“Azrael is not decent. Azrael is not humane! Azrael is the instrument of righteous cruelty!”
Batman: The Sword of Azrael is a bit of an oddity in the Batman canon. Serving as a prelude to the mammoth Knightfall arc (which I will get around to tackling at some point) and an introduction to the mysterious Azrael, it’s not really a Batman story at all. In fact there’s not a whole lot of Batman in it. There’s lots of Bruce Wayne, but he’s captured for a large chunk. This is an Azrael story.
Admittedly, I first learned about Azrael in the Arkham games (a different incarnation, voiced amazingly by Khary Payton). But he was just far too interesting to leave there, so I tracked down this origin story. It begins with Azrael being killed, which is a good way to get your attention. The mantle of Azrael is taken on by the original Azrael’s son, Jean-Paul Valley and he travels to Switzerland to learn more about the Sacred Order of Saint Dumas and his birth right. Hot on his heels is Batman and his trusty butler, Alfred Pennyworth.
This is the first interesting thing about the comic, very little of it takes place in Gotham. The action goes from the mountains of Switzerland, across Europe, to the British countryside, and eventually culminates in an abandoned Texan oil refinery. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a Batman story take the Bat out of Gotham this much, never mind sending him all over the world. Also, he spends a lot of time out of costume, doing flips around a Swiss hospital because, he argues, “Nobody knows Bruce Wayne here.” I’m not sure that holds up. But as I said, this is an Azrael story. Batman is in pursuit, but the cool moments all belong to Azrael.
After being brainwashed by his father since birth, Jean-Paul has the powers of Azrael and doesn’t even know it. He’s part of a long line of assassins calling themselves Azrael. Aided by the dwarf Nomoz, who explains the history of the order which goes back to the crusades, Jean-Paul becomes the angel of vengeance. When he slips on the mask, a bloodbath ensues. It’s not Batman’s style, but it gets the job done. There’s a really great moment as Azrael is fully unleashed, and he takes down a party of henchman and their dogs. It’s violent and stylised, but it’s also over-the-top and a lot of fun. As Alfred looks on in horror, it also presents a nice contrast to Batman/Bruce Wayne. Is what happens to Jean-Paul when he puts on the mask really that different to Bruce?
It’s very, very 90s. That means lots happening on each page, garish colours, grimacing characters, and a few kinda naff (but also kinda cool) double-page illustrations that you have to turn the comic on its side to read – I’m glad you don’t see many of them. It looks gorgeous in its own way. It is over the top and silly, but just roll with it and you’ll have a good time. Just don’t expect a Batman-centric story. It’s Azrael’s show.
Reviewed by Jack