Witchblade Volume 2: Awakenings

Witchblade Volume 2: Awakenings (Issues 86-92) Writer: Ron Marz. Artists: Mike Choi, Keu Cha, and Chris BachaloWitchblade Volume 2: Awakenings (Issues 86-92) Writer: Ron Marz. Artists: Mike Choi, Keu Cha, and Chris Bachalo

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsI had to go ahead and immediately write a follow-up review to my first column on Ron Marz’s WITCHBLADE because I think he really hits his stride in this second collection. Basically, just like I think you need to stick with SANDMAN for the first two to three volumes before you give up on it, I think reading the first two volumes of Marz’s run is essential to even begin to know whether his take on the series might be of interest to you.*

In my first review of WITCHBLADE, issues #80-85, I argued from a feminist perspective that I believed Marz was attempting to take a comic that looks like a men’s pin-up magazine and use his writing subversively to contradict that misogynist imagery. I also argued that the origin story of the Witchblade itself is inherently feminist but that Marz was the first writer of the series to build fully on those feminist aspects. In this second series of issues, it’s as if Ron Marz felt he had proven he could do a large apocalyptic story in standard Witchblade mode and was prepared to make more changes, particularly but not solely, on the visual level.

As Neil Gaiman has written, comic book writers vary drastically in how they produce their scripts, particularly in the type of direction (or lack of direction) they give the artists with whom they are working. Gaiman, for example, never even wrote a single issue of SANDMAN without knowing who was going to illustrate it. I really wish I could read Ron Marz’s scripts and see his directions to his illustrators for this second volume. He seems to have given some new and very specific directions for changing the way women look in WITCHBLADE. He seems to be trying to bring closer together his writing and the art by asking the artists to drastically change the look of WITCHBLADE.

He works again with Mike Choi, the illustrator for issues 80-85, but before he does so, he writes two issues in a row with two different artists. What is interesting about the work of all three artists is that their styles — though each has a different, distinct look — share one major shift from volume one: They all draw fewer pin-up pages, and the women, particularly Pezzini, look like they’ve had breast reductions and have decided to wear more modest clothes. The Witchblade — that often unpredictable sentient gauntlet with a mind of its own — seems to be less eager to rip off all of Pezzini’s clothes. It also seems to have changed its fashion sense as well and is less likely to dress Pezzini in a medieval warrior’s vacation bikini.

Until Ron Marz quit writing WITCHBLADE at issue #150, the series is inconsistent visually: Sometimes the art reflects Marz’s Whedon-like writing of strong female characters in the fantasy genre and at other times, the art seems to give older male fans the pinup magazine they want. I really would love to see what the letters’ column looked like during this time (if WITCHBLADE had a letters’ column — I never purchased individual issues). I also wonder how much pressure Marz got from editors to make the stories “sexier” again. Based on my reading introductions to all the trade collections of Marz’s run, there seemed to be some real disagreement at the creative and editorial levels. If Marz hadn’t been such a good writer, making WITCHBLADE into the even better seller it was during his tenure, I’m positive he would have had to compromise his ideals. But editors and management have a little trouble arguing with success!

The first issue — issue #86 — is illustrated by Keu Cha and is perhaps my favorite stand-alone issue early in Marz’s run, and Cha’s art is largely responsible. I like it so much that I think it is reasonable to recommend that issue #86 be the first WITCHBLADE issue you read if you are made even a little curious by my two columns but don’t want to buy an entire collection. You can buy digitally issue #86 — “Blood Sword” — for $1.99 on Comixology (What are you waiting for? Stop wasting your time reading my review — you could be entering the world of WITCHBLADE for the very first time!).

There are several reasons I like this issue. (You didn’t go read it right then, did you? Oh well, I gave it a shot. He really is a better writer than I am, but suit yourself.) First, I love it when writers actually tell an entire story in a single issue. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to wait until the next issue — or five issues — for the rest of the story. I also like that this story starts out clearly as a police procedural, with Pezzini showing up at the crime scene, looking at the body and interviewing a worker at the museum. I also love the supernatural encounter that grows out of the scene smoothly without being all about action: Marz reveals a story behind the action that takes us far into the past. Finally, this story behind the supernatural encounter parallels Pezzini’s situation with the Witchblade and suggests she should consider carefully the “relationship” between her and this sentient gauntlet.

Witchblade Volume 2The next story, “Heart of the City” in issue #87, is also a one-shot and is done by Chris Bachalo, another guest artist. In this story, we can see Marz moving the major pieces of the WITCHBLADE chessboard around to make the series his own game. In the first volume, he took one major WITCHBLADE character out of the picture temporarily and added Detective Gleason from the Downtown Police Plaza to replace him. Marz also has Pezzini transferred to become Gleason’s partner. From now on, they are assigned to the “weird stuff.” Her office is across from his. One of my favorite little touches is that she inherits a messy office from some previous, very male, detective who left everything behind, including piles of papers, a skull, general garbage and clutter, a pin-up of a girl with a gun, and a parrot that he apparently taught how to say only comments of an offensive nature. As Pezzini later says to a friend, “My office is kind of a dump, and there’s this damn parrot who keeps asking if he can see my… Well, it’s not a CRACKER Polly wants.” Finally, she meets her new captain, Samanta Peyroux, moving another woman into a place of power so that he can later in the series deal with women in a predominantly male workplace. Basically, I think Marz used this issue to make WITCHBLADE his own, and he does an excellent job.

The stories in “Heart of the City and in the following one-shot in issue #88 — “Partners” — not only set up new characters and a new location, they also set up a new mood that changes readers’ expectations. If before we could always count on Pezzini to save the day and often the WORLD as the conquering heroine, Marz uses these stories to insert a little realistic failure into his narratives and to make his readers now suspect that Pezzini might not always succeed, or if she does, it might not be the happy ending she, or we, had hoped for. The first story blends in horror but is less frightening than the second story about a missing ten-year-old granddaughter of an old friend and coworker of Pezzini’s — Molly, the janitor at the Police Headquarters in her previous precinct. Both stories are less dramatic than the typical WITCHBLADE tale, and we spend more and more time with Gleason and Pezzini just walking around New York, hitting the streets, eating hot dogs, drinking coffee, and getting to know each other. These three one-shots are a necessary break from the large, apocalyptic storyline that was Volume One.

Issue #88 also saw the return of artist Mike Choi, who illustrated all of Volume One and illustrates the rest of Volume Two. After the three one-shots, Marz launches into another larger story, but still, it’s only a three-issue arc — it’s also better, I believe, than the first story arc in Volume One. The three-part “Fugitive” has some great dialogue and new characters we know nothing about, and, unlike the more predictable, almost clichéd, storyline of corrupt Catholic priests and their secret dark order, this story holds many more surprises, twists and turns. There’s even an allusion to a major Marvel character who has been in films lately, and I really want to tell you which one, but I don’t want to give this plot away. It’s a good one.

02The volume wraps up with another excellent one-shot. Issue #92 — “The Balance” — is Ron Marz’s first attempt to give us a better sense of the massive history behind The Witchblade. Writing this issue must have been daunting. Pezzini is finally pushed to visit the Curator and demand answers when Gleason, who has a real and reasonable fear of the gauntlet, tells her she is being irresponsible in walking around with a weapon like that without knowing more about it. I have to admit that this one issue is the only one that slips back into the pin-up mode, but I still love the art as Marz has Choi depict the Witchblade’s being passed down through the ages. This series taught me to enjoy fantasy style art, even though it typically depicts women in problematic ways. Reading WITCHBLADE, I really started to like a style that to me had always looked so silly — and it does sometimes, but not always.

The list of dates and places are interesting, and each glimpse we get tells us a bit of a story and leaves us both wanting to know the rest of the story and feeling like the Witchblade really has had this grand, mythic journey. The story Pezzini gets is really an internal journey within the Witchblade itself as she is guided by the Mother, the midwife, who assists Pezzini in a three-day psychological and symbolic rebirth as she somehow mystically merges with all the bearers of the Witchblade who came before her: She sees a Witchblade bearer in Stalingrad in 1942; in Paris in 1898 (when Kenneth Irons enters into the history of the Witchblade); in the Caicos Islands in 1718 as the pirate Anne Bonny (who meets Miguel Estacado, the bearer of The Darkness and the forefather of the current bearer of The Darkness, Jackie Estacado); in Japan in 1632; in Africa in 1509; in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1288; in the Bavarian Alps in 1176; in Rome in 229; and in “The Beginning.” We are finally told how The Witchblade functions as a balance to The Darkness and The Angelus, the forces of chaos and order that are eternally at war with each other.

I’ve tried not to give too many spoilers other than in this final issue, but what is in this final issue — “The Balance” — is less important than how it’s told through fragments of stories and images (even if those images are in the pin-up style). This concept of the Witchblade as a balance between the light and the dark, The Angelus and The Darkness, is well-known and is central to the entire Witchblade mythos. I think it’s important to know going into the series. There are actually more “Artifacts” of which the Witchblade is only one. There are thirteen total, and Marz will build up this mythology of the Thirteen Artifacts throughout his 70-issue (plus) run on the series. I’ve read the entire storyline and was and am absolutely blown away by it. In addition to a few major events, the 70 issues lead up to a major event called “Artifacts.” Unlike major events by DC and Marvel, you don’t have to buy a few hundred issues to get everything. You just buy the main storyline. Even better, Marz, while leaving the WITCHBLADE series behind, started another series simply entitled, “Artifacts,” which allows him to play with the entire cast of characters in this universe of WITCHBLADE.

There have been various series and mini-series about characters like the Angelus and the Magdalena, though I’m not sure if they are currently running, but there are three main series that cover almost everything going on in that universe right now: THE WITCHBLADE, THE DARKNESS, and ARTIFACTS. ARTIFACTS, as I mentioned, is new. THE DARKNESS, however, has been around and is also an excellent series. In my opinion, it started out better at issue one compared to WITCHBLADE because, first, the character was already created and had a year to develop in the WITCHBLADE series (he debuted in issue #10) before getting his own series. Secondly, the first arc, which I’ll review next week, was written by the incredible Garth Ennis.

I really hope you’ll give WITCHBLADE a chance even though many of you out there won’t want to read a comic with women often portrayed as cartoon Playboy bunnies in medieval warrior bikinis. I don’t really want to either, but I do find it fascinating to see what Marz does with his writing that opposes such depictions, and I think the tension between his writing and the images inherited from the pulps is one that is played out in most current genre writing, even when it’s less obvious. I also appreciate Marz’s masterful storytelling and dialogue. His stories also are often emotionally moving since, like Joss Whedon, he actually develops relationships between his characters instead of focusing so much of the story’s energy on action. I’ve been genuinely surprised that I’ve enjoyed this series so much AND have read many of Marz’s stories multiple times. I hope you’ll try volumes one and two, perhaps on Comixology at a reasonable price, and find that you have another Universe to get lost in and another strong, intelligent, witty, and heroic woman to admire.

*I don’t review comics on our site unless I honestly believe they tell stories that many of you will enjoy. Unlike our SFF reviews, I don’t have a D.N.F. designation for comics I didn’t finish: I merely don’t bother to review them. I only review 4-5 star comics and graphic novels because while we are attempting to build the most reliable, comprehensive review site for SFF, I’m doing the opposite for our section on comics: As an alternative to comprehensive comic book review sites — that include even issue by issue reviews — I’m offering a highly selective list of comics but with much more in-depth, analytical reviews than the comprehensive comic book sites give.


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BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia. Read Brad's series on HOW TO READ COMICS.

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