Fabian Nicieza Unleashes Azrael

When Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel dealt Bruce Wayne a hand worse than death in "Batman R.I.P.," the Battle for the Cowl was officially underway.

And while contenders like Robin and Nightwing were immediate and obvious choices for possible successors, fan favorite writer Fabian Nicieza ("Robin," "Trinity") wants to bring one more wild card to the table - Azrael.

But didn't Azrael, or at least his alter ego Jean-Paul Valley, die in the final issue of his solo title "Azrael: Agent of the Bat," at the hands of his creator and legendary Batman writer/editor Denny O'Neil?

Nicieza, who is writing the three-issue DC Comics miniseries "Azrael: Death's Dark Knight" beginning in March, told CBR News, "Yes, it certainly appeared Jean-Paul died in 'Azrael' #100. But the mantle and responsibility of Azrael has been passed down for centuries, right? So, the time has come to pass it to someone new."

Jean-Paul Valley, a university student who was unknowingly conditioned and trained as an assassin since he was created in a test tube by a secret society known as the Sacred Order of Saint Dumas, first appeared in the 1992-93 miniseries, "Batman: Sword of Azrael," written by O'Neil and illustrated to great acclaim by Joe Quesada and Kevin Nowlan.

In 1994, Azrael pinch hit for Batman after he was literally broken by the villain Bane in the landmark "Knightfall" story arc. He was awarded his own ongoing title in 1995, but it ended in 2003 with the apparent death of Jean-Paul Valley.

"I want to be honest with readers of the original 'Azrael' series. This is not Jean-Paulm," Nicieza confirmed. "A new Azrael is being created by a splinter group of the Order of St. Dumas called the Order of Purity. Based on their history, they feel they have the right to name a new Azrael, now that they think the Order of Saint Dumas no longer exists, though 'Manhunter' readers know that it does."

In the most recent run of DC's "Manhunter," former Manhunter Mark Shaw was offered the mantle of Azrael but he turned it down.

"The reason why we decided not to bring Jean-Paul back was simply out of respect for Denny O'Neil's incredible run on the character," offered Nicieza. "He wrote 100-plus issues of Jean-Paul, and I felt that I would be doing this great writer, the fans of that title and ultimately, Jean-Paul, a disservice if I tried to write the character. I know it could sound odd, 'Out of respect you chose not to write his character,' but often when reviving characters like this that are so properly identified with a singular creative vision, you're in a no-win situation. I'd rather err on the side of crafting something new.

"Of course, people will then ask me why I wrote 'X-Men' after Chris Claremont wrote it for 17 years and I'll say, 'Ah, shaddup!' And since the original character was introduced as a 'legacy character,' it was with respect to the foundation of the title to pass the mantle on to someone new."

So, Jean-Paul Valley is truly dead? "Well, we used to have a saying at Marvel, 'Only Uncle Ben and Bucky stay dead,' so that answers that question," laughed Nicieza. "Never say never. But I am not writing this current miniseries with Jean-Paul in mind."

Nicieza said his love Azrael is of the at-first-sight variety. "From the day I [first] saw the character, Joe Quesada's incredible 'only Joe can draw it' costume design really struck me," said Nicieza. "Then of course, Barry Kitson drew it wonderfully as well [in the ongoing series]. But they might be the only two artists capable, or crazy enough, to draw that armor on a panel by panel basis, so since we were dealing with a new Az and a new 'religious order,' we wanted to craft a different, but still identifiable look."

Frazer Irving ("Robin," "Silent War") is illustrating the new Azrael project. Nicieza said the artist was the perfect choice because he and DC editorial wanted someone who could do "noir gothic," but also place the character in a present-day setting. "I think Frazer's style can really hammer that home," Nicieza said. "The approach is less bold and extroverted than Joe or Barry's were in the original series, so Frazer's look will fit the intrigue of secret cabals and urban vigilante fighting that makes for the environment of this new miniseries."

Another thing Nicieza loves about Azrael is the ongoing and thematic search for identity; something compounded by the fact that the person was thrust into a role they didn't know if they wanted or felt they could handle. "What I have quickly come to love about this Azrael is that we have placed an incredibly complex, conflicted character into the armor," said Nicieza. "He is a man who has a foundation of spiritual belief that has been shaken to its core and is in a position to both desperately want to repent for his sins while also wanting to kick high holy ass for the wrongs that have been done to him and his family - and just as importantly, to prevent such wrongs from being done to other innocents.

"He has a very strong sense of justice, right and wrong, all of which have been put through the ringer and we start with him from a place of serious doubt about many of the societal, cultural and spiritual aspects of life that he had quite strongly believed in."

Nicieza said his Azrael doesn't differ that much from Batman at all in terms of the foundational core that makes up who he is, what he does and why he wants to do it. "That being said, he isn't a wealthy billionaire with a Batcave and commando toys at his disposal," the writer explained. "He's just a semi-normal guy who happens to have a suit of armor that might be sucking the life out of him, two swords to carve sin out of or salvation into a person and a low-rent, slightly crazy religious order who have been secretly 'fighting the good fight' for several centuries now.

"This Az is a little more street level," Nicieza continued. "I described it to Frazer as 'The Name of the Rose' meets 'Da Vinci Code' meets 'Bourne Ultimatum.' Don't you love those stupid Hollywood hook-lines? In going for tone and feel, there is a lot more that is 'down to Earth' in our approach, though the Suit of Sorrows that the new Azrael wears might very well have some creepily supernatural elements to it. And his backers have a dustier, believable 'back room to boardroom' feel to them. The Order of Purity uses cars and planes to travel, not hovercrafts."

Asked point blank if this new Azrael was in serious contention for the cowl apparently vacated by Bruce Wayne, Nicieza deadpanned, "There may be no one left to assume the cowl by the time he is done with them all."

Nicieza said in post-"Batman R.I.P." issues of "Robin" and "Nightwing," Gotham City starts to come undone. "This could be a concerted effort to take advantage of a missing Batman, or a concerted effort to foment trouble in order to force a Batman out of hiding - but it's also a perfect opportunity for the Order of Purity to put their new Azrael in the field to see what he can do," teased Nicieza.

"But once the Suit of Sorrows makes its debut, there are parties with a vested interest in the ancient armor who would like it back - namely Talia and the League of Assassins.

"If the new Azrael can survive his debut story, he is the winner of an armor that will eventually drive him crazy and kill him. The only way to redeem himself is to triumph over the demons the Suit of Sorrows brings out, but those demons only come out because the suit gives him the power to keep fighting. That which does not kill you makes you stronger, but that which makes you stronger will eventually kill you. And so the fun begins."

Nicieza said Robin and Nightwing have so much going on that protecting Gotham becomes a "when it rains, it pours" situation for them. So who is the new Azrael may be the least of their worries. "There will be a chance to confront the new Azrael, but without knowing for sure if he is a good guy or a bad guy, they may not be able to take the time to do much about him," said Nicieza. "For now."

Fabien Nicieza is also writing two one-shots tied-in to "Battle for the Cowl," "Gotham Gazette: Batman Dead?" and "Gotham Gazette: Batman Alive."

"With everything happening during 'Battle for the Cowl,' we wanted to take a bat's eye view of the city and see how it is affecting other characters in the Batman family," explained Nicieza. "We wanted to look at some supporting characters whose stories can be advanced as a result of the vacuum left by Batman's disappearance. I wanted to vary the tonal range for each of the characters, some vigilante stuff, some human-interest stuff, some police viewpoints.

"We honed down our character list to Harvey Bullock, Vicki Vale, Dr. Leslie Thompson and Spoiler. Each have a story to tell with a fresh perspective to the disappearance of Batman and Bruce Wayne that lets us flow thematically from a starting point of loss to an end point of hope.

"Some of these characters have publishing histories dating back decades and decades, and they all still have something to say, stories that can be told, emotion that can be wrung out of them. It is incredible.

"The opportunity is left for their story threads to continue in either the regular Bat-family of titles or in future 'Gotham Gazette' one-shots if these are well-received."

Nicieza believes Batman has one of the greatest supporting casts in comics, and that the nature of Batman and the nature of the characters that populate Gotham City offer writers the chance to tell stories that involve not only tremendous physical conflict, but more importantly, tremendous emotional and moral conflict. "It allows mirrors to be held up so we can see all our vices, sins and failures through the eyes and actions of the characters while watching them strive to do the right thing, help others and improve the lot of life in the city," said Nicieza.

In other news, the writer is well beyond the halfway point of his duties for the year-long weekly series "Trinity," but isn't sure what he will be working on once the battle for the cowl is complete. "I have 'Gazette' and 'Azrael' to finish, and 'Trinity' is in the homestretch, all of which are keeping me plenty busy right now," said Nicieza. "We've talked about a couple things, but nothing is set. I'm sure we'll finalize a project or two, and I know it'll be for DC since I've very happily under exclusive contract with them for my comic book work. The DCU is a wonderful sandbox and hopefully they'll keep giving me their toys, old and new, to play with."

"Azrael: Death's Dark Knight" #1 starts taking names March 18 from DC Comics.

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