NOTE: This article contains SPOILERS for Arrow Season 5
The launch of the DC Comics Universe's company-wide "Rebirth" may have begun with The Flash, but with a few months under its belt, it's hard to argue that Batman is among the biggest winners. Scott Snyder's departure from the core Batman series was a hard blow to endure, but Tom King has delivered some incredible twists of his own - not to mention an unforgettable night between Batman and Catwoman. And as the saying goes, a rising Bat-tide raised all Bat-ships, meaning Batman Beyond has gotten an upgrade of his own.
Yet it's the series for which the publisher is named that stands apart, as the DC Rebirth has led to unexpected changes thanks to Detective Comics. Writer James Tynion IV and a leading team of artists have planted a new kind of flag for the future of the Batman Family. A future of unparalleled tolerance and representation, a future in which Batwoman gets the standalone attention she deserves from the Dark Knight himself, and apparently... a brand new beginning for Jean-Paul Valley. Better known to comic fans as Azrael.
To directly address the intensely complicated history of Azrael, from Knightfall through to the modern era of multiple bearers of the name (and leaving Gotham's own adaptations completely aside), Tynion is out to simplify the story. Like most returning faces in the Rebirth era, Jean-Paul Valley has been given a new premise, for a new story, simultaneously drawing from his previous incarnations and fiction, and beginning a new story for new readers. And while he may not share the same complicated past with Bruce Wayne, this new Azrael actually kicked off the entire Detective Comics Rebirth on his own.
Back in Issue #934, Jean-Paul Valley smashes the story into action (literally), crashing through a stained glass window into Gotham's St. Michael's Cathedral pursued by an enemy he believed to be Batman. Thankfully, the real Batman showed up in time to rush Jean-Paul to safety - while also digging into his past, and the likely identity of the man who left him so close to death. The man known as Azrael had been pursued by unknown enemies (whose connection to Batwoman would later be revealed), his mission to redeem himself after years spent as an assassin of the Order of St. Dumas not yet finished.
Since he was recovering while the rest of the Batman Family battled this enemy force, Azrael finally makes his return in Issue #950. Training alongside Batwing in an unwinnable scenario - which he wins through his faith - the first real insights into this new version of Jean-Paul Valley are offered. We now know who he is, what torments him, what allows him to fight crime as he can, and most importantly... what new enemy is about to challenge his entire belief system.
The Secret of The Suit of Sorrows
Jean-Paul begins the explanation of his training with his connection to the Order of St. Dumas - an order formed during the Crusades, and first entered into the world of DC by Batman: Sword of Azrael back in 1992. Jean-Paul confirms that his backstory still involves being engineered by the modern Order (though to what extent isn't clear), forged into a "man-made angel" to act as the righteous weapon of the Order. And, true to his previous incarnations, Jean-Paul made his conversion to heroism upon learning his life was a lie, and finding faith in the resulting vacuum of knowledge. That moment came in handy in wielding his most important asset: his armor, officially known as the Suit of Sorrows.
The Suit of Sorrows was the name given to the suit of armor forged from the blades of fallen members of the Order during the Crusades. Batman actually wore the armor in DC's modern era, but eventually gave it a home in the Batcave after it began to amplify his anger and aggression, showing the first signs of the madness to which it drove its previous wearers. It's given new life as Jean-Paul's own armor, and given a new explanation for its power. It isn't mysticism, or even divine blessings that give the Suit's champion added abilities and lethality - it's artificial intelligence.
Now, how did the Order create artificial intelligence back in the 12th Century? Jean-Paul doesn't know, and it baffles even the mind of Luke Fox (the new Batwing). The intelligence, like Jean-Paul, was made to believe it is a literal angel serving the will of God (as understood by the Order). Apparently, the suit only began to operate to its true abilities when it surrendered to the belief that it serves a higher power, which it does through Jean-Paul. And mirroring eachother, the two created angels serve the other, with the suit granting Jean-Paul increased knowledge and insight during battle (like where to strike, and how to do so).
Luke Fox may not be smart enough to understand how the artificial intelligence works, but he can see the threat it poses. Since the A.I. was created, according to Jean-Paul, as an effort to create a mysterious, unknowable form of life just as they were formed by their Creator, it's real potential or motives are a secret. Luke posits that the angel of the Suit of Sorrows could be far less benevolent than Jean-Paul realizes, with the power to guide him to its own ends, not his own. Since Jean-Paul is clearly the kind of person who operates on faith and the notion of a larger plan, he accepts, but is not afraid of that possibility.
There may have been a time when the Order of St. Dumas relied on the Suit, not Azrael, to do its bidding: "Those who doth stand 'gainst the workings of Dumas must fall bloodied at the sword of Death's Angel, Azrael." But now, Jean-Paul reveals, the suit and the man operate in perfect symbiosis.
The two men end their exchange with Luke noting the letter of the Order's scriptural claim: that the prophecy in their own Book of Revelations states that "the sword of Azrael" will punish those who interfere with the Suit's mission, or any other Dumas initiative. It doesn't say anything about Azrael holding it when it does so. A prophetic statement of his own, considering what's happening in the lab behind them, with Azrael's helmet still interfacing with the Belfry's computers... and a nearby, semi-constructed suit of tech armor suddenly given signs of life.
Ascalon is Born
It's a moment that, thanks to Marvel's films, reads as an unavoidable reflection of the birth of Ultron. The artificial, evangelical intelligence of the Suit of Sorrows seems to have reached out for new life in the armor, if it is, indeed, the sender of the "signal received." The sword on its helmet all but confirms it, but the name itself - Ascalon - is worth more attention. Particularly to fans intrigued by this new status quo for Azrael.
In a historical sense, Ascalon/Ashkelon was a coastal city and fortress of great importance during multiple Crusades of the Holy Land, with the Battle of Ascalon marking the end of the First Crusade. Since the Order of St. Dumas began among these same battles, it would make sense that such a fortress and pivotal stronghold would be given to this new enemy. In a more mythological context, Ascalon is also the name given to the lance, or sword of Saint George which he used in the romantic story of Saint George and the Dragon. We don't yet know which role this Ascalon will fulfill, or where Jean-Paul will fit into the conflict.
What we do know is that just as Batwoman is preparing to depart Detective into a comic of her own, Tynion seems to be elevating Jean-Paul into the spotlight. More questions than answers abound, but with Ascalon approaching, it seems only a matter of time before new takes on the Sword of Sin, the Sword of Salvation, and the Order of St. Dumas are explored post-Rebirth.
In other words: it's a good time to be an Azrael fan.
Detective Comics #950 is available now.