Monday, August 24, 2015

BATMAN: SWORD OF AZRAEL #1 - October 1992

Vanishing Angels & Sudden Death
Credits:  Dennis O’Neil (writer), Joe Quesada (penciler), Kevin Nowlan (inker), Ken Bruzenak (letterer), Lovern Kindzierski (colorist)

Summary:  Azrael confronts weapons dealer Carleton LeHah, and is shot repeatedly.  He stumbles into a nearby parade and accidentally causes a riot that kills several people.  Near death, Azrael reaches the apartment of his son Jean-Paul.  Azrael leaves Jean-Paul a cryptic message before dying.  Following the directions left by his father, Jean-Paul travels to the Swiss Alps.  He meets his tutor Nomoz, and Nomoz’s burly assistant, Heinreich.  They train Jean-Paul to follow in his father’s footsteps, while Batman investigates Carleton LeHah in Gotham.  His investigation leads him to the ancient Order of St. Dumas, and to the Swiss Alps.  As Batman and Alfred fly overhead the Order of Dumas’ chalet, LeHah fires a rocket that destroys the building.

Irrelevant Continuity:  
  • According to Nomoz, Jean-Paul’s father has been preparing him to become Azrael since childhood.  His secret conditioning (“The System”) would go on to play a major role in many “Knightfall” stories.
  • Carleton LeHah debuts this issue.  He’ll also become important later during “Knightfall,” even though the stories reprinted in the Knightfall trades never get around to really explaining who he is.
  • A reporter named Sherri Port is killed during the riot.  Batman claims that he knew, and liked, Sherri.

Dramatic Exits:  After receiving information on the case from Commissioner Gordon (Azrael had a sword that no one’s recovered), Batman disappears in the middle of their conversation.

I Love the ‘90s:  Quesada sneaks a Socks the Cat balloon into the parade scene.  I guess Socks was going to be Quesada’s Felix the Cat for a while there.

Not Approved By The Comics Code Authority:  Like most of DC’s special miniseries projects of the day, this doesn’t appear to be Code approved.  Aside from a few bloody panels, there’s nothing that would cause any problems with the CCA, however.

Review:  Unless something snuck by me, Sword of Azrael has been out of print for over twenty years now.  I have no way of knowing why, but the only reasonable explanation I can think of would be a simple desire to prevent Joe Quesada from earning reprint royalties.  It’s not as if this miniseries is a forgettable, gratuitous cash grab from the salad days of 1992.  Sword of Azrael is the basis of a multi-year Batman event that’s still inspiring material to this day.  By all rights, it should’ve been included with the phonebook Knightfall trades; its absence is impossible not to notice if you sit down and try to read those books.

My memory is that Sword was one of the few breakout hits from DC during the early ‘90s.  There was Lobo, “Death of Superman,” and the Batman miniseries by that hot new Quesada guy.  In the pre-Image days, DC’s mainstream titles tended to resemble Jim Shooter’s (or more accurately I suppose, Mort Weisinger’s) platonic ideal of superhero art -- midlevel shots, plausible anatomy, and simple page layouts that any kid could follow.  Sword broke that mold, presenting a Batman comic that could easily compete with any of the wild visuals seen in those Image books.  Quesada’s art is certainly tied to this era, but it’s not embarrassing in the way a second-tier Extreme Studios book might be viewed today.  Quesada’s pencils take elements from everyone from Mike Mignola to Michael Golden to Bart Sears, and his panel layouts are reminiscent of Todd McFarlane’s more imaginative pages.  Anything that can be exaggerated is, which leads to another obvious McFarlane comparison -- Quesada’s Batman is almost identical to the Batman we’ll see a year later in Spawn/Batman.  I don’t know if Quesada extrapolated this look from Todd’s early Batman work in the ‘80s, or if Todd saw this miniseries and was inspired, or if it’s all a massive coincidence.  Nevertheless, this Batman has the longest cape in the world, a chest wider than a Mack truck, and a tendency to literally become a shadow when he steps out at night.  Needless to say, Wizard loved this series, and the entire run became a hot collector’s item a few months after its release.

Written by Dennis O’Neil during his days editing the Batman line (this specific mini was overseen by the legendary Archie Goodwin), I’m sure most Bat-readers had some idea this story would pay dividends in the future.  I doubt many people knew it was the first step in a lengthy meta-commentary on just what Batman is supposed to represent, but surely you had to know this Azrael guy was going to be important if Denny O’Neil is plotting his debut story arc.  The first issue is mostly setup, establishing Jean-Paul’s origin while slowly drawing Batman into the story.  Quesada certainly runs with the visuals; a riot during a parade might be a chore for many artists, but Quesada seems to enjoy the chaos.  And while Azrael (the senior Azrael, not the one who’ll soon replace Batman) is a fairly dull vigilante cliché this issue, the outrageous visual is more than enough to sell him during the opening scene.  

Quesada’s so over the top, it’s hard to tell when he should or shouldn’t tone things down.  For example, is Nomoz supposed to look like the creature Billy Barty played in the Masters of the Universe movie?  As far as we know, there’s no supernatural element to the Order of St. Dumas, outside of a flaming sword.  If Nomoz isn’t supposed to be inhuman in some way, then why does Quesada draw him like this?  If there’s no need in the story for this character to resemble a troll, rendering him that way makes no sense.  (Then again, maybe Nomoz is supposed to resemble something out of Tolkien and I’m just getting ahead of myself.)  At any rate, for an issue that largely consists of cryptic hints and exposition, there’s enough here to keep the reader going to the next chapter.  Jean-Paul will go on to become an insufferable character, but thankfully there’s no hint of that in this issue.  Right now, I’m curious to see if Jean-Paul’s already a crazed loon by the end of the miniseries.


m!ke said...

it has in fact been out of print for over twenty years... the trade i believe only got one or two printings in 1993/1994 and that was it. it's interesting to note that both major characters in "knightfall" did not actually debut in the main batman titles, but in ancillary projects; bane in the vengeance of bane one shot and azrael here. i suppose if you don't want to bog down the main titles with background, it's a good approach, but since neither of these projects have been reprinted in quite some time (and vengeance of bane was actually quite good, fans are missing out on key issues.

that, and i'd really wish the novelization would get a new printing; it was an exceptional read as well.

Comicbookrehab said...

Quesada MIGHT have been influenced by Todd's rendition of Batman in the "Batman: Year Two" mini-series.

Matt said...

It may have been out of print for 20 years, but strangely enough, DC is publishing a new edition next year.

G. Kendall said...

That's interesting. The description is for the original mini, but the title and cover art shown is from his monthly series. The one Quesada didn't draw.

m!ke said...

interesting, and labelled as "vol. 1", i wonder if they'll finally start issuing his series in trade, following rightwing's lead. i remember the first couple years of azrael's solo title not actually being that bad, but that probably had a lot to do with the fact that denny was writing it.

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