Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice

This morning, over on the Facebook group Comic Book Historians, I posted images from a couple of issues of Azrael: Agent of the Bat for today’s Comic Book Coffee entry. Denny O’Neil, who passed away last week, wrote the entire 100 issue run of Azrael.

Thinking it over, I feel that O’Neil’s work on the Azrael series was underrated.  He co-created the character and played a major role in Jean-Paul Valley’s development.

Azrael was initially conceived solely to serve the role of an insane, violent substitute to Batman during the “Knightfall” storyline, to demonstrate why it was important that the real Batman not become a ruthless killer.  But following the conclusion of “Knightfall” O’Neil appears to have put a great deal of effort into developing Jean-Paul Valley into a three-dimensional character, to remake him as an actual hero.

Another character that O’Neil created, Dr. Leslie Thompkins, became an important presence in the Azrael series, beginning during the “No Man’s Land” crossover in Azrael: Agent of the Bat #55 (August 1999), penciled by Roger Robinson and inked by James Pascoe.

In a 2014 interview with 13th Dimension, O’Neil explained that Leslie was inspired by social activist Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker movement.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that Leslie was a character who embodied much of O’Neil’s own beliefs.  Leslie dedicated her life to fighting against injustice & inequality, to helping the poor & downtrodden, and she sought to find constructive ways in which to make real, lasting changes to society.

This two page scene below is from Azrael: Agent of the Bat #92 (September 2002), written by O’Neil, penciled & inked by Sergio Cariello, lettered by Jack Morelli, and colored by Rob Ro & Alex Bleyaert, with a cover by Mike Zeck & Jerry Ordway.  It encapsulates Leslie’s beliefs, and in turn offers an insight into O’Neil’s own worldview.

Azrael is missing and presumed dead (that happens a lot in superhero comic books).  Leslie, who has been attempting to help the psychologically damaged Jean-Paul Valley for some time, is angry, and she call Batman out on the role he played in this tragedy.  She accurately points out to the Dark Knight all of the other ways in which Jean-Paul could have fought against injustice, and she castigates Batman for instead influencing the young man to follow in his vigilante footsteps.

In a 2017 interview with Pop Mythology writer / artist Howard Chaykin had this to say about Batman:

“Batman had a bad day when he was eight. His reaction is this: instead of investing his inherited billions in addressing crime where it starts, or getting in politics to become a force for good, he dresses up like a bondage freak and beats the living shit out of people he doesn’t know but identifies them as bad on the basis of the way they look. This is a fifteen year-old’s idea of how the world works.”

O’Neil was obviously a very intelligent & insightful person.  He wrote and edited the Batman titles for many years, so I am certain he perceived this juvenile fantasy element of the character.  As one of the primary caretakers of the Dark Knight’s world he probably felt he could not critique this too directly.  However, right from the early days of his career O’Neil actively sought to address social & political issues in his stories.  Leslie was one way in which he did so throughout the years, presenting her as a counterpoint to Batman’s ideology & methods.

O’Neil often had Leslie voicing a great deal of criticism towards Batman.  Leslie believes that Batman, in his identity as billionaire industrialist Bruce Wayne, has the resources & influence to help peacefully shape the world into a better place, and that it is there where he ought to be focusing his time & energies.

Leslie Thompkins is one of those characters that I never quite understood when I was younger.  However, as I have gotten older and (hopefully) more mature, I have come to appreciate the character, and to recognize that O’Neil utilized her to attempt to get readers to think.  It makes sense that O’Neil would use Leslie as a central figure in the Azrael series.  Just as within the stories Leslie worked to help Jean-Paul become a better person, in his writing O’Neil attempted to make Azrael a better character.

Several years ago O’Neil was a guest at a small comic book convention in Brooklyn.  One of the books I got autographed by him was an issue of Azrael.  I do not recall his exact words, but after looking that book over he said something along the lines of “We really tried to make the character work.”

O’Neil could be critical of his own writing, and he reflected that perhaps he could have done a better job on the Azrael series.  Nevertheless, in spite of the flaws, I appreciate the work he did with Jean-Paul Valley and Leslie Thompkins, to have the Azrael series be something more than just another Batman spin-off or superhero slugfest.  As he did on a number of other occasions, O’Neil sought to stretch the boundaries of the genre in an intelligent, mature manner.

7 thoughts on “Denny O’Neil, Azrael, and the Pursuit of Social Justice”

  1. I really liked those two quintessential O’Neil characters: The Question and Azrael–O’Neil always wormed some perplexing philosophical angle into the story–and I felt that he understood martial arts, a key component of Batman and the Question’s ethos: warriors not whackadoos. So, I was not a fan of Valley the crazysavagekiller in the Knightfall series. I regret not picking up the rest of those Azrael issues, though. I got maybe half of the series or more. I enjoyed the book, but it was another “Bat” book and at some point you had to cross some books off your list to keep some kind of budget—this was back in the day when there were no digital comics. Paper comics were and are expensive for me.

    About the pursuit of social justice: I agree and disagree with Chaykin (whose work I love btw). I think it depends on the writer and on the “set up” of the world these fictional characters inhabit. If you look at the books where Batman is not so violent and more of a detective–I’m re-reading some of the issues in Batman 200s with Robbins writing and Novick/Giordano drawing/inking–Batman does not act like a psychopath (thank you and damn you Frank Miller). In that world, he is accepted as one of the many costumed masked heroes. Since he’s human, he deals with street or international crime, not Superman or Green Lantern-level incidents. He’s not seen as a whacko–and in daylight hours Bruce Wayne promotes social justice if you will through various charities and organization. Bruce Wayne is very well adjusted and likeable, urbane and almost avuncular in his approach to other heroes. He is not seen as a freak since many others are also putting on suits, or “dressing up” if you like, to battle injustice or magical evil or whatever.

    That’s what I hated about the recent movie iteration with Affleck. Everyone made fun of his costume. “The guy dresses like a bat? WTF?” If he was the first to dress in a suit, then–yeah. It’s weird. If he went out into the night and only hunted down petty criminals and violently beat them to hell–there are serious issues there. Affleck was emasculated by Aquaman and the rest. If in the world-building stage however, there is a precedent established of former accepted masked heroes helping in society–WWII The Justice Society etc, and where the level of violence is commensurate i.e. self defense or disabling people who are shooting at him, then it’s not an insane response. It’s one of many responses to living in a world populated by characters like Dr Fate, Wonder Woman, the Stranger, Green Arrow, etc. You get my point.

    So, he scares the purse snatcher or maybe even engages in dialog to find out why the thief is so desperate–tries to turn him/her around, but with the vicious, indiscriminate, lethal serial killer or mobster, he has to bust out his best ninja moves. I’ve thought a lot about the disconnect: a guy who wants to help the world but wears a suit and hits people. It does not connect–unless you set it up correctly. I’m thinking of Busiek’s AstroCity. Batman would fit right in (the Sherlock Holmes, Bruce Lee, James Bond type of Batman–not Miller’s Batman). The WHOLE world is populated with superheroes. Even small rural villages have a local “superhero.”

    Regarding Dr Thompkins: I always felt she was O’Neil’s way of reminding the readers and other Bat-writers: keep it in check. She is the conscience, the reality check, and as you stated she calls Batman on the carpet when he gets tunnel vision. The readership is more sophisticated. If I remember correctly–so long ago–Batman helps Azrael heal and accepts him, but the rest of the Bat Family, Dick, Barbara et al had trouble welcoming him back into the (comic) fold because of his violence as AzBat. And I think Leslie had a lot to do with Bruce’s commitment to JPV’s rehabilitation. Sorry I don’t recall perfectly.

    Oh God, this comment is way too long. Sorry man, great post. Thought provoking. And loved the links!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks for the in-depth comments!

      You raise a good point about how the accuracy of Chaykin’s critique of the Batman premise really depends upon which version of Batman you are discussing.

      I agree with you about your description of Batman’s characterization in the 1970s. He could be driven and intense, but he was still sane and relatively well-adjusted. He was just as much Bruce Wayne as he was Batman, and in his Wayne identity he put a great deal of time, energy and money into fighting for important social causes. As you say, that’s how Frank Robbins wrote the character, and I really think his contributions to the Batman titles, both as a writer and an artist, are very underrated. Denny O’Neil was, of course, another of the writers who depicted Batman as that balanced individual during the Bronze Age.

      Unfortunately ever since Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns the character has been consistently written as obsessive, violent, anti-social, paranoid, manipulative and unpleasant, as someone who regards Batman as his real identity and Bruce Wayne as just a mask. TDKR was set in a possible future, decades from now, showing an old, burned-out Batman, but it was such a huge success that pretty much everyone going forward applied Miller’s characterization to the Batman in DC’s present-day “mainstream” continuity, which I really believe has been to the detriment of the character. Chaykin’s criticisms definitely apply to the version of Batman that we’ve had for nearly three and a half decades now .

      And it does occur to me that Denny O’Neil was the group editor on the Batman books from 1986 to 2000, so he was one of the main people in charge of pushing that “grim & gritty” depiction of Batman. I wish he would have encouraged his writers to emulate his own work on the character from the Bronze Age, rather than parroting Frank Miller.

      I have heard so many people compliment O’Neil’s work on The Question, and one of these days hopefully I will get around to reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi, Ben:

    ‘Batman thinks like a 15 year old’
    -interesting: I’ve never thought of it that way, but from a certain point of view, that is absolutely correct. I’ve always identified with (well, ok, more with Linda Carter as Wonder Woman, I suppose) that idea that some dark knight needs to defend the innocent, but somehow even as an education activist, I never thought of Bruce Wayne’s money as a tool for activism rather than vigilantism: how our ways of thinking are shaped by what we grow up with is truly humbling. Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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