In 2000, Top Cow Productions had three of the industry’s top selling comics – each of them starring a strong female lead. Also, the three had artist Michael Turner in common. Turner had co-created Witchblade in 1995, and the popularity of his art had propelled the title to the publisher’s flagship. Then, his own creator-owned title, Fathom sold 257,087 units (per Diamond), making it the top-selling title of 1998. Also in 1998, he had been the artist behind the popular Witchblade crossovers with the videogame character Lara Croft, prompting Top Cow to give that character her own title as well. Tomb Raider #1 would become the top-selling title of 1999. So naturally, it made sense for these three to crossover in the pages of Turner’s Fathom. Unfortunately, a complicated series of events would result in this story becoming lost in time.
One major factor in the lost memory of this crossover is that only one of the three heroines – Sara Pezzini/Witchblade – remains at Top Cow. The license for Lara Croft at the time of this writing sits with Dark Horse Comics. As for Fathom, Turner brought the character with him when he founded his own publishing company, Aspen MLT, in 2003. Though he named the company after series protagonist Aspen Matthews, the rights to Fathom were subject to a lawsuit between Top Cow and Turner, as the Image partner studio hoped to hold onto the top-selling IP. Turner, who had recently undergone a bout with hip cancer, formed Aspen MLT (or Aspen Comics) initially out of desire to live his remaining days to its fullest, the lawsuit ultimately turned his departure from Top Cow into a nasty divorce. Since then, Aspen Comics has rereleased the entire first volume of Fathom in collected form, with the issue #12-14 crossover retooled to remove any trace of Lara Croft or Sara Pezzini. Now, the only way to read this story as originally intended (despite Aspen referring to its collection as the “Definitive Edition”) is to track down the original comics from back issue bins.
Titled “The Resurrection of Taras,” this final story of the series’ first volume does require a fundamental understanding of Fathom to that point. Seeking out a summary is probably for the best, as those first 11 Fathom issues can be a chore to read (and issues #10-11 aren’t really necessary). Without any background, the story is easy to understand, but there are no stakes. Admittedly, reading issues #1-11 did heighten my enjoyment of the story, as did having previous knowledge of Lara Croft and Sara Pezzini’s comic adventures. The writing in this story is also simply a major step up from the preceding issues. Turner had collaborated with writer Bill O’Neil throughout the series, but their script for one reason or another just works here. Having also collaborated on the Tomb Raider/Witchblade crossovers, Turner and O’Neil have a clear understanding of these character’s dynamic – what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, adding Aspen Matthews to the mix is a relatively easy task, made easier by Turner making a greater effort than in the past to differentiate the heroines.
The basic premise of “The Resurrection of Taras” involves a villain named Vana trying to resurrect her evil son, Tara, who was killed back in Fathom #9. She plans to use the life force of Aspen and her friend Cannon Hawke to do so. Cannon also happens to be a friend of a certain tomb raiding Brit, who is witness to his kidnapping. Meanwhile, Aspen and her roommate are vacationing in New York City (and presumably skiing just north of the city in Patterson or Cornwall, NY). This allows for her to cross paths with Sara Pezzini, who received a warning message from Lara Croft to protect Aspen. It sounds clunky, but the creators are able to execute this crossing of paths in a smooth, effective manner.
As it turns out, the whole crossover is well executed. The pacing is great, the writing is crisp, and Turner’s artwork is arguably its most refined. Each of the heroines are utilized in a manner that highlights their best attributes. Lara is resourceful, Sara is resilient, and Aspen is adaptable. In the end, Turner’s final work for Top Cow is undoubtedly his best. He and O’Neil managed to pepper in some character moments. Surprising, the strongest character moment does not occur with the titular character, but with Sara Pezzini. Walking the streets of New York, Sara contemplates what drives people to a life of crime versus a career in law enforcement, that perhaps there is systematic flaws in society force people to break the law out of desperation, while those in law enforcement positions are drawn by the power of the badge rather than a desire to truly serve and protect. This moment, occurring in Fathom #12, is amazingly progressive for a comic written in 2000, as these are matters that we as a society are openly struggling with over 20 years later.
Unfortunately, the different stakeholder of these characters means that the only hope of reading this story in full is by digging through back-issue bins. Aspen Comics’ “Definitive Edition” and digital re-releases of this first volume condenses the 3-issue arc down to 2, and the story suffers as a result. Despite the best efforts to retool the dialogue, remove Sara Pezzini and Lara Croft, and make digital alterations to the artwork, readers get the sense that something is amiss. The crisp writing becomes clunky. Layouts become simultaneously busy and sparse. Story beats that resulted from teamwork now can be attributed to coincidences or conveniences. In short, there is nothing “definitive” about the “Definitive Editions.”
As originally published, “The Resurrection of Taras” is a fantastic crossover story. Though Turner’s artistic rendering of the female form served as a great selling point at the time – and may be considered problematic by today’s standards – it does not change the fact that the story’s three heroines are depicted as strong, confident, independent women. It’s a shame that licensing issues have prevented newer readers from discovering this story. “The Resurrection of Taras” would not only be the concluding chapter of Fathom Vol.1, but would also set the stage for the series’ future. The retooled version that is available is okay, its clunkiness can discourage readers from seeking out future volumes. In its original form this crossover showcases the creative growth of Turner, not only making subsequent Fathom stories more enticing, but also making his latter battles with cancer that much more tragic. Should all parties find a way to play nice, a reprint would make a fine tribute to the late artist.