Tuesday, October 20, 2015

And By the Flaming Sword You Shall Know Him

SPOILERS for last night's episode of Gotham, "Scarification"

Well, that was unexpected. I had my own theories about exactly who Theo Galavan was. I know a lot of people were thinking Ra's al Ghul or someone with connections to the League of Assassins. I never went that way. With all his talk about the founding of Gotham, my money had been on him being a new grandmaster of the Court of Owls, since the Owls are fresh in people's minds, but I had also considered a member of the Arkham family, or even someone connected with the Religion of Crime. But no, no, it's connected to something even more deeply entrenched and completely insane in the Batman mythos (which works beautifully as Gotham embraces its Burtonian insanity), The Sacred Order of St. Dumas. If you're curious about the comic book history of the group who are making their debut on Gotham, read on.

The Order of St. Dumas made it's first appearance on Batman: The Sword of Azrael #1, written by legendary Bat scribe Denny O'Neil with art by Joe Quesada, a mini-series designed to introduce a new character into the Batman mythos for a very specific purpose we'll get to shortly. They were not connected in any way to the founding of Gotham as on the show, although the list of founding familes given in Gotham do include three of the four well established founding families of Gotham: The Waynes (Batman's paternal family), the Elliots (family of Batman's nemesis, Hush, who appeared in Gotham as the kid Bruce beat down with his father's watch in season one), and the Kanes (Batman's maternal family, and also the family of Batwoman). The fourth name mentioned, Crowne, has certain ties to the Court of Owls, but is probably the least of the names, and not listed in the comics as a founding family. The comics have a fourth founding family, the Cobblepots, Penguin's family, but the continuity of Gotham clearly precludes that.

The Order of St. Dumas are a splinter group from the Knights Templar, because what fictional universe doesn't have at least one group whose origins lie with the Crusades and the Templars? Led by a knight named Dumas (who wasn't a saint by anyone's reckoning except his order), the Order was able to escape the purge of the Templars and went underground, slowly building up wealth and influence over the centuries. They remained secret by having a champion, and assassin called Azrael, programmed from birth via something they called The System to guarantee his loyalty and to provide the training needed to be their deadly angel, who would eliminate any member who stepped out of line.

When it first appeared, the Order appeared to be in decline, a small group of the richest men in the world who stuck together more for their mutual benefit than any real religious affiliation. One of them, Carlton LeHah, had betrayed the others and begun siphoning off the Order's money, and when Azrael was sent to kill him, he was prepared and shot Azrael with armor piercing bullets. Azrael, dying, found his son, a student in Gotham City named Jean-Paul Valley, and passed the mantle on to him, while LeHah took up the name and guise of the Demon Biis, St. Dumas's great enemy, to wipe out the remains of the Order. The murders drew the attention of Batman, and Batman joined forces with Jean-Paul, the new Azrael, to stop LeHah.

With LeHah defeated and what seemed the rest of the Order wiped out, Azrael became a new apprentice of Batman to try to beat The System and use his abilities for good. The story of Azrael becoming a temporary Batman after Bruce's crippling at the hands of Bane is one of the seminal Batman stories of the past twenty-five years, the Knightfall epic. Throughout the story, Jean-Paul continues to see visions of St. Dumas brought about by The System, and when Bruce finally is healed and returns, Azrael wanders off, disgraced.

But Azrael soon discovered the Order was not what he had thought. There was actually still a more traditional religious order in existence, headed by a man called Brother Rollo, who had an ice cathedral in the Swiss Alps (I love sentences like that), and with the aid of Sister Lilley, one of the Order's own nuns who had grown disenchanted, Azrael spent the first twenty-five issues of his own series fighting the Order. Along the way, readers found out that the Order had a history with the League of Assassins and had a group of troll-like servants, one of whom, named Nomoz (pictured above), we had met in Sword of Azrael. They went as far as unleashing a plague on Gotham as part of a plan to cleanse Earth of non-believers, which was the first of the major catastrophes that would lead to "No Man's Land."

Azrael did eventually triumph over the Order and destroyed them and their cathedral, but it turned out there were more splinters of the Order. Lilley joined with one in Asia and tried to resurrect the Order, but failed. One was revealed, saying that it was in fact the original Order, with Brother Rollo's faction that created the Azraels being a splinter itself, and tried to recruit Mark Shaw, the international man of mystery who had once taken up the names Manhunter and Dumas, to be their new agent (a clear retcon in the last few issues of Manhunter, but a clever tie to the Dumas alias from the 80s and the Order). And another became known as the Order of Purity, and were central to the last Azrael series, feauring Michael Lane, a former GCPD officer, taking up the mantle of Azrael and a cursed suit of armor called the Suit of Sorrows. And that was the last we heard of any part of the Order before Flahspoint rearranged DC history.

I know that original Azrael armor gets a lot of heat for being the most '90s of '90s comic book costumes, and damn it is, but I have a soft spot for it and all it's Joe Quesada designed flare.. The Order of St. Dumas has been absent from DC continuity since the Flashpoint reboot, but Azrael is too cool a concept to keep away, and in the solicitations released yesterday, DC announced it will be collecting Sword of Azrael and the first six issues of the original Azrael series in a new trade, so I can only expect that the return of Azrael and the Order is closer than I had imagined before yesterday.

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