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Azrael

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In 1992, publisher DC Comics was faced with a dilemma: how to match, or better yet surpass, the phenomenal success of their just-released Death of Superman storyline. Their solution: Create a new Batman. Debuting in writer Dennis O'Neil and artist Joe Quesada's four-issue miniseries Batman: Sword of Azrael #1 (October 1992) is Jean Paul Valley, who, while in the womb, is genetically conditioned toward physical perfection by the malevolent Order of St. Dumas, an errant sect dating back to the Crusades. Brainwashed and combatively trained throughout his youth, Valley obediently succeeds his late father—an assassin for the Order—donning Dad's formidable crimson-and-gold habiliment and fiery swords and assuming his destiny as the Avenging Angel, Azrael.


But the Order was in for a surprise: Their newest executioner possessed a powerful force of will. Azrael was excommunicated from the Order after saving the life of Bruce (Batman) Wayne. When Batman's back was broken by Bane, a crime lord boasting drug-enhanced strength, Wayne selected Valley as his successor. Such a move had previously been unthinkable; DC had several different Flashes and Green Lanterns—and even a string of Robins—but the idea of replacing Wayne as the alter ego of Batman was as unlikely as killing Superman. This unprecedented event earned DC Comics extensive media coverage and huge sales. Readers who had previously ignored Batman, thinking the character too familiar, now jumped on board. In a gesture showing that its new Batman was no fly-by-night, DC Comics had Az-Bat, as the character was colloquially nicknamed, co-star with the Punisher in a 1994 DC/Marvel Comics crossover.


While Wayne's Batman was designed to strike fear into criminals' hearts, Valley's Batman pushed that concept to a dangerous extreme. An unstable psychotic whose addled mind allowed him to speak with the specter of St. Dumas, Valley, armed with Bat-blade-firing gauntlets, repeatedly crossed the line, even killing an adversary, thereby breaking the original Batman's code to preserve life. As soon as he was able, Wayne reappeared as Batman, bolstered by his true protégés Nightwing and Robin, and fought his surrogate to repossess the mantle of the Bat.

No longer the Batman, Valley once again became Azrael and in February 1995 spun off into his own monthly series, Azrael: Agent of the Bat. Author/co-creator O'Neil explored Valley's personal and religious redemption (ground he had similarly covered three decades prior in the legendary Green Lantern/Green Arrow series), leading Azrael, aided by St. Dumas refugees Nomoz and Sister Lilhy, on a mission to overthrow the Order. Despite occasional crossovers with other titles in the Batman franchise, Azrael ran out of steam and was canceled with its one hundredth issue in early 2003, but not before Valley had mended his relationship with the Dark Knight. —ME


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