Witchblade: Witch Hunt

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsWitchblade: Witch Hunt (issues 80-85) by Ron Marz (writer) and Mike Choi (artist)

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThis admission is really hard for me to make publicly, so I’m gonna just trust that you won’t laugh, that you’ll be nice to me (at least to my face), and that you’ll reserve judgment for a few minutes while you read this review. Okay. Here it is. You ready? I love WITCHBLADE. There. I’ve said it, and I’m very uncomfortable. I feel like I just shouted, “I watch porn” in a crowded room, or admitted — just when there was a lull in conversation at a party — that I like reading Playboy — and not just for the articles.

In particular, I love WITCHBLADE starting with Ron Marz’s brilliant run that began in this volume: Witchblade: Witch Hunt. As a feminist, I’m concerned with what people with my ethical views about the relationship between men and women will think of my reading and enjoying the WITCHBLADE series. I teach fictional narrative as ethical rhetoric, so I’m actually quite serious about this issue, to be honest. If you’re not familiar with WITCHBLADE, let me explain: The series can be identified fairly easily by the number of images of scantily-clad women with large — and prominently displayed — breasts. The main woman thus displayed, of wblade 1course, is Sara Pezzini, the bearer of the Witchblade, a sentient gauntlet that usually is seen as a bracelet around her wrist during the day; but at night when danger most often presents itself, the gauntlet expands into an infinite variety of fantasy-style, skin-tight armor that rips Pezzini’s clothes off and just manages to cover her as well as, or better than, a biniki with a thong bottom.

The main problem, at first glance, is visual. And it’s a major stumbling block for me. Joss Whedon could have done the same thing with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but as cute as Buffy is, she doesn’t usually fight in Victoria Secret clothes and poses. And since, as everyone knows, Whedon writes dialogue and plots and themes that show women to be strong characters, there just isn’t the same shame for a feminist male who watches Buffy. Quite the opposite in fact. Whedon, I believe, has really challenged the portrayal of women in mainstream fantasy. To me, Whedon, while not perfect, portrays women in a way I find encouraging, both in terms of his writing and in terms of their visual presentation (with a few exceptions, perhaps).

As bad as the art of WITCHBLADE can be, there are levels of offensiveness: I recommend reading issue one digitally on comiXology and then reading this volume collecting issues 80-85. The images of Pezzini in the very first issue of the series are absolutely ridiculous. It’s so bad it’s wblade issue 1almost funny. If there were any irony in it at all, it’d be great. The writing is like a bad B-movie from the 70s, and the pictures are worse. I’ll include one image from that series next to this paragraph. The other images will be from the run by Ron Marz with the more tasteful art by Mike Choi. Notice that the more recent art is much better and more tasteful, even if it’s clearly aimed at a male audience. I do want to be clear, however, that I’m still not defending the VISUAL portrayal of women in the current series—by comparison with the earlier run, it’s not usually offensive to me. However, at times, Pezzini, particularly when in Witchblade mode, strikes unusual poses with breasts displayed more for a photo-shoot than a battle.

If the current series fails occasionally for me, what about the writing? (By the way, I do want to add that now that I’ve read a lot of WITCHBLADE I’ve gained an appreciation for the fantasy style of art in spite of some of the depictions of women—in other words, I now like and enjoy the artistic technique and style, if that makes sense). The writing starting in issue #80 is what made me interested in this series. wblade armorRon Marz’s inheriting a male-fantasy title like WITCHBLADE is much like Robert B. Parker’s stepping into the historically misogynist genre of crime fiction: Parker purposefully wrote feminist novels so that the proper audience would pick them up. It’s wonderful to write feminist novels for a receptive audience of feminist women; how much more difficult to trick men into buying them as did Parker with Looking for Rachel Wallace and Early Autumn? I believe Marz makes a similar move in his writing for WITCHBLADE: He keeps the appearance of the misogynist and often (though not always) poorly-written title, and starts writing a progressively stronger female character from the moment he takes over the title.

Does the artwork contradict his content? Absolutely. But, to me, that’s the beauty of Marz’s work: Seeing how far he can push his female character as a strong woman within the appearance of a men’s magazine. I think he’s quite brilliant. In fact, later in this series (not in this volume), he’ll work with a few guest artists who refuse to portray Pezzini the way she’s typically drawn. Instead, they portray a smaller-breasted, conservatively dressed, but attractive lead character — more in the Sarah Michelle Gellar mode. In a future review, I’ll go over some of those excellent issues. If the series had been started by Marz with one of those guest artists and continued in that style, I believe the series would have been the Buffy of comics. Marz, like Whedon, writes witty, ironic dialogue that is often critical of the genre and audience he’s writing for. And the series just gets better and better. I’ll give 4 out of 5 stars to this first volume that collects the first six WITCHBLADE issues Marz wrote, but some of his later story arcs would certainly earn 5 stars from me.

Aside from Marz’s writing, there are some other reasons I recommend WITCHBLADE. As harsh as I am on the original creators and writers, I think the WITCHBLADE origin story is one of the best in comics. Here’s where I might get even more criticism, but curatorI’d place it up there with Batman’s origin story, particularly from a feminist perspective. As misogynist as the story was originally written, the origin, the premise, and the character are, like Buffy, designed to be a feminist story. It should have been a feminist comic from the beginning: The sentient gauntlet is in the possession of a controlling and wealthy male who has devoted his life to studying it. But there’s a problem: the Witchblade, which we are led to believe has been passed down through history from one strong female leader to the next (including Joan of Arc), can NEVER be wielded by a male. It will take a man’s arm off if he even tries to violate the space of the gauntlet by forcing his arm into it. Pezzini, of course, doesn’t believe in this fantasy nonsense until she accidentally finds the gauntlet.

How brilliant is that origin story? Why wasn’t Witchblade a feminist comic instead of a male fantasy comic from the beginning? Isn’t that strange that such a wonderful idea got turned into the first title that comes to many people’s minds when they think of a T&A comic book series? The character is also excellent. Sara Pezzini is a no-nonsense woman who can take care of herself. Marz, in fact, takes this further by showing her saving man after man after man, most of whom, like Zander in Buffy, can’t keep their cool even when they are tough cops!

wblade 2Finally, I love this comic because of the way it blends genres: Perhaps the initial reason I read this comic is because my primary genre of interest is crime fiction. Pezzini is a tough cop. She is the tom-boy daughter of a cop (her father died on the job); her sister, however, is not a tom-boy at all, which makes for a great contrast in types of women. As Marz says in his introduction to this volume, this comic crosses the genres of “horror, mystery, supernatural, noir, police procedure.” These are overlapping genres, but each one is relevant. I find it interesting that he didn’t mention romance, but it’s in there too. The book has it all from the beginning in issue #1, but only when Marz takes over at issue #80 does the series reach its full potential.

If you are new to WITCHBLADE, Marz has written it so that you don’t need to have read any WITCHBLADE issues before it. In fact, other than perhaps issue one, don’t read any previous issues. You’ll give up before you get to issue 80. I’d also recommend reading past volume one of Marz’s run if you like it even a little bit. He really does get better as he spends time on the series, and he’s currently writing the related title ARTIFACTS which encompasses the world of WITCHBLADE and some extra characters he created in the course of writing the series (he’s no longer writing WITCHBLADE. The current WITCHBLADE writer announced that he was going to make Pezzini and the stories sexy again. Clearly he doesn’t understand the genius that Marz brought to the series. However, even if he doesn’t appreciate the ethical shift made by Marz, he is a good writer. I thought the first few issues of his run were a little rough, but his stories have become quite interesting and inventive.).

wblade 4Marz’s first story arc introduces major characters and is set up with a mirrored plot: Once you read it, look at the first few pages of issue 80 and then the final few pages of issue #85. You’ll see that the roles have been reversed, Marz clearly announcing that Pezzini is a woman to be reckoned with and the men around her are the ones who need looking after. The story has a big plot with end-of-the-world Catholic priests and large creatures, but just like in a Whedon show or movie, Marz knows that it’s the dialogue DURING and in-between the action scenes that make a story work.

Read this volume if you are a Whedon or a Buffy fan and can see Marz’s writing as subverting the visual message that draws in the exact type of audience that needs to witness a capable woman. Also, if you like Law and Order, I recommend Marz’s WITCHBLADE. First and foremost, the story is a police procedural. It’s about cops and detectives. They are solving crimes, and Pezzini seems to get really annoyed that she keeps having to deal with these stupid fantasy creatures and the like instead of running down criminals as a cop. It’s very similar, once again, to Buffy just wanting to be a student hanging out with friends. That attitude means the big actions scenes are just plain annoying to the main character and that adds humor before any fighting even begins.

witchblade artSo, once again, I love WITCHBLADE. I love all the genres mixed up in it. I also like that Marz is clearly attempting to work against the images of women as portrayed in the comic he’s writing. He’s working through an issue that’s a major problem in comics in general as a popular art form AND most male pulp fiction such as SFF and Crime Fiction. How does a writer deal with Wonder Woman, for example? Why didn’t Whedon get to make that film? What other female characters can you think of in comics and earlier SFF? How do they come out looking? I think WITCHBLADE makes obvious what is actually going on in many if not most popular forms of writing, which is why I find Marz’s artistic and ethical battle admirable and significant for all of us who read comics and genre fiction.

I hope my argument is interesting to at least a few fans of WITCHBLADE (and isn’t seen at all as an attack on what I think is a great comic, though perhaps I’m too harsh on the pre-Marz issues—I haven’t read them all). And I hope that those who have only seen the images of WITCHBLADE do not judge me for enjoying it as much as I do. (I think I’m through now. I’ll see if Ms. Moneypenny can type this up. I have a martini to drink.)


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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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2 comments

  1. “… but at night when danger most often presents itself, the gauntlet expands into an infinite variety of fantasy-style, skin-tight armor that rips Pezzini’s clothes off and just manages to cover her as well as, or better than, a bikini with a thong bottom.” Love it!

    You’ve addressed my root concern with this comic, which I tried very hard to read and love; it seems to be (or should be) about a strong woman wielding a magical weapon, but it always looked like T&A. Marz’s run might be worth taking a look at.

  2. Brad Hawley /

    Thanks for your comment, Marion!

    By the way, my review of volume 2 that was posted earlier today mentions some very specific issues that work well as one-shots. For $1.99, you can read a solid story that is self-contained in that one issue. Ron Marz writes it so it’s top quality, and two of the comics I mention in that review are done by artists who draw the female figure in an even more subdued and less Playboy-like manner. Would love to know what you think.

    Peace,
    Brad

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