Detective Comics writer James Tynion IV made a noticeable tear in the internet when he revealed that Detective Comics #962 would feature the return of the Azrael version of Batman!
The news drew a lot of attention, but naturally enough, since it is referencing a story that took place over two decades ago, it is reasonable that there might be fans out there who don't know why this news is so cool, so we figured that we would give you a refresher course on the delightfully bizarre character that was Az-Bats!
It all started with 1992's Batman: Sword of Azrael. Joe Quesada had just recently burst on to the comic book scene with the DC miniseries that had introduced the new version of the Ray and this assignment was his biggest job yet, not only working on a major Batman miniseries with Batman editor (and legendary Batman writer) Denny O'Neil but getting the chance to design a brand-new character who was set to play a major role in the Batman universe the following year.
O'Neil wanted to come up with, in effect, an opposite of Batman, and after looking for various animal opposites (this is presumably how Owlman got his name years earlier, as owls are kind of sort of the natural enemies of bats) he ended up on the idea that, if Batman is sort of a good demon, then this character would be a bad angel, so he settled on Azrael, which is the name of the Angel of Death.
The concept behind the character is that Jean-Paul Valley, a graduate student in computer science, discovers that he is part of a line of assassins for a mysterious group known as the Sacred Order of Saint Dumas. He makes this discover when he learns that his father, who had been the current Azrael, was killed. Suddenly, "The System" kicked in and Jean-Paul found himself working as an assassin as if it was something that he had done for years. The System, of course, was an intricate series of brainwashing that Jean-Paul's bloodline was subjected to to turn them into the perfect killing machine for the Order.
Quesada designed not only the armor that Jean-Paul's father wore, but also the new and improved armor that Jean-Paul was set to wear as the new Azrael. It was an impressive design, intricate but not overly so, and really looked like the sort of thing that a twisted religious order would make for their soldier.
At the end of the series (Kevin Nowlan inked Quesada on the series), Batman managed to break through Jean-Paul's programming and allowed Jean-Paul to reclaim his humanity.
However, since Jean-Paul now had all of these crazy abilities that he never knew that he had due to The System, he decided to have Batman train him to use those abilities (he had saved Batman's life during Sword of Azrael, so Batman felt an obligation to help him). In Batman #488 (by Doug Moench and Jim Aparo), Robin began to train Jean-Paul as a vigilante (while Batman got Jean-Paul a job at Wayne Industries as a security guard)....
However, around this same time, Batman had been dealing with some nagging injuries and an inability to sleep, so he and Robin actually ended up using Jean-Paul as a decoy Batman on a number of occasions, like in Batman #490...
This would become a major problem down the line.
So Robin continued training Jean-Paul, but at the same time, the villain Bane began his systematic attack on Batman by first releasing all of the criminals within Arkham Asylum. Then, when Batman had exhausted himself trying to defeat all of those villains, Bane showed up at the Bat Cave and surprised Batman. They fought, but with Batman near total exhaustion and Bane pumped up with the strength-enhancing drug known as Venom, there was no contest. Bane literally "broke" Batman, as he broke Batman's spinal cord and then threw the injured Batman to the ground in front of Gotham to declare that he was now the king of Gotham.
In the delirium of his pain, Batman decided that someone needed to fill in for him as Batman and since Jean-Paul had already been doing it, he turned to him and Jean-Paul took over as the caped crusader. He quickly began to integrate some of the costume upgrades that he had made to his Azrael costume (including claw-like gloves that would shoot out grappling hooks and a rope line). However, in Batman #500, he decided that the only way to defeat Bane was to step up his game even further.
By this time, Joe Quesada had already moved over to Marvel and become a star artist on the X-titles, but he came back to design the new Batman armor costume. He did the cover for Batman #500, but it is so shiny that it is hard to see...
So instead, we'll show you the debut of the armor within the issue, where Mike Manley (fresh off of a run on Darkhawk for Marvel) took over as the regular artist on the series...
Now that he was fully his own Batman, Jean-Paul began to resort to violent methods like he had been trained to do as Azrael, and Robin was worried that Jean-Paul might kill Bane in the big Batman/Bane rematch, but Jean-Paul held off...for now...
Eventually, the stress of being Batman was too much for Jean-Paul, and his programming in The System began to kick in again (really, it was astonishingly irresponsible to put a guy who is trying to overcome a brainwashing system that turns him into an assassin in charge of the Batman mantle). He became more and more violent until he finally crossed the line and let one of Batman's villains, Abbatoir, die.
This change in his direction was marked with a further upgrade to his armor, making it even more over-the-top (complete with a flamethrower built into the armor and mini missile launcher!).
It is this version of Az-Bats (as he began to be described as at the time) that looks to be returning in Detective Comics.
Luckily, Bruce Wayne's back was magically healed and after some training from Lady Shive, Bruce returned to reclaim the Batman mantle in "Knightsend," the third part of the "Knight" trilogy ("Knightfall," "Knightquest" and "Knightsend").
Once Bruce was back, he allowed Jean-Paul to remain a vigilante, with Jean-Paul reclaiming the Azrael name. Denny O'Neil, Barry Kitson and James Pascoe launched a new Azrael ongoing series that lasted a remarkable 100 issues, with O'Neil writing the book the entire time (the last ongoing series written by the comic book legend).
Jean-Paul was seemingly killed in Azrael #100, but he returned in the New 52, and James Tynion IV has done even more with Jean-Paul in DC Rebirth, but it remains to be seen who, exactly, will be wearing the Az-Bats armor in Detective Comics #962. We can't wait to find out!