So, with this year being Image Comics’ 25th Anniversary, I’ve dedicated an inordinate amount of my free time reading some of the publisher’s early titles for fun. While it may be the cool thing to beat-up on Youngblood or Spawn or WildCATs, I’ve had a genuinely enjoyable experience flipping back-issues and trades. But unsurprisingly, few of the stories were genuinely gripping, save for when a great writer like Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore would come in and contribute a script of a quality to match the artistic output. But one title I kept returning to didn’t actually release until 1995 – Witchblade.
This was one of the longest running titles ever produced by Image Comics. Created by Mark Silvestri and Michael Turner, it is also one of the most stigmatized. As a product of the mid-1990s, it is often used as evidence that the era was plagued by sexually exploitative art with little substance to back it up. And for much of the series’ initial publication, that assessment is reasonable. Though the lead character, Sara Pezzini, was never as scantily clad within the pages of the book as she was depicted on its covers, she was nevertheless more masturbatory material for teenage boys than she was the subject of quality storytelling. That is, until longtime comics veteran Ron Marz took over at issue #80.
Up until this point, Ron Marz was known primarily for his work at Marvel and DC, handling cosmic characters Silver Surfer and Green Lantern, as well as playing a heavy role in shaping the DC such as in the event “The Final Night.” He had also written several Star Wars miniseries for Dark Horse Comics. It’s a solid resume, earning Marz a reputation as a steady, quality storyteller. However, he was not a superstar, and there were no indications that his taking over Witchblade would be any different from the previous writers’ stints on the title. However, Marz’s vision and dedication to the flagship title signaled a change of direction for the Top Cow Universe as a whole.
With the release of Witchblade #80, the leap in quality was instantaneous. This in part was due to his approach to the character. According to an interview given on the Dr. Chris Radio Show, Marz didn’t want to write stories for the sole purpose of having Sara’s clothes come off. Instead, the stories would focus on Sara Pezzini, the Witchblade, and the effects that their symbiotic relationship have on their surroundings. Gone was the metal bikini in favor of full body armor. Also gone were the contrived stories that saw the series spin its wheels for its first 79 issues.
The era that Ron Marz ushered in with Witchblade #80 is marked by considerable character growth. The is due to Marz introducing a storytelling component that continues to elude most corporate comics: consequences. These are not the heavily-marketed but empty promises that plague every Marvel event. Instead, key characters suffer as a result of – or in spite of – Sara’s actions. Her longtime partner, Jake McCarthy, is a casualty of the supernatural. Her sister, Julie, goes through a roller-coaster journey of downfall and redemption, only to fall victim of collateral damage. A decision to save the universe as a whole comes with the cost of personal sacrifice. Even saving a colleague can’t help her against the NYPD’s internal affairs department.
The varying impact of these consequences on Sara’s life gave the series both a grand sense of scale and a relatable feel. Marz essentially took the formula that made Spider-man a smash hit for kids and teens in the 1960s and applied it to an older audience. While we may not be able to relate to the grand scale of a battle between the primal forces of light and darkness, we can understand the struggle of maintaining a work-life balance. Readers can identify with being disappointed in family, or trying to find a babysitter at the last minute, or even figuring out if a relationship is ready for the next step. It turned these characters from caricatures to individuals that readers could identify with and care about from issue to issue.
Of course, this series could afford to introduce something as bold as real stakes and consequences because, despite being a successful and connected comic universe, it did not deal with the corporate oversight that has stagnated Marvel and DC over the years. As Marz himself has stated, Top Cow just left him alone to do what he wanted with the characters.
Of course, Marz was not acting alone. The work of artists including Mike Choi and Stjepan Sejic were major factors in turning around this title. Marz may not want stories where Sara’s clothes are constantly ripped to shreds, but the artist needs to be on the same page, which was the case here. Sejic specifically was lauded for giving Sara full battle armor in certain situations and allowing the Witchblade to function with her clothes on in others. As a result, the series went full circle, as the artwork was just as much of a draw as the writing – if not more so.
When Marz finally stepped away from the title with issue #150, he had written 79 issues of the series – not including tie-in events such as First Born and Broken Trinity. But more importantly, he took a book that was considered nothing but eye-candy and crafted a compelling supernatural procedural. And while his return for the series’ final 16 issues was well received, it did not contain the same magic that the series had when he hopped on at issue #80. Those that not have not given this series a chance due to its reputation owe it to themselves to give this run a try. In an era where comic books are treated as an R&D arm for Hollywood studios, this delivers the complex characters and compelling narratives that readers deserve.