Our title’s on the nose today. Batman gets all of Superman’s powers and Superman gets all of Batman’s powers (nothing). It’s a brilliant idea. Batman’s personality flaws revolving his obsessions and unending justice get blown open wonderfully when he actually has the powers to act out his unending justice obsessions. We’ll take a look at this mess in Superman/Batman #53-56, written by Michael Green & Mike Johnson and drawn by Rags Morales.
Like all good Superman and Batman arcs, the story begins with their contrasting viewpoints. Spoiler alert: they think differently.
How could you not love panels of Superman in Gotham City? His outfit’s a primary color nightmare against the browns and grays of Gotham, and the wild optimism of Superman’s ideals against the city that attempts to prove him wrong. I love it, almost as much as I love the idea of Firefly getting taken out by Superman in almost certainly the most embarrassing and fastest loss of his supervillain career. Oh yeah, and our two protagonists switch powers.
This can’t be bad, right? Superman could use a nice rest from singlehandedly being the most powerful superbeing on the planet and let Batman take over for a little bit until Silver Banshee can be found. Y’know, except that Batman’s mentally ill and the only factor that prevents him from ever stopping beating up bad guys is that whole normal human thing like sleep and food. But not anymore. Not at all.
Here’s a glimpse of what Batman can accomplish if he doesn’t have his humanity holding him back. And I mean that physically. Because let’s be fair, if Batman gets a new batarang that shoots out knockout gas on impact, he’s using that baby on every bad guy that crosses his path that night. But invulnerability? Hypersenses? Heat vision? All I’m saying is it’d be a bad night to be Two Face.
Only one person manufactures and sells venom. And poor Bane really has no idea what he’s in for. The whole purpose of this issue just seems to get readers acquainted to a Superman-level Batman. So it’s a dozen pages of Batman wrecking everyone who even ever considered anything evil. And a dozen pages of a mortal Superman trying to adjust, but I’m ignoring all of that.
That smile on Bane’s face is about to be wiped away. All the poetic talk won’t save this brute from a Superman-level beatdown, though it certainly adds to the ambiance. Also, I like any man who wears a nice suit and tie but keeps the luchador mask on. Murcielago is Spanish for bat, by the way.
Oh, and Superman got shot. He’s okay. We’ll cover Batman’s continued assault on crime, his mental decline, and the inevitable switch back next time!
Some venom addicts don’t get the luxury of being locked in the Batcave for a month with a lush supply of food and the eternal worry of a dutiful butler. Nope, some have to sweat out the toxin the ol’ fashioned way: prison. Maybe. I’ve only seen a few episodes of Lock Up. But today in Batman: Vengeance of Bane II, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn by Graham Nolan, Bane beats his most dangerous foe yet: himself. Well, his third most dangerous foe. Batman’s number one. Azrael’s number two. Then himself.
Look, he’s in prison and has no access to venom. So he’ll break the habit like he broke Batman.
KGBeast beats him up after this. Don’t worry, Bane shows the commie who’s the real boss later in the issue, both scenes I’m skipping. But our theme persists: Bane struggles with his own identity — y’know, the whole being born and raised in a Santa Prisca prison because of a crime his father committed. It’s a brilliant example of nurture over nature, and during his whole Rule Gotham phase, venom made sense. No more. No medicine, no help, no shortcuts. Because he’s Bane. Physical, mental, emotional torture? That dude’s ready.
He won’t be able to beat his addiction with other people nearby, especially KGBeast running around and punching him through railings. Note that Bane’s not in Arkham Asylum; they stashed the brute in Blackgate Prison instead. There’s nothing insane about Bane, even when stuff like this happens:
I don’t think that kind of prison cell is allowed to exist in our real world, but bad guys who put on luchador outfits and fight other grown men in bat costumes don’t exist in our real world either. And Bane’s real motivation for beating venom? Not vengeance, despite the title of the one-shot we’re reading. No, y’see, Bane’s been wronged by the world. By society. By his father. What sins did he commit besides being born in a third-world hell to a fugitive parent? Nothing, of course. Y’know, if we ignore all the assaults, murders, arson, mayhem, property damage, etc. Seriously, it’s a long list. But to Bane? Well, venom serves a distinct purpose in his past life. More on that later.
You saw chubby Bane earlier in the story, and the six months of darkness and exercise does wonders for his physique. Bane’s mission now demands he breaks out of Blackgate (like how he broke Batman), and a real prison doesn’t have the revolving door that Arkham Asylum gets. I’m also skipping that part. It’s a sixty-four page issue, so there’ll be a lot I can’t cover. Oh, and on an unrelated note, do you know Bane’s real name? You shouldn’t. It’s never been revealed.
He escapes Blackgate. For those confused about his claim of innocence earlier (like I was when I read it), Bane’ll attempt to explain his theory to Batman. His thought process still borders on a psychopathic delusion due to his supervillain nature, but if we all pretend we’re enormous luchadors, maybe we can grasp his idea.
So there you go. My best guess? Bane blames the venom for causing him to lose against Azrael and his empire to topple. The addiction controlled him, and you know who controls Bane? Darn tootin’ — no one. But most importantly, venom debilitated him — he fought Azrael at a level below his very best (the dude lost his confidence when Azrael cut his supply) and that sure as hell won’t happen anymore. Oh, have you read Secret Six? Bane’s amazing in that series.
The “no powers” description of Batman constantly comes back to bite him in the butt. The greatest mind in DC comics can only be so effective when fighting overpowered monstrosities. Batarangs’ll just bounce off Doomsday or Darksied. Of course, his normality (or close enough) is part of why we love him so much, but it hinders superheroics when the Batcomputer and a mind built for sudoku aren’t enough to take down some of the heavier threats. To fully appreciate why Batman decides to get “juiced,” we have to understand the motivation behind such an act: guilt. It’s always guilt with Batman. Let’s take a look at some scenes from Legends of the Dark Knight #16-20, written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Trevor Von Eden & Russell Braun.
You can probably predict where the next three pages go. Human athleticism has a limit, even after a decade of punching giant crocodile men and clay creatures. You know the main difference between Batman and Superman? Besides all the obvious stuff? When Superman arrives on the scene, the citizens of Metropolis relax almost immediately, because Superman’s amazing powers and morality let us know that everything’s going to be alright. The wicked will be punished and the innocents will all be saved. But not so with Batman. The people of Gotham City have all pretty much realized by now that Batman’s just one of them in a fancy costume. While he saves the day, his success isn’t guaranteed.
Do you get why someone like Batman would turn to the power-enhancement that venom provides? For comparison, I’ll provide two pages, one where he’s normal and the other with venom flowing freely through his veins. Because while the drug alters his personality into the steroid-bound maniacal jerk that we know all too well from various professional wrestling characters, we can’t deny venom’s effectiveness.
See the difference? I looked it up and the world record for the overhead press is somewhere in the 450-ish pound range. Batman took that world record down by a good two to three hundred pounds. The Dark Knight officially has superpowers. Which he immediately regrets. The drug’s addictive quality leaves him at the mercy of his dealer who’s a terrible, manipulative person. And when the bad guys start to withhold the supply so Batman has to accomplish their awful missions in order to get more venom (like kill Commissioner Gordon), Bruce Wayne figures he has no choice — it’s time to beat the addiction. And trust me, you saw the last article where Azrael almost certainly pooped his pants from venom withdrawal. It’s going to suck.
The montage of Alfred checking in on Batman beating the addiction is mixed with the arc’s villains going about their plans as well, so if you see tropical island scenes, it’s character development/plot advancement for the sleazy venom dealer and corrupt military commander.
I want you to brace yourself for Batman’s cave beard. It’s enormous for just a month of no shaving, but maybe Batman had a hair-growing superpower all along? More importantly, this story from 1990 parked a few years (finishing in KnightsEnd) where after sixty years of Batman always being prepared, Batman always winning, Batman always figuring out the secret weakness, etc. — we needed to be reminded of Batman’s major limitations. As in the whole nothing superhuman guiding each punch or aiding each throw. Brilliant mind, normal human strength. Bane proved that to Batman beautifully. But for now, it’s time to punish a venom dealer and his military partner.
As we left off last time, Bane filled up Azrael with a injection full of venom, the insanely addictive strength-increasing serum. And now Azrael has to go through some major withdrawal. Note: we ended on a ship crash, but I’m jumping ahead a good dozen pages. What you’ll miss: Azrael dramatically climbs a cliff wall, loses again to Bane and Bane’s soldiers, gets captured by Bane, becomes trapped in a cage, tricks Bane, and jumps over the cliff. It’s all exciting stuff you’re not going to see. Anyway, we pick up after that:
Know that in the first page, it’s made clear that Azrael pooped his costume. And while I’m no expert on addiction, my only vices being attention and adoration from others, I imagine a hot tropical island in South America with no modern amenities or anything to ease the trauma probably isn’t the best place to beat the drug. Also, and far more importantly, those list of venom withdrawal symptoms? That’s Batman talking to Alfred about that, which means Batman also pooped his suit. Don’t ever forget that.
But superheroes are our betters, so of course Azrael’ll rise triumphant. We expect nothing less.
After losing two physical confrontations against Bane in the past four issues, it’s time for our hero to adjust his tactics. I’m mean, it’ll still involve punching Bane a whole bunch, but now we get an added dose of psychology thrown into a fight where fiery golem claw hands aren’t enough to overcome Bane’s sheer power. Spoiler alert: it involves lying.
Azrael’s acting isn’t exactly Shakespearean quality, but why wouldn’t his gambit work the way it did? Bane’s weakness stems from his former reliance on venom, and without it, he’s physically weaker than when he fought Azrael’s Mecha-Batman suit. Though it should be known that Bane still massively overpowers Azrael. Any character in comic books who goes in combat without wearing a shirt is someone who’s pretty confident he (or she?) will splatter your butt across whatever tropical island/city block/space station/Microverse landscape you’re fighting in.
That one line “He rose up like some primordial sea-beast” gets me every time. I’m not addicted to venom, but I would definitely poop my costume if I saw Bane rise up unharmed from a suicide cliff drop. But our adventure’s not over. Y’see, the next issue takes place during the Batman event Cataclysm. A devastating earthquake turns Gotham City into the broken post-apocalyptic wasteland you see during No Man’s Land. And since superheroes always having such impeccable timing, Azrael delivers Bane to the Gotham police at the exact moment the earthquake hits.
But first, how about some self-doubting? It’s more of a Marvel thing, but it’s nice to see DC try to worm its way into Azrael’s decision-making process.
Bane’s point, while not exceptional or totally convincing, does bring up some great points. Batman did invite Azrael into crime-fighting before immediately treating him like crap. To be fair to Batman, Azrael refusing to give back the Batman mantle and then pummeling Bruce Wayne probably warranted Batman’s condescending future treatment of Azrael, but it’s that simple idea of power versus responsibility. Because let’s face it, Batman’s not happy. He devotes his crazy wealth and power to a city and cause that’s largely ungrateful and unchanging. But if Azrael uses his own crazy power to work with Bane, he could probably live that wonderful life of pleasure and fun that his father (and Batman) deny him. I’m just saying, remember when Nightwing took over for Batman a few years ago? We were excited for reasons that included stuff like, oh, this Batman’ll actually smile once in a while.
Then Cataclysm hits and Azrael chases Bane down.
It’s nice for Azrael to get some therapy in before he and Bane kick each other. By the way, for all of Azrael’s efforts, Bane escapes Blackgate Prison pretty soon after this to form his own gang during No Man’s Land. Next time, we’ll jump back to some more venom coverage. Want to see Batman with a full beard? Of course you do.
So after Azrael goes mad with power, almost strangles Robin, and assaults Batman while Azrael’s dressed like a robot, he gets put on a probation by Batman. As in, the Dark Knight doesn’t trust him, like him, or want to be around him. And after Azrael screws up an undercover police job, it’s time for Bruce Wayne to let Azrael know the bitter truth — he’s a sucky vigilante. In Azrael #36-40, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson, our dear Jean-Paul Valley has one last chance to prove himself by taking down the biggest, scariest, most powerful supervillain in Batman’s rogue gallery.
Seriously, conversing with Batman is like talking to your dad when he’s not angry, just disappointed. As usual in a crimefighter’s life, everything goes bonkers at once and Azrael misses his deadline. Also, love interests and stuff, but that’s off topic. And let’s be fair to Azrael, he’s mentally ill trying desperately to impress another mentally ill man who may be legitimately impossible to impress. Batman can’t even meet his own standards — what chance does the Batfamily have? But the stakes remain the same: Jean-Paul brings in Bane or Batman’ll punch Azrael out of crimefighting forever.
Here’s how you know Azrael’s on Batman’s bad side: he makes Azrael fly coach. Even Robin has his own plane. For those not in the know (including me about two weeks ago), Nomoz helped train Jean-Paul into Azrael way back in his origin comic. He’s the sidekick for this arc so Azrael doesn’t have to talk to himself the whole time.
There is a greater theme here spread throughout the pages. Jean-Paul’s constantly conflicted between his identity as Azrael and himself. He can’t fight crime without becoming Azrael, but he hates Azrael’s cruelty and violence. It’s a schizophrenia shaped by his dead father. Oh, and check out that the dude’s back in his “default” costume. Of the six Azrael articles I’ve done so far, he’s had three different outfits.
Need further proof that Azrael’s the most ’90s superhero that ever existed? He has fire coming out of claws. And the claws are attached to giant golem hands. You can’t get more extreme ‘tude than that. And the cape’s not even practical — it’s looks like it’s made out of ribbons pieced together from a Hobby Lobby shopping spree.
I’m no historian, but after the super gritty, dark, realistic comics of the late 1980s, the medium compensated with brighter, supernatural, “extreme” adventures. The 2000s reacted to that by making comics dark again. Nowadays, we’re in a resurgence of comics written with a lighter touch. In five or six years, we’ll repeat the infinite cycle — after all, the 1980s came as a response to the trippy, magical LSD-fueled journeys of 1970s superheroes. For reference, you’re currently watching Azrael kick henchmen butt in 1997.
Remember how Azrael beat Bane the first time? He took out Bane’s venom supply causing the supervillain to freak out enough for the lucid Azrael to knock him out. Bane’s off venom now. Our poor protagonist has to fight Bane in his purest, non-addicted state. That’s pretty much why he gets his butt handed to him. Plus, we have three issues left in our arc. Sadly, Bane only spares Azrael’s life to give him a greater pain: prison justice.
Venom’s beyond addictive and no rehab center exists for this sort of ailment. See what it’s doing to Bird? If you need more evidence, Batman once succumbed so horribly to venom addiction that it took him a month locked in the batcave of sheer willpower and crazy hallucinations to break it. Actually, we’ll cover that story next because it’s really good and serves as a prelude to Knightfall. And Azrael’s withdrawal? That comes soon, but first, they have to inevitably escape from being tied up and make a terrible situation much worse.
On Friday, we get our exciting conclusion, and by that I mean several pages of Azrael sweating and crying.
As the Batman family rushes to capture Joker as the year-long Batman event No Man’s Land concludes, each team member gets assigned a super important mission that pertains to their strengths and abilities. I’m kidding — Azrael and Batgirl have to tell people to leave the town. We’re talking Azrael, a man dressed like Fabio on the cover of a King Arthur-themed romance novel, and Batgirl, a girl who can’t speak to the point of just covering up the mouth part of the costume. Good luck to these two in Azrael #60, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson.
Look, we assume we only get the highlights of Batman’s nightly patrols. I bet 90% of the night is spent on top of gargoyles, singing songs to himself or trying to see if he can batarang sewer rats. Batman only gets, like, one supervillain attack a week? Maybe two? The rest of his time he does nothing but listen for sirens or pedestrian screams. I doubt he even lets Robin bring his iPod. So let’s take a glimpse into the non-fistfighting world of superhero-ing:
I understand the nature of comics: it’s a business first. If we watched the two of them spend the issue telling people to scram, sales would probably be a bit lower than if Azrael and Batgirl punch their way through a horde of henchmen. Well, fear not. Because in the fictional world of comic books, it’s mandatory for superheroes to break the face of at least one bad guy every twenty pages. I didn’t make these rules up. So how about a group of clowns? And while we’re at it, let’s add the Joker.
I know, I get it. Azrael is the least funny person in the DC universe — don’t get upset, it’s part of his personality. And it’s even worse when he makes a joke directed to the second least funny person in the DC universe. But you saw that kid they all forgot about a few pages up — she gets rescued by the Joker. And by rescued I mean almost certainly a forsaken causality in whatever drives Joker’s amusement at the moment. You crave an exciting series of kicking and punching panels, but you don’t get it here. First, Batman doesn’t want anyone but him hurting his one true love, but also, Azrael’s far too naive. He’s not the detective that Batman or the Robins are. He goes by instinct mainly, and his horribly wrong instinct saves the day. Because y’know, despite being a psychopathic killer, the Joker still has feelings.
Next time, Azrael versus Bane for the second time! Get ready for tropical islands, inward character development, and all the drama you’d expect from a well-meaning crazy person and the his luchador arch-enemy. And full disclosure, I read everything Bane says as if Tom Hardy spoke it in The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t care if Bane’s South American, I love that voice.
We jump back a few years from last time’s article to the post-apocalyptic earthquake-destroyed ruins of Gotham City that took place during the Batman event No Man’s Land. Gone is the crazy, unstable Azrael. We get to enjoy today a kinder, friendlier, still-schizophrenic Azrael — a man who just wants to do some good while dressed as a medieval crusader. We’ll focus on one more Azrael Christmas adventure (no dodging punches from Batman) in Azrael #61, written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Roger Robinson.
So No Man’s Land is over. Lex Luthor’s company stepped in to rebuild the city and the Gotham police force/Batman and friends have regained their hold over most of Gotham City. All that’s left is the Joker and his devious plot to kidnap dozens of babies. But that’s for later on. Azrael (real name Jean-Paul Valley) grew up religious, but more in a brainwashing cult than anything established like Christianity. Ever want to hear an old woman describe Christmas to a grown man who looks like Thor? Of course you do.
The metaphor given to baby Jesus pretty much applies to every superhero who ever existed. Except maybe the Punisher. Did you know I once received an angry comment from someone in a previous article because I assumed the Punisher to be super smelly? I refuse to back down. The Punisher doesn’t bathe. Axe Body Spray doesn’t come in Vengeance. Frank Castle reeks like weeks-old gunpowder, trench coat sweat, and chunks of mobster brains. There. Bring it, buddy.
Back to our story, we’re in the infancy days of Cassandra Cain’s Batgirl role. She hasn’t learned to talk yet. Also, like Azrael, she grew up in an assassin’s clutches without all the warm fuzzies we love and experience during those loving Christmas years (or at least the first eight or so for Bruce Wayne). Fighting crime isn’t the only hobby for superheroes — sometimes it’s appreciating a sandal-wearing bearded Superman who came back from the dead to forgive all our sins or whatever.
I want you to appreciate this moment when Oracle taught Azrael and Batgirl what presents are. Now, we know bonding time can’t be fully complete without applying our superheroes’ new knowledge. While neither of our protagonists have any extra cash or apparently ever heard of the idea of giving other people goods or services, the two have to improvise. Batgirl first.
So remember last article where Batman realized Azrael may have fallen off the deep end because cameras caught him beating up a Santa Claus? I just want you to remember that, because if superhero comics have taught me anything (and I already learned about gifts a few years ago), Santas only bring trouble. Especially the Santas wielding axes with thick henchmen-esque accents.
Here’s how Azrael works: if his mask is off, he’s the lovable, clueless Jean-Paul who solves his problems with smiles and hugs. When the mask goes on, we get the powerful, butt-kicking Azrael who solves his problems by crushing the bones of all those who cross his path. But today’s a Christmas story (that I’m writing in mid-September). You know who hates Christmas? Spoiler alert: Joker.
Moral of the story? Besides babies make terrible Christmas ornaments? It’s about the spirit of giving. Like giving yourself up as a flame shield to protect two ladies from a tree explosion. And the girl in the chauffeur outfit is Mercy Graces — Lex Luthor’s personal assistant/bodyguard. Azrael may have suffered injuries saving Batgirl and Mercy, but look, Luthor’s limo isn’t going to drive itself. Oh, and a delightfully happy ending:
I know, I’m touched too. On Monday, Azrael and Batgirl team up one more time against the Joker!