The defining feature of Ram V’s run on Catwoman so far has been his careful, consistent application of her narrative voice. Each page of the story is not necessarily filtered through Selina Kyle’s perspective, but it still rarely wavers from being her story.
This week’s double-sized annual is the latest issue to stray from that perspective, offering a long-anticipated look at the origin of Father Valley, an assassin hot on Selina’s trail.
SPOILERS AHEAD for the Catwoman 2021 Annual!
Fans of Azrael and the militant Order of St. Dumas, which has a long history in the Batman mythos, will find much to like here. V grounds Valley’s origin in that transatlantic group, which resembles a kind of Assassins’ Guild with a religious twist.
Unlike the other cabals of assassins that routinely terrorize Batman, the Order has its roots in medieval Catholic legend. They are supposedly an offshoot of the Knights Templar, a real organization that fought during the Crusades and became a source for speculative legends involving the Holy Grail and other religious relics. (If you’ve seen Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or played Assassin’s Creed, you probably recognize their name.)
Father Valley, we learn, is an orphan named Karl who was raised by Ludovic Valley, the original Azrael. Their relationship is one of respect, even love, but not blood. Ludovic sent his son Jean-Paul away from the Order, but raised Karl among its bloodthirsty flock.
Ludovic tells Karl that it “didn’t feel right to raise Jean-Paul “with these hands,” causing his adopted son to respond, “You raised me with them, didn’t you?”
Their relationship shatters when Ludovic goes to cleanse the Order of a traitor, nearly killing Karl in the process. Like Selina, another orphan whose violent rift with her mentor shaped her upbringing in Alleytown, Karl takes the tools he learned as a young assassin to become something different and more deadly.
He is a product of the Order, but no longer tied to it. The Valley we’ve seen in Gotham is a rogue free agent, spouting scripture while brutally dispatching the people he has been assigned to kill.
This annual gives him a proper rendering that mirrors Selina’s own rise to prominence.
Last issue, V showed a multiplicity of perspectives about Selina from across her life, giving her the complexity of an antihero who has often straddled the line between selfishness and altruism.
As the two of them close in on each other, V has shifted the comic’s perspective away from its tight focus on Selina. Instead of seeing most events through her eyes, we now see how others view her and how her most threatening villain sees himself.
The annual is not just a showcase for Father Valley. It’s also an introduction to guest artists Kyle Hotz and Juan Ferreyra, who join V’s regular collaborator Fernando Blanco on this issue.
The division of labor is well-suited to the story, as Blanco draws the Gotham scenes that bookend the issue while Hotz and Ferreyra divvy up the flashbacks to Karl’s upbringing.
Each artist has their own highlight. I love how Hotz draws Azrael, all kinetic motion and flailing limbs. For an artist who has worked frequently on Venom, I found myself seeing a bit of Carnage in Azrael’s red, slashing cape.
Ferreyra draws a much more realistic-looking Azrael. His first panel, which shows Ludovic wielding a flaming sword, may have been my favorite image from the issue, though as always, Blanco’s sublime art gives this comic its beating heart.
Valley is never as interesting as he is when drawn by Blanco, who shows him creepily bathing inside a church while a towering stained glass image looms overhead. (If there’s one benefit from the Order’s Catholic roots, it’s the opportunity for artists to use religious imagery as a source of aesthetic inspiration.)
He stalks Gotham in this issue’s present while in the past, Hotz and Ferreyra show a much different, less-assured man searching for his way in the world. Whatever he was then, he has become someone no one — least of all Selina — will want to meet.
Some other, scattered thoughts on the issue:
- The striking final image of a church going up in flames was set up beautifully by colorist David Baron, who bathed the Gotham cityscape in orange and yellow when we first see the church.
- Why do Gotham’s heroes always seem to end up at odds with some shadowy, powerful group, be it the Order of St. Dumas, Court of Owls, or the League of Assassins?
- Am I alone in thinking Father Valley owes perhaps his biggest debt to The Wire’s Brother Mouzone, another bespectacled assassin who was prone to intellectual ramblings?
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