Monday, June 18, 2018

Longbox Junk - Azrael (Vol. 2) Part 1: Issues 1 - 9

I said it once and I'll say it again. . .it ain't easy being an Azrael fan.

After an unimpressive introduction in the "Death's Dark Knight" mini, I pondered the question of just how good an ongoing series starring the uninteresting character of Michael Lane could be. . .

It ran for 18 issues, so there was SOME push behind it, but from what I can see on the internet (O Internet! Fountain of Comic Knowledge!) nobody really cared. A continued lack of care is reflected in the REBIRTH Bat-books where Azrael has been re-introduced, but as a strange version of Jean Paul Valley wearing a Suit of Sorrows with some sort of ancient A.I. computer built into it. 

 Rebirth Azrael is a steaming pile of WTF, but Michael Lane seems to have been completely forgotten by. . .well. . .everyone.  There is very little information on this series beyond the first issue to be found.

So here's a look at the ongoing series starring the Azrael nobody asked for, nobody cared about, and nobody remembers today.  I kind of feel sorry for it, because to tell the truth. . .it ain't bad.


AZRAEL (Vol. 2) 
DC (2009 - 2011)

ISSUE 1
ANGEL IN THE DARK

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon 
COVER: Jock

First issue. Here we go

First off. . .great cover by Jock!

This first issue of Azrael featuring the Michael Lane version of the character was surprisingly good after the lackluster introductory mini that preceded it (Death's Dark Knight). The story is split into 3 sections. . .

The first is Azrael's hunt for a serial killer that is preying on a specific list of Catholic Church members. The ending was surprising in that Azrael figures out who the killer is (a contract assasin working for victims of a child molesting priest and working his way through those who turned the other way or protected the priest, saving him for last) and confronts him, but ultimately lets him go to finish his job. . .showing that Azrael is more concerned with justice than being a traditional hero.

The second story thread involves Michael getting settled into his new role as Avenger for The Order of Purity, and is mostly exposition for those who didn't read the mini.

The third storyline. . .and most interesting. . .is a flash-forward 8 months ahead with Harvey Bullock and the GCPD investigating the death of Azrael. I like that they were already considering the end of the story at the very beginning of it.

Let's talk about the art a bit. 

In other reviews I've seen of this first issue, 90% of them bagged on the art. I have to disagree. I REALLY liked the gritty, realistic, somewhat chunky and darkly-inked art. I think that the penciller, inker, and color artist really work great together and that the art is actually the best part of this book for looking nothing like one would expect in a mainstream comic series. I especially like that they don't draw Lane himself as a super-heroic figure, but as a compact, muscular bulldog of a man. . .not really physically imposing at all when out of costume.

Overall, I found this issue to be a surprisingly good read. I liked that the story touched on an extremely uncomfortable topic for a mainstream DC superhero book (child molesting priests), had great, gritty art, was pretty much a self-contained one issue story, and hooked me in by giving me a flash forward mystery. There's really nothing bad I can say about this issue. Well done!


ISSUE 2
GHOST IN THE LIGHT

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

As Azrael tries to learn more about the Order of Purity, his mission, and the curse on the Suit of Sorrows he wears, he is lured into a confrontation with Ra's Al Ghul's servant, The White Ghost, and is forced to choose between saving only one of two innocent people.

Another surprisingly good issue. Once again, it's pretty much done in one issue, while still exploring some threads for the overall story. I'm really liking the "one and done, with a little extra" narrative structure of this title so far. 

I also liked that (like last issue), Azrael doesn't take the obvious path to solving the problem at hand. In this case, he talks his enemy into a corner, forcing him to help him with the "impossible" test Ra's Al Ghul has set up for him (deciding which one of two innocent people to save from certain death).

The gritty, realistic art continues to impress. This issue has a brief appearance by Birds of Prey-era Huntress that is particularly nicely done.

Overall, there's really nothing bad to say about this issue.


ISSUE 3
A SINGLE GRAIN OF SAND

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

While racial tension heats up in Gotham City, Azrael discovers that a killer is one of the men he went on a secret mission to Iran with during his time as a Marine. . .

Another good "One and Done, with a little extra" issue. I'm really liking the narrative style of this title. Also, as in the last two issues, Azrael doesn't solve the problem in a traditional "heroic" way as he's forced to confront some of the evil things he did during wartime and decide if he has the right to judge someone who was there with him.

The art. . .especially in the flashback scenes. . .remains very nicely done. I really like the chunky, more realistic look of this title. It's almost like a Vertigo book.

Overall, this title still remains strong three issues in, with a "Cast the first stone, he who is without sin" self contained story and a great, gritty look.


ISSUE 4
BLOOD SIMPLE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

After taking down a Satanic cult, Batman and Robin discover the person responsible for the murders of Azrael's brother and sister. 

And so we come to the first "clunker" issue on this run. . .and fairly early too.

It's not BAD, it's just not as good as the previous issues, with a story that still follows the "one and done, with a little extra" framework established from the beginning of this title, but with Azrael finding out that his own Sister In Law murdered his brother and sister. . .and that "The Devil Made Her Do It" Literally.  It's a bit weak, and frankly the way they just sort of leave it hanging is unexplainable.

The art remains strong in this issue, but for some reason, the art team does a poor job with Batman and Robin, with the exception of a few panels.

Overall, this is the weakest issue so far. . .and being only 4 issues into an 18 issue run, I hope it's not the start of an early downward slide.


ISSUE 5
SEAMS UNDONE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

As racial tension between Jews and Palestinians in Gotham reaches a boiling point, Azrael encounters Ragman and learns that fighting on the "Right" side all depends on the point of view. . .

Another fairly weak issue, making it two in a row. It involves tension between Jews and Palestinians with a confrontation between Ragman and Azrael as champions of two different religions as sort of a proxy battle of words and faiths. The IDEA is interesting, the execution is not so much. There are a few thought-provoking moments, but to be honest, the whole thing feels more than a little forced.

The art returns to an outstanding level in this issue. A particular standout is a double page spread of Azrael being forced to mentally confront the truth of all the blood that has been shed by those wearing the cursed Suit of Sorrows. I guess the art team just has some sort of problem with Batman and Robin, because it's all good in this issue.

Overall, a weak story with a good concept, an interesting guest character, and poor execution.


ISSUE 6
UNSPOKEN

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael studies ancient texts to learn more about the Suit of Sorrows and those who wore it previously. He discovers a secret code that claims to tell him who his real enemy is. . .The Order of Purity that he serves.

This was probably the best issue of the run so far. Good news after 2 pretty weak issues. 

Told mostly in flashback as Michael Lane secludes himself and studies the history of the Order of Purity and journals of previous Azraels, he discovers a code that tells him that The Order is his REAL enemy.

The story is tight and very well written, and the art is especially impressive this time out. In particular, a past confrontation between an Azrael of St. Dumas and an Azrael of the Order of Purity is VERY nicely done.  All that AND the cover of this issue is one of the best so far.

Overall, this issue is a winner in every way!


ISSUE 7
SLOW DEATH

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael's sanity starts to fray around the edges as he tracks down "Hide and Seek", a team of two criminals who have kidnapped a child.

After the fantastic previous issue, this one feels like a bit of a disappointment. Not to say that it's bad, just not as good as it COULD be. The story is pretty simple and straightforward. . .another "one and done" that also snips the loose end of Lane's sister-in-law being acquitted for the murder of Lane's brother and sister because. . .the DEVIL made her do it! Whatever. It's just a one page WTF in an otherwise decent issue.


ISSUE 8
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 1

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael follows a trail of clues and dead bodies to France, leading him to a secret temple beneath a church and a cult that worships sin who try to force him to become the avatar of the 8th Deadly Sin. . .Faith.

You know how they say when a T.V. show goes on the road for a "Special Episode" where they go on vacation to Hawaii, or visit Disneyland (for example), it's on the way down? Yeah. . .I get that feeling with this issue.

There's a lot of heavy questions here about unquestioning faith being a sin itself, but basically, this is the first "Continued" issue, and is mostly a fight with supervillains from “The Eighth Deadly Sin” storyline found in BATMAN ANNUAL #27 and DETECTIVE COMICS ANNUAL #11.

The art remains gritty and grounded, but I definitely see signs of story fatigue as the writer moves Azrael toward continuity-based supervillain battles.

Overall, it's not awful. . .but it ain't that good either.


ISSUE 9
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 2

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael is forced (somehow that isn't really explained) into becoming the avatar for the 8th Deadly Sin, Faith. He gets a brutal new helmet and joins the La Saligia team for an attack on The Vatican. 

The White Ghost manages to talk him back down and the two team up to take out half of the Deadly Sins. After their killing spree is over, Azrael declines to join Team Ra's Al Ghul. White Ghost tells him it's only a matter of time before he changes his mind. . .

This second half of the "Let Him Who Is Without Sin" story is basically a long fight sequence, with Azrael changing sides twice and lots of religious questions being asked between punches and sword blows.

I found it interesting that Ra's Al Ghul (via The White Ghost) is becoming a bigger part of the overall story, but other than that, this was a fairly weak issue with some inexplicable moments. . .Michael Lane has to be one of the MOST easily-manipulated characters ever. You can talk him into doing almost ANYTHING.

The art is the saving grace on this story. The fight scenes are very nicely done, and the art team makes even ridiculous supervillains look decent.

Overall, I'm glad this story is done with, and I hope it's not a sign of the direction this title is headed. . .
CONCLUSION

Despite a few weak issues, I'd have to say that I enjoyed the first half of Azrael a lot more than I thought I would.  Here's the thing. . .the Michael Lane version of Azrael is an EXTREMELY forgettable character, but the stories built AROUND the character are good.  All credit due to Fabian Nicieza for turning lemons into lemonade.

 Also credit due to the art team of Bachs, Smith, and Stanisci for giving the book a dark, gritty, grounded look that really sets it apart.  As I mentioned above, I really liked that this Azrael is NOT a hulking, impressive figure, but is a short (he's drawn about 6 or 7 inches shorter than Batman), muscular bulldog of a character.

Overall, I found the first half of this series to be a gritty, thought-provoking take on a religious-themed hero.  There were a few WTF moments to be had. For example. . .one has to wonder why Batman allows someone to go around Gotham killing people because God and The Order of Purity say they deserve it.  In any regular Bat book Azrael would be the villain. . .but Batman and company just sort of let Azrael do his thang for some reason that's never really explained.

But good taken with bad, this series (so far) isn't nearly as bad as it SHOULD be. It's actually pretty good and deserves a read as a nice little piece of Longbox Junk. . .this first half anyway.  We'll see about the rest.

Up next. . .

The back half of the Azrael series nobody remembers!  Issues 10 - 18.

Can this thing stay on the rails?

Be there or be square!