COMMENTARY TRACK: "Artifacts" Vol. One

There are thirteen deadly Artifacts in the Top Cow Universe. Separately, each one of them is capable of great power and tremendous destruction. When brought together, well, let's just say that putting these items together holds literally world-changing consequences -- which is exactly why they're being gathered in the pages of "Artifacts," the 13-issue miniseries from writer Ron Marz and a rotating group of artists including Michael Broussard and Whilce Portacio.

During the first four-issue arc of "Artifacts," series lead Sara Pezzini suffered multiple losses including the death of her sister Julie and the abduction of her daughter Hope. On top of those tragedies, it was revealed that someone is trying to bring the thirteen Artifacts together for currently unknown purposes. Can Sara, Jackie Estacado and their allies rescue Hope and prevent the gathering of the Artifacts? Or is the still-unrevealed antagonist too far ahead in the game to be stopped?

With the first arc of "Artifacts" recently collected in trade paperback form, CBR News spoke with Marz and Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik about the events of the series thus far, poring over specific panels and scenes in this exclusive commentary track. Before that, make sure to read our interview with Marz, Sablik and Broussard about the first issue of "Artifacts."

"Artifacts" #1 ended on the down note of Julie Pezzini's death and Hope's abduction. During issue #2, Sara is given a little bit of time to grieve her sister's passing, though she's forced to spring into action fairly quickly.

Ron Marz: "Artifacts" is a large story with a lot of characters, but at the heart of it, it's a story about Sara -- and also about Jackie to an extent -- because she's the one with the personal loss here. For her to lose her sister and for her daughter to be missing, she's really the emotional heart of this. I felt like we had to pay off that shock that hopefully everyone felt at the end of issue #1 properly. Now, we don't have the luxury of devoting 15 pages to that because the story constantly has to move forward, but I had to make sure that we got an appropriate emotional moment out of Sara being confronted with her sister's body. I feel pretty good about how it all shook out. I've had people tell me that they ended up crying during that scene, and anytime you can evoke that sort of emotion with just lines on paper, I really feel like we've done our jobs.

Filip Sablik: There's also a lot of really nice subtext in this sequence. If you're a first-time Top Cow reader, I think you can read this sequence of Sara talking to Julie on the surface and certainly get the emotions that she's going through. You feel the loss of her sister. At the same time, lines where Sara is asking Julie to forgive her, for longtime "Witchblade" readers, there's a lot more resonance I think. It speaks to the history of that character and their relationship. I think it takes a fair amount of restraint to not overwrite a sequence like this, which I think Ron did really well and Michael did an exceptional job of conveying some of the subtle emotions as Sara goes through a miniature version of the grieving process, before she pulls herself together and says, "Okay, let's get to work."

Issue #2 introduces readers to Jackie Estacado and Danielle Baptiste, the bearers of the Darkness and the Angelus. Both are intimately connected to Sara, but that doesn't exactly make them fast friends with each other, does it?

Marz: One of the things I like about writing these characters is that they all have some sort of previously established relationship. There are layers to those relationships: it's not like the Justice League getting together to battle the outer-space cyclops or whatever the hell it is this month. These are people who hopefully act like real people. I think it's fair to say that Sara and Jackie have an almost love-hate relationship because of what he is and what he does, and yet she's still drawn to him. They're always going to be tied together because of this child, but she's a cop and he's a criminal, so there are a lot of shades of grey in this relationship. That's going to be a big aspect going forward in the series, where this relationship between the two of them is going to go. When you get down to it, Sara and Jackie are a lot more concerned with finding their daughter than this overall epic of thirteen Artifacts coming together to destroy the world. Again, that's the core of the story: if you could save the world or save your daughter, which would you pick? That's where we're headed in terms of the character content here. I love that these aren't typical superhero comic book allies that get together to fight the bad guys. In a lot of ways, the people who wind up in a group together don't really like each other that much, and to me, that's a lot more interesting dramatically than a more Silver Age take where the good guys are all lantern-jawed heroes. That's one way to approach the story, but I think our characters demand that we don't do that surface-level take.

I'm not sure we've seen this kind of power from Sara before, have we?

Sablik: Sara is demonstrating something that for all we know is a new ability. That's one of those moments where Ron has the really difficult job in this series of not only making it rewarding for first-time readers but also the longtime readers. This is one of those things that probably had a larger impact for people who've been reading Ron's work on "Witchblade" for years. We've talked about the Witchblade being the balance between the light and the darkness, but we've never really gone into how that would manifest itself, you know? This is kind of the first indication, and it's one of those things were you can say over and over that this item is the most important thing in the universe, but I think this is one of those early demonstrations of how that's the case.

When Tom meets the Trinity for the first time in "Artifacts," he comes at them with a cryptic warning: one of them is going to screw everything up.

Sablik: This was actually something we'd discussed putting in issue #1, because we wanted to set the stakes early on. Not just the usual stakes that this is a big, earth-shattering, universe-changing series, but we wanted to let the reader in early on the idea that between Sara and Jackie, one of them could potentially become the character who messes things up. They're potentially as big a danger as they are a help. Ron, we talked about the Curator delivering this information to Sara and Jackie, but what organically came out of the story as Tom's place in the series evolved to become more and more important, we felt that we could add an extra wrinkle by having Tom deliver this news. And the subtext is, "...when that happens, I'm going to take you down." Tom's the guy who comes in and doesn't have a relationship with these people. Sara, Jackie and Dani's relationship is very complicated, and maybe none of them are capable of making the right call, but Tom is coming in and saying, "Well, I am. I came back from Hell to stop this from happening." That's his stake in this.

You're slowly pulling the curtain back on the antagonist's identity, even going so far as giving us a better visual look at him with each passing issue. How long until we find out who this man really is?

Marz: The identity of the antagonist and why he's doing what he's doing is going to be a slowly revealed aspect of the story. When we reveal it, people will either go, "Oh!" And I think we might have some people who end up on the antagonist's side in terms of motivation and who's doing the right thing. To me, it's breadcrumbs. We want to leave a trail of breadcrumbs thats inciting enough to get the readers to follow along.

Ian Nottingham makes his grand debut in "Artifacts," and right out of the gate, we see exactly what this man is capable of.

Marz: The real point of this scene is to show that A) Ian is a badass, and B) he's completely ruthless. To me, he's the smiling killer, the alluring guy with a complete hard vice. He's an assassin; that's what he does. I wanted to start the issue off with a bang and with an action sequence, but also to establish that this guy is fairly amoral, or at least completely coldhearted. He basically butchers all of these guards in an escape attempt and when he comes out of it, he's no worse for the wear. He didn't even give it a second thought.

Sablik: Another thing is that Ian could have left anytime he wanted to. He was in prison because he had nothing better to do. For longtime "Witchblade" readers, they'll remember that the only reason Ian is in prison is his relationship with Sara. She basically lured him into a trap, and there were some implications in that sequence -- I think it was issue #101 -- where he kind of let himself get taken in. In addition to being this ruthless killer type, the other thing that's a throughline with Ian's character going back to the first or second issue of "Witchblade" is that he's a guy who is a very effective soldier, but he's not a mastermind. He doesn't come up with the plan. He's a guy who looks for purpose. His initial purpose was serving Kenneth Irons and then he was with the Yakuza, so in a way, he's a ronin. He bounces from master to master looking for a purpose, and I think as with Aphrodite, the reason he's essentially the second person that the antagonist recruits is that he's a man looking for a purpose. That's essentially what the antagonist is offering.

Issue #3 largely focuses on the recruitment drive for the two sides. How did you decide which characters would wind up on which side here?

Marz: To me, it was fairly obvious who was going to be where. It really breaks down along characters who are more self-interested and self-motivated than those who are selfless and willing to sacrifice their own needs for the greater good. The antagonist knows which ones are more easily swayed to his side, and the one to me that was in question was Finnegan, who ends up paying for his choice at the end of the issue.

Sablik: I think it comes down, on a certain level, to relationships. With Sara and Jackie being the central point, once you place them on the board in opposition, it makes perfect sense that Dani and Patience, who have good relationships with Sara, are going to go that way. It makes sense that Sabine, who is diametrically opposed from the Angelus based on [the "Angelus" miniseries], would wind up with the antagonist. It makes sense that Glorianna Silver, who's life mission is to essentially gather these thirteen Artifacts, would be swayed over. I think what'll be interesting is that it wasn't a long conversation as far as where everyone would end up, but we did have conversations about the motivations for these characters. It was important to us that each character had personal motivations for being where they are beyond the fact that we qualify them as "this guy is wearing a white hat and this guy is wearing a black hat, so they're on this side and that side." What'll be interesting is over the course of the series, you'll get glimpses into why some of these characters like Sabina, Glorianna Silver and Alina are aligning themselves with the antagonist.

If Sara is the lead character of "Artifacts," then it's Aphrodite who gets the supporting actress nomination so far, spending a lot of time in issue #3 recruiting on behalf of the antagonist. Really, she seems to be evolving in a way; she seemingly fully embraces the antagonist's vision, which is something we might not expect to see from Aphrodite given her past appearances.

Marz: She's a good soldier. She's the operative. Frankly, I can't tell you anything more than that.

Sablik: The idea of Aphrodite evolving is a very good observation on your part. Another thing to watch that Ron and Whilce Portacio coming up in chapter two is the idea that one of the recurring themes of "Artifacts" is that technology and science in opposition to the supernatural and, for lack of a better term, faith, and how those two components kind of battle out and how they intersect. Aphrodite, to a certain point, is basically the living representation of those ideals coming together. It's interesting in this recruitment sequence to hear a character that's a stone-cold assassin sort of out of the Terminator mold talking in terms of taking something on faith. I don't think it's that far removed from what I imagine a recruitment speech is like for an Al Qaeda member. This is not just about the mission, but it's also about belief. As a soldier, she believes in what she's doing.

It was almost inevitable that someone would go after Finnegan and the Blood Sword, and it's Nottingham that makes the move.

Marz: If you just want to see a bunch of talking heads, there are a bunch of other books you can read that shall remain nameless. There's just something cool about a guy who turns into a Frost Giant fighting another dude who has a magic samurai sword, you know? There's an aspect of the scene where the sword is responding to Ian's nature, maybe even more so than it did to Finn. The Blood Sword is a bloodthirsty piece of equipment, as the name implies, and I think it feels a lot more at home in Ian's hands. We played around with a few ideas to show that the sword is really choosing to remain with Ian more than Ian and Finn really deciding who is going to end up with it.

Sablik: One of the things we wanted to reinforce throughout the series is that all of the Artifacts are sentient on some level, they're characters unto themselves. Who the bearers are is, to a certain extent, a case of destiny. Sara Pezzini was on some level destined to bear the Witchblade.

Marz: It sets up a question: did the bearer choose the Artifact, or did the Artifact choose the bearer? This is an indication of that.

Marz: This is really just a tease. The penultimate page is kind of a classic tracking sequence where we're pushing in and revealing what the Thirteenth Artifact has been responsible for. We see these scattered bodies, we reveal this guy, then it's the end of the issue. It's meant as an appetizer and a cliffhanger, and it's not an accident that he doesn't appear again issue #4. We wanted to bate the hook and put it in the water and let the reader stew on it for a while.

Sablik: This is one of those sequences where upon first reading is going to seem like maybe it's just a tease, that there's not a lot of substance. But what I can say is that this is a very important sequence, and there's a lot of information in this sequence that'll become more apparent as the series goes on. We show the location of the Thirteenth Artifact, so there's visual context for where the Artifact has been. We show at least the after effects of what it's capable of. We're also leaving the question of where this Thirteenth Artifact is going to fall in terms of its allegiance. I think Ron and Michael did a pretty effective job of not tipping their hand. By issue #4, there are six Artifacts on one side and six on the other. This is the tiebreaker. I'm pretty confident we haven't tipped our hand as far as where that piece is going to fall.

The Curator has certainly seen better days. When we see him in issue #4, he appears deeply injured both physically and in terms of his ideology. As far as the Top Cow Universe's characters go, there's something truly unsettling about seeing the Curator in such a vulnerable state -- it gives you the sense that things might not go well for our heroes.

Marz: At the end of Act I, you're left with an impression: "Man, if that guy gets fucked up, everybody's vulnerable!" Out of anybody, he's the one that seems to have at least a sense of what's happening and could maybe give our good guys a little bit of direction and some marching orders in terms of what they're supposed to be doing. The obvious thing to do from a dramatic standpoint is to remove him from the board so that Sara, Jackie and the rest of them are flying blind in terms of what they're supposed to do.

Sablik: The two main conduits of knowledge are basically Tilly and the Curator, and in the same issue, they both say they don't know what the fuck is happening. The only one who seems to be confident in knowing what's happening is the antagonist. The last time you see him in this issue, he's smiling. "Everything's coming along just as I want it to come along." Meanwhile, our Obi-Wan Kenobi for the last five years, has just said, "I couldn't stop him. I tried, but he was too strong." For longtime readers, I think this has even more impact because they've seen the Curator not really worry about anything; he's the guy who is always in control. During "War of the Witchblades," he basically wasn't sweating it. During "Broken Trinity," there are dragons and ice giants fighting outside his store and [he remains confident]. One of our big goals was at the end of every issue we wanted to have some sort of cliffhanger, some sort of, for lack of better terms, a what-the-fuck moment. At the end of every chapter, we wanted to punch people in the gut and make them feel compelled to come back. Hopefully, we accomplished that here.

The first arc of "Artifacts" is currently available in trade paperback form. "Artifacts" #5, written by Ron Marz and illustrated by Whilce Portacio, is also on sale.

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