Volume IV, No 10
DC’s Killer Angel
Dennis O’Neil is doing monthly comics again after doing them for over 25 years. As usual, he’s handing the editorial chores over to long-time friend and co-worker Archie Goodwin, and teaming with artist Barry Kitson on Azrael – a new ongoing monthly that will shed plenty of light on yet another dark and fascinating corner of the Batman mythos.
Interview by Michael R. Smith
“If man’s an angel,” ruminates a character in The Killer Angel, Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning account of the battle of Gettysburg, “Then sure, he’s a murderin’ angel.” What Shaara applied metaphorically to the whole human race is literally true for Azrael, the avenging angel of the Order of St. Dumas, first introduced two years ago in DC’s Sword of Azrael miniseries. Then, he was a brutal and remorseless assassin conditioned from birth to serve as the Order’s defender and all-around hitman. At the time, DC couldn’t reveal just how important Azrael would be to the future of everyone’s favorite Dark Knight detective, but the book was a sensation, anyway, due in large part to the strength and execution of the story and the exceptional artwork of Joe Quesada and Kevin Nowlan.
As with that project, reader’s will once again find Dennis O’Neil’s name on the splash page of Azrael, an all-new, ongoing monthly that DC will add to its Batman family of titles this December. O’Neil – THE MAN when it comes to any and all things Batman, is bringing plenty of things to the project: an understanding of the mythological underpinnings of superhero comics; an abiding love for rough-and-tumble action scenes; and the enduring command of narrative craft that can only emerge from three decades in the comic book business. He’s been described as ‘Heavy’ by his co-workers-which is ironic for a slight, introspective man with a deep commitment to pacifism and vegetarianism. But like most comic book writers, he strikes an agreeable balance between intellect and instinct; between the desire to bring depth to a work, and the action-intensive requirements of the form. Azrael clearly demands both.
Last June, we spoke about Denny about “Knightfall,” the landmark storyline that re-introduced readers to Jean Paul Valley: the bland, slightly befuddled young man who would later become the heir to Batman’s mantle as protector of Gotham City. Since then, Bruce and Jean Paul have endured the worst-and Denny has been there every step of the way. In a recent telephone conversation, he shared with us his plans for Azrael – what he’s calling the “grandest paranoid dream” ever attempted in comics. Coming from the man who created Ras Al Ghul, we tend to believe it.
Looking back, was Knightfall a success, in whatever way you define that word?
Definitely. In fact, I think it was more of a success than it’s being given credit for. It was, without a question, a commercial success. But we also tried to do some fairly difficult things with the story, and I am not aware of any failures. I mean, nobody has written me a letter shooting the whole thing full of holes. There is one criticism that really irks me though, which I’ve seen twice in print. Basically, it says that Azrael was a ‘trial balloon,’ to see whether or not the audience would accept a tougher, meaner Batman. Of course, if you simply read the stories and have some working knowledge of how things are put together – that is of how far ahead we have to plan…well, I think it’s pretty clear that Azrael could never have been created for that purpose. The whole thing had been plotted out well in advance. In the end, it was precisely what we wanted it to be: a 70+ grand, graphic novel that explored the theme of what a hero is in the ‘90’s.
So, no regrets but neither do I want to do something like it again any time in the near future. Professionally, it was the toughest two years of my life. I’m delighted that we tried it. I also feel like a tremendous weight has been lifted because the other editors and I have been living in fear that we’d somehow missed something – some crucial flaw that would deconstruct the whole damn thing. So far, that hasn’t happened.
How would you characterize the fundamental differences between Batman and Azrael, or between Bruce and Jean Paul if that makes a difference? Bruce is very aware of what he is and how that contributes to what he does. He is not moved by internal or external forces that he doesn’t already understand. Jean Paul on the other hand, has virtually no idea who he really is. He is, in the worst possible way, ignorant. Think about it: he had a rotten childhood he can barely remember; conversely, Bruce remembers his childhood, which was, up until that one critical moment, a very happy and privileged one – all too well. So they are at extremely opposite ends of the psychological spectrum.
Some critics and writers have accused Batman of being insane. But I’ve never seen it that way, precisely because of that element of self-awareness. He’s a guy who’s made a choice to let the results of a severe childhood trauma govern his life. But in our reading of the mythos, he could, and probably will, stop at some time. The difference of course, is that someone who is compulsive has no control over his actions. Batman is not deranged. Jean Paul may very well be, on some level. We also saw him manifest some classic symptoms of mental imbalance: hearing voices and seeing things that aren’t there. If anything, he’s delusional.
You’ve said that your working model for this new series is Arthurian lore, particularly the quests. Is that what Azrael is looking for: himself?
Precisely. That is his grail. In our first Azrael story arc, Jean Paul will discover the truth about himself. Then, with his identity firmly established in his own mind, we’ll see about getting him some control over his powers. He’ll finally be able to use those powers; right now, they’re using him. I expect that the initial arc will run six or seven issues.
But if nearly all of the living members of the Order of St. Dumas were killed by Biis in Sword of Azrael, how is Jean Paull going to learn anything about it or his relationship to it?
Well, for one thing, don’t be sure that Biis wiped out the Order. As we’ll learn in the new series, the Order of St. Dumas is a VERY secret organization. There’s much more to it than what was revealed in Sword of Azrael, and learning those secrets is part of Jean Paul’s mission. In Sword of Azrael, the Order was more of a plot device than anything else. But in the new series, I’m exploring it more thoroughly. It turns out that the Order is more powerful than anyone imagined because it has been able to manipulate history. Take science for example: In Azrael we’ll learn that alchemy actually works, but that the Order suppressed that information some time during the 16th century so that only they could use it.
Did you base the Order on any historical antecedent?
Very loosely. The Knights Templar – a 14th century group of celibate warriors who became very rich during the Crusades is about as close as you’ll get. The Knights Templar provided Dashiell Hammett with the Maltese Falcon: it was supposed to have been a bird that the Templars created to send to the Pope. In our reading of the story we’ll also use the Knights as a point of departure. The Order of St. Dumas is, for us, a splinter group of the Knights Templar, which is led by a raving lunatic called Dumas. At one point he declares himself a Saint. The Pope gently reminds Dumas, by way of emissaries, that he can’t be a Saint, if for no other reason than that Saints are customarily dead. So Dumas kills the messengers. At that point he really goes off the deep end and splits violently with any existing religious order or church. He sets up his own church, and it’s one fundamental tenant is absolute secrecy. That’s why Azrael exists: it’s a hereditary position dedicated to killing anybody who may betray the existence of the Order. Still, in the course of six centuries information has escaped. Certain people know or suspect something about it.
Sounds more like the Illuminati than a group of monks.
Good analogy. The Illuminati is in the back of my mind, in fact in one of the early issues of Azrael, a character refers to the fact that the Illuminati was yet another blind alley created by the Order to divert attention away from themselves. In a sense, the Order is the ultimate secret society.
How do Bruce, Alfred, and Tim factor into all of this?
Bruce functions as the herald. In the first story, he realizes that his treatment of Jean Paul after the whole Knightfall affair was a monumental blunder. At the end of Legends of the Dark Knight issue 63, Bruce just sends this hapless, mixed up kid on his own merry way. I wrote it that way for maximum drama. But logically, it was pretty rotten of Bruce to treat him so cavalierly. So in Azrael, Bruce tries to make good with Jean Paul by equipping him for the quest. What he says is, “Look, Jean Paul, I’m Bruce Wayne, one of the richest men in the world, and the world’s greatest detective. I’ve learned some things about the Order of St. Dumas. Here’s where I think they’re headquartered, and here’s a couple of million bucks to get you started.”
In other words, Azrael is a Batman continuity book in the same way that Robin and Catwoman are. Our first story begins in Gotham, where we find that Jean Paul is a lost, wondering soul without hope or direction. Occasionally, he’ll black out, and when he comes out of it he discovers that he’s beaten up three muggers. He can do spectacular things, but he can barely remember that he was Batman.
In the Sword of Azrael miniseries, you seemed to be playing with the relationship between fate and providence; between rationalism (everything has a natural, scientific explanation) and the life of faith (it is the will of God). In what ways will the new Azrael series explore these same kinds of theological questions?
The semantics of this are tricky, because I am not a lampooning, satirizing, or in any way criticizing religion. After all, my wife teaches religion in Catholic school; one of my assistants is a devout Jew, and the other two are devout Catholics. So yes, there is a religious dimension to Azrael, if by religion you mean things like rituals, traditions, and those kinds of things. I see no reason not incorporate some of that into the comic book. But I’m not in the business of insulting people, and if I were to mount a screed against some faith or aspect of what religion has become, I probably wouldn’t do it in a comic book. Instead, what I do is use some elements of traditional religion as story components. Hopefully, I’ll succeed in sending signals to my readers that this book is not about Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Mohammedanism, or any specific faith. What will emerge in the stories are things that are common to most religions. Grail mythology, which is closely tied to religion is my starting point, but I would also like to work something in about angels into the mix because Azrael is, in two near eastern religions, an avenging angel.
So there is a historical analog for Azrael’s name?
Sure. Look it up in any dictionary of mythology. He’s an avenging angel in Mohammedanism and Judaism. After all, he was created to be the ‘anti-Batman.’ With that in mind, I set out to find a natural adversary for the bat in the animal kingdom. Unfortunately, there aren’t many. Bats are actually very benevolent creatures. All I could come up with two: Owls (but there had already been an Owl-Man, and Owls had the wrong vibe anyways) and man (but ‘Man-Man’ just doesn’t sing as a superhero). Finally, I came across Azrael-maybe in Funk and Wagnall’s Encyclopedia of mythology. It was, in the end, precisely what we were looking for.
There seems to be a tendency in popular fiction-comics or non- to fall into the same old traps when treating theological/supernatural material: corrupt priests, impure nuns, greedy televangelists, etc…
Lately, that does seem to be true. Back in the early seventies, it was true that by putting a clerical character into a story you were taking a great chance. I guess that comics back then were still very much under the influence of fifties era editorial policies. Any authority figure of any stripe was automatically a cross between Mahatma Gandhi, the Buddha, and Jesus Christ. Now; and this may be my age speaking, the pendulum does seem to have swung too far into the other direction. I’ve been as guilty of it as anybody. Protestant ministers have approached me at conventions and said, “Well, if you find a Protestant Minister in your comics these days you know who the bad guys are going to be.” Some stuff that I’ve read recently seems to be taking gratuitous shots at the Catholic clergy. The negatives of organized religion; the evil that it has done, as well as the good, is a topic that I will willingly discuss at any time, and at length, with anyone who is interested. My wife and I have had hundreds of discussions about it over the years, but that’s an entirely different thing than taking cheap shots in comic books. That’s not my style.
Still, John Ostrander seems to avoid it in the Spectre, and you in Sword of Azrael. What’s the secret?
Maybe it’s because John and I co-teach the same comics writing class. John and I vibrate in synch and agree on all sorts of things, which is why we’re teaching the course at SVA (the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street in Manhattan: Will Eisner, Walt Simonson, Carmine Infantino, and Claus Janson, among others, all teach courses there).
Speaking of your colleagues: how would you describe your working relationship with Archie Goodwin who is editing the new series? Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you both ‘come up’ together?
Archie’s been in this racket a year or two longer than I have. I’m very grateful for his presence at this company, because without him, I’d be the oldest editor at DC Comics. Our working relationship is about as good as it gets. I trust him unequivocally-but that doesn’t mean that he gets away with murder. On at least one recent project, he demanded more re-writing then I am used to doing, and thank God for it. He’s an incredible backstop for the creative people, and that’s what great editors do: curb our excesses, catch our mistakes, and provide a sounding board.
I’d been in the business about five years before I met Archie. We were both at Marvel during the mid-sixties. Years later I was a superhero editor at Marvel while Archie was in charge of their Epic line. Still, we weren’t quite colleagues. But since we’ve both come back to DC we’ve had this reciprocal arrangement. Sometimes I’ll edit Archie’s work, and vice-versa. I have unqualified respect for Archie and his skills. He’s one of the best, and I’m glad that he’s here to moderate some of my more radical ideas in Azrael.
What powers, beyond those we’ve already seen in Knightfall, will Azrael manifest in the new series?
Think of the ultimate Hong Kong martial arts hero-you know, the guys in the Jackie Chan action movies or in movies like Once Upon A Time In China, who do stuff that even Batman can’t do. That’s what we’re shooting for with Azrael’s powers: the extreme, upper-most level of what is possible for a human being. He’s not super-human, but in a way, he’s close.
So all of this talk about theology and medieval history aside, Azrael is still a kick ass action book.
That’s why people read superhero comics! After all these years I can still respond to that stuff. As I said in the afterword to the Knightfall Graphic Novel, I don’t feel at all demeaned by writing action-oriented superhero comic books. It’s good, solid entertainment, and not the easiest thing in the world to do well. There’s a phrase of James Agee’s that I keep coming back to: the very difficult job of being ‘merely entertaining.” I do need to emphasize, because we sometimes sound very intellectual when we have these discussions, that that’s all that I’m interested in doing. Insofar as I use mythology and theology, I use it to better tell the most entertaining stories that I can.
Of all that you’ve written, which is your favorite Batman story?
That’s a tough one. As a job of story construction, I think that, ‘A Vow from the Grave,’ drawn by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano, from Detective Comics, was one of my best. It’s the only time that I’ve ever been satisfied with a detective story written by me for a Batman comic book. It plays absolutely fair with the reader. All he clues are there, and if you pay attention you can solve the mystery. I think on that one I solved the technical problems of a 15-page detective tale, and delivered a pretty good story at the same time. As a longer work, I think ‘Venom,’ from Legends of the Dark Knight worked very well. ‘Birth of the Demon,’ the Graphic novel I did with Norm Breyfogle, is also one of my favorites, but it never sold particularly well.
Does it ever bother you that a creative success may not necessarily translate into a financial one?
Sometimes. You can never predict it ahead of time. The perceived quality of a work in the end may have no bearing on its commercial success. Bu that’s just the nature of most popular art forms. Good novels go unread; good movies unseen. It’s frustrating, because I know that the kinds of things that have made me the most money are a long, long way from my best work. So in that sense, you sort of feel like a fraud. Of course, the whole collector-speculator explosion really skewed the whole economics of the entire comic book business. Fortunately, at least the speculator factor in that equation appears to be dead. I heard that the last three QVC shows actually lost money.
Did you appear in any of those?
No, that was very much against company policy for DC editors. They offered me a great deal of money to do it, but Paul Levitz feels that it’s not a great idea for a DC editor, and I don’t disagree. If nothing else, you could be put into the awkward position of appearing to endorse a competitors product, or coming across a churl.
Right now, the business is in a re-trenching mode. But when the dust finally settles, were going to be left with readers who enjoy comics as entertainment, and not as commodities. Ultimately, that is going to be very good for the long-term health of the comic book business.