When it comes to Witchblade comics, there are generally three categories: the original Michael Turner run (#1-25), the Ron Marz run (#80-150), and everything else. To be fair, there is a lot of forgettable stuff in that third category, but there is also some of the best work this title has ever seen. There is a memorable bottle-issue from then rising-star Geoff Johns, and of course the “Rebirth” era of Witchblade under writer Tim Seeley of Hack/Slash and artist Diego Bernard. Though it has developed a reputation as being “inferior” to the aforementioned runs by Turner and Marz, it gets an undeserved bad rap, and does some things much better than either of the other two.
In the lead up to his run, Tim Seeley stated that he wanted to expand Sara’s world, as well as her roster of villains. Prior to this, Sara did not have any sustainable antagonists except for those introduced back in the mid-1990s. As great as the Ron Marz run is, he did not create a sustained and ongoing threat to Sara that rivaled the likes of Kenneth Irons, opting instead for a cast of mostly forgettable or one-off baddies. In just a short, 18-issue run, Seeley manages to establish several threats – and supporting characters – that persist. Moreover, they are unique and reflect a different personality trait of Sara’s.
There is Alisa Spicer, leader of a mysterious cult with her eyes on bringing about the end of the world. Her motivation is simple: she wishes to corrupt and destroy anything good, and she’ll do it with a smile on her face. Her main target is a local politician, who she hopes to catapult up to higher political office for her own means, but she also enjoys needling Sara whenever the opportunity strikes. Her cult members are willing to do anything for her, and has also shown the ability to control others against their will.
Alisa’s cult isn’t the only show in town. The all-female biker gang of witches called The Brunhildas (yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds) is led by a woman named Esmeralda. She is able to conjure up magical powers which prove formidable, but her most dangerous trait is her persistence. Like Sara, she refuses to back down from a fight, at times pushing past all reason even in the most unwise of circumstances. Rarely has a Witchblade foe been so driven to push back on Sara as hard as she wants to bring them to justice. Though they barely know each other, their battles personal.
Cain Jorgensen is one of the first new characters we are introduced to. Like Jackie Estacado and Ian Nottingham, he is tall, dark, and handsome. He also is mysterious, but unlike the other two his secrets do not directly revolve around Top Cow’s Artifacts, but rather good old-fashioned magic. He occupies a gray area between friend and foe, and because he fits the profile of Sara’s “type,” she often and regrettably lets her guard down around him. To be honest, he’s a pretty bland character if you strip away the magic, with the personality of a rock. However, the constant intrigue as to his motives makes his inclusion ultimately worthwhile.
And then there is the Big Woz herself, Jane Wosnicki. The first of Seeley’s new characters is arguably his most memorable. Visually, she is everything people do not associate with women in the Top Cow Universe. When first introduced to Woz, she is an imposing figure and constant thorn in Sara’s side. If there’s a chance to knock Sara down a peg, Woz will take it. In many respects, she’s this book’s equivalent to Harvey Bullock in the Batman comics. However, she get the benefit of development over these 18 issues rather than decades of character stagnation. She soon becomes a sympathetic character in her own right. We learn of her family life, her insecurities, and eventually she evolves from Sara’s bully to a close confidant.
One of the main things touted during the run up to issue #151 was that Seeley and Bernard were “bringing sexy back” to Witchblade. While that may not be obvious based on the gorgeous covers by artist John Tyler Christopher, it becomes clear once readers take a look Diego Bernard’s interiors. After years of being almost exclusively in full battle armor, Bernard brought a version of the iconic “metal bikini” to the title. However, as was the case during the series’ original run, this look was rarely present. Instead, Bernard often rendered Pezzini with an armor-over-the-clothes look that acts as a nice middle ground between the styles of Michael Turner and Stjepan Sejic.
One thing Bernard does well throughout this series is breathe life back into the artwork. I am a huge fan of Stjepan Sejic. I adore Sunstone and Death Vigil. But his artwork on Witchblade was as lifeless as it was beautiful, in part due to the use of digital tools to paint each issue. The return to hand-drawn artwork courtesy of Bernard makes the characters and world feel more organic and believable. This is particularly true with the characters’ eyes. Whether its Sara or Cain or even Jackie, there is a liveliness present in their eyes that was lacking during the book’s previous era.
This liveliness is also present throughout the series’ action sequences, and Seeley’s scripts ensure there are plenty for Bernard to spread his wings. Whether it’s fighting “fleshblade” bearers, biker witches, or steampunk warriors, Bernard infuses the action with kinetic energy that flows freely from panel to panel. However, this series is not just an action title, as Bernard does an admirable job conveying emotion in more quiet moments.
Some of the images from this run that really stick with the reader are not the ones where Sara is kicking ass, but her moments of introspection. Throughout the series, Sara is lost in and overwhelmed by a city which she has no ties to. This isn’t New York, where she could navigate the streets blindfolded. Chicago is a completely different beast, with a different culture and different attitudes. Because of this, Bernard will occasionally insert an image of Sara sitting in her apartment completely exasperated. Whether she is either slumped in a chair, or with her head in her hands, readers clearly understand the emotional toll the story’s events have placed on her.
Throughout the series’ 185 issues, Sara is always learning something new about the supernatural world. Her profession, first as a cop and now as a private investigator, makes for a naturally curious character. Even though she’s been exposed to weirdness for well over a decade at this point, she is still surprised when coming across something out of the ordinary. Because of her chosen professions, she doesn’t hesitate to dig deep to find out what these things mean in the grand scheme. Seeley’s run pushes the fantasy elements of Witchblade well past their previously-established limits with the introduction of Faire – an alternate dimension that is part Tolkien, part steampunk, and part Wild West. As creative and different as it may appear, its inclusion to the story if very much in the Witchblade tradition of discovery.
We learn that a former Witchblade bearer, Katarina, is the chief law enforcement officer of Faire. Longtime fans may recognize her from the first Medieval Spawn/Witchblade series. However, she has since been rejected by the artifact due to her fast-and-loose lifestyle. Unsurprisingly, the rejection only exacerbated her character flaws. But she herself is given a redemptive arc. Like Sara must forgive herself for the events of the Artifacts series, Katarina must forgive herself for her past actions. In the process, she becomes one of the series’ surprise strengths. Katarina’s history is just a piece of the lore which Seeley builds within Faire, which in turn is just a part of the world-building tapestry of his 18-issue run.
Seeley and Bernard’s Witchblade is the forgotten gem of a universe that was clearly winding down. Though Top Cow’s “Rebirth” initiative may have kicked off around the same time as DC’s “New 52” or “Marvel NOW!” it did not sniff the success those other two saw, especially on the commercial side. After leaving the title, the series would come to a close just a couple short years later. Because of this, their additions to the canon have gone largely untouched or unexplored by others, making their version the version for the characters and settings introduced. Witchblade has seen a lot of different stories over its 185 issue run (no including miniseries and tie-ins). But these 19 issues are pure magic.