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.