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Interviews : A Dialogue with Dandy Denny


Denny O'neil09/05/99

          In the years that Azrael has been published it has stood apart from other books on the basis of its different flavour and unique narrative style, as individual and original as that found in Starman. I wondered how much of that was contributed to by the editorial office.
          Also in the same vein is the style itself. A close reading of Azrael reveals a narrative structure/style like no other. I recently did a lot of rereading in a relatively short time and that may have been what brought the story telling framework underlying the stories to my attention. I noticed that from the first issue of the series it seemed you eschewed the use of third person narrative in the somewhat dehumanising manner that had been implemented in the Batbooks during and after the Knights trilogy. An overview of your work on the title reveals that most of the story progression is done in dialogue, and that a lot of stories are narrated by a character who remains unknown generally until halfway through the story, leading to a unique comic that tells it's story in both past and present tense. Besides the often complete absence of sound effects another mark of Azrael is how much is revealed with so little dialogue, given that in Azrael the story is generally progressed through the dialogue this is an amazing achievement.
          Did you make a conscious decision to use this style, was it something you went into Azrael wanting to do or did it just come about because it fitted the book? What do you feel are the advantages? Do you find situations where the style impedes the story telling and you have to take a different approach? With the big change that Azrael has experienced do you feel that the style that typified the first 50 issues no longer has a place in the book?
          When you were using Oracle as narrator in some of the stories (#37 in particular) the narration slipped easily into second person, I in particular felt this gave Azrael more immediacy and involved the reader in the story more strongly, Are there any plans to return to the form of storytelling soon?
          The highly psychological nature of the book means that every glimpse into the mind of Jean-Paul Valley is a revelation. A key component in making this work is the lettering. Ken really deserves a great deal of recognition for the work he's done. When I read Azrael #51 one of the things that told me what was going on was in the speech bubbles themselves, It appeared that Azrael was talking, was present in Jean-Paul's mind, but it seemed that it was Jean-Paul who was the dominant personality. Azrael #53's two pages with Azrael wandering the streets was as much an eye opener, we once again see that the clothes seem to make the man, as Azrael who starts a sentence but Jean-Paul who finishes it when he takes off his mask. I know that you prefer to write full script and obviously put a great deal of work into the details of the book, but do you really take it to that level of detail? I remember in Issue #44 when Azrael went to Mexico you threw a bit of a curve ball. You had the disembodied voice of Jean-Paul speaking to Azrael, I thought it was an amazing piece of dialogue, something that hadn't been done before and Ken seemed to adapt to it really well, How do you work these things out with him?

          No editor has had much influence on Azrael's style, at least not the verbal/narrative style. I can't speak for the art. The stylistic techniques you mention were mostly either experiments--I haven't done this and I wonder if it'll work--or at attempt to match the manner of the telling to the mood and content of the plot. And some of it was probably change for change's sake, a stab at focusing my attention by tossing out some of my narrative tricks and forcing myself to devise new ones. (Any writer who either produces a lot or has producing for a long time should maybe consider this. Not good to go on automatic pilot.)
          Narrative style should always be of a piece with content and mood. I'll return to second person if and when it seems to be the best way to tell the story. No rules here.
          I don't recall how the stuff in #51 you mention came about, but it was probably something I suggested in the script. Those details you mention are often crucially important and a writer ignores them at his peril. I really don't "work" with Ken in the sense of collaborating wit him. Usually, I'll simply suggest a change in lettering style--I'll ask for "spooky" or even, heaven forfend, "wonky" lettering--and let him decide exactly what that means. However, I do put a fair amount of italics in the script by simply using that option on the computer. (Once upon a time, it was indicated by underlining the appropriate word or syllable. Technology allows us to be more direct.) (I think I got fond of italics by reading J.D. Salinger, not that it matters...)

          You've said that If Azrael is to endure he has to claim his own heroic franchise, how do you see him achieving that? Do you know how he will go about it? Do you see Azrael as having an archetype behind him and do you have any plans to use that to give the Azrael heroic franchise some depth? Azrael was created in contrast to Batman; Light and Shadow, Angel of death and Demon of life, themes that contrast in addition to their looks. Wouldn't this heroic Azrael have to embrace this sort of contrast to have any sort of continuity of themes and depth? Wouldn't Azrael have to become a figurative White Knight, someone who brings light and hope (something I think Jean-Paul tries to do anyway)? Can a character who reflects these contrasts to Batman remain as a subordinate, even a close one?
          It's probably a hard question to answer but most long term readers of Azrael felt there was a certain weakness in the book following Angel at War, while individual stories exhibited great craft, and had good parts to them, there was an overall lack of life in the title. There was nothing tying the stories together nothing that really got the reader excited for the next issue. It was a little dismaying to look at these issues and look back to the first year of Azrael and see what the difference was. Was there anything in particular that you felt contributed to this low point for Azrael? With No Man's Land the book once again seems to have direction and subplots, something that found me eagerly awaiting each new issue. How much of this new-found energy in your writing do you feel is due to the storyline you have to work with? Does the new Editorial office hold much responsibility for the change? Just how Much power do you have over Azrael's direction since he's your creation and a Bat character, which puts him under your aegis? On the other hand Mike Carlin is the head honcho editorially how much impact does he have on the book?
          One of the major reasons that I read and like Azrael is that I strongly empathise with Jean-Paul and I feel that he's a lot like I am, but recently it's appeared that Jean-Paul is just someone who looks for things for Azrael to do. There doesn't seem to be much work on Jean-Paul as Jean-Paul, is there any chance we'll be seeing some more work done with the character?

          How will Az claim his own heroic franchise. Well...first, by becoming less passive and a bit more proactive and by psychologically separating himself from DaddyBats. We're working on that. I'm also considering giving his Jean Paul persona a bit more weight--giving him something he does that isn't related to his costumed activities. As to whether Az is derived from an archetype...good question. A combination of archetypes, maybe. The hero/warrior, of course. And the double identity/trickster archetype, and the man-into-animal (and vice versa) motif and most especially the mask-as-manifestation-of-true-identity motif,which is one of the places we started from. (Motifs aren't exactly archetypes, but they're first cousins?) Oddly enough, we haven't been able to do much with the angel archetype.

          Wonder why.

          And yes, Az will have to embrace more fully the contrasts you cite if he's ever to become a fully realized character. We're working on that, too. I think we floundered a bit after the first year or so. We'd told the tales that arose organically from Az's origin and the No Man's Land stuff and I didn't have a firm notion of where to go next. So the scripts were written from craft only, with no real conviction--stories I had to tell, rather than stories I wanted to tell. As you mention, NML has focused the series and may be suggesting a direction for next year.
          Neither Mike or Archie before him have ever done more than offer suggestions and always, they've defered to me when I've felt strongly about something. Mike has had an impact on the look of the book--I usually don't even see design/art until publication. (Though lately Mike has been urging me to look at the boards, or at least the early proofs.)

          With regards to the question of divinity in Azrael you first raised it in Azrael plus the Question, and it became a key component in most stories thereafter with the possible exception of the Bane saga. This theme has raised its head in interesting ways over the last few issues. Are the lightning bolt that struck Azrael and the bolt that struck Nick Scratch related? There seems too obvious a parallel to dismiss as coincidence. The portrayal of Nick Scratch as demonic adds to the themes of heaven and hell, and battles between angels and demons, this raises the question - is the angel angle going to be played out to a greater extent in coming issues given Nick Scratch's upcoming appearance? A lot of thought has gone into the character, his name and origin imply devilish connections just how did you go about creating him and will he have a greater effect on No Man's Land than he has at present? Many readers of Azrael complain that without Nick Scratch being an important part of No Man's Land, Azrael becomes nothing but an appendage to the story. Will Azrael be making some solid appearances in the core books after Assembly? As it is his role in NML seems to be upstaged by everyone and their dog. On a tangent to that question, were you aware that all of the major bat players were on the cover of Legends of the Dark Knight #120 except Azrael?
          Is there any chance of Azrael appearing in the Day of Judgement crossover special that'll be dealing with the inhabitants of No Man's Land? It seems to me to be the sort of thing that would suit Azrael perfectly since it has angels and demons and such. Is it a coincidence that Nick Scratch is raising hell in Gotham just in time for crossover season?

          Scratch is, indeed and very obviously, a take on the devil motif, to help provide contrast between hero and villain. The lightning bolt was a deliberate neo-mythological device to facilitate the change in the character. The parallel to Scratch's message from the stars was not conscious, but it seems to obvious that it must have been in my head somewhere, and I thank you for calling it to my attention. Before Nick, Az was not crucial to NML. But I think we've put him pretty much center stage in subsequent issues; Bats gives him some vital missions and he teams with our newest good guy(girl), Batgirl. Scratch was created, overnight as it turned out, to be a part/plot point of NML. ("Go home and create a villian, Denny" or words to that effect.) We needed someone to do the ratty things he'd done and because of a fairly drastic revision of our schedule, Az was the first book into which we could insert him. (That revision has to do with our decision to move up the NML timetable.)

          Let's talk about dangling plot threads on various occasions you've hinted at brining back the replacement Azrael, Biis, A Tibetan branch of the Order, and now It seems as if You've set up Lilhy with her own power base. Do you have plans to revisit any of these Ideas in future of do they belong to the "old" Azrael. Not all that long ago a reporter named Sage was mentioned In Azrael, any plans for another appearance by the question, or are there plans afoot after L.A.W. precluding any new work on the character in Azrael soon?
          Do you plan to make Lilhy a villain? It seemed that was what you were trying to do after Angel at War, but it's been a long time gestating. I remember when Shondra had been kidnapped Lilhy received Nug and Kluber's ransom demands but prevented anyone from knowing about them. When I read this I wondered if this was a really cold blooded act, were you always planning to revert her to the scheming person she had been in those first couple of issues? When I read Sword of Azrael One of the characters that most impressed me was Lehah, particularly the ambiguity regarding Biis existence at times it seemed he was merely crazy, but at others Biis seemed to be as real as Lehah. Angel in hiding seemed to hint at something , with Rollo garbing the acolytes in the clothes of Biis. Are there any plans to work with Biis and correct the mishandling that occurred in issues 13 - 15, when he went from intimidating Denny-O'neil-Classic-Character to second rate villain?

          I imagine Lil will return as a good/bad guy, something like Caniff's Dragon Lady. Bis is the only character created for the series, apart from Scratch, who may have long-term potential. As to the Tibetan branch of the Order, or the Order in general, we're keeping our options open.
          Lil evolved from the stories. I don't recall our having any plans for her when she was created. But at times, I think she's been a pretty good character. (Think of the Shape Changer archetype.)

          You've made some whimsical choices in names for characters in Azrael, besides the obvious Brian Bryan, we've had Luc Lizardo, Madame Macarena, and Vyce the corrupt DEA agent. I just have to wonder what is going through your head when you come up with these characters?

          A few years ago, the guys at Marvel made a list of pseudo O'Neil names--some gentle fun at my expense. I'm not sure how I come up with names, at least not all of them. Part of the trick is to think of something that sounds nasty and try to derive a proper noun from that. (Maxie Zeus, on the other hand, was named because for a specific story I needed a gangster and I happened to be using an Olympia typewriter.)

          I'd guess you realise you've had trouble managing the supporting cast and I think that's why you wrote the Azrael returns to Mexico arc. Making Lilhy a villain streamlines the cast while also setting up a great source of future conflict, and there's no shelf life to the concept, you can keep it around as long as you like it. Plus you have somewhere to keep Nomoz rather than leave him dangling in limbo. Ultimately there's the question of Brian, as Jean-Paul seems to regain his humanity does he need a mentor like Brian still? Would you have any plans to expend the supporting cast? At present it seems Oracle's it, and she doesn't appear in many issues.
          What exactly is the deal with Azrael's new costume? It seems incredibly generic, for a character that just reeked of visual dynamism and had a look that was unique and appealing. Was this a conscious decision to have him look like every other Joe in spandex so he would be less visible to DCU authorities, is there any chance of getting the Quesada duds back? The cape is certainly intriguing, the angel wings work well but I know a lot of people have problems with his hair spilling all over the place, and I've heard of a couple of complaints that with the new costume his jaw seems too "super stud", that it doesn't gel with Jean-Paul's fresh faced look.
          It seems that the question of the clothes making the man is a big one in Azrael, and understandably so, every new set of clothes brings out a new personality, would he get a new personality every time he takes on a new identity? Would Jean-Paul ever get a fashion sense, he tends to wear jeans and a tee-shirt, with a jacket but I see him wearing slacks and turtlenecks with those jackets, in the same manner as he wore in Azrael/Ash. To be honest Jean-Paul looked real snazzy in that book, and I think Jean-Paul would do well with that sort of dress sense, it masks the build and looks cool.

          Joe's version of the costume could return, particularly if we decide to darken Az (as opposed to Jean Paul.) The revamp was done because a)the character was getting a bit stale and needed a change and b) to emphasize the connection to our most popular hero, Bats. The hair and the half-mask were implemented to allow the artist to give Az more expression. Jean Paul's taste in duds is close to mine. I can't remember the last time I wore something other than jeans, with the addition, usually, of a jacket. Nice thing about working in comics: no dress code.

        I've heard from Chuck Dixon that you occasionally talk about Azrael, who else on the Batstaff is partial to the character?
          Alan Grant was one of the few writers to do a sympathetic Az-Bats (and Azrael for that manner) what's his opinion of Azrael.
          Calibax has had a relatively big presence in Azrael for a character I thought was a bit of a fill in villain, what about him has made you decide to expand his role?
          Who's older Dick or Paul?
          Where did you see Azrael going when you started it? where did you see Lilhy Brian and JP ending up? How different has Azrael become from that?
          How do you see Azrael ending, how would you give closure to his story?
          What are your plans for the book, are there any upcoming stories you can clue readers in on?

          I think everyone on my staff is kind of fond of Az. I can't speak for the rest of the DC universe. He's certainly not everyone's favorite.
          Calibax was created as a one-issue baddie and later, when I needed a really menacing villain, he fit the bill.
          We had no idea where Az would go when we introduced him. Remember, he was created to facilitate the Knightfall plot. I was mildly surprised, but not unhappy, when I was asked to do a monthly book about him.
          If/when it's time to discontinue the monthly, I hope I'm given a few issues warning to we can bring closure to the story. (That happened with The Question, and I was pretty happy with the result.) Buy all means, time the release of this blather to coincide with issue 60, which I'll begin scripting Monday. These were really good questions. I hope I did them justice.

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