A Forwarding with Dennis O’Neil
We knew we needed him. We just didn’t know his name, who he was, what he did, or why.
We became aware of the need when we first began discussing Knightfall, the 71-issue monster continuity that eventually appeared in Batman, Detective Comics, Shadow of the Bat, Robin, Catwoman, and Legends of the Dark Knight, with brief side excursions into a special, a mini-series, Justice League Task Force, and Outsiders. We agreed that the bonafide, original Batman would be severely disabled, retire, and be replaced. This replacement, though an ideal choice for the job, would eventually reveal a hidden, ugly side which would force Bruce out of retirement and into a direct confrontation. The WE I’m referring to consisted of our editorial team – Archie Goodwin, Scott Peterson, Jordan Garfinkel, and Darren Vincenzo – and what I believe to be the best crew of comic book writers in the comic book business – Chuck Dixon, Alan Grant, Doug Moench, and Jo Duffy. They’d do most of the work. I’d supervise the editorial chores and do a bit of scripting. Oh, and one small additional job: I’d create the character who would eventually become the anti-Batman.
Anti-Batman huh? Okay, should be do-able. Let’s try to find a name and see what develops from that. Something animal or avian, maybe. Go to the research sources and learn what the natural enemies of bats are. Surprisingly, despite the bad reputation bats have they’re pretty friendly creatures. Among their airborne contemporaries, their only real foes are owls. Anything we can do with owls then? Well, owls are predators, but they’ve had great public relations over the centuries. The popular notion of an owl that is not that of a feathered terror who swoops from the night sky to make a snack of a smaller beastie, but of a placid old critter perched on a limb being benign and wise. Definitely not what we were looking for. Any other possibilities? Just one: the greatest danger to the bat population is us – people So, the anti-Batman is what? The human man? Man-man? The incredible person? Fella? Maybe we should reconsider owls…
No, we shouldn’t. We should look elsewhere. I was (and am) interested in mythology and religion. Anything in those areas?
I really don’t remember if I began searching for a celestial avenger or if I merely went for a random saunter through Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. Probably the latter. It’s likely that the name Azrael caught my eye, there on page 100, and I scanned the accompanying text, “…terrible angel of death…forbidding aspect and horrible presence.” …Well, well. Let’s consider this for a moment: As Eric Lusbader observed, Batman’s costume – the horns, the dark colors, the scalloped cape – is reminiscent of medieval depictions of devils. A devil’s opposite is of course, an Angel. So if Batman is a devil co-opted by good, an anti-Batman would be an angel co-opted by evil.
Owls could stay on their branches. I’ve found my man on a higher locale – much higher. Once I’d decided on the angel motif, and editor Archie Goodwin agreed, the rest followed pretty easily. Azrael’s other identity as shy computer student Jean Paul Valley, the clandestine and immensely powerful Order of St. Dumas, Azrael’s position as hereditary assassin, the death of the elder Azrael, and, most important, Batman’s involvement. We enlisted one of comics’ most impressive artists, Joe Quesada, to design Azrael’s costume and, after several conferences with Archie and the other writers, I placed myself proximate to a word processor and began scripting our anti-Batman’s four-issue debut, Sword of Azrael. Joe with fine assistance from Kevin Nowlan, Ken Bruzenak, and Loverne Kindzierski, did a superb job on the graphics and, about a year later, the series appeared.
We chose not to reveal our plans for Jean Paul; I think we were able to con readers into believing that Sword of Azrael was simply the introduction of a new hero. That choice may have cost us a few sales, but it seemed vital to the eventual success of the above mentioned monster continuity that we upset our audience’s expectations. I’m told we succeeded.
Maybe too well. As the monster progressed, as Azrael deteriated into the monomania and violence, mail indicated that readers were starting to hate the young Jean Paul – which of course was exactly what we hoped would happen. Clearly though, there was interest beyond the loathing. Enough interest to justify giving him his own monthly title? The decision makers said yes. Since Archie and I were the architects of the original miniseries, we inherited the job of doing the monthly. Neither of us protested, at least not too audibly; it could be a provocative project, but it had unusual problems. At the end of the monster, Jean Paul is broken, homeless, virtually without an identity and, let us remember, he was despised – not exactly prime hero material. We’d be starting way behind square one. We’d have to tell the story of his redemption and then let him find his own place in our fictional universe.
That’s what we’re in the process of doing. At least this time we know his name. In the months ahead, we may learn who he is, what he does, and why. Stay tuned.