I suspect that when most people think of the Batman family character of Azrael, they think of the bad things: the character taking over the role of Batman during "Knightfall" by wearing a big bulky Bat-armor suit, for example, or the character's book that somehow limped along all the way to issue #100. It's a shame, too, because there are really good things to remember about the character. The original mini-series by Dennis O'Neil and Joe Quesada was fantastic, as the Order of St. Dumas's attempts to warp Jean Paul Valley's mind and make him an assassin was both tense and beautiful. Likewise, O'Neil and Barry Kitson's first 25 issues on the "Azrael" ongoing series were a sharp book that served up both psychological issues and action-adventure.
It's those good stories that I can't help but think that Fabian Nicieza must have used as his inspiration for "Azrael: Death's Dark Knight" because this is a grim, tense, and strong first issue. Nicieza has cleverly tied "Azrael: Death's Dark Knight" into Grant Morrison's "Batman" run, using a character from those issues as the new Azrael. (It's such a brilliant choice that I suspect lots of readers are, like myself, hitting themselves for not having seen it coming.) With only three issues, Nicieza is quick to get all of the pieces onto the playing field; the new Azrael's past and family, the Order of St. Dumas' nasty and manipulative ways, and another long-time character who is trying to get the Azrael suit back from the Order's possession.
The book ends up having so much material packed into it that I found myself promptly re-reading it as soon as I was done; it's dense, but in a good way, with lots of little details buried throughout its pages. And, just like those good stories by O'Neill and company, there's a mixture of the physical and the mental here. This new Azrael takes so readily to the role that it's rather creepy, and based on what we've already seen about Azrael's personal life, there's a lot more just dying to be told here.
Frazer Irving's art is, as always, gorgeous. I've never figured out if Irving paints his pages or if they're computer rendered, but either way, it's a breathtaking final product. Every single panel looks rich and expressive; when a panel of an empty church with light shining in through a window can pack a punch, you know you're dealing with a good artist. The big action sequences flow smoothly and at the same time come across as a little creepy, like the opening pages with Azrael and a tied up prisoner. At the same time, he's able to bring beauty to something like a page of photographs spread across a table, with its cup circles and food stains dotting the surface amidst the items on top of them.
"Azrael: Death's Dark Knight" #1 is in many ways a perfect example of showing how to successfully work in a shared-universe setting. Nicieza takes existing characters and builds on them in such a way that it still feels exciting and new and original. I will definitely be back for more, here.