This is Artifacts where I will explore the Artifacts range from TopCow Productions. This first batch of readings will deal with the beginnings of the universe. To start at the beginning is to watch “Witchblade”, the series that started it all. What would eventually be known as the Artifacts line began in November 1995. My breakdown of the origins of this line is primarily derived from the older TopCow “Origin” line released for both “Witchblade” and “The Darkness”. However, they’re likely sold out at this point – although available digitally. If reading these books in a collected format is what you would like, the ongoing “The Complete Witchblade” line that TopCow currently produces is probably the best option in terms of price and issues. For this entry, I’m looking at “Witchblade” #1-8.
It’s interesting to return to a series that feels so out of its time. What kind of time specificity can a series like “Witchblade” give readers because the main series ran for about twenty years, ending with issue 185 in November 2015 (technically about 187 issues were published if you include issue 1/2 and #500 from January 2001 and 1998 respectively). This first era of the series is not the one I know too well. I’ve purchased the entire series over the years because of TopCow’s semi-frequent HumbleBundles and their “complete” reprints, but it’s always the work from the later era that caught my eye because of the art of Stjepan Šejić and the persistent talk of how you should “just read” Ron Marz’s run (#80-150, #170-185). One of the things I’m looking forward to in this project is being able to literally see How? ‘Or’ What the series has changed over time. Which formal characteristics are disappearing? When does line art go digital and not just coloring?
Reading these first 8 issues, one of the most obvious points of “they don’t make them like before” is the constant presence of an omniscient narrator. While “Spawn” has maintained this narrative tool for over 300 issues, it stands out as an exception in the contemporary landscape. Looking at what happens in the approximately 170 pages, it’s worth noting how much “Witchblade” leans on this storytelling to mesh Michael Turner, D-Tron, and various color artists. It’s not that their art is inconsistent, but if we think of comics as the synergistic use of words and imagery, storytelling and art make evident a sense of disconnect between them. Putting aside Turner’s portrayal of the panel’s bodies and contents for now, as I’m sure there will be time to fully unbox it at a later date. Its macro-level layouts fluctuate in this interesting rhythm between bold pin-ups, normal comic book panels, and more expressionistic designs with many small panels placed against a vast gutter that is only filled in by the colorist. You could call it manga-eseque (shonen manga in particular) but that doesn’t sound like a conscious point of reference.
In this sprawling set of layouts, Dennis Heisler’s lettering attempts both to create a line that the reader’s eye can follow and to connect the dots. It’s not always successful, some pages come across as a handful of narration and panels with no clear sense of flow. The boxes’ disconnection and general brevity means they’re somewhat interchangeable, but “Witchblade” isn’t all that experimental of a series. This sometimes turns “Witchblade” into a more emotional reading experience.
The ’90s were an overkill time for comic aesthetics, personified by Image Comics. This excess is especially understandable by the repeated use of home pages and hyper gendered representations of the body in these books. For their part, Michael Turner and inker D-Tron continue this trend in contemporary times with a hyper gendered representation of the body with their cartoonish drawings. And these depictions clearly show a bias toward a supposed cis heterosexual male reader. Antagonists/enemies Kenneth Irons and Ian Nottingham are never shown in the same bifurcated patchwork style as Sara Pezzini. In the opening pages, we see her as a framed chest and ass before we see a full pin-up, and even the costume obscures her identity. This view of femininity is contrasted by the masculinity of Irons nad Nottingham captured in their full body or at least half torso depictions which emphasize their muscle and power. They are a spectacle but in a different way from that of Pezzini.
It’s interesting to see this series, and the publisher, who is widely known for their cheesecake, also try to navigate and foreground what could be seen as a second-wave feminist narrative in a nascent feminist form of third wave. You have the Witchblade which is treated as an icon of female empowerment and liberation, watch how it is treated visually and narratively in the first issue. Kenneth Irons has an all-consuming need to dominate and control this icon. All of this uses the form of popular culture to make this point instead of direct political action. The potential feminist qualities of this are in stark contrast to Turner’s art, as previously discussed, which at best plays into gender stereotypes, if not bio-essentialist displays of the body. It’s that node where I can see how someone might take and defend something or later how it’s there. Nothing about this case is easy or clear, however.
This excess is also very melodramatic, which is a mode of interpretation that I do not see much when it comes to this era and this type of comics. This melodramatic mode, however, explains the affective quality of the books’ design and how it manages to twist some of the plot’s more jarring turns, if not “make sense” in the moment. In issues 6-7, Sara Pezzini and Ian Nottingham in a loaded love book! It doesn’t make any narrative sense, even for the enemies by Lovers’ standards and their shared connection to the Witchblade. And yet, Jonathan D. Smith (aka JD Smith) spices it all up with the lushest autumnal yellow-oranges, reds and browns that, when mixed with Turner’s figures, it just works! The first of the two double pages that end issue 6 is both violent and sensual. Smith’s coloring also serves as a way to communicate the fleeting quality of this sensuality as sunsets, purples and blues begin to dominate the page and Pezzini drifts away. It sells the idea of a connection and relationship between the two more than any of the romantic dreams the two have shared.
The fun thing about “Witchblade” is that while there’s this affective quality to its storytelling, the book never fails to generate intrigue. Maybe it’s a bit too much at once, again overkill, between Lisa Buzanis being this type of annoying little sister to Sara. The adventures of Liza and Julie Pezzini in modeling. The consistent use of Kenneth Irons in the B/C plot position. In addition to the fact that for everything that happens in “Witchblade”, it is still written and produced as if it were a police/detective story with supernatural elements. This first batch is 8 issues, most collections these days are between 5 and 6. The individual issues just don’t really work the way they currently do as semi-autonomous narrative units meant to make a larger whole. vast. Of course, these 8 issues form a complete story arc that forms Sara Pezzini’s origin story, but they also dedicate a page or two to each issue for something that could be paid for down the line. A loose thread that could be tied, eventually. That’s one of the most interesting things about reading this is how the different individual issues work in relation to today. It wasn’t really writing or an eventual collection, but as a way to keep readers buying individual issues on a monthly basis.
After these first 8 issues, it looks like “Witchblade” could go in many different directions. It wouldn’t surprise me if the next batch of issues (#9-17) were a series of ones and made for individual short arc cases, which could slowly turn into something. There’s a certain cartoonish quality to the characters of Lisa and Jake, which, oh mate, you’ll die horribly or just be forgotten once Jackie Estacado shows up. But it is also the kind of elements that explain how this show was quickly adapted into a live television series on TNT. “Witchblade” the supernatural procedural sounds pretty cool.
There wasn’t really a good place to put this in the main body of the article, however, it’s worth acknowledging the use of BDSM and fetish clothing to frame some footage. Particularly Ian Nottingham’s torture in which he’s basically dressed in a gimp suit receiving a torturous blow job. This sequence is contrasted an issue later when Lisa and Julie reunite at a dungeon/fashion party hosted by Miss Boucher. I’ve been dealing with Schumacher Batman a lot lately, so to see this series abandoning the game entirely and acknowledging BDSM and fetish clothing in-universe instead of being used as a benchmark to frame their costume decisions is interesting. On the one hand, maybe it’s a sexually positive development (I mean I don’t have much hope, but I’m optimistic) or more likely, everything goes downhill in more threats and representations of gender-based sexual violence.
Not to fall into the writer’s theory trap, but here are a couple of “Witchblade” story threads on its 25th anniversary a few years ago from the show’s producers.