The character first appeared in the series of Batman: Sword of Azrael, as Jean-Paul Valley, in 1992.
He then became a supporting character in the monthly Batman titles, eventually taking over the role of Batman through the "Knightfall", "Knightquest", and "KnightsEnd" story arcs. One of the creators, Denny O'Neil, admitted to difficulties with Azrael's transition from villain to hero: "If I'd known he was to become a monthly character, I might have set him up differently ... The problem is that I had to turn a bad guy into a real hero, not just an anti-hero or lead. It's possible to do that, but it's difficult to retain the original characterization. You almost have to change his personality."
The subsequent Azrael series, chronicling Valley's battles against the Order of St. Dumas, ran for 100 issues between 1995 and 2003. Starting with issue #47, it was retitled to Azrael: Agent of the Bat in an attempt to boost sales by tying the series in with the rest of the Batman mythos, including Azrael as part of the team of Batman, Robin, and the new Batgirl (Cassandra Cain).
A test-tube baby, from his conception Jean-Paul's genetic structure was altered by scientists with Animal DNA, engineering him to be capable of feats beyond those of a normal human. He grew up oblivious to his intended larger purpose, and became a student of Programming at Gotham University. He learned of his family's legacy when his father, the previous Azrael, crawled bleeding to his apartment one night in costume, having been mortally wounded by LeHah. Before requesting that his body be dumped somewhere where the family secrets wouldn't be uncovered, his father supplied him with money, and the means to travel to Switzerland and meet with the Order of St. Dumas who would supply him with his training. It was later revealed that his father had actually been attempting to supply Jean-Paul with the means to escape the Order's influences, but his intentions were misread. In the Swiss Alps, a man named Nomoz taught Valley of the responsibilities of Azrael, and revealed that despite believing himself to be rather mild-mannered, he was in reality already a more-than-capable fighter requiring no additional training (apart from a few months of intense exercise in order to build up his body), having been already unknowingly suitably conditioned. His conditioning is the result of a process referred to as "The System", the full implications on the human psyche of which have never been fully explained. In his first time donning his costume, Azrael meets Batman (Bruce Wayne), accompanied by his butler Alfred, who had traveled to Switzerland investigating the mystery behind Azrael's father's death, the nature of which had inadvertently instigated a riot. Although at first they were at odds with each other, Azrael was eventually forced to rescue Bruce from Biis (LeHah), and ended up rejecting the Order's violent and uncaring methods in favor of the more humanitarian efforts Batman encourages. Already being aware of Wayne's secret identity, he traveled back to Gotham and began working with the Batman Family.
Bruce quickly sent Robin to train Azrael as a new vigilante and to control "The System". Valley was given a job as a security manager at Wayne Enterprises, where he also debuted as part of the selected group of vigilantes. Jean-Paul continued fighting crime, but it was obvious that the violent nature from "the system" wasn't going away. Jean-Paul did some work for Batman and after that, he saved Lucius Fox from a certain death. One night, Bruce was out of action and Jean-Paul took the mantle of the bat for the first time against Killer Croc and failed miserably. After the defeat, Jean-Paul's appearance and attitude changed to became more agressive and he trained harder to increase his strength. In order to redeem his mistake with Killer Croc and to test the result of his training, Jean-Paul went out to the streets of Gotham to patrol all alone. He encountered a couple of common thieves and beat them to a pulp.
After Bane broke Bruce Wayne's spine, Jean-Paul joined Alfred and Robin and rescued Batman from the streets. Later, he helped Robin get a special medicine for Bruce's recovery. Although initially effective in his role as Batman, the effect of The System on Valley's mind led him to becoming a much more cold and violent Caped Crusader, alienating many of Batman's former friends and allies, including notable Commissioner Gordon and Robin. For a period, Jean-Paul went insane. Utilizing skills implanted deeply within his mind, he modified the Bat-suit to a much more technologically advanced version capable of inflicting more damage. While as intended, it was initially difficult to discern that a new man was underneath the suit, several people close to Batman on both sides of the law were immediately able to tell that it was someone new, most notably Catwoman and the Joker. However, as Valley grew more involved in his role, it quickly became apparent that he was of a different breed. He allowed the mass murderer Abbatoir to fall to his death, and allowed several other innocent people to die as indirect results of his actions, preferring to punish criminals rather than save lives. He found detective work to be boring, and concentrated much more on the physical aspects of crime-fighting. His adventures as Batman would also frequently take him outside of Gotham City, functioning in Batman's role along with other heroes even in large battles such as the Bloodbath mission launched by Amanda Waller against the Taker.
Although Valley appeared to be doing a good job of cleaning up crime in Gotham, it was quickly brought to the attention of Bruce Wayne that his methods were both violent and irresponsible. However, he was also able to defeat Bane in single combat, albeit using the innovations of his new suit. Although Jean-Paul, in his mentally-altered state, believed himself to be a superior Batman, and a logical permanent successor, after Wayne's recovery, he was forcibly ejected from the position through physical combat when he refused to relinquish it. He was defeated when tricked into removing his armor's helmet, after which the dominant personality of Jean-Paul Valley, the shy Gotham University student, came through. Feeling shamed, Valley returned to his identity as Azrael and sought to redeem himself in Batman's eyes.
Agent of the Bat
After the Knightfall incident, Jean-Paul Valley became a vagrant, and was approached by Batman, who offered to give him funds to find out about his origins. This led to him to travel around the world, and he eventually destroyed the splinter faction of the Order of St. Dumas that had spawned him. He changed from being focused on his quarrel with the Order, to being strictly obedient to Batman, to finally becoming more his own independent crimefighter. He would make several costume changes throughout his life as Azrael reflecting his internal changes.
Azrael assisted the Bat-family regularly, acting as a major force during the Contagion fiasco, and as a large player in the No Man's Land crisis when Gotham City was abandoned by the United States government after an earthquake, becoming an impoverished gang-ruled battlezone. During this time, he found a kindred spirit in Batgirl, another child raised for a life of violence, (developing a sort of "big brother" type of relationship with her) and she in him. He regularly fought the forces of Biis as well, and worked actively to bring about the downfall of the Order of St. Dumas, a task in which he mostly succeeded. It was also during this time that Azrael encountered another new foe, Scratch.. Jean-Paul, even in his civilian identity, was continually plagued by hallucinations presumably brought up by The System, manifesting both his own father and St. Dumas himself. His struggles with insanity were a recurring problem for him, although he was usually able to fight through them. After No Man's Land, Jean-Paul set up a clinic based in an old cathedral with Dr. Leslie Thompkins, with the help of his friend and mentor, former psychiatrist Brian Bryan.
Sometime after this, Jean-Paul established a base of operations for himself at a small castle-like structure formerly owned by the Order of St. Dumas. This castle was situated near Ossaville, a small community about 100 miles away from Gotham City with a population of less than 28 people. This base was in considerable disrepair, so Batman sent Harold Allnut to live with Jean-Paul in the building and repair it, as Jean-Paul lacked the necessary skills to do so. Jean-Paul established his position as the protector of Ossaville after he chased away a biker gang which was threatening it at the time.
Death and Legacy
Azrael was eventually killed in a fight with his two greatest enemies, Biis and Scratch, following an attempt by the latter to once again frame Azrael for various crimes. Azrael was shot through his armor by multiple teflon-coated bullets, and then tumbled off of a balcony with LeHah. LeHah survived, and Scratch was arrested, but Jean-Paul tragically perished. Although his costume was recovered, his corpse was not.
Five years later, the Order of Purity, a splinter sect of the Sacred Order of St. Dumas created a new Azrael for Gotham City in ex-police officer Michael Lane, who has taken on his duties with gusto.
Jean-Paul Valley was revived as a member of the Black Lantern Corps with a power ring. He murders a bystander, proclaiming, "You don't deserve a savior who sacrificed as much as I did to protect your corrupt and misled lives. You don't deserve Azrael!" He attempts to murder the Scarecrow, although Scarecrow simply isn't capable of feeling the fear that Black Lanterns feed on, thus is practically invisible to Azrael.
Due to the effects of "The System," Jean-Paul Valley developed a sort of split personality; Himself and Azrael. While Jean-Paul Valley was kind, gentle, and could be described as a "computer geek," Azrael was irritable, violent, and vengeful. This contrast was strongly evident in this respect: As the sect that conditioned him was a largely medieval organization, other members of the Batman Family would notice that occasionally Azrael's solutions to problems would ignore easier actions he could have taken using modern technology. For example, during the events of "Contagion" where he had to deliver an antidote recipe into the quarantined Gotham City, he attempted a mad rush of the surrounding fences past the military, and did succeed; but meanwhile his accomplices simply e-mailed it to the hospitals. This is contradictory to his mindset as Jean-Paul, who would normally, as a student of programming, been very aware of the possibility of such a solution. He also had a smaller, less developed personality, which he began to regress into shortly before his death; Batman. During his time as Batman, Jean-Paul had developed a third personality that combined the intellect of Jean-Paul Valley and the bloodlust of Azrael, but lacked the empathy and compassion of Jean-Paul Valley. It has been theorized that Jean-Paul's continued mental illness was only due to emotional and familial neglect from either of his father, or Batman.
The New 52
Jean-Paul Valley was a member of the sacred Order of St. Dumas, working as their protector and personal warrior as the vigilante Azrael.
Jean-Paul was created by the villain only known as "Mother", who was in charge of a massive operation with the Order of St. Dumas. Mother created the "Project Azrael" and sent Jean-Paul to serve as the Order's "Angel of Death" on the island of Santa Prisca. Azrael worked for the Order, attacking black market technology dealers in order to steal their merchandise and return it to the island. This actions caught the attention of Red Robin and Red Hood, who went to Santa Prisca and located the Order's base of operations in Peña Duro. Soon, Bane joined and helped them infiltrate the former prison, but once inside they were confronted by Azrael. Bane and the others tried to stop Azrael, but using a flaming sword and special gauntlets, Azrael subdued Bane and Red Robin. Red Hood managed to find enough information about the Order, Azrael and their connections to Mother, before being forced to leave the prison carrying Red Robin with him. However, Azrael also learned of his unknown past and something changed in his mind.
Azrael has enhanced physical abilities. He has been shown to be able to still fight at heightened levels even when fatigued. This fact is exemplified when Azrael was able to defeat Bane when he was suffering from both extreme exhaustion and Venom withdrawal. He has also been shown to be able to resist an even more potent version of the Venom drug, having been able to break its vast addiction in only one night. Azrael is also a superior fighter. Although he lacks technique and style in his fighting moves he makes up for it with his inhuman speed, reflexes and agility. Azrael has been able to match Deathstroke in a sword duel and has even defeated Batman in hand-to-hand combat. This is not only due to his martial arts skills, but also due to his inhuman physical abilities.
Azrael is also an expert with computers. When he was first introduced in Batman: Sword of Azrael #1, it was revealed that Jean-Paul was studying computer programming in college and during Knightquest he frequently dealt with Tim Drake's (then newly appointed as Robin) attempts to hack the Batcave's computer system successfully, once stating that Tim was overconfident in his abilities and that a far more experienced hacker now inhabited the cave.
Azrael's original costume consists of special red and gold armor. After becoming an "Agent of the Bat", he dons silver and black armor with a red cape and a stylized red bat symbol on the chest. Later on, he dons red armor with golden gauntlets, boots, shoulder pads and a blue cape. He sometimes carries a flaming sword, and also uses two retractable daggers hidden in the gauntlets of his costume. On page 71 of the updated edition of Batman: The Ultimate Guide to the Dark Knight, Scott Beatty implied that Azrael's changing costumes were reflections of the changes in Azrael's life from an agent of St. Dumas to an agent of the Batman to his own man. The gauntlets were taken by Kate Spencer, the current Manhunter, and are used in her outfit.
Azrael has a number of allies including Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Red Hood, Red Robin, Batwoman, Batgirl, Leslie Thompkins, Micheal Lane, Saint Dumas, Superman and many more.
Azrael has a number of enemies including Abattoir, Amygdala, Bane, Cardinal Sin, Clayface, Jigsaw, Cypher and many more.