Batman: Sword of Azrael by Dennis O'Neil
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I'm finally getting around to reading the Knightfall saga. I'd read the novelized version last year, but was a little put off by the writing and didn't know if I'd enjoy the comics since I didn't enjoy the novel that much (and the comics and novel share the same writer). However, just as I speculated in my review of the novel, Dennis O’Neil is a much better comic writer than novelist.
This book is a prelude to the Knightfall story. We're introduced to Jean Paul Valley who has just found out that he's part of the secret Order of St. Dumas. Unbeknownst to him, his father has been prepping him to take over after his death by imprinting him with subliminal conditioning. Jean Paul is a Computer Science student in Gotham when his father fails at an assassination attempt against a former member of the order, a man named Carlton LeHah, who happens to be in Gotham at that time.
Near death, Jean Paul's father finds him and instructs him on what to do upon his death, and Jean Paul finds himself catapulted into this secret fraternity, taking up the mantle of the "avenging angel."
Now, this wouldn't be a Batman story without Batman, so I'll get to his role in all this. The failed assassination attempt captures the attention of Batman due to the fact that it happened during a very large celebration in Gotham. The fallout from the failed attempt caused causalities during the festivities. Batman's interest is piqued when he finds part of Azrael's costume and learns a little about the Order through Barbara's research.
So, when Lehah reveals that he has plans to go to Europe to where the Order is supposedly based, Batman decides to follow. Why? I guess Batman can't pass up a good mystery. Jean Paul just so happens to be in Europe as well per his father's final instructions. He's gotten a new teacher in the form of Nomoz who unlocks the subliminal teachings and prepares him to take on the role of Azrael.
To make a long story very short, LeHah goes a little nuts and decides that he’s a servant of Biis, Azrael’s greatest demonic foe. Nomoz decides that Batman is a demonic foe, as well, but learns better when Nomoz and Jean Paul have to team up with Alfred to save Batman from LeHah.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this because there’s just something about a story that starts out with Batman knowing everything that gets to me a little. And apparently, not only does Batman have heating filaments in his suit, but he also knows how to make high quality snowshoes out of tree limbs. Go figure. Not that I actually have a problem with any of that, but I just think things like that could be written better to not seem so worthy of eye-rolling.
However, once I got over that, I did enjoy the story. While Batman is certainly a big part of the story, this is basically an origin story for Jean Paul. He seemed to easily give in to the fact that he was part of some order of assassins. Maybe this was part of his conditioning. Maybe he was just too intrigued to question all of it. It was interesting to read him try to hang on to who he was before Azrael while becoming Azrael.
He does lose himself a little in the persona. At one point in the story, Alfred asks him who is he outside Azrael. He answers that he no longer remembers. Nomoz pushes Jean Paul to give up his sense of compassion and helpfulness because Azrael only avenges. Jean Paul fights with this notion a bit, and by the end of the comic, he decides that, despite the costume, he isn’t willing to abandon what makes him human.
I’ve made my peace with O’Neil’s writing, so I’m sure that I’ll be able to finish the rest of this without flinching every other sentence.
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