COMMENTARY TRACK: Marz & Sablik Unearth "Artifacts" Vol. 3

[SPOILER WARNING: The following interview contains extensive spoilers for the "Artifacts" Vol. 3 TPB, containing "Artifacts" #9-13.]

If you thought Top Cow Productions' "Artifacts" started off with a bang, then brace yourself for a cataclysm as the series wraps up. The event, written by Ron Marz and drawn by Michael Broussard on the first four-issue arc, Whilce Portacio on the second, Jeremy Haun on the third and Dale Keown on the thirteenth issue finale, came to an end this week along with the Top Cow Universe as we knew it.

The series revolves around an extra dimensional threat by the name of The Survivor attempting to gather all the Artifacts in the Top Cow U -- which includes familiar Artifacts the Darkness, the Witchblade and eleven others -- to restart his own universe. From the beginning, Marz maintained Darkness wielder Jackie Estacado and Witchblade bearer Sara Pezzini finding their daughter Hope -- who was taken by The Survivor -- was the heart of the story. "Artifacts" #13 saw the parents reunited with their daughter but faced with a terrible decision: let her live in the void with them or sacrifice her to restart the universe. Not one to take the easy way out, Marz and company decided the sacrifice must be made and restarted the universe. This resulted in a mix of familiar and brand new elements that will be chronicled in Marz's ongoing "Artifacts" as well as "Witchblade" by Tim Seeley and Diego Bernard and "The Darkness" by David Hine and Jeremy Haun.

The ending and restarting of a universe is not particularly new in the world of comics, but Marz and Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik said this one will be different by enacting very real changes that will be explored in the coming years. Before moving on too far with future plans, CBR News sat down with Marz and Sablik about the origins of "Artifacts," writing continuity heavy stories without getting mired down by said continuity and delivering a satisfying conclusion to an event.

CBR News: In one of our earlier conversations, Ron, you said that the most difficult thing about writing a big event like "Artifacts" is giving the audience an ending worthy of the issues that came before it. How do you feel now that everything's all wrapped up?

Ron Marz: I'm pretty satisfied with the ending we have because I think it really is an ending and it also obviously sets the stage for the ongoing monthly. I feel like we paid off the promise of this not being standard operating procedure where everything gets reset to zero. We said we were going to destroy the universe and that's what we did. Hopefully everybody is appreciative that we actually kept our promise and did blow up everything. Ultimately, I think the success for the individual readers depends on what happens to Jackie and Sara and Hope and hopefully we paid that off in a way that is dramatically satisfying but probably not what people wanted to happen to those characters.

Filip Sablik: From the beginning we talked about how we knew where the story was going and what we were planning on doing. I kept describing it as playing a game of chicken with the readers and they're expecting us to blink at the last minute because that's what every other comic event that they've ever read does; [the others] make changes that are temporary or not really changes or you get a non-ending with no resolution and you have to keep reading to see where the story goes. I feel like Ron really skillfully managed to write it in a way that, if the last Top Cow story you ever read is "Artifacts" #13, it feels like a complete story and hopefully one that pays off the promise of what we set up in issue #1.

Where did the genesis of "Artifacts" come from? Ron, was it something that came to you while writing "Witchblade," something dreamt up in house or a combination of the two?

Marz: I don't have a specific answer for that. It just sort of germinated organically and came out of the way that things were being set up overall in the universe with the 13 Artifacts. It became apparent that the next story we needed to tell was one in which all the artifacts would play a part and be brought together. I think it was [Top Cow President and Chief Operating Officer] Matt Hawkins who suggested the format of 13 issues and doing the obvious and just calling the series "Artifacts."

Sablik: Originally Ron had laid the groundwork and put the seeds in place, but I think in our heads it was going to be the question of the 13 and what they did and that was going to go unanswered for awhile, but I think it was Matt when he suggested the format, he said, "We've teased this out, we should tell this story, right?" And it went from there.

Marz: Right. It wasn't like we were putting all these building blocks in place to tell this big story, things just grew at their own pace. Matt was the first one that realized, "Hey dummies, there's a big story we need to tell here, so let's do it." But, that was two and a half to three years ago when we started having this discussion. It wasn't just a question of "Oh shit, let's jam an event into 2011 because we need something to fill out the publishing plan," it was far enough into the future that we had plenty of time to get everything in order to do this thing properly.

Was the idea to play with time and reality at the end of the series always part of the plan?

Sablik: I think it was in Ron's initial outline for what he wanted to do with the series. Ron's outlines tend to be fairly broad because I think he enjoys organically letting the story evolve. I seem to recall in the original outline he said something along the lines of, "The next logical thing would be to end the world because that's what we said might happen, so here's what we should do and here's the much more conservative option if you guys think that's a little bit extreme." As usual, to Matt and [Top Cow founder and Chief Executive Officer] Marc [Silvestri]'s credit, they said to go extreme and see where it goes.

Marz: That's the nice thing about telling stories in the Top Cow Universe, you're not as bound by the strictures of Marvel or DC where you really have to bring things back to the accepted version of the universe. That's not a criticism, that's just the reality of dealing with icon characters that are used to sell everything from action figures to bed sheets and lunch boxes and obviously movies as well. You don't have as wide a playing field when you deal with those kinds of characters. That's why most of the big events you see are ultimately cyclical, you have to bring them back to the accepted depictions of those characters. We don't have to abide by the same rules, that characters who end up dead in "Artifacts" are dead, they're not coming back. There's more creative latitude in the ways we can approach things.

At the end of "Artifacts" #13 we glimpse some aspects of the new Top Cow Universe such as Jackie being married and having a daughter named Hope. Do you have all the changes mapped out or will they be left up to the writers of "Witchblade," "The Darkness" and "Artifacts?"

Marz: There were some that were definitely planned in directions we wanted to take and others just kind of came up in the process of telling the story. There were some characters that wound up dead that, when I started, I didn't know we were going to kill. We just got to the point of the story and it looked like that guy was going to die. It's almost cavalier the manner we do that in because we have a brief discussion about whether it fits the story and ask if it allows us to do something cooler down the road. If the answer is yes, that guy's dead.

Sablik: Ron is pretty unfeeling when it comes to that.

Marz: Bloodthirsty is the word I think you're looking for. [Laughs]

Sablik: It goes back to having a universe that is evolving and growing and changing. Longtime comic readers feel that it's hard to have any sense of real stakes if, at the end of every story, you're going to reset to the status quo since death is not permanent. We endeavored to make, for the most part, death a permanent and meaningful thing. You want that impact. In that scene in "Artifacts" #11, the fight between Ian and Finn, it's particularly brutal because the stakes are set up and you know why the characters are doing what they're doing. That makes it all the more poignant and meaningful and heroic. It's not heroic to die in a video game because you just hit the start button and reset from your last save point. In a lot of ways mainstream comics are kind of like that.

Marz: When the Human Torch died -- with air quotes around it -- I don't think there was anyone over the age of 6 who believed it.

Sablik: I don't even think the writer or Marvel tried to cover up the fact that he was coming back.

Marz: We kind of pretend that we feel some sort of emotional reaction to this stuff when actually this isn't anyone's first time at the rodeo, everyone knows how this is going to end up. To me there's almost a disingenuous quality to that when you try to convince the readership that you should care and be plugged into the process when practically everybody knows it's the equivalent of pulling the tablecloth out from under the silverware.

You brought up the Finn moment and that's one that stuck out to me because, some less hardcore readers might not know his backstory with Jackie, but you still understand in a few panels why he's doing what he's doing and that helps make his death more meaningful. Is it difficult balancing out telling readers who some of these characters are with keeping the pace of the book moving along?

Marz: You have to give some sort of context whenever possible so the readers who aren't as familiar with the characters and situations have some sense of what's going on. I'm forever saying that the worst thing that comics does is spend so much time preaching to the converted that we shut out new readers. Let's face it, if comics doesn't get new readers, comics goes away at some point. We can't keep pitching to the same audience. So, I try to make sure, as much as possible, the information is loaded into the story somehow. If you don't know these characters or these situations, you can come in, read the page one recap and get a sense of who's who and what's what. As you get into issue 10, 11 and 12 of a series like this, it becomes a little harder to naturally load that information into the story because it becomes a bit didactic and redundant for the people who have been following through the whole thing. You choose your own line to walk. I tend to put more of that information into the first few issues and not be quite so redundant with it as you go along because by the time you get to issue #11, your audience is your audience. It doesn't mean you can ignore your storytelling responsibilities and just assume that everybody knows everything and you don't even have to bother to name characters or settings -- any of that is writing 101, that's simple stuff that I don't always see done. The rules are a little bit different from an issue earlier in the story than something later in the series, but it's all incumbent on the creative team to make sure things are as clear as possible to anybody who picks up the book.

Sablik: As in that scene we were talking about, somebody who knows the back story has a slightly richer experience with that. When he says he's keeping a promise, they'll know what he's talking about, but that's not necessarily spelled out in the previous issues. At the same time, you don't need to know the context, [what] you need to know is, here's a guy who apparently feels compelled to go get Hope back to her parents so much so that he's willing to die for it. I think that's still a powerful scene, but there's enriched content if you are a longtime fan. That's always been the attitude ever since I've been working at Top Cow, let's reward the people who have been into the universe and not penalize people just because they haven't read [something]. That comment [of Finn's] is rooted in "Broken Trinity" which came out four years ago, so I don't think someone will feel like they needed to read that to understand what the scene was about.

There was a similar feeling when The Survivor revealed that he had been pulling Sara's strings as The Curator for years. There was a great page that alternated between flashback scenes and parts of Sara's head as she realized what was going on. Was that in the script?

Marz: That was in the script and I gave Jeremy specific panels from specific issues to pull from. In fact, I think I gave them to the letterer [Troy Peteri] so he could pull the same word balloons [from the original issues]. For the faithful readers who are going to get those references we wanted to reward them, but we didn't want it to be done in a way that left everybody else standing around going "Huh, what? Who is this?" I think it's fairly clear what's going on even if you don't one hundred percent know where those panels are from, but I talked to Jeremy about it and the idea was to have those specific angles and shots but we're not going to just stet the images because we want your take on it so it becomes seamless. That's actually one of my favorite pages in the whole series, I think it turned out great.

Sablik: Me too. That was something where, once we decided The Curator would be revealed as the villain we started going back through and pulling together the puzzle pieces to make it all work seamlessly. It was really satisfying to see that come together. Ron had a really great visual concept for it and then Jeremy pulled it off seamlessly. Since we're talking about the final act here, I was really happy with all of the art on "Artifacts" but I think Jeremy in particular really surprised us and hopefully the readers. He's a guy who, before this, was known as a guy who worked on grounded street-level superhero and indie books. For him to come in and draw 13-plus characters all with very different costumes and do the staging in a way that felt very epic -- you can't look at issue #12 and not say that it has a visually epic feel to it. I'm not sure a lot of fans would have expected that from him.

Ron, we've previously talked about how you write scenes specifically for the artist. Did you do that again with Haun? Was there also an element of testing his boundaries considering he had largely done more grounded books?

Marz: I know Jeremy and I was familiar with the kind of stuff he had done before which, as Filip said, was more grounded in reality, more Batman than Superman. So, my intention was to play to those strengths, but also put stuff in front of him that he hadn't tackled before because I was fully confident that he could show off that side of his ability as well. That's one of the reasons that the opening sequence of his first issue is this epic science-fiction, world's-coming-to-an-end sequence, because I wanted the audience to get slapped across the face with Jeremy doing something beyond his resume at that point.

Sablik: I think by the end of it Jeremy hated Ron for it because he kept asking Jeremy to design things that had never been seen before with this very grand scope to them.

Right, the story goes from a high tech ship to a jungle to a Mayan sacrificial chamber to an underground futuristic city within a few pages. I guess that's more fun that drawing the same thing over and over again.

Marz: It really depends on the artist's comfort zone but I think Jeremy was up to showing off that he wasn't just a guy who could draw the back alleys of Gotham, he could stretch himself a lot further than that. I think it's always cool when you look at an artist who does something new and different on a project. Rather than just, hey Mark Bagley, let's draw some more Spider-Man. It's cool when Mark Bagley goes off and does something that's not Spider-Man, it doesn't mean you love his Spider-Man any less, it's just cool to have a change of pace.

Speaking of change of pace, Dale Keown came in and did the last issue. What made you chose him for the thirteenth issue and what did he bring to the table?

Marz: He's Dale, I think that's why we went after him. To me, Dale's stuff is just amazing. He's one of those guys whose work has such a finished quality to it, even in the pencils. He's sort of the poster child for the phrase "Pencils are so clean you can eat off them." Everything is there and perfect and it's not just the level of drawing, it's the acting in the characters, it's the storytelling, it's the facial expressions. He's absolutely the whole package. It's just awesome to have Dale on issue #13 in that he doesn't do a lot of interiors anymore, so to have an entire issue of Dale at the top of his game and for me feeling like, "Oh man, I get to make up stuff in my head that's going to come out on the page from Dale," was just awesome. I tried to balance the script between the real character stuff and the smaller moments between the characters and the more epic stuff like the spread of Jackie and his Darkling minions unleashing.

Sablik: I think from the beginning the way that the format was going to break down, there was going to be three, four-issue chapters with this thirteenth [issue] finale. We wanted someone with some real weight to come in and do the thirteenth issue. Dale's one of the artists closest associated with Top Cow of that caliber and on that level outside of Marc. Specifically, he's most closely associated with "The Darkness" and issue #13, definitely by the end of it, is very much about Jackie. I think that went really well. And like Ron said, the guy's the whole package. When those first pages started rolling in and it was just those figures on the completely whited out landscape it's all in the emotion of the characters. You almost don't need any words to know that something weighty is happening. When I got the first page in where it's the close-up of Hope with all the detail, I posted it on Twitter and said "With issue 13, Dale's going to break your heart," and it is. It's the same way that in issue #1 Michael Broussard had to make sure there were a couple pictures of Hope that were heart achingly beautiful so you could really feel it and Dale did that too. You have to feel that they're making an awful choice here.

That was a rough scene to read. Was it difficult to write, Ron, even though you've described yourself as a "bloodthirsty" writer?

Marz: Yeah. Having known that that scene was coming for about a year, I had plenty of time to think about it, but when you get right to it and writing the dialog for that scene, you want to fuss over it until everything is perfect. It was fairly disturbing for me to write and because of that I felt that we were doing the right thing for the story. If I was having a reaction to the scene in that fashion, I think the audience is going to have the same reaction. It's intentionally gut-wrenching. It should make you feel awful any way you look at it. The emotional weight of that scene between those two people is what the entire series hinges on. It's not the big set pieces or the explosions or the fight scenes, it's those three characters and ultimately what comes out of it. I think we told a story with an unhappy ending, at least to my mind even though at least one character gets what he wants. I think it's a pretty unhappy ending for everybody else and I love the fact that we were able to do that and we didn't have to just hit the reset button and bring it back to square one. The fact that sometimes you have to tell a story with an unhappy ending because that's what the story demands.

You said you knew Hope's sacrifice was going to be a part of the story from the beginning. Was that always the impetus for the changes at the end of the series?

Marz: Yeah, the search for Hope and how that was going to effect Jackie and Sara was always the spine of the story. The easy part of the crossover is the big fight scenes, but if you don't balance that with some meaningful emotional resonance for the audience it's just a Transformers movie. I guess, in the long run, there's nothing terribly wrong with that, but if you're going to the effort of telling one of these stories, why not put all that effort into something that actually has some meaning behind it rather than just being visually entertaining.

Sablik: A company like Top Cow, when we do an event like this, it's a kind of organic thing that comes out of the need to tell a story that we can't tell in any of the individual books. Clearly from a top-down perspective we're doing this to bring in new readers. Too often big events are aimed at the existing audience or is asking a new reader to go and at least look at the Wikipedia page to figure out what all these pieces are because it's really about moving pieces around a chess board. That was secondary for us so that, if nothing else, a new reader can immediately understand and become invested in Sara and Jackie and Hope. That's what the first issue started off with and what the thirteenth issue came down to.

Marz: What people think of as comics, which is mostly Marvel and DC, generally spend a lot of time looking backwards instead of forward. To me that's the antithesis of what comics should be. We should always be looking forward to new stuff and stretching the bounds of creativity rather than just rehashing where we've been. In some ways -- not to get too meta because to me that way lies bullshit -- the fact that we did a story that actually looks forward and brings us to a different place at the end of it rather than the same place at the beginning is a reflection of what Top Cow tries to do as a company, to push the boundaries and be constantly evolving rather than being reciprocal.

Sablik: We just want to tell the stories we would want to read and as a reader I don't want to read a story where I felt like I went in a circle and basically came back to where I started. At the end of the day, I think the reader winds up feeling cheated that way. At the same time, it was really important as we developed the story, even though we're making big leaps forward, we didn't want existing readers and fans who have supported us for years to feel like they were thrown to the wayside in pursuit of the mythical new reader. We never want them to feel like they don't matter. Aside from the fact that Matt, Marc and I don't particularly care for time travel, multidimensional stories because we think it's very hard to do them well and we're all relatively simple guys who like simple, linear stories, we also wanted to have the feeling like at the end of the story, everything that happened still happened, still matters. It's certainly fair to say to readers, "They're just stories, everything you still love is still in the past." A lot of times that's the easy way out and it invalidates what came before. Hopefully the way that this story was constructed and Ron wrote it, those stories are still valid and now we have an interesting new, fun playground to play in.

During the second volume, we talked a lot about the balance between the technology and the supernatural in the Top Cow U, which includes teams like Cyberforce and Hunter/Killer, alongside the Artifacts. Then in this arc it was revealed that another universe's technology not only led to its destruction, but also the transference of the Artifacts from that universe to the Top Cow one. Was that second arc a way to play up this larger theme of the story?

Marz: This almost sounds like bullshit writer's speak, but sometimes stuff comes out in the story and you end up writing it, but you don't realize what all the connections are, you don't realize some of what you're doing. Then, it's only in retrospect that you look back and go, "Oh yeah." Whether that's on purpose or subliminal cues from the brain of the creative team, sometimes stuff just happens. Like I said before, any writer that tells you that they planned everything before one hundred percent is full of shit. Sometimes there are blessed, happy accidents in the process that really make you look like a genius in retrospect. When those things pop up you just say thank you and don't ask too many questions.

It's nice to hear because some companies say they've been building off the same building blocks for the past decade or so and it was all planned out from the beginning.

Marz: Everybody flies by the seat of their pants to some extent and some people are willing to admit it. To me, I've been doing it long enough -- like Filip said, when I do my outlines, we know where we're going to start and we know where we're going to end up and some points in the middle -- but I don't like to outline stuff so specifically that you beat all the creativity out of it. A lot of the stuff that happens is stuff that just happens at the moment when you're knee deep in all of this stuff and if you really are having a complete road map from point A to point B and everything in between, you're sort of turning what should be an organic process of discovery into a mechanical assembly line process.

Moving forward, "Artifacts" will continue as an ongoing. Was that planned from the beginning or did it grow out of the process of producing the event?

Sablik: It actually grew out of the series. We knew where the universe was going to go after, but I don't think it was until about halfway through the series that we looked and said, "Duh, we've got to keep going with 'Artifacts' because that is the most appropriate title for telling the rest of the story.' Some of that is honestly practical, it's looking at your publishing and realizing in our case we want to remain boutique and publish a limited number of books per month so we can concentrate on quality over quantity. The other component is that there are these other characters who are interesting and have a devoted hardcore fan base who might not be able to support a solo title, so the solution is here's a universe-centric title written by the guy who's basically been the guiding force behind the Top Cow Universe of the past six or seven years and he's got all these toys to play with. The funny thing is that, in the way that Ron was talking about how "Artifacts" came together, we sort of have the idea for where that continuing story is going to end up and we have an idea where it starts, but we're having a hell of a lot of fun figuring out what happens in between. For years before I was an editor I would hear writers say, "I have all these ideas and I set these things up and then the characters tell me where the story goes." For years I didn't understand that and figured it was creative bullshit, but it's true. When you actually get into settings and characters that are as rich as these, characters like Sara and Tilly and Tom Judge dictate where the story goes because you put them in a situation and then Ron sits down and figures out how Jackie would approach this, how he would solve this and he tells you. The other way you end up with really two dimensional characters in paint-by-numbers stories.

Marz: It was a surprise to me that there was going to [be] an "Artifacts" #14 when Filip told me. This is a very happy example of getting into the midst of this story and not only having it be well received enough to continue, but realizing these are viable characters with more stories to tell about them, so that's what we're going to do. The fact that "Artifacts" turned into an ongoing did not not affect the initial storyline that we set out to tell. We didn't change the ending or pull a couple of quick switches, we ended up in exactly the same place that we thought we were going to end up in the manner we thought we were going to end up. Now we get to lie in the bed we made for ourselves is what it really comes down to. We came up with where this story was going to go and how it affected everybody, now we get to explore it.

A few months ago we discussed how the "Artifacts" ongoing would feature Tom Judge and Tilly meeting up with the other Artifacts bearers, but can you give any more details now that the event is over?

Marz: It's accurate in that those are going to be our focal characters, though by no means are they the only characters in the book. Jackie and Sara are both going to play relatively large roles in the series and so are some of the other Artifacts bearers. I don't want to give away too much, but the universe in which they find themselves is not the universe in which they expect to find themselves. Without saying too much in terms of where the story is going to go, there is definitely a sense of something being off in the universe, of something being not right. Initially they don't even know it, so there's an overall sense of mystery as we pull away the layers of this new universe and try to find out how they got to this point and once they do that, trying to figure out if it's something that needs to be fixed or if this is the way things should be.

Sablik: Something that's clear in "Artifacts" #13 is that the universe is familiar in many ways. Jackie is still Jackie, Sara is still Sara, Gleason is still Gleason, but clearly their situations have changed and part of the fun of what we have in planned is through the characters of Tom and Tilly readers are going to have the opportunity to find out how much is different and how much is the same. The point we start at there are some very specific things that are different in this universe. Part of what's going to drive these stories is the readers finding out along with Tom and Tilly as they discover what are the things that have changed, what are the ripple effects and then, like Ron said, is it for the better or the worse? Depending on each characters' perspective, they'll have a different answer for that question. Hopefully what it does is provides longtime readers something fresh because they're going to be interested in saying, "I know this character, how have they been affected, how are they different?" For new readers, here's a fresh jumping on point. Using the example in "Artifacts," Tom is coming into the story very intentionally as our point of view character discovering this universe hopefully at the same time as new readers and they have that opportunity to look at it through a fresh pair of eyes.

Marz: Tom's role is very much to be the proxy for the readers and hopefully that works both for longterm readers as well as new readers. Because the character does have some history and we can play with that, I think he's somewhat perfect for the faithful readers, but because he's also a character that doesn't initially understand that he's in a different place, in a brand new universe, that should make him a suitable POV character for anybody who happens to jump on with issue #14.

"Artifacts" #14 written by Ron Marz and drawn by Stjepan Sejic lands in comic book shops January 18th.

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