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.

Comic book reviews: New Crusaders #5-6

Writer Ian Flynn wraps up the initial New Crusaders story arc in the final two issues of the Rise of the Heroes miniseries.  “Trial by Fire” sees the nefarious Brain Emperor breaking into Z.I.P. Prison to liberate his inner circle of costumed criminals.  To facilitate the escape, he lets loose the entire population of the penitentiary.  When the New Crusaders arrive, the inexperienced teenage heroes, who would already have faced the daunting task of opposing the villain who defeated their parents, the original Mighty Crusaders, find themselves having to put down a full scale prison riot.

As the Brain Emperor goes about reviving his elite followers, the New Crusaders are quickly being overwhelmed by the dozens upon dozens of convicts who have been set free.  Unexpected help does come from a trio of prisoners, though.  Hangman, Black Hood and Deadly Force are all former superheroes who were sent to jail for excessive force and manslaughter.  Now they’ve decided to side with the children of their former teammates in putting down the riot.  But even with the aid of this threesome, and the veteran leadership of the Shield, the Crusaders face an almost impossible task.

New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples
New Crusaders #6 cover by Fiona Staples

Flynn does an excellent job showing how these neophyte crime fighters deal with their first mission.  The Jaguar, who previously faced the challenge of being accepted by the ancient spirit inhabiting her helmet, has to now struggle to contain the cat god’s wish to drive her to savagery.  Likewise, we also see Steel Sterling is attempting to take down the prisoners without resorting to lethal force, an approach that is challenged by Hangman as naïve.  The other Crusaders also face similar obstacles.

In the end, unsurprisingly, things do not go well, to say the least, and the Crusaders’ first mission, despite succeeding, has a most bitter cost.  And these dispirited young heroes still have to face a future encounter with the Brain Emperor himself.  Their story continues in May with the next miniseries, Dark Tomorrow.  I hope that that title doesn’t mean things will become all “grim and gritty.”  But Flynn has certainly built up enough goodwill during Rise of the Heroes that I’ll be approaching this with an open mind.

The art team of Alitha Martinez & Gary Martin continued to turn in excellent work in these concluding issues of the first New Crusaders miniseries.  They have an art style that at first glance may appear deceptively simple, in the vein of Mike Parobeck or Bruce Timm.  But I imagine that there is a great deal of craftsmanship & storytelling to their work.  They don’t have the luxury of hiding behind hyper-detailed renderings or excessive cross-hatching.  I’m looking forward to their return a few months from now on Dark Tomorrow.

New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello
New Crusaders #6 page 27 by Sergio Cariello

There is also a back-up story in Rise of the Heroes #6 that is illustrated by Sergio Cariello, a retrospective look back at the career of the original Fireball.  I’ve enjoyed Cariello’s work at DC Comics in the past, so it’s nice to see him pop up here at Archie.  Hopefully he’ll be asked to contribute more work on the Red Circle imprint in the future, either on New Crusaders or one of the tie-in books that Archie has planned.

All in all, New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes was a solid, entertaining introductory arc by Ian Flynn and the various other writers & artists involved.  I’m looking forward to where these characters head next.