Credits: Denny O’Neil (writer), Barry Kitson (penciler), Scott Hanna (inker), Willie Schubert (letterer), Digital Chameleon (colorist)
Summary: Jean-Paul refuses to relinquish the title of Batman. He taunts Bruce by destroying his father’s portrait and then retreats to the Batcave. Bruce digs up the hole he fell through as a child on the day he discovered the cave. He confronts Jean-Paul in the Batcave and manipulates Jean-Paul into following him back up the hole. In order to fit, Jean-Paul must remove all of his armor. When dawn breaks, the light entering the hole blinds Jean-Paul’s eyes through his night-vision lenses. He realizes Bruce truly is Batman. Bruce allows him to leave, wishing Jean-Paul well.
Review: I only purchased one issue of “Knightsend” off the stands, and this is the one. I imagine I wasn’t alone. If you were even slightly interested in comics at the time, you knew about the massive Batman event that been raging for years, and that this issue was the big Batman vs. Azrael fight. Even if I missed virtually all of the build-up to this moment, I still viewed this issue as a satisfactory conclusion (not knowing that Bruce Wayne was still months away from truly returning.) I also loved the art, which I thought had a strong Jim Lee influence. That’s the only time I can recall linking Barry Kitson to Jim Lee, but I can still kind of see it this issue. Somewhat realistic figures, strong chins, battle armor, heavy emphasis on detail lines; it also didn’t hurt that this issue had “Image coloring” as well.
Finally, we’ve reached the actual conclusion. Yes, DC slaps “Knightsend” on the cover of two more comics shipping at the end of this month, and the final Knightfall trade goes on to reprint the “Prodigal” event, but as for Batman/Azrael, this is the end of the line. Thankfully, the creator of Azrael and the architect of this event, Denny O’Neil, has stepped in to bring all of this to a close. I can’t say that this issue is enough to change my opinion of Azrael (a name he’s almost never called in these comics, by the way), but he is far more tolerable in this chapter than he has been for the past several dozen issues.
O’Neil writes Azrael as an angry young man, lashing out in pain and desperate to fill the loneliness inside of him. He’s not stable by any definition, but he isn’t a raving loon, which is all we’ve seen of Jean-Paul during the event so far. It seems as if the other creators latched on to the concept of Jean-Paul being brainwashed as a youth and couldn’t go anywhere else with it. Brainwashed psychotically violent quasi-religious nut just isn’t a strong enough hook for a protagonist who’s starring in around a thousand pages of Batman comics. Azrael’s “insanity” became tedious ranting almost as soon as the storyline began, leaving him thoroughly unlikable for way too long.
I think O’Neil understands that the appeal of the hyper-violent loner vigilante comes from the wish fulfillment of the adolescent males that make (or made) up the bulk of mainstream comics’ readership. An angry, confused, powerful man lashing out at the world is an easy archetype to mock, but I think it evokes a visceral response in readers at a certain age. Some readers move on to material like Alan Moore’s Supreme, rediscover old classics, or just abandon superhero comics altogether, but a segment of the audience gets stuck at that point and can’t let go of this stuff. Having Azrael represent that mindset does make him a respectable nemesis for the traditional Batman, but think of how rarely this dynamic was explored. It’s obvious early on that Azrael is a poor replacement for Batman because he lacks even fundamental integrity, but the stories rarely made a point deeper than that. And even if the creators didn’t want to veer too far into meta-commentary, which is understandable, Jean-Paul as a character never developed into much of a leading man. As I said before, I can genuinely feel for the Punisher when written properly, but this lunatic is often just insufferable. I don’t know how well O’Neil fleshed the character out in the initial Sword of Azrael miniseries, but his work in this issue shows that there’s at least some potential for Azrael. (I make no claims of quality for the upcoming Azrael ongoing series. I remember the reviews on that one.)
Humanizing Azrael and getting him in position to willingly give up the cowl is the obvious mission of the issue, but O’Neil also does a lot of work getting inside Bruce’s head. I think most people are now familiar with the chestnut about Batman being the “real” identity and Bruce Wayne is the pose. (O’Neil’s own work with the character might even be the genesis for this thinking.) O’Neil has Bruce himself question if this is true, as he realizes that he has perhaps been leaning on the Batman identity as a crutch just as much as Jean-Paul. When Azrael screams, “If I’m not Batman I’m nothing!” Bruce is forced to look at his own life and ask if this is true. The use of purifying light in the story is a bit “on the nose” of course, but I think it’s interesting to have Bruce also look towards the light and question what place it has in his life. You would hope that after this lengthy storyline DC could’ve firmly decided just what percentage of “dark” they wanted in their Batman comics. This issue leads you to believe that we’re going to be seeing a more well-balanced Bruce Wayne in future, and that the dark, obsessive Batman that the fans claimed to want has been displaced. That might’ve been the plan, but by the end of the decade, we’ll see a Batman that’s even more of a Frank Miller parody than ever. And then Frank Miller actually does return, and…well, we don’t need to get into that.