Top Cow Productions’ “Witchblade” series is the longest running, highest numbered comic book starring a female character on the stands today. The book stars Sara Pezzini, a New York City Police Detective burdened with an ancient Artifact which possesses a host of wild abilities. With its 150th issue on sale now, readers can expect big changes — and not just from the story. Top Cow announced earlier this year that Ron Marz, whose run started with “Witchblade” #80 back in 2004, and artist Stjepan Sejic, who joined the title on a regular basis starting with #116, would leave the book and move over to an “Artifacts” ongoing series that will continue to chronicle the ever-expanding Top Cow Universe. The ongoing spins out of a Marz-written event comic of the same name that wraps up in January.
With one creative team on the way out, it was time to find a new one to take over. Enter writer Tim Seeley and artist Diego Bernard. The man who created his own popular heroine Cassie Hack in the creator-owned “Hack/Slash” in 2004, Seeley was a natural fit for the title. He was already familiar with the mystical aspects at the heart of the series as well as dealing with a strong, confident and sexy female lead. With Marz’s last issue of “Witchblade” on sale now and Seeley’s first the same day as “Artifacts” #13, it seemed like the perfect time for CBR News to have a conversation with both writers about balancing the supernatural with the everyday, their upcoming issues and Sara Pezzini as a character.
CBR News: As you each see it, what are the building blocks of Sara’s character, the elements that, if removed, would result in a drastically different person on the page?
Ron Marz: I think for me, who she is has more to do with the core values of her character and the personality traits rather than if she’s a cop or if she has the Witchblade. I think she’s a strong, kick ass lady who you would take seriously whether she had the Witchblade or she had an NYPD badge or you just happened to meet her. All of that stuff is ornamentation that we hang on her character, but I don’t think she’s an appreciably different person if she’s not a cop or doesn’t have the Witchblade. In fact, one of the storylines I wrote, she didn’t have the Witchblade. That was one of my goals, that she was as interesting without the Witchblade as she was with it.
Tim Seeley: I’ve picked up on all that stuff that Ron has put in there, that stuff that appealed most to the readers. The only thing I tried to figure out with the character is that she’s a hot girl, she’s a cop and she deals with supernatural stuff, and then playing on the idea that loyalty is such an important part of how you write Sara. She’s dedicated to upholding tradition no matter what happens even though the Witchblade has ruined her life pretty consistently. She still hangs on to it out of a sense of duty. And then the other thing that I find interesting with her is she’s a really hot girl, she could just model, she wouldn’t have to be tough. Most women I know who are really attractive tend to be a little bit spoiled because they’re so used to being treated differently and for some reason Sara isn’t, so why is that? That’s one of the things I’m going to play with.
You mentioned Sara’s looks, and “Witchblade” is one of those books that gets unfairly judged as cheesecake going back to its early days. How do you as writers combat that idea with readers?
Marz: For me it really came down to, you had to make people readers. By readers I don’t mean “look at the cover online.” I think a lot of people — maybe not a lot of people — I think there’s a segment of the audience that has formed an opinion of what that book is and maybe formed that opinion 15 years ago and have never looked beyond the cover to figure out what’s actually inside the book. It was a matter of one year at a time. You had to show people that this is not what you think it is. To a great extent, in the six or seven years that I was on the book, I never had anybody come to me online or at a show and say, “You know what, I read that book like you said and it’s just a bunch of T&A, you’re full of shit.” Would anybody actually do that? I know people tend to be braver online than they are in person, but my point is that when people actually read the book, they found what the book was about, they weren’t going on misinformed or uninformed hyperbole. It was the kind of thing where it was one reader at a time. I must have given away dozens of trade paperbacks to people just to say “Here, go read this and tell me what you think.” Most of the time, people would come back and say, “That was cool, where’s the next one?” It was always a question of getting people to actually read it rather than just looking at the cleavage on the cover.
Seeley: My biggest pet peeve about comic book readers is that somehow, if it’s in any way sexy, that it can’t be a good read when they’re completely okay spending money on some of the most stupid, violent crap and thinking it’s amazing. I think sexy is awesome and should be awesome in “Witchblade” because it’s about a woman who [is sexy]. I’m totally okay with embracing some of that stuff. I know we have to be a little bit careful with it because you’re dealing with people who judge and walk away and equate if it’s sexy, it’s dumb, which I don’t understand. The original Michael Turner era of “Witchblade” was sexy and cheesecake-y, but it also wasn’t a dumb book. The characters were always interesting, there was a lot of stuff going on involving relationships. Just because Turner drew her with a miniskirt that was tight and very red every once in a while people seemed to think that it was stupid. I’m okay going back to some of that stuff. I’m the guy that has written what some people would call a T&A book for the past seven or eight years. I think people bitch a lot more than they actually don’t buy, so the people who complain about the sexuality stuff are still buying it, they’re just trying to cover up the fact that they feel like creepy old men. I’m okay with some some boobs and some butts and some man ass. It’s all good by me.
Along those same lines, what do you look for in a “Witchblade” artist? It’s not always easy matching the sexy lady aspects of the book with the supernatural ones.
Marz: I’m really happy with the art on virtually every issue we did and we had some terrific people do extended runs like Mike Choi, Adriana Melo and Stjepan Sejic. We also had one-off issues by guys like Chris Bachalo who came in and just knocked an issue out of the park. For me, the main thing is telling the story for any of the guys who worked with us. Part of the writer’s job is to tell the story, obviously, but also to make sure you’re giving your artist some cool stuff to draw. Believe me, guys or girls — whoever you happen to be working with — don’t want to sit at the board all day and draw people sitting around a conference table yapping at each other. That’s when this job becomes like work. Once in a while you have to do those scenes, but you better make damn sure to balance it with some crazy monster erupting out of Time Square.
Seeley: The artist I’m working with on on my run [Diego Bernard] was picked my Marc Silvestri, but I think he did a pretty good job. It takes place with one leg in a mystical magical world, but I needed someone who could also do realistic everyday stuff. You need the contrast between the really out-there stuff and the grounded real world. I sent Diego tons of pictures of Chicago. For me, the more grounded the day-to-day of her life is, the more exciting it is to write the supernatural stuff and the aspects of her life that are all Witchblade. He does amazingly well at that stuff. He lives in Brazil and he’s never seen snow in his life and he’s never taken a tour of Chicago, but he’s done a really nice job with it.
Marz: I think it’s interesting that you mention that, Tim, because I think one of the things that works about the book is that it’s got this contrast of very real, everyday stuff that Sara goes through in her day-to-day life juxtaposed against the crazy supernatural stuff and I think they work against each other because of the contrast. It’s not a steady diet of insane, over-the-top supernatural stuff and it’s not a steady diet of the crime/procedural/noir stuff. To me, the book was always the best when the two things rubbed up against each other.
Seeley: Yeah, absolutely. I picked up your beats in that way. I’m thinking it’s “SVU” or any sort of “Law & Order,” like “Law & Order: Supernatural Crimes.” It’s a character who’s this nexus of weird stuff that allows you to keep drawing these things to her.
Ron, I read your final issue of “Witchblade” and it’s kind of subdued and subtle. Was it always your intention to end not so much with an action-packed bang, but with more of an emotional one?
Marz: Once we figured out that this was the end of the run, it’s not like we said, “Let’s end this on an emotional kind of storyline.” It’s how things transpired and how the story grew organically. The fact that the previous arc, which was the four-part Tiamat arc, really blew up at the end with lots of big crazy monsters coming out of the sea, I wanted to do something that was a contrast to that. If the stuff doesn’t come from the character, if it doesn’t have an emotional resonance for the character there’s no sense in telling the story. For what was going to be the finale for Stjepan and I for “Witchblade,” I wanted to make sure that we dug into Sara’s character as much as possible. The very obvious drama is the choice she has to make at the end of the issue. Drama is about choices, a character’s choices dictate where plot goes. One of the most basic choices that Sara has ever had to make is “Would I pick my job or would I pick the Witchblade?” Because, for 149 issues she’s pretty much always had both of them and they haven’t always co-existed peacefully, but she’s found a way to make it work. What happens when she’s confronted with a situation in which it doesn’t work? What happens when she gets to the point where she has to chose one or the other? What’s most important to her?
Was that always how you saw your time on the series ending, with that choice being presented to her?
Marz: I don’t know. It just naturally evolved from where we were going. Stjepan and I had talked about some stories where she would have been not in New York City because we wanted to do some other locations. When this all came about and the decision was made that we were moving over to “Artifacts” as a team, I think it made sense for us to wrap up the way we did and also to give Tim as clean a slate a possible. I’ve come in to take over books where you spend half of your time dealing with the baggage of the previous team. Sometimes that goes with the job and it’s not a huge deal, but I thought if we could clear the decks for what the next guys wanted to do, then we should just because Tim shouldn’t have to pick up my pieces.
Had you two talked at this point about where Tim wanted to take the book? Was it established that Sara was going to move to Chicago or was that something you came up with?
Seeley: I can’t remember. I started working on this almost a year ago. Just because of the way things are scheduled and with “Artifacts,” it took a little longer than I expected to actually get the first issue out. If I remember correctly, when they told me [I got the job], they gave me what was the end of “Artifacts.” I knew what the ending was and they said, “In this situation Sara’s probably going to need a new place to go, so where would you like to set it?” I’ve had an idea I’ve been working on independently as a supernatural explanation as to why Chicago’s always such a dirty town. Why does corruption so naturally find itself at home here? It worked in perfectly with a “Witchblade” story and having a reason why Sara ends up here, because one of the things I liked about what Ron was saying about “Witchblade” is that the Witchblade itself is sort of a magnet of weirdness. I thought it might be interesting, when she decides after #150 that she has no reason to stay in New York anymore — which also ties into the end of the “Artifacts” storyline — was that when she decides to go somewhere either the Witchblade decides to draw her to places or them to her, so it drew her to an entire city. That gave me a great chance to do something outside of the Top Cow Universe proper. A lot of Ron’s run has been establishing all the characters like Magdalena and the Angelus and the larger storyline involving all the different Artifacts, so I knew going into this that we were going to take a little break from that aspect of the Top Cow Universe and just put Sara in a new place with a new scenario because Ron will be dealing with a lot of the Artifacts characters [in the pages of “Artifacts”]. It worked out weirdly and perfectly for me.
Tim, you’ve written your own books and done comics at other companies, but was it difficult picking up a book with such a long run behind it?
Seeley: It wasn’t hard for me to do the genre. The trappings are things I’m really familiar with. It took me a little while to figure out Sara. That was a surprise because every time I’d written stuff before, that was the easiest part. With “Ant-Man” for Marvel and the “G.I. Joe” and “Transformers” stuff [for Devil’s Due], I knew the characters real well and had them figured out before I had a good idea what the story was going to be. It involved me sitting down and reading the entire run again and trying to figure out the character. I also bought a bunch of Raymond Chandler books and dug into what kind of person does that job and who gets involved in that kind of lifestyle. It came after a while. The weirder part — and it’s hard because we can’t reveal the end of “Artifacts” — there’s a nice clean start available because of the end of “Artifacts.” It allowed for a much easier transition because of the way it ends. And that’s all I can say.
It’s been hinted at that “Artifacts” has some pretty big ramifications for the Top Cow Universe. Is there anything more either of you can say about the end?
Seeley: That’s all you, Ron.
Marz: How much money do you have? [Laughs] Obviously I don’t want to give anything away because, to me, putting those kinds of spoilers out there is almost like stealing, stealing the experience of discovery from the readers. I don’t want to say too much, I’m really happy with how the end of “Artifacts” shakes out because I think it should be satisfying for everyone who stuck with us for 13 issues and I think it pays off the story we were setting up. I think it’s satisfying in that respect, but also disturbing because I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a happy ending. Not everybody gets what they want and even the characters who do get what they want are going to find out it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. My approach to doing this huge, literally universe-shaking story was that we were going to have a relatively clean slate at the end of it. We were painting in very broad strokes in the sense of the size of the storyline, but I never meant to lose track of the human element. The heart of the story to me is Sara and Jackie and Hope and that’s really what the last issue comes back to. I’m not going to tell you where Jackie and Sara and Hope end up at the end of #13, but I can tell you that I don’t think anybody besides two of the three people on this phone call and [incoming “The Darkness” writer] David Hine actually know where they end up. It’s not an obvious conclusion, but I think it’s the logical one.
Seeley: That’s why you’re the boss. [Laughs] That’s why you run the big show, you know what you’re doing.
Ron, have you had a chance to check out Tim’s issues?
Marz: I’ve read Tim’s scripts and seen the art that’s been done so far and I ‘m really excited to see what the audience makes of it. One of the cool things about what Top Cow allows us to do is that the characters can actually change and evolve. When you’re dealing with Batman or Captain America or Superman, ultimately those are awesome toys to play with but you know they’re going to go back on the shelf in the state that you found them. With this, we can play a little bit more fast and loose with it. I hope that the audience comes with us as we do new and different things rather than just retelling the same stories over and over again.
Seeley: I concur.
It seems like there’s some movement by readers towards stories where those kinds of changes can happen.
Seeley: Ultimately, the way it’s supposed to work — I’m going to go on a bit of a tirade — is that you start reading Marvel and DC books when you’re younger and at a certain point you recognize that they’re always going to be the same, they’re lunch boxes, they’re IPs and then you move on to this other stuff. Unfortunately, there’s a generation of readers who are kind of stuck in the same thing and that’s all they want, they want the same. Top Cow is like the next step superhero universe. There are interconnected books and themes but it’s a little bit more adult and has has characters that can change and grow with the characters.
Marz: That’s a really good way to put it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that cyclical storytelling at Marvel and DC because that stuff is comfort food.
Seeley: Right, and that’s what it’s supposed to be.
Marz: It should be there for a ten to twelve year-old to discover just like it was there for all of us. But, some guy gets pissed off because the Fantastic Four is fighting Doctor Doom again?
Seeley: And they’d be pissed off if they weren’t.
Marz: It’s very much the same sort of stuff that was done in the ’60s when the supposition was that you lost your readers every five years or so and a new generation took them over. So, when the Fantastic Four was fighting Doctor Doom it was the first time for a lot of them. Now with trade availability and digital, it’s not the first time for almost anybody, it’s the 46th time for a lot of the audience and the audience gets annoyed about it. If that’s not what you don’t want to read, don’t read it. If you’re not excited for the X-Men to fight the Avengers this summer, don’t read it.
Seeley: Read “Hellboy” or “Witchblade” or “The Darkness” or something else, perhaps.
Marz: A lot of what Image does, and Dark Horse and any of the other companies that aren’t the big two superhero universes, I think people will dig that stuff, you just have to get people to try it. A lot of the audience is so busy consuming the same stuff they’ve always consumed whether they like it or not. It’s tough to get it into peoples’ hands, but if you give them that first one free, it’s easier to hook them. It’s like heroin, man — or what people tell me heroin is like. [Laughs]
“Witchblade” #150 is on sale now. “Artifacts” #13 and “Witchblade” #151 go on sale January 4th.