COMMENTARY TRACK: "Artifacts" #1

Warning: Major spoilers for "Artifacts" #1 lurk ahead.

The thirteen Artifacts of the Top Cow Universe are currently being united in the pages of "Artifacts," a 13-issue limited series written by Ron Marz and illustrated by a team of artists including Michael Broussard. Over the past several months, CBR News spoke with Marz and Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik on a weekly basis to discuss the thirteen deadly Artifacts at the center of the series - thirteen objects that could destroy the world when assembled all at once.

With "Artifacts" #1 currently available in comic book stores, the time for preparation is at an end and answers are most assuredly on the way. Continuing our coverage of Top Cow's most ambitious comic book event to date, CBR sat down with Marz, Broussard and Sablik for a detailed analysis of "Artifacts" #1, unearthing a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of the issue.

CBR News: Right off the bat, Sara Pezzini is practically asking the reader if she has "their attention now, asshole."

Filip Sablik: I love that line, because it's exactly what we're trying to do with the series. From out of the gate, Ron is basically going, "You think you know what we're about, but you have no idea."

Ron Marz: There's a little bit of meta commentary there, I guess, and I wanted to phrase it that way because you're not going to open up a book and see Superman say that. Plus, the opening page is meant to symbolize who she is and what she does. From page one - and it's a splash page, instead of a page with credits and bunch of text on it - it's an in-your-face way to start the book and introduce your character to the audience that maybe isn't reading ["Witchblade"] already.

Michael Broussard: Originally, this was a closer shot. [Pulling it back] was the best choice because I was able to use more forced perspective, to make it seem as if the gun was pointed right at the reader. That was the effect that I wanted to get across.

Sablik: Within these first few pages, you know that this is the world, this is the character and something weird is happening.

Broussard: In his panel descriptions, Ron said to let the visuals speak for themselves with a lot of thought-provoking dialogue that leaves a lot of stuff open. It's subtle and all of the important things come across. It has an even flow to it.

Sablik: Michael, you even almost changed up your style a little bit here. It was already evolving with the last couple of issues of "The Darkness," but...

Broussard: Yeah, it was just a thing where I tried a lot of new stuff stylistically, but I couldn't do it during "The Darkness." When you have that shift, fans don't quite appreciate that. They want it to look the same all the way through, and any creative changes you might make, you want to do it freshly on a new comic. Here, not only is it a game-changer for the Top Cow period, I wanted it to be a total game-changer for me, too. Everything I wanted to do in "The Darkness" that I couldn't, I said that in this issue, I'm going to try it to see if it works. The first four pages went through fine, and not only that, but I'm a little bit more comfortable with this style I'm doing now versus what I was doing before.

Sablik: I remember that you and I had a conversation when we first started this project. You're going to lead this [series] off, and in a way, fans were getting to know you on "The Darkness." Stjepan Sejic had his shot with "First Born" and "Broken Trinity," Kenneth Rocafort had his shot with "Cyberforce/Hunter-Killer." I was like, "I don't want to scare you, but this is the biggest thing we've ever done. It's the thing that's going to drive everything for the next year. It's your coming out party. This is where you slap people upside the head and say, 'This is Michael Broussard. This is who he is.'"

As this demon begins to decompose, the story's mystery component kicks into high gear.

Marz: Any story should have a mystery aspect to propel you through the pages, but in this story in particular, Sara is a New York City detective. Every day, she deals with this. This should be no different.

Sablik: The demon is talking about looking for a priest - "Where is the one?" - you get that kind of thing to tease it out. What's funny is that, as we were doing this, Michael knew what the overall first issue was, where it was headed, but he actually received the pages piecemeal, scene-by-scene. You didn't actually know what the hell they were talking about here!

Broussard: I didn't know what they were talking about much beyond page five, up until they were done. It was almost like the reader reading the comic for the first time - I was in that seat. Normally, as an artist, you get to see what happens from page one to page twenty or however long the comic is, but it was almost an enjoyment for me at the same time because I was interested in what I was reading, but beyond page five, I didn't know what was going on. And beyond page ten, when I got the next batch, it was like, "What's going to happen next?" I was very interested, and I think that fueled a lot of my creative process on some of these pages. Since I'm in this reader's seat, I want to fulfill what that reader would have gotten so when you get to the next page you're like, "Oh, that's what the build-up is." I wanted to convey that even more as I was drawing, since I was in that seat.

The scene isn't quite over, as we're now introduced to a character that has a big role in the end of the issue - Julie, Sara's sister, who is fresh out of prison and will be living a long, happy, healthy life, right?

Sablik: She's paid her debt to society; she's off the drugs. [Laughs] Life is good!

Marz: And that sort of behavior should be rewarded! [Laughs]

Sablik: It's funny in context of where this goes. This was an important scene to have, particularly for new readers, but also for longtime readers, to remind them that this relationship is important and it's something relatively recently reintroduced [in "Witchblade" #116]. You always want to continue to add and reintroduce supporting cast members in a long running series, as it creates new problems and it changes the dynamics in a book. Back in #116, there were two very utilitarian purposes to bringing back Julie - for one, it was Stjepan's first issue and we needed somebody for Sara to talk to to catch people up as to what was going on. And we needed somebody to basically serve as a babysitter, because we decided that we weren't going to prematurely age Hope or make her disappear.

This page also features one of my favorite panels in the book - panel three, this picture of Hope. There are so few comic book artists out there who can draw a picture of a baby. She's about one year old, ballpark, and that looks like a one-year-old. Not only that, but that looks like a beautiful child, so when you see what happens to her later, I think it's all the more impactful.

Broussard: That was my whole thought process with this. How can I put the readers in a very sympathetic spot where they really sympathize with Hope? Obviously, if the baby is unappealing to the reader, no one's going to care [what happens to her]! I wanted the reader to fall in love with the child, so I really scrutinized myself on a few of these panels. The establishing shot is really important, that one I focused on the most. But not only was it a question of what type of facial modeling to give the baby, but the facial expression on handing her the phone and speaking to her mother - I really wanted the reader to go, "I like this child." She's an important element to me, not because you as a writer tell me that she is - I want to feel that she's important.

Marz: Obviously, the point of this scene is to introduce Julie, introduce Hope, establish their relationships with Sara even though they're not in the same place at the same time. I thought it was very important that you knew those characters and cared about those characters. A scene like this is really driven by Michael's ability to convey the acting of the characters. Damn near everybody in comics can draw two guys in their underwear beating the crap out of each other, but this is the kind of stuff that separates the men from the boys. This is all subtle stuff. It's all expressions, gestures and acting, which is more important to me than any of the other stuff. If you don't care about the character and if you don't feel like you know the characters as people, then you don't care what happens one way or the other.

You get a little bit of a teaser here with Aphrodite - there's trouble lurking around the bend for Julie and Hope.

Sablik: And if you look at the balloons, there's only one green balloon. That was important. It's right there - on the previous page, you see it.

Broussard: That one green balloon, I think it signifies inevitability. Before the reader even understands what's going on, he's already been told through the green balloon that this is a point of no return.

Marz: Part of the storytelling process is the coloring. It's not simply what Michael does, but also how the colors compliment that. I think a lot of books don't pay enough attention to that.

Well, I guess he's "the one."

Sablik: He is a priest! Or, at least, he was.

The last time we saw Tom Judge was in "Angelus" #4, when he was still in Hell - and here he is, literally coming out of the depths.

Marz: See, I'm not just making this shit up! [Laughs] In the previous issues of "Angelus," you see the train that runs through Hell, which is run by a character called The Conductor.

Sablik: He takes the Angelus warriors in through Hell to retrieve the Wheel of Shadows in "Angelus," so we've established that the train can get you deeper into Hell, theoretically, and it can get you out of there. The interesting thing here is that Tom doesn't seem to know how or why he was on the train, which raises some interesting questions. Ron originally described [this page] as four wide-screen panels progressively coming forward, so in the original layout, Michael basically had a close-up of Tom's face at the end. We looked at it and realized, "You know what? This is Top Cow. This is the establishing shot. It can't be a closely cropped shot - it has to be Tom Judge literally walking onto the stage." I think the solution Michael came up with is awesome.

Marz: It takes advantage of the fact that the other three panels are repeated images. It uses the static panel and goes the extra step of covering up some of that page with the big figure introduction. Truthfully, the fact that Michael wanted to draw Tom Judge and was intrigued by this character influenced how the whole thing came out. A lot of this is the result of [Michael] wanting to draw Tom Judge. Tom's role has gotten bigger in the story as we've gone on, which I think is part of the writer's responsibility - to make sure that, within the context of the story, the artist can draw stuff that he's excited and enthusiastic about drawing, rather than just a bunch of talking heads.

Sablik: I love this line - "Didn't think I was gone so long that nobody in New York even smokes anymore." It's one of those lines that on the surface, it may seem like a throwaway line, but it informs the reader on the fact that Tom hasn't been around in something like seven or eight years, and also who he is.

Marz: That's part of the craft of what you're supposed to do. You're supposed to convey information without the reader knowing that you're conveying information. You can do an "X-Men" styled caption that says, "This is the code name and this is what they do and this is who they're sleeping with this week." That definitely works at times, but if you can wrap that stuff into the natural dialogue of the character so it doesn't feel like an information download, I think the story is a lot more graceful.

Sablik: Like Ron said, Tom has become a very important character in the story. We showed Sara in her full Witchblade mode earlier in the story and we see Aphrodite later, but we wanted to hold some things back, so in this scene, it's intentional that you don't see Tom transform and you don't get a straight-on shot of what he does to the demon. Instead, Michael very smartly made the choice to show him transforming back, so you get the sense of power.

Marz: Very often, what you don't show is more powerful than what you do show. If you let the reader fill in the blanks in terms of what they're seeing - if we show shadows on a wall, the reader can fill in those blanks with something more powerful than what we can actually show.

I would not presume to know anything that the Curator is thinking, but it certainly appears that you're pulling off two things here: you're establishing the possibility that the Curator was not expecting Tom to appear and Tom doesn't seem to fully understand his own situation.

Marz: We want a sense of mystery for the characters, the sense that there's a much larger picture going on, because the characters serve as proxies for the reader here. There are things that are unknown and that overall mystery is much bigger than anything that anyone has previously known.

And here's the big revelatory splash page in all its glory.

Broussard: These were the last two pages that I drew in the issue. I don't think I could have handled it properly if I wasn't in such a rhythm, because drawing that last page, I was actually at very full steam. Once I got to these two pages, they were time-consuming but easier to draw and easier to manipulate the characters in the way that I wanted in terms of composition.

Sablik: The real challenge of this was, how do you draw characters that we haven't revealed yet that we don't want to spoil? These are also opportunities where Michael is drawing these things for the first time, and technically, this is the first time we're looking at the Thirteenth Artifact bearer [in the bottom right corner]. We at least have revealed that it's a male -

Marz: - at least from the waist up, it's a male. [Laughs]

Sablik: That's the first peek, but we can't tell you anymore than that. I think it's fair to say that by the end of Michael's chapter, which is the first four issues of "Artifacts," his identity will be revealed and his origin will be revealed.

Marz: You'll have a good sense of who the character is, but you've got to stick with it a little bit longer perhaps to find out where his loyalties lie.

Sablik: Up until this point, there's been an even number of Artifacts. Thirteen unbalances things. There's this whole thing about Sara being the balance and everything in the Top Cow Universe is about balance, so in a very literal sense, all Artifacts being equal, this guy could unbalance everything one way or the other.

Sablik: This next scene is a brilliant demonstration of what [colorist Sunny Gho] brings to the table. We have the continuation of what is on the surface a very innocent, fun sequence, but the color shifts to go with the changing of the time - it gives you a clue that some shit is about to go down and it's going to get dark, literally. There's the green balloon again and the hair of the horse is green. These are all intentional choices.

Even the exit sign is green, and Julie is about to exit the scene in a very big way...

Marz: Oh, shit. I never noticed that one. [Laughs]

Sablik: The other thing is that this introduces a new piece of information for even longtime Top Cow readers. In "First Born," the Darkness and Angelus essentially reached a stalemate regarding Hope. What we see here is how that stalemate and cold war has stalled. It's because the Angelus watches over Hope during the day and the Darkness does at night. What's interesting here is as far as you can tell, neither Jackie nor Sara nor Dani know a goddamn thing about it. The primal forces of the Universe operate independently of the bearers, of their hosts, and I think that's very cool.

Sablik: There are some other interesting [visual elements] here. For instance, Sunny basically put the green balloon where Aphrodite's face is. Michael similarly did a close-up as Aphrodite is handing off the balloon, a very innocent gesture to a small child, and he chose to do the same close-up when she's lifting the gun. You basically have this innocent child-like gesture juxtaposed against something that is obviously imminently violent.

Marz: We want the reader's experience to somewhat mirror what's going on in the story, to get surprised by turning the page [and seeing Julie's death]. Certainly, it's very obvious that that is on a page turn for a specific reason. That's not an even-numbered page, because we don't want you to glance across the fold of the book and see what's over here.

Sablik: There are so many choices that went into this particular page. There's no emotion [on Aphrodite's face].

Broussard: I wanted her to have a cold, calculated, mechanical look. Down to her stance, it's assured and straight through.

Sablik: There's no hesitation. There's no remorse. Even down to the way that letterer Troy Peteri and [managing editor] Phil Smith, who handles a lot of the production on the book, what they did with the sound effect - the placement of the sound effect, we didn't want to cover up the blood on the balloon. You have to have the full impact of the gore to understand the horror of the moment.

Marz: And yet, we're not giving a full-on look at it, either. There's a good bit that's still left up to your imagination, and your imagination can make it look a lot worse than we could possibly show. I'm not a big sound effects guy - I generally don't really like sound effects, because I think they can come across as very cheesy - but I thought this page needed that almost sort of "Sin City" kind of sound effect. There's definitely a reason that there's a sound effect and no dialogue.

As if it's not enough that Aphrodite just killed Julie, she has to kill some angels and demons as well.

Sablik: In that first panel, Ron and I went back and forth for about two hours on IM trying to decide what the right line was. What does she say?

Marz: This is certainly not the first try on that line, and we kicked a number of things around. [What we settled on] is actually a repeat of a line - that's the last line of "Artifacts" #0.

Sablik: New readers might not pick this up, but longtime readers will note that this is a display of power that we've never seen from Aphrodite IV, nothing even remotely like this. Clearly, she's also undergone a transformation, an evolution, if you will. It's a great example of our philosophy that new readers aren't being punished. If you didn't know that this was the first time she manifested this power, you're not losing anything out of the story. But if you're a longtime reader, it's kind of like, "Holy shit, how did that happen?" It's right in the middle of the story without any exposition.

Sablik: And then, of course, there's that fucking green balloon.

Marz: We actually discussed back-and-forth a number of times whether or not to add that last page, because it's an extra page. It's beyond the page count. I really felt strongly that we needed that beat to end the issue properly, rather than trying to cram something into the previous page. I think Michael absolutely nailed it.

Sablik: There's this great juxtaposition of the cold heartlessness of that moment of violence against this relatively gentle, almost maternal way that Aphrodite picks up Hope and walks away. This is the precious object [for Aphrodite.] This is the porcelain doll. Nothing else matters. What we keep coming back to is that every great event and every great story needs mystery. We amplify the mystery with Aphrodite's parting line.

Marz: But as big and as epic as we want the story to be, it still comes down to people. It comes down to characters. It doesn't matter what kind of spectacle you show. If you don't care about the characters, it's not worth anybody's time. This story is epic in scope, but it's really about Sara Pezzini and Jackie Estacado looking for their daughter. All the pyrotechnics in the world are meaningless if you're not engaged by two parents looking for their missing kid.

Looking ahead, what can we expect from "Artifacts" #2?

Sablik: Issue #2 ends with Tom walking out of the Curator's shop and the green balloon having traveled across the city and landing at his feet. He picks it up and he knows that something has happened. He's being drawn into what's going on.

Marz: The next batch of pages is very much the same sort of introduction of Jackie Estacado that we had of Sara in the first issue. We see Jackie, we see what he does and we see who he is, and then he gets the news that his daughter is missing.

"Artifacts" #1, written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Michael Broussard, is currently available in comic book stores. The second issue of "Artifacts" is scheduled to arrive on September 8, 2010.

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