Newsarama: David, we talked recently about how the themes in your Arkham and Detective stories over the last year fit with your style of writing. What appeals to you as a writer about the story of Azrael?
David Hine: He’s another crazy character. I keep writing books centered on certifiable lunatics. Honestly I don’t actively go searching for these gigs. When I started to read up on the character and I saw that the Suit of Sorrows has the unavoidable side effect of driving the wearer crazy I thought “uh oh, another crazy lead character.” I don’t want to get pigeonholed, but I admit to a fascination with characters who have trouble holding onto their sanity.
Michael Lane is very different to Jeremiah Arkham of course. You get the feeling that Arkham was born crazy and has been trying to keep a grip on his sanity all his life, while Michael Lane starts out as a very stable, strong-willed person, who has gone through a series of traumatic events, including the deaths of many of his closest family. Becoming the new Azrael looked like a way to find a new purpose and redeem himself, but his role has turned out to be much more complex and ambiguous than he expected. What’s also appealing is that, even though he’s ostensibly part of a group, The Order of Purity, he’s still an outsider and I do like those marginal characters.
Nrama: You obviously had a lot of knowledge about Jeremy Arkham as you wrote his story over the last year. Have you done a lot of research on Azrael, or were you pretty familiar with the character? What kind of research have you done and will we see any elements of it in the story you're writing?
Hine: When Mike Marts offered me this series I didn’t know a hell of a lot about the character. I think the last time I read the book some minor league artist called Joe Quesada was drawing it I’ve read and re-read all the material featuring the Michael Lane character – the Battle for the Cowl mini-series, a couple of Batman and Detective Annuals and of course all the issues of Batman that featured Michael Lane as one of Dr Hurt’s replacement Batmen. I also had all of Fabian Nicieza’s scripts up to issue 9. I’ve been working on the story for a while now and Fabian was months ahead with his scripts, so I knew where the story was heading. I’ve also contacted Fabian about some of his intentions for the character.
There’s a fascinating flash-forward in the first issue of the current series, where Azrael apparently dies at his own hand. Fabian threw that in right from the start and that future event is hanging over the entire series. I will be getting to that scene eventually. I want to respect what Fabian was doing with the story and the character. He set up some fascinating possibilities and I don’t want to abandon any of those sub-plots. So for the readers who may have been worried that the death scene would never be explained – have no fear, all will be revealed.
I’ve restricted myself to the Michael Lane version of the character for now. I’m aware of the previous incarnation of Jean-Paul Valley of course, but I don’t want to overcomplicate things – at least, not yet. For the moment I’m exploring the way Michael Lane’s sanity becomes increasingly fragile, the longer he wears The Suit of Sorrows.
Nrama: Who is Azrael, in your mind? What are his most promising and most troubling attributes?
Hine: Azrael’s lunacy is of the Biblical kind of course. He believes he’s God’s chosen agent of retribution. I’m playing with that a lot in my first story arc. I like using Biblical imagery and language and I’ve also been exploring a lot of the alternative interpretations of Christian history, delving into the Gnostic religion and all the religious mythology and conspiracy theories of the Holy Blood, Holy Grail ilk. In recent years this has become know as “Dan Brown territory” but there are still a lot of scholarly and plausible theories to be mined and explored. Not that I want to become too bogged down in the facts and pseudo-facts. I’m using the research as a jumping-off point for a taut thriller series. The religious and supernatural elements add an extra piquancy. I have actually done a lot of reading on Freemasons, the Templars, religious cults, The Turin Shroud, all kinds of conspiracy theories, some of them quite barmy, others very plausible, but most of it will be filed away and I’ll only refer to the stuff that actually serves the story.
What makes the character so fascinating is that he has this extraordinary religious faith and he’s constantly wrestling with that, attempting to justify his judgmental acts of vengeance in the name of God. But his interpretation of what God represents is going to come under some intense scrutiny when he delves into the origins of the Order of Purity and his own background. Fabian actually had Azrael become the personification of the Eighth Deadly Sin and interestingly he reveals that sin to be Faith. That’s a reversal of the accepted evaluation of faith. It’s normally seen as a virtue, but when Faith becomes fanaticism it does indeed become a negative trait.
Nrama: How do you kick off things in Issue #10? What's the idea behind this story?
Hine: We’re going to delve into the history of the order and pursue that notion of Faith as Sin to the limit. The first arc is a four-issue story called The Killer of Saints, in which Azrael comes face to face with a distorted mirror image of himself in The Crusader. The Crusader is an agent of Rome who sets our to make martyrs of the members of The Order of Purity who have become heretics in the eyes of the established Church. He is also trying to discover the secret that is known only to an inner circle within the Order of Purity. This secret, once revealed, could bring down the established churches and establish a new world order. It will also present an irreconcilable challenge to Michael Lane, whose own beliefs are rooted in his upbringing as a staunch Catholic.
Nrama: It sounds like you're very aware of where Fabian was going with the series. Are you going to pick up the story threads that have been set up by him?
Hine: I’m kicking off with a brand new story but at the end it will actually converge with what Fabian was doing and the following arc will lead up to that moment I mentioned from the first issue of the series, where Azrael is found crucified and the death is pronounced to be a suicide. That was a daring start to the series and I’m determined to do it justice. The denouement to that storyline is going to be, quite literally, a real killer.
Nrama: You've talked about the religious themes that permeate this series. What has it been like to explore that part of Azrael's story?
Hine: I’m intensely interested in religion and particularly in the many versions of Christianity that have developed over the past two thousand years. I’m an atheist myself, but I was brought up in a very religious household. Since I was a teenager and started actually thinking for myself instead of blindly following what I was taught in school and church, I’ve been struggling to understand how a religion can embrace such contradictory ideas – the concept of love and forgiveness, personified by Jesus in the Gospels and then the selfish, violent, jealous, brutal, utterly unforgiving God of most of the Old Testament and the latter parts of the New Testament. How do you reconcile the fact that all those happy smiling Christians give absolute devotion to a God whose values, if he were a human being, would be condemned as utterly evil? It’s a dichotomy I find fascinating. That’s a moral conflict that I’ll be exploring through Azrael, who personifies that duality.
Nrama: What does Guillem March bring to this story? What does his style lend to the story you're telling?
Hine: I’m so glad to be working with Guillem. I’ve watched him developing over the past couple of years and it’s been interesting to see the European elements of his style meshing with the mainstream American influences. I recently became aware that he has in fact published a number of graphic novels in France and Spain. Guillem kindly sent me a package of his early work and it’s very impressive. He started out a few years back with a totally different style, much more in line with European comics, which are often more detached and formalized than American comics.What makes Guillem unique is that he has retained the formal storytelling elements, the realistic figure drawing, the skillfully composed backgrounds, and then infused the art with the highly charged emotional drama of mainstream American comics. He has also brought on Tomeu Morey on colors. Tomeu is a fellow Spaniard who lives near Guillem and is a personal friend so they make a great team with a lot of communication between them. I think people are going to be knocked out by this art. It’s Guillem’s best work to date and he’s clearly enthused by the character of Azrael and the themes that we’re touching on. He is working incredibly hard on this book. I have the pleasure of getting a page of art in my inbox every day like clockwork, penciled and inked, and every page is stunning.