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Nicieza Unleashes “Azrael” on Gotham

by  in Comic News Comment
Nicieza Unleashes “Azrael” on Gotham
“Azrael” #1 on sale in October

Writer Fabian Nicieza and artist Ramon Bachs, no strangers to Gotham City, bring the anti-hero Azrael back to Batman’s hometown on a full-time basis with a new ongoing DC Comics series starting in October. But there’s a new man behind the mask.

Originally created by the team of Denny O’Neil and Joe Quesada, the anti-hero Azrael made his debut in 1992’s “Batman: Sword of Azrael.” The first Azrael, Jean-Paul Valley, was a university student living in Gotham City, and he went on to star in his own series, “Azrael” (later “Azrael: Agent of the Bat”), but the title ended with Valley’s apparent death in issue #100. Flash forward to 2007 and a note written on Rip Hunter’s chalk board reading “Jean- Paul Valley Lives!” can be seen in a panel of “Booster Gold” #10. But in issue #11, another note reveals: “Azrael comes and goes.”

Enter the new Azrael: Michael Washington Lane. First introduced as The Third Ghost of Batman in Grant Morrison’s best-selling run on “Batman,” Lane underwent Doctor Simon Hurt’s experiments, along with two other men who were chosen from the Gotham City Police Department to train with Batman as possible replacements in the event anything should ever happen to him.

Spinning out of “Battle for the Cowl” – an event series that explored the rise of Batman’s successor – Lane starred in his own miniseries, “Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight,” also scripted by Nicieza, In the series, Lane was approached by the Order of Purity, a splinter sect of the Order of Dumas, to reclaim the mantle of Azrael and keeper of the Suit of Sorrows. The Suit of Sorrows was created during the Crusades and given to a knight who was supposedly pure of heart. The suit drove him insane and he slaughtered several hundred people. To protect the knight’s reputation, there was a cover-up that claimed the Moors were responsible. The Suit was then retrieved by the Order of Purity, and it is said it is able to impart strength and speed to those who wear it, but it will destroy anyone who is not pure.

Nicieza told CBR News the Order of Purity will play a role in the new series but there are no immediate plans to explore the Order of St. Dumas. He also shared details on the two Batverse annuals he’s writing in October and how the two lay the groundwork for the events forthcoming in “Azrael” #1.

CBR: Was the plan all along to have you write an Azrael series coming out of “Battle of the Cowl,” or did the spin-off come about later in the game?

FABIAN NICIEZA: The spin-off came a little bit later in the game, but not the bottom of the ninth inning. I was finishing up my highly-acclaimed, award-winning run on “Robin” – okay, it was just a little acclaimed and won no awards, but it sounds better whenever you put that in front of a title – anyway, editor Mike Marts had been percolating the Suit of Sorrows concept as a new take on Azrael for a while and thought that the Gotham-in-turmoil-no-Batman aspect to “Battle for the Cowl” would serve as the perfect opportunity to introduce a sword-wielding, possibly religious zealot vigilante.

“Azrael” #2

He ran the idea by me and my first impression was, “Good idea, I’m not an Azrael guy.” Then, like all good editors, he said, “Okay, sure, just think about it,” which led me to ask, “Who is in the armor?” To which, as all good editors do, he said, “Good question. Why don’t you come in and we’ll talk about it.”

So Mike and [editor] Michael Siglain and I had lunch where we bounced off lots of possibilities for the man or woman in the Suit, as well as the overall “ticking-clock” aspect behind armor that drives you crazy over time. We had some very viable candidates and some not-so-viable, though I maintain Sugar & Spike sharing the suit. No one would have seen that coming.

Mike Siglain is the one who brought up the idea of using Lane, the third Batman from Grant Morrison’s recent issues and the second he said it, we all knew it was the right choice. And I knew that even though I didn’t think of myself as an Azrael guy, I wanted to write this character in that suit forced to wrestle with the very difficult concepts of faith and justice. And knowing he had a future that was “written in stone” because of “Batman” #666 made it all the more exciting. Now we all know no future comic book story is ever really “real,” but in this case, it gives a great brooding, nihilistic end-goal we can use as a guidepost.

The mantle of Azrael has a long and sometimes winding history in the DC Universe. Will new readers need prior knowledge of that history before jumping into the series or is the past left alone?

Nope. Just like we tried to do in the miniseries, we are making this a very easily accessible story to get into. We summarize Michael Lane’s past, touch on Azrael’s past, then we hit the ground running with the action and the moral conflicts. I’m approaching this as self-contained issues with running subplot story threads. Each of the first six issues is a stand-alone story. We’ll likely have a two or three-parter in the second half of the first year.

Will The Sacred Order of Saint Dumas be explored?

There are no immediate plans to explore the Order of St. Dumas from the original series in the first year of the new book. We wanted to explore Michael Lane and the Order of Purity first, before bringing St. Dumas back for an inevitable face-off between religious sects. I have a real world approach to the Order of Purity, which is quite unlike the more hi-tech sci-fi approach the original series took with St. Dumas. The new book does not involve genetic experiments, hovercrafts and superhumans; it’s really more about what is right and what is wrong and all the fun grey areas in between.

Cover art from Azrael’s previous series, “Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight”

What do we need to know about Michael Washington Lane? How does he differ in character from Jean-Paul Valley? Any similarities?

Lane is an emotionally, psychologically and physically scarred man. He has lost nearly everything in his life that has ever mattered to him – his family, his job, his faith – and we show that even what did matter to him was always approached in a questionable fashion. He has a strong desire to “do the right thing,” but is often very uncertain about how to go about first identifying what the right thing is, and then how to go about doing it. Half the time he just wings it, the other half he is scarily resolute in his decision-making. It’s fun to write someone decisions run the gamut of extremes from absolute certainty to “what the hell.”

He is also a man of very few words. In the miniseries, as I was feeling my way around the character, I probably had him say about 80 percent more than what he will be saying in the new book. Never have I written the words “no copy” so often in my full scripts – a fact I’m sure all my readers will be very happy about.

As for comparisons between Lane and Jean-Paul, I honestly have to excuse myself from that discussion. It’s not at all relevant to me as the writer. I understand how readers who read the original and are planning to read the new monthly might want to discuss it, but that’s what message boards were meant for. I’ll let them debate it there. I’m writing Michael Lane, the new Azrael, and other considerations aren’t a part of my storytelling process.

What about Azrael? Do you view the two identities of this hero as one person or are Azrael and Michael Washington very much two different characters when masked and unmasked?

I think the scary part, as we’ll see, is that the two identities are far more similar than would be considered sane or safe by most “normal” people. The ease to which he made the decision to accept the Suit in the miniseries was very telling on purpose. If anything, Lane has to fight against the Suit’s “calls” to ignore his inhibitions and revel in some good ol’ Testament “havoc of God,” but the real interesting psychological issue is: is the Suit really influencing Lane or is it Lane’s subconscious talking to himself? And what happens if he succumbs to the ol’ Testament vibes when they come a calling?

Will the “Batman” and “Detective Comics” annuals tie directly into what you’re doing in the “Azrael” series?

The annual storyline is quite distinct from the monthly book. More than anything, it’s just an introduction of Azrael to some regular Bat-readers who might not have sampled his mini. The storyline involves a murder, a desecrated gravestone, a religious sect, a mystery hundreds of years removed and the possible resurrection of the living embodiment of an Eighth Deadly Sin.

It stars Batman and Robin in the “Batman” annual and The Question in the “Detective” annual, with Batman and Robin – as well as Azrael – appearing in both annuals. It has super art by Jim Caliafiore in the “Batman” annual and Tom Mandrake in the “Detective.” It’s a gothic, eerie, creepy story that introduces a bunch of new villains and it’s been a lot of fun. Anytime I get to write Dick Grayson and Damian is a good day as far as I’m concerned.

The monthly, as I said, will be self-contained stories for the first six issues. They include:

  • An assassin named Salt who is killing church members that may have been involved or aware of child molestation decades ago.
  • A test by the White Ghost, whose boss, a certain Mr. al Ghul, wants to see if Azrael has preconceived notions about faith and guilt and innocence.
  • A former soldier from Lane’s outfit who has brought the war home, but stopping his killing spree may expose a greater guilt.
  • Batman finding information about a murder that involves Azrael, but revealing the information could push Az over the edge – so should Bats withhold it?
  • An attack in Gotham’s Jewish community puts Azrael on a collision course with Ragman – whose rag full of souls might be very interested in a suit full of sorrows.
  • “A Song of Sorrow,” which will be the first of a planned series of ‘past tales’ of the Order of Purity, as Lane learns more about the sad history of the suit he wears and the tears that were shed by those who wore it before him. In this one, fans will get to see what they’ve asked for – Azrael vs. Azrael. Of course, it takes place hundreds of years ago.

Is that enough for you? I also would eventually love to do a Jonah Hex/Azrael crossover, but I haven’t talked to [“Jonah Hex” co-writer] Jimmy [Palmiotti] about that one yet. Maybe if he reads this…

Cover art from Azrael’s previous series, “Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight”

You’ve said Batman and Robin play a role in the two Batverse annuals leading into the series, but will they be active in the ongoing series as well?

Batman appears in the first issue very briefly, more of a “got my eye on you” kind of thing, but will appear in a more substantial role in #4, where something Batman learns instigates a conflict with Az, but Batman might be forced to defend an indefensible position.

Can you describe Michael’s relationship with Dick and Damian? Does he have one?

Not much of one. He’s pretty creeped out by Damian in the annuals, because the kid is a bit creepy, even for a guy wearing an ancient suit of guilt-inducing armor. His relationship with Dick is more along the lines of, “I’ll stay out of your way if you stay out of mine.” He isn’t working at cross-purposes to Batman, but he wants his own space – and will fight for it if necessary. Don’t forget, Lane was a cop and a soldier, so he has a very strong sense of justice and the law and all the reasons why there are things a vigilante can do that a cop and a soldier can’t.

What about some of the other characters like Amon, Renee Montoya and Ra’s al Ghul – will they be part of the larger “Azrael” mythos moving forward?

Ra’s will play a part in the “Azrael” book, but moreso as a pernicious background element who uses the White Ghost as his proxy. He has a vested interest in the Suit of Sorrows, thought the man actually wearing it – whoever it may be – is more of a lab rat as far as he is concerned.

Azrael was co-created by artist-turned Marvel editor Joe Quesada. That’s a pretty high standard. Does Ramon Bachs deliver?

That really is a pretty high bar you’re asking for anyone to jump. Before he became an editor-y-type suit-and-tie corporate guy, I always thought Joe was one of the best artists in the industry – hell, he managed to draw the daylights out of the worst “X-Men” story ever written, my “X-Men” Shattershot annual, so comparing anyone to him is a little unfair.

Ramon is an excellent storyteller who draws very clean, very identifiable characters, has an excellent sense of environmental drawing – Gotham looks like a very real city – and has maintained the schedule to a degree I’ve seen very few artists able to maintain nowadays. John Stanisci is giving the art a darker, grainier feel, which I think is appropriate for the title and the covers by Jock look fantastic. So on the art front, I’m a happy camper.

Cover art from Azrael’s previous series, “Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight”

Jean-Paul Valley was apparently killed in “Azrael: Agent of the Bat” #100 but his body was never found. Is there a chance Jean-Paul Valley is still out there?

If he’s not a Black Lantern by now, who knows, right? Never say never, but unless it’s a flashback story – which is a distinct possibility – I have no plans to use Jean-Paul in the new “Azrael” book.

But I don’t want to end the interview talking about the past, but rather the future. The new “Azrael” title will contain hard-hitting, incredibly morally complex stories that will put the character – and hopefully – the reader through emotional ringers on a monthly basis. It’s a book where there will never be easy answers, where often the reader will disagree with the decisions and actions of the main character, but will understand his reasoning. I’m shooting for stories that will generate fodder for the message boards on a monthly basis, if people want to debate the nature of right and wrong, justice and law – you know, for those who want to take a break from bashing fill-in-the-blank editor or creator. I look forward to hearing what people have to say. I haven’t written a book with this kind of internal conflict since “Nomad” and, although it’s not an easy job, it’s been a lot of fun.

“Batman Annual” #27 with art by Calafiore & Mark McKenna goes on sale October 7.

“Detective Comics Annual” #11 with art by Tom Mandrake goes on sale October 14.

“Azrael” #1 with art by Ramon Bachs and covers by Jock goes on sale October 21.

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