Denny O'Neil has come up with an interesting concept that is not being used to it's fullest. While Denny is a great writer he doesn't seem to be doing his best on the regular title, but the Azrael specials that have been produced have been of higher quality. At present the focus is on redemption but the overall storyline has been rather bland even though some stories have been good.
Two stories on diametric poles of quality were issues #33 and #32 they belonged to the same, somewhat bland, storyline but while issue #32 wasn't brilliant #33 was much better. Denny sometimes uses pretty crappy storylines to bring out the most in the characters. For example, the Dr. Orchid story, while the continuity was a bit screwy and the story sometimes edging into irrelevance, Denny used the concept to fully explore Azrael's relationship with Jean-Paul, while at the same time developing his narrative style, and providing entertainment. Azrael's Epiphany in issue #33 had much the same effect on the Azrael/Angel relationship as the Orchid storyline had on the Azrael/Jean-Paul relationship, while issue #32 expanded Azrael's supporting cast with the addition of Oracle and an example of his growth as a hero with his development of detective instinct.
The first year's worth of stories are some of the most consistently good of any title being published at the time, with the sole let down being the art on issue #12. There have been singular issues of good quality since then but the consistency of quality is somewhat lacking.
There are obvious parallels between Azrael and Batman, Both were forcibly removed from their parents, are emotionally damaged, and have personal lives that merely serve as masks for their costmued personalities, both pushed themselves to extremes resulting in their downfall as Batmen, both have built themselves back up and tested themselves against Bane and like Batman over the last couple of years the main character has changed and grown. While still somewhat innocent he has gradually become acclimatised to the outside world and functions much better now as a person than he used to, and as a hero has taken to using his head more. This title has seen subtle evolution of it's characters and their goals and doesn't mind deviating from what it originally was.
The art has seen a few distinct styles, Barry's early work with it's strong lines and Demetrious' beautiful colouring, the exquisite work on Angel at War has very few equals amongst all the bat titles, and possibly the whole of DC. Roger Robinson has improved by leaps and bounds since his debut and in some areas is better than Barry, not the cape but the armour, only Quesada and Kitson can do the cape. As for James Pascoe he has been inking Azrael since #1 and has been responsible for the artistic tone brought to the pencils. His early work was bold and dark before lightening up and recently returning to the darker inking for his collaboration with Roger Robinson.
I love this title, isn't that obvious. Okay it's had it's weak spots, I won't mention issue #32 0r #42 but on the whole Azrael is better than Catwoman and has gained the edge over Robin for now. My main rant is that AZRAEL STILL SELLS LESS THAN CATWOMAN OR ROBIN. I said this would be a rant didn't I. I'm bound to alienate someone reading this because I'm not a big fan of so called "Dark Heros" the vast majority are boring and derivative. Denny needs to get out of his funk and start writing like he did in the early issues. Is O'neil burning out? James Robinson has succumed it's been said Mark Waid has too and apart from Nightwing it recently seemed Chuck had too. You need to be a Top #100 title to avoid getting cancelled and sales haven't been so great recently all of a sudden the title has dropped 20 places in the space of a couple of months.
What can be done to save Azrael? Well adding the bat to the title is bound to boost sales in the short term, and so will Azrael's greater relevance to Batman. There is a side effect though, there may be a backlash from people who aren't hard core Azrael fans or from bat fans who see it as just a sales gimmick. What's needed are some cool story ideas, some continuing story threads, and an expanded supporting cast. Some sort of permanance would be a change, a job and a life could be a better way to interest new readers, although this may be a bad idea given Azrael's hard travelling hero status. Giving an expanded role to Oracle could boost sales as there are a lot of Oracle fans out there.
Azrael's importance to No Man's Land is interesting scince it implies that Batman at least partially trusts Azrael and since most of the complaints about the title are about his percieved sycophantic tendancies (that's sycophantic not psychotic) this new trust could go somewhere towards relieving his desperation for approval from Batman. (Although there's a story I would love to tell about their relationship and Azrael's acceptance called "Not the Nine O'Clock News", I'm not going to say anything else about it other than the title.) As a matter of interest Azrael #50 is in January, the first month of No Man's Land, so it will be interesting to see how this affects Azrael.
I first sampled Azrael when Barry was penciller and I greatly enjoyed his youthful Jean-Paul Valley and his strong lines, and his big hair, yes especially the big hair. That's the one thing I miss scince Angel at War, Lilhy's huge hair, I wonder how Humberto Ramos would have handled Azrael. I really like Rog's treatment of Azrael's shoulder armour, in my opinion it's better than Barry's. As for Joe I like all of his Azrael work although I prefer his more recent depiction of Oracle to his earlier one. There are a couple of artists I'd like to see have a stab at Azrael; Pop Mhan, Darryl Banks, J. Scott Campbell, Mike Deodato Jr., Dan Jurgens, Phil Jiminez, Scott Mcdaniel, Norm Breyfogel and Alex Ross (,Alex Ross is on everyones list :) ).