New Face Under a Similar Mask: Nicieza Talks Azrael
Nicieza Talks Azrael
The character’s reappearance makes logical sense – though the character first showed up in a standalone miniseries, the Jean-Paul Valley was folded into the Bat-universe by writer/co-creator/editor Denny O’Neil, actually stood in for Batman after his back was broken by Bane, and later starred in his own series, which lasted 100 issues.
The character was a hybrid of mysticism, religion and science – the warrior of the Order of St. Dumas, Azrael was charged with destroying evil, as well as the enemies of The Order. In the final issue of his series, Jean-Paul was seemingly killed by his enemies, ending the line, as previous battles had ended the Order. Well, not really – The Order of St. Dumas is still alive and well, as readers of DC’s late Manhunter series know, and is looking for a new flag-bearer as it were.
As DCU Executive Editor Dan DiDio explained to Newsarama – “an” Azrael seems to appear whenever Batman goes missing, the time is certainly ripe for a return of the character. But it’s not, as the miniseries writer Fabian Nicieza tells us, Jean-Paul. So who is this new face under a familiar mask?
We spoke with Nicieza for more.
Newsarama: To start things off Fabian, as Dan DiDio explained it in a recent Q&A, whenever Batman goes missing, "an" Azrael tends to show up. But first - given the description of the character in the solicitations, is this Jean-Paul Valley, the previous Azrael?
Fabian Nicieza: Nope. Apparently he died and dead means dead in comics.
NRAMA: That said, have we seen this character before?
FN: Yup. Although he might've died, I'm not sure. [laughs]
NRAMA: Well, saying that he’s been a "cop and dark knight" in the solicitation seems to suggest he may have been one of Morrison's "replacement" Batmen from his run...
FN: It could seem to suggest that, couldn't it?
NRAMA: It could. Going back, when Azrael first appeared, he was a counterpoint to Batman, the "be careful what you wish for" hero answer to those who wondered why Batman wasn't more violent, wasn't more “Old Testament” in his approach, for lack of a better term. Is that the same with this Azrael's m.o.?
FN: I think Jean Paul Valley, the original Azrael, might have been less inclined to violence than our new one. I'm not saying that to be "kewl and coy," merely that Jean Paul was reluctantly thrust into the role when his father died and learned of his incredible background as he went along. He was subconsciously and genetically "trained" to be an avenging angel, but it wasn't at the forefront of his personality. Our new Azrael is front and center, wanting the job when it is offered to him and firmly believing that the only way he might be able to redeem himself into God's good graces is by righteously kicking evil's ass up and down the Gotham City streets.
Both Azraels are products of the manipulations of others, but whereas Jean Paul was manipulated by the Order of St. Dumas, our new Azrael was manipulated and abused by many other outside forces, so when the Order of Purity offers him a chance at salvation, he quickly embraces it.
NRAMA: Speaking of the larger picture of the Order of Purity - who are they? The Order of St. Dumas is kind of no more...although it still does exist...but who are these new guys, and what is their connection to the Order of St. Dumas?
FN: All will be very clearly recapped in the first issue. Picking up from threads first woven into Detective Comics #842, the Order of Purity is a very small splinter sect that separated from Dumas centuries ago. They tried to forge their own armor -- the Suit of Sorrows -- to serve as a counter-balance to -- and protection from -- the Azrael of Dumas. Though international in scope because of the genetic diffusion of the original families over time, they are not international in scale. They are a much smaller organization, more a loose affiliation many of whom are actually good and decent people looking to do God's good work on Earth. Of course, as with any organization, there could be some people involved that have less than noble purposes, but that's for the future.
NRAMA: Does the Order seek out candidates for being Azrael, or do the potential Azrael's find the Order?
FN: The Order of Purity had a candidate ready to wear the Suit of Sorrows as soon as they managed to steal it from the Batcave during one of its many recent demolishings. You know how easy it is to walk away with a knickknack on those busy construction sites. While all the workers are trying to prop the big Penny back up, you just pocket a suit of armor and skip out with no one the wiser...
NRAMA: Let’s talk about the Suit of Sorrows – can you give us the thumbnail sketch of when it showed up, and what it is?
FN: The Suit of Sorrows was introduced during the “Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul” storyline and further defined in Detective Comics #842. It will be a very different overall design than the original, but oddly enough, it will still have a visual design that will hearken back to the concept of "yesterday's knight today" look that Joe Quesada created years ago. It just won't be as complicated a design to draw. [laughs]
NRAMA: Why’s it a bad thing to put it on?
FN: Well, simply put, it eventually drives anyone who has worn it a little batty -- no pun intended. Okay, I did intend it. I'm sorry. Sometimes I miss writing Deadpool just so I can get paid to get bad jokes out of my system. Anyway, the Suit might have some magical aspects to it, or maybe it's as much a psychosomatic reaction to the psychological burden of wearing it, we'll see. But to wear the suit you have to want to kill in God's name. But killing in God's name is as much sin as salvation, so slowly, the contradiction can drive a person mad.
Which raises two questions: what if the person you give the suit to is already a little crazy? Or, the opposite -- so righteously committed to a cause he believes in as to be so sane, most people would consider him insane...?
NRAMA: How is this Azrael different from the previous incarnation?
FN: Different? Look. Internal motivation. Supporting cast. Methodology. Personality.
NRAMA: How’s he similar?
FN: Basic series premise. Role of Avenging Angel.
NRAMA: And he accepts this burden willingly?
FN: A little too willingly, actually. Never have I written such a simple origin story.
NRAMA: Guest-stars are mentioned, and both Tim (Robin) and Dick (Nightwing) were around the last time Azrael showed up. How do they react to the "return" of something which nearly destroyed the Batman legacy?
FN: During the course of the mini-series, we'll see lots of Bat-Family faces showing up. Nightwing and Robin are so busy with the breakdown of order in Gotham and the problems presented in the Battle for the Cowl mini, that they only have time to acknowledge the new Azrael is stalking the city, but they can't do much about it at this particular time. Plus, they don't know for sure if he's a good guy or a bad guy. Then again, neither do I.
NRAMA: The elephant in the room – Talia, Ra’s daughter, and in her mind, probably, a kind of “widower” in a sense…how does she react to this guy in the suit?
FN: Well, considering that she considers the Suit of Sorrows was taken from her (she gave it as a gift to Batman and now it's been taken from his cave), I think you can answer that question for yourself. Talia's desire to reclaim the suit from the new Azrael fuels much of the action in the mini-series.
NRAMA: You're working with Frazer Irving on this - how's doing at catching the visual cues you're tossing his way?
FN: I'll tell you once I see the art! I finished the script right before the holidays. I'll see pages soon, once everyone in the comics industry returns from their vacations in Cabo (except for those of us working on Trinity. We were whipped like dogs to work all through the holidays. More than halfway through and I still can't believe DC was serious about this thing coming out every week...)
I anticipate the series is going to look exactly like what [editor] Mike Marts and I are hoping for -- exactly what Frazier is so good at -- crime-noir feel with a surreal, scary gothic edge. Frazier creates drama and suspense in his storytelling and environmental drawing while also giving people a realistic feel to them. He is an excellent "designer" and I think he will do a great job setting this story in a very real feeling Gotham City.
NRAMA: Since we spoke about how the residents of Gotham responded to Batman and his absence when we were talking about Gotham Gazette, how do they take to this guy? Do they even know he’s there?
FN: I don't think the storyline -- or the character -- lends itself to much rooftop posing for the sake of a publicity picture. Cops will be finding a severed head or limb here and there that have mysteriously cleanly cauterized wounds on the stumps, but it's not like our new Azrael will be appearing on Hardball to answer questions about these odd findings and the coincidental fact he wields a flaming sword...
NRAMA: As you’ve explained, this Azrael is a pretty different character than those you’ve been writing lately. What's the attraction to you for this type of character?
FN: Well, when Mike first asked me to write this, I said, "No thanks," because I felt Azrael and Jean Paul Valley were so purely identified with Denny O'Neil, that I felt uncomfortable going there. Not out of fear, but out of respect. Mike basically agreed with that, too. The 100 issue run Denny had on Azrael is very rare in our industry, and should be greatly respected. Sometimes, concepts are worth revisiting, but characters might not be. I think you can separate the Azrael concept from the character of Jean Paul. DC -- and Mike especially -- understandably felt that Azrael was too cool a concept to not at least consider how it could be revived. So, we considered it. And we realized it could be revived, becoming something new that also maintains a foundation and healthy respect for what came before.
As I got together with Mike and fellow editor Michael Siglain, we discussed the pros and cons of the original series and character, how a new approach could or would work and ultimately, who would be the most interesting character to place inside the new armor. Assistant Editor Janelle Siegel and I stood firmly by our "no hovercrafts" rule for the Order of Purity and a silly little thing like that also helped me hone our approach more and more.
This is more of a low-rent, backroom, boardroom and memories of 1970's linoleum-lined rectory floors tacky world that the new Azrael operates in. He is -- or at least he was -- much more a creature of "normal" society than Jean Paul was, and the members of the Order of Purity are much more a part of the real world than the original Dumas society ever was. They fly on planes and drive cars and pay mortgages. They have a faith in God and an obligation (reluctant for some) to do His work in the name of their family heritage. All of that began to appeal to me more and more. It's still very early in the creative process, but I think we're putting together something pretty interesting and unique for the Bat-family of titles and for the DC Universe as a whole.
NRAMA: Finally - are you looking to set this up as a lead-in to an ongoing if things prove to be popular enough, or is this a singular piece of Batman’s story at this time?
FN: Most new character intro mini-series are considered as pilots for on on-going series, and Azrael is no different. Sales and reader reaction will serve as the barometer for that to happen or not, but our job is to set the table and hope you enjoy the meal. I think right now, we have something good cooking, so we'll see...