It feels like I’ve been reading a lot of miniseries lately. It may not be any more than usual, but with the recent trades it feels like each is its own self-contained story. Not that I’m complaining. That’s vastly preferable to trades which don’t cover an entire storyline, beginning after the plot’s underway and ending before anything’s resolved. I enjoy these stories tied up in neat little packages, and while I may not always love them, they’re at least complete.
Batman: Sword of Azrael continues in this vein of self-contained stories. Batman is investigating an unknown man who killed a number of spectators at a parade. With the help of Oracle (her first appearance on “the shelf”, albeit a brief one) he tracks down the assailant to the Swiss Alps.
While all of this is happening, the reader learns that the man responsible for those parade deaths, Azrael, has died, and passed on his legacy to his son. This son is not the second, or even the third, Azrael; instead, he is simply next in a long line of men who have adopted this role to exact vengeance on bad people.
The character of Azrael progresses throughout these four brief issues, constantly changing as he adapts to his new role. Originally a simple graduate student, this young man is hesitant of the new title thrust upon him. He is almost consumed by it, as the god Azrael takes over and turns him into a mindless killing machine:
In these scenes, he blurs the line between good and evil, killing without prejudice, blaming the mask for controlling his actions.
As the story closes though, and Batman is trapped facing death, Azrael goes against his teachings that “Azrael does not save” and goes back into a raging inferno to carry a swathed Batman out of the flames.
As the story ends, we are greeted with this character introducing himself for the first time; not as Azrael, but as the man he truly is:
Truth be told, I missed the significance of this transformation the first go ’round. It wasn’t until I had paused to reflect on the comic that I realized the depth of this story. Jean Paul Valley, alias Azrael, represents anyone who dons a mask or hides behind a disguise. While wearing the Azrael uniform, Jean Paul commits heinous acts, all while blaming the costume for controlling him. It isn’t until he rebels against this ideology that he is able to admit that he is merely a man, capable of making his own choices.
It’s a rather poignant commentary, especially for a comic in which countless heroes and villains alike hide behind a disguise. Try as they might to blame the costume for their behavior, it is ultimately the person inside who makes the decision to be good or evil. When these characters own up to that fact and take responsibility for their actions, they break free from the confines of their masks and can truly embrace who they are.
The depth of this story surprised me, as it was subtle enough to be overlooked. Then again, this miniseries was written by Dennis O’Neil, so I should have known to expect more than meets the eye. Perhaps some people interpret this story as an actual tale of angels and demons, while others view it as I do: a cautionary psychological tale. This allowance for various interpretations makes the comic far more intriguing than I would have initially assumed, and creates a story that is both deep and entertaining.