Batman Trade Post: Sword of Azrael & Earth One

Batman: Sword of Azrael (DC)
Written by Dennis O’Neil, drawn by Joe Quesada
Collects Batman: Sword of Azrael #1-4

After reading and mostly enjoying enjoying the first new collection of the Knightfall material, I figured it would be a good time to re-read a trade I’ve had in my collection for as long as I’ve had a trade collection, Batman: The Sword of Azrael. As Bat-fans will know, this is the first appearance of Jean-Paul Valley and Azrael, the man who would go on to take over for Batman after he gets his back broken by Bane. He’s the guy inside the very 90s suit of Bat armor and who went on to have a pretty substantial ongoing series of his own.

It’s actually a bit odd having read the Knightfall stuff and seeing how nutty JPV was in those issues and how geeky and meek he is in this series by Dennis O’Neil and Joe Quesada with Kevin Nowlan inks. This series finds Azrael, the avenging angel for a side group of Knights Templar called the Order of St. Dumas, dying and passing the mantle on to his son JPV. He gets discovered pretty quickly by the Order and taken to a place to start his training, but Batman’s on the case. Unfortunately for Batman, a former member of the Order who has also gone nuts and dedicated himself to a demon, captures him, discovers his identity and wants to keep him prisoner.

It’s cool little story with some awesome art by Quesada. I’m more used to his bulky character art that you see on covers and whatnot these days, but in here he’s kind of cartoon-y, but in a really great, fun, stylized way that can be creepy when he wants to be. He’s like a more detailed Scott McDaniel? I have trouble talking about artists because I’m not super familiar with the mechanics, but I like when guys have a look all their own.

My only real problem with the story is that there isn’t much of an action-oriented lead. Batman gets captured, JPV doesn’t do a ton unless he’s Azrael, but then he’s basically someone else. It does give Alfred a cool spotlight, but it would have been nice to see Az or JPV have a little more agency. But, I don’t want to end on a negative note and want to point out a moment I really liked. Like I said, the crazy demon-loving guy has Bruce captured for a while and even though he can’t do anything physically, Batman starts messing with his mind. He really got in there too and made the bad guy doubt himself and his connection to the demon. It was a super cool moment that showed off an aspect of the character that doesn’t get used quite as much in my experience.

If you read the Knightfall post I linked to above or follow me on twitter, you’ll notice that I’ve been talking about a pre-Knightfall trade and I think I’ve nailed down what I’d like to see in it. Even though I have this trade, I think it would make sense to combine the Batman: Venom story (which just got a reprint this year and I need to get a copy of), Sword of Azrael, Batman #488-490 and Detective Comics #656-658. That would cover the introduction of Bane’s signature strength-enhancing drug, the man who would become Batman AND both characters’ pre-Knightfall appearances. I think I’m going to keep my eyes peeled for those issues and see if maybe they’re worth collecting myself.

Batman: Earth One (DC)
Written by Geoff Johns, drawn by Gary Frank

After reading Batman: Sword of Azrael, I looked on my shelf for the trade I used to have that collected the first six or so issues of Robin’s ongoing series which launched out of Knightfall because I figured it would make a good companion read. Then I remembered that I actually got rid of that book a while back because I have all those issues…back home. Wanting to read another Batman book, I figured I’d give the recently acquired Batman: Earth One a read. At the beginning of this year, I posted some pages in a Casting Internets, which got a comment from old pal Zach about “old farts” like us not needing another Batman origin story. Of course, he’s right, but I was excited to see what Geoff Johns would do with the character and I think Gary Frank is the best artist that doesn’t do enough stuff, so what’s not to like?

Last month I read my pal Sean T. Collins’ review of the book over at The Comics Journal and he raised a very important questions: why does this comic exist? I’m probably going to repeat some of his points (I didn’t read it again for this post because I didn’t want to taint it, but I do remember us having some of the same problems), but here goes. As Zach pointed out and I’m sure Sean did as well, there’s a huge mountain to climb if the point of this book is to tell Batman’s origin in a concise way that you can hand to non-comics fans and get them all twitterpated like they did with Superman: Earth One which supposedly took a Twilight-y approach to Superman.  I didn’t read that book and don’t know if I will, though I do love Shane Davis and his artwork, but that makes sense for me. Take a popular genre, throw in some superhero goodness and sell a butt-ton of copies.

The problem here is that the general public has a really good concept of what’s up with Batman. Superman’s been out of the spotlight for a while, so there’s wiggle room there, but Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies have made a LOT of money. People know the Batman origin, or at least the one set forth in the movie. So, what’s going to happen if they pick this book up? I’d imagine a fair amount of confusion. Alfred’s a what now? Penguin’s the mayor? Bullock’s thin? Bruce’s mom is an Arkham? Huh? No thanks, next!

If the idea is just to tell an interesting re-imagining of Batman, you’re running up another roadblock because there are a ridiculous number of these stories even if you’re not talking about Nolan’s flicks. Every cartoon version — we’ve got Batman The Animated Series which continued into Justice League and JLU, not to mention The Batman, Batman: Brave and the Bold and all the straight-to-DVD movies — has had a pretty solid origin, plus the movies, comics, storybooks, everything. People know Batman. Does this book bring any new light to the character? Not really.

I will say I liked some of the ideas. Birthday Boy was a creepy villain, there’s no way around that. I liked that The Penguin was the mayor and can even get behind the idea of Bruce’s mom being an Arkham, that’s an interesting aspect that could be played with. I also like that Alfred trained him, but not so much the fact that 1) Bruce hasn’t known him his whole life and 2) Bruce didn’t train well before becoming Batman. I need to re-read Year One to see how that compares, but it felt a little off for the character.

But, even the things I like can be turned into problems because how many more of these books are there going to be? Johns is a busy dude and I’d personally much rather have a favorite artist like Frank working on other projects, so will we see how the Arkham connection comes into play or the end lead in with the Riddler? Who knows. I’m not really chomping at the bit for it.

I do remember one of the positive/good reasons Sean said this book exists is because it gives Frank a chance to draw Batman and I’ve got to say that’s pretty much at the top of my list as well. I’ve been a fan of his going back to his run on Gen 13 (which was super weird and written by John Arcudi!) and loved everything I’ve read from Midnight Nation to his various Superman projects. I’m excited by anything he draws and his art has even drawn me into some things I might not have otherwise tried, but like I said, I’d rather see him working on something else.

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