Batman” in the event. Lane did not remain as Azrael for long, but he was one of the characters to don the identity in the Batman: Arkham game series.
In the New 52 Valley was resurrected during Batman & Robin: Eternal. He worked as an enforcer for the Order but was seen wielding a sword rather than his regular bladed gauntlets. Eventually he rebelled and assisted both Red Hood and Red Robin (Tim Drake) in taking down the Order.
In Rebirth, Valley appeared in detective comics as a supporting character for the first two volumes before become a full fledged member of the team in Vol. 3.
POWERS AND ABILITIES
Azrael is just a man, like many other of my underrated heroes. He is a man that was genetically modified and spliced with animal DNA to become the perfect weapon. He is trained to the peak of human conditioning & physicality and has bested Batman in combat.
Azrael is not a master of combat. He is an adequate fighter but his modified genetic code allows him for inhuman reflexes, metabolism, speed and strength. As such, he has dueled Deathstroke to a draw, and bested Batman in hand to hand combat.
His suit is called the Suit of Sorrows, which contains an ancient extremely advanced AI which bonds with the wearer of the armour. It provides the perfect synchronicity between movement and thought. It also allows for the suit to predict the most likely action and shows the weakest points on his enemies.
He is shown to use retractable daggers in his gauntlets, and a couple different swords as his main weapons.
The Sword of Sin – When struck by the Sword of Sin, the victim is forced to remember every sin they’ve committed through their life which they must atone for.
The Sword of Salvation – When struck with the Sword of Salvation, the victim is forced to remember every past tragedy they have experienced through their life all at one time.
WHY HE’S UNDERRATED
Azrael is a human experiment that was meant to be a weapon. He was genetically designed and conditioned since his creation to be a weapon for the Secret Order of Saint Dumas, and he rebelled. He had a bit of a bumpy road but he was able to pull through with help from Batman and his friends. Mostly though, I think he is underrated because he was able to battle Deathstroke to a draw and beat Batman in hand to hand combat. He is relegated to being a side character and viewed as a broken mind by most of the main continuity heroes. The reason I like him so much is how close his condition resembles Moon Knight. Moon Knight suffers from MPD and Azrael is just a troubled mind, but they still are viewed the same by the superhero community in their respective universes. They are constantly being watched as though they are going to snap at any moment and cause a major problem for the community as a whole.
Mostly the reason Azrael is underrated is because he is the poster child for redemption. Everyone loves a good redemption story, especially when it involves an assassin for a religious zealot organization rebelling and taking them down. There’s just something poetic about a religious sect getting dismantled by someone they tried to brainwash into service…
I really like Azrael in the Rebirth Detective Comics, I think he brings an interesting dynamic to the team and the conversations between him and Luke Fox are awesome. While Jean Paul still has his faith despite everything that they’ve done to him and he still believes in a higher power, Luke Fox is grounded in science and physics. Luke doesn’t understand how Jean Paul can still have faith after everything that was done to him and Jean Paul is working to show him that faith is not something that just disappears after challenges. He has a line that says his crucible is done and he has come out the other side better for it, and he will use this new life and power to help those in need. I’m not one generally, for a faith based character because on my own beliefs, but for some reason I can get behind Azrael and his motives and actions; and really… that’s what makes a character great. If you, as a reader, can get behind them and root for them despite that you might disagree with their beliefs, that means that character is written well.
I really want to see more Azrael in the future of DC comics and hopefully can get him on either the TV screen (properly), or the big screen! His brief inclusion in Season 2 of Gotham was just garbage.
This concludes my monthly post about underrated heroes, see you all next week!