Friday, 20 February 2015

COMICS SUCK! - Azrael #1 (February 1995)

20 YEARS AGO - February 1995
Cover artwork by Barry Kitson
AZRAEL #1 (DC Comics)
"Some Say in Fire ..."
By Dennis O'Neil (w, e); Barry Kitson (p); James Pascoe (i); Demetrias Bassoukos (c) & Ken Bruzenak (l)

It's the series no one demanded and was destined to failure, but somehow eked out a respectable existence. You remember how it all started, it was big news that transcended the comics world. Not two years after killing off Superman, DC Comics had literally crippled the Bruce Wayne. But a little thing like a broken back wouldn't stop the Batman. In Bruce Wayne's absence, a new character, John Paul Valley was drafted to take the mantle of the bat. Before long, JPV Batman established that he had a longer-term solution to crime, namely, killing the bad guys. This all took place in the now legendary Knightfall storyline. I was in Grade 7 at the time and was fully against the whole idea, knowing it was a crass marketing scam and that the company would bring back Bruce Wayne eventually. Even as a 12 year old, I wasn't fooled. But I've since read the entire Knightfall story and I've got to say it's excellent. This is one of the few instances where my 12 year old self was wrong.

If it does nothing else, Knightfall answers the question "why doesn't Batman simply kill his villains since they keep coming back?" I love that the editors addressed this "elephant in the room" head-on and showed that the answer to this question is not only obvious, but essential to one of the most enduring fictional characters of the 20th century.

In the aftermath of the story, John Paul Valley was despised by fans. He needed to be, he was designed that way. Ultimately, he was a patsy.

It wasn't long however, before the editors of the Batman family of books realized they had an intriguing character on their hands and gave him a title of his own. Though murderous, he had a disturbing innocent quality and was at heart, a demon-haunted "good guy" fighting the good fight, albeit in a misguided way.

Because DC tapped Dennis O'Neil, one of the greatest writers in the history of the medium, to pen the character's solo tales, the book slowly, grudgingly found a minority audience and survived for a surprising 100 issues. By this time, JPV was once again going by his original name of Azrael, after losing the mantle of the bat in combat with a recovered Bruce Wayne. Azrael was an agent of the Order of St. Dumas, a shadowy organization with ties to both Catholicism and the occult. JPV had been raised as a regular kid in America but had been the victim of psychic driving to implant in his mind the combat techniques that would make him nearly the equal of Batman. The process had also driven him mad.

The first issue re-established O'Neil's methodology of continuous 5-issue story arcs that he had introduced six years earlier on Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight. The story begins with JPV as a drifter fantasizing that he is still a costumed vigilante. When he protects a newfound friend from a random attack, he mentally dons the red and gold garb of Azrael and refrains from killing the assailants. But he can no longer distinguish between fantasy and reality and when the thugs return to set fire to the homeless shelter he is staying at, he convinces himself to ignore the flames, thinking them another hallucination.

By issue 5, the final chapter in the opening "Fallen Angel" storyline, he is slowly learning to adjust, motivated by protective feelings towards another newfound ally, Sister Lilhy who he helps escape the manipulative clutches of the Order of St. Dumas. Although incredibly emotionally immature, Azrael must help look after Lilhy, who is even worse off than he is. Neither are equipped to deal with society.

With issue 47, in an attempt to boost sales and tie Azrael more closely to the larger Batman universe, the series was re-titled Azrael - Agent of the Bat. It's a testament to the strength of O'Neil's writing that this hated character even found an audience to begin with. He wrote all 100 regular issues of the title and the issue #1,000,000 special.

After taking a chance on a new title for a hated character, the surly youth of 1995 undoubtedly marched into their local CD shop to sample the weird and riffy sounds from a new and angry band:

I wasn't around for this. I wish I had been, this album would have blown my little mind sky high-ee-igh and six feet under. Though Electric Wizard's debut can tend to sound slight and polite when compared to later albums 'Dopethrone' and 'Come My Fanatics', in February 1995 this must have been the heaviest thing those lucky few who found it had ever heard.

The trademark riff-laden sound of the band was already firmly in place, but the production is cleaner than what fans may have later come to expect. This is written in the perspective of one who found them much later, of course. But that cleanliness focuses the spotlight on Jus Oborne and co.'s Black Sabbath worship. A song like "Behemoth" makes that crystal clear. Few have managed to play in Tony Iommi's sandbox and come out as filthy.

The highlights don't end there of course. "Stone Magnet", "Mourning Prayer" and my personal favorite "Devil's Bride" (see video above) also showcase Oborne's Hammer Films, and exploitation cinema sensibilities. Later on, the use of film clips would become a staple of the band's atmosphere. They are absent here.

And while they are inarguably one of the bigger names in Doom Metal, and helped to define the style, they are a divisive band. Some of those who don't like the band today, stay loyal to the early records, including this one. But that's what happens when a true visionary artist does what he wants, those who can't keep up get left behind. It wasn't long before Electric Wizard outgrew this album, but for early '95, this is world-melting stuff.

Right. So after fixing their undercuts, inhaling an obscene amount of intoxicants, sampling the latest title from DC Comics and getting ear raped by the first coming of the next generation of heavy, the surly youth of the mid-90's headed to the theater in the local shopping mall to check out the new HBO's Tales from the Crypt movie, Demon Knight. Psh, obviously.

"Come on out everybody, time to play!"

Much like the comic book the show was inspired by, years of gory storytelling were hollowing out the soul of the series. When Demon Knight came out the show was on the verge of being cancelled and the plan moving forward was for the producers to concentrate on a (hopefully) never-ending series of full-length movies of originally stories in the EC Comics spirit, rather than the 20 minute television episodes based on the actual EC Comics stories. Demon Knight was the first of these.

The film was directed by Ernest Dickerson and starred Billy Zane, Jada Pinkett, William Sadler, Brenda Bakke, CCH Pounder, Dick Miller and Thomas Haden Church. It was successful enough to spawn a second film, Bordello of Blood but that spelled the end of things for the Tales from the Crypt crew. But Demon Knight was successful enough with 13-year old me. It was my favorite horror movie of that year and gave everything a little Grade 8 turd like me could handle: demons, possession, tits, explosions, ultraviolence, Jesus blood and some memorably gory deaths.

Those deaths in particular stand out. Some of them were tongue-in-the-heart outrageous, blood spraying like a-teamster-with-his-thumb-on-the-end-of-a-garden-hose gory. This was at the very peak of practical effects. CGI was in its infancy and no one outside of James Cameron could find the budget for it, while practical effects had reached all new levels of sophistication. Which was all too the good. I remember times in particular about sneaking cigarettes, reading Fangoria magazine, my Tales from the Crypt reprints while watching Demon Knight on VHS and just marveling at the magic of special effects wizards like Tom Savini, while thinking of my own possibilities, drawing melting men and skulls, skulls everywhere.

The script was originally written in 1987 and intended to be director Tom Holland's follow-up to Child's Play. After a marathon round through production hell it eventually landed on the desk of producer Joel Silver where it was intended to be the second of a trilogy of Tales from the Crypt spin-off films. Cooler heads decided Demon Knight was the better of the three and so it was put into production ahead of schedule and Grade 8 history was made.

And though Electric Wizard's debut had just been released I wasn't hip enough to catch on to it, but the Demon Knight soundtrack was more than adequate at the time. The standout song from the film was from a brand new band called Filter. As I recall, this was the first anybody had ever heard of the band and how they get their first single into a major motion picture was any teenager's guess at the time. It turns out Richard Patrick is the brother of Robert Patrick who you might remember from Terminator 2 and I'm sure that had more than a little to do with it. The song was "Hey Man Nice Shot" and at the time I loved it. Filter had spun off from Nine Inch Nails and had a bit of that heavy industrial sound to them but with a little more rock n roll to it. On later albums they shit the bed creatively which it turns out is just the thing to propel a band into new heights of popularity. Ahem.

The rest of the soundtrack were no slouches either. "Cemetery Gates" by Pantera, and good tracks from SepulturaMinistry, Machine Head, Rollins Band and that weird band I'd seen on Much Music with the guy with the weird hair, The Melvins. Yeah, that soundtrack was pretty bad ass for its time, although it did thin out in places as various artists soundtracks often do.

Take my word on it, this film loses its power to thrill on subsequent viddies but 20 years ago, I couldn't get enough of it.


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