I want to be with you in Paradise
And it seems so unfair.
I can’t go to Paradise no more;
I killed a man back there.
— Bob Dylan, “Beyond the Horizon”
There is a famous scene in Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of The Last Temptation of Christ where Pontius Pilate confronts Christ in a deep, albeit brief, conversation about religion, change, love and killing. Pilate tells Jesus that “It’s one thing to want to change the way people live, but you want to change how they think, how they feel…” Jesus replies, “All I’m saying is that change will happen with love, not with killing.” Pilate, understanding what Christ is saying, still must give the official retort of the state. “Either way, it’s dangerous,” he says. “It’s against Rome, it’s against the way the world is. And killing or loving, it’s all the same. It simply doesn’t matter how you want to change things; we don’t want them changed.”
This conversation seems to be the starting point for Fabian Nicieza’s latest ongoing series, the latest incarnation of Azrael. Seemingly a natural progression from his last long-term run on a comic, the sociopolitical/Messianic-themed Cable & Deadpool published by Marvel Comics for 50 issues, Nicieza’s new volume of Azrael works on a number of levels. Azrael as an extension of and answer to that famous moment in Scorsese’s film, an exploration of the very concept of Azrael in a post-9/11 world, and, finally, something superhero comics has needed for some time now: a caped counterpart to intelligent political comics like DMZ, Ex Machina and Transmetropolitan, something almost entirely unseen since Denny O’Neill, creator of the original Azrael, tackled Green Lantern/Green Arrow and The Question.
To wit, Nicieza understands the great responsibility that comes with tackling a concept like Azrael in a post-Bush world. While murderers, rapists and pimps may run rampant in Gotham City, the specter of yet another East/West conflict — typified in the series by both the actual War on Terror and the various religious sects that intersect with the life of Michael Lane, the latest Azrael — is the true antagonist of the series. The two prominent cults in the series, the Order of Purity and the Order of Dumas, may or may not be stand-ins for Western Christianity and Eastern Islam, but even if they aren’t, it doesn’t particularly matter. Part of the point of the series is that organized religion are more or less indistinguishable from another. Nicieza’s point is underlined when readers discover towards the end of the first arc, a flash to six months in the future with the mad killer Azrael crucified like Christ, right side-up in an apparent suicide. Nicieza, with even more boldness and clarity than in the superlative and masterful Cable & Deadpool dares to wonder how a soldier with Messianic tendencies — a Crusading Christ — can offer anyone salvation.
Michael Lane, as Azrael, is unlike any other hero or antihero in comics today, a man who breaks promises and stomps on ethics as if such things grew on trees. No matter what he may say in front of others, if his mind is set on something, he will do it whether or not it appears he has been convinced otherwise. Murder, of course, is one such action he’s likely to take.
Nicieza and artist Ramon Bachs do not play lightly with their subject matter. Some may complain about Bachs’ art style, but should be remembered that Bachs appears to be drawing the series from Lane’s point of view. Grim and gritty, yes, but also unstable, morally gray and more than a little uncomfortable. Michael Lane, like Dafoe’s Christ, is affecting change in his own way, and it should ruffle the feathers of both the characters and the readership. Bachs’ art, and Nicieza’s scripts, do this to tremendous success. It is a credit to both their work that this series makes its mark as one of the best superhero books DC is currently publishing.
At the conclusion of the first arc, Lane kills an old soldier friend who has been outed as a serial murderer of Muslims, and the reader can just see that famous moment from Last Temptation play out as Lane’s internal monologue as he murders the man. After ripping out his own heart, Christ says to his disciples, “I believed in love.” He raises an ax as Michael Lane makes his killing blow. “Now I believe in this.”