Jean-Paul Valley, the Batman we have all forgotten, originated as a college student in 1992’s Batman: Sword of Azrael. In this limited series by Denny O’Neil and with the awesome artwork of Joe Quesada. Quesada would later go on to become the devil incarnate as the head of Marvel Comics, but disagree with all else he does, you can never fault his artwork, we are introduced to a character who would go on to shock the comic book world when he is chosen over all others to be Bruce Wayne’s successor.
In Sword of Azrael, Valley opens his dorm room door to find his father, suited up like a medieval warrior, dying on his door step. His father was an assassin for The Sacred Order of Saint Dumas, a hidden religious secret society, who judged and killed people who they felt to be evil. Valley is brainwashed with “the system”, a form of psychological conditioning that becomes activated upon the death of his father and Valley then takes up the mantle of Azrael, the angel of death.
In the Sword of Azrael, Valley works with Alfred Pennyworth to find the weapons dealer who has captured Bruce Wayne and killed Valley’s father. The dealer turns out to be a rogue priest of the Order who has betrayed Valley’s father. Valley rejects his traditional mission of vengeance and assassination to fight alongside Batman and breaks through his conditioning of killing. Together they defeat the rogue priest and Valley returns to Gotham with Bruce, joining his team as Azrael.
It is in the Batman storyline of Knightfall and Knightquest that Valley plays a pivotal role in the Batman mythos. As Bruce Wayne is beaten and broken by the villain Bane, it is Jean-Paul Valley who becomes the Batman in Gotham and not Dick Grayson. It is Jean-Paul Valley who is heir to the cowl. But the adjustment for Valley is too difficult as his lifelong training in brutality and killing get the best of him and he cannot battle crime as Bruce Wayne did before him. A problem the current Robin; Damien Wayne, seems to have as well. Damien being raised by his mother Talia Al Ghul and the League of Assassins. Bruce recuperates from the beating at the hands of Bane and realizes that for the safety of Gotham, he must take back the mantle of Being the Batman. He battles against Valley defeats him deep in the Batcave, reminding Valley that he is not truly the Batman, but Bruce Wayne is. Jean-Paul Valley slips into madness and is slowly helped out of it, re-taking the form of Azrael and battling crime. But his obsession with the death of his father and the Order of Dumas leads him back to the rogue priest who betrayed and murdered his father. They battle and fall to their deaths into a river. Valley’s body is never recovered and the character of Azrael is moved on to another. But it never achieves the position in Batman or DC that it held during Sword of Azrael and the Knightfall/Knightquest storyline. Jean-Paul Valley is one of Batman’s greatest failures and is almost never mentioned. Along with Jason Todd and Cassandra Cain, Jean-Paul Valley is the price that is paid to be an ally of the Batman. Where Todd and Cain have returned off and on, Valley seems lost to the Batman Universe.
The story of Jean-Paul Valley is a reminder that it is not the physical toll that breaks a superhero but the emotional and mental burden they bare. As Azrael he could survive for a time, but bearing the weight of being the Batman became too much for him and eventually drove him mad.
The Sword of Azrael series is one of my favorites and stands still as one of the best Batman short series ever created. It deserves so much more than to be forgotten in a waste bin of unknown and forgotten books. But then again, so did Jean-Paul Valley and alter-ego, Azrael.