COMMENTARY TRACK: "War of the Witchblades" by Marz and Sejic

Two sides. Two players. One is light, the other is dark.

No, that's not just the infinite wisdom of "Lost's" John Locke - it's also an accurate summation of "War of the Witchblades," the recently concluded story-arc from Ron Marz and Stjepan Sejic's celebrated "Witchblade" run.

Over the course of several issues leading up to the storyline, the Top Cow series featured two protagonists wielding different halves of the mystical artifact known as the Balance - longtime heroine Sara Pezzini held the dark portion of the Witchblade, while relative newcomer Danielle Baptiste wielded the light. By the end of the story-arc, Sara once again became the sole Witchblade-bearer, while Dani moved on to become the new host of the Angelus.

Marz and Sejic joined CBR News for a detailed reflection on the creation process of "War of the Witchblades," offering their insight into some of the story-arc's most significant and notable scenes.

CBR News: "War of the Witchblades" kicked off with this very off-putting image of Sara's dark transformation in front of her baby girl, setting the grim tone for the rest of the arc.

Ron Marz: You want to begin an issue with something that's visually arresting for the reader. Something of a surprise to capture the reader, so that you hook the audience into wanting to come back and find out what's happening.

Hand-in-hand with that is that we wanted to show that Sara was not herself. Maybe the lights are on, but there's somebody different at home. The scene was really supposed to be disquieting for the reader, leaving them to wonder what the hell is going on with Sara - which is kind of a question that we wanted them asking all the way through the arc. We wanted the reader to wonder, "How much of this is Sara? How much of this is the Witchblade?" Hopefully, this was kind of the first volley of planting that seed in the reader's mind.

"Witchblade" #125 is not only the first issue of "War of the Witchblades," it's also the introduction of Tau'ma, one of Sara's newest, and potentially most dangerous, villains.

Ron Marz: One of the things that is always on my mind is that "Witchblade," as a whole, needs more of a definitive rogue's gallery - some villains that can return and go toe-to-toe with Sara. Hopefully, Tau'ma serves both purposes. He'll definitely be back in future stories; he isn't a one-time-appearance, throwaway guy.

His character actually evolved a bit. We had an initial design from Stjepan, and we weren't sure that he'd actually end up in this arc when we started making plans for it. But the design for the character really ended up being inspirational, so he seemed to fit pretty well. Truthfully, a lot of the inspiration for Tau'ma came from Stjepan.

Stjepan Sejic: Tau'ma was initially named Cassius Zion, but that name had no significance other than to sound cool. Tau'ma is an imposing, strong, tall and hairy white man. He was designed in opposition of the Curator - a small, frail Asian man. Both Tau'ma and the Curator are knowledgeable, old men; however, their similarities end there. In fact, their philosophies set them worlds apart. The Curator is a relic and artifact keeper, whereas Tau'ma shows no compunction for using any of the relics available to him.

Make no assumptions of Tau'ma yet - he is more than a classic villain. There are more facets to his character that have yet to be revealed.

Here, the Angelus force visits Finch, Dani's good friend. It's one of the first major indications that the Angelus is looking for a new host, and that it could well be Finch.

Ron Marz: One of my concerns with this whole storyline was that, to me, where we were headed with a lot of it was pretty obvious. For the longtime readers, if you really sat down and thought about it, it was pretty obvious what the purpose of all of this was - or, at least, I thought it was pretty obvious. So I wanted to do as much misdirection and throw in as many red herrings as possible, and that's where this scene came from.

Truthfully, Finch's character was introduced as - not as a complete throwaway, since she ended up taking a bigger role in the series and will continue to have a lot more of a role in the series as we go forward, certainly in the upcoming "Angelus" miniseries - but sometimes that happens. The characters you expect to be kind of one-note, to serve a purpose and then get shuffled off to the side, a lot of times end up having more to tell you.

"War of the Witchblades" has plenty of massive double-page spreads, but this one in "Witchblade" #126 really stands out. Stjepan, can you take us through the significance of this sequence?

Stjepan Sejic: Ron always provides the framework for what should be placed in a spread like this for continuity purposes, and to plant seeds of future storylines. So, on the spread, we see the first encounter between the Angelus Force and a bearer. In the beginning, the force was shapeless, a pillar of fire in its own way, bound to reality through its crown of light artifact. The difference between the Angelus Force and the Darkness is apparent in the versatility of its bearers. Unlike the Darkness, the Angelus never truly binds itself to its bearer - while that is an advantageous move, it can also be a weakness.

On pages 10 and 11 of Issue #2, the left and right columns, we have the first encounter of the bearer followed by her enthronement. We then see a restless Force seeking a paragon of a host in Africa, Greece, Ireland, Egypt, South America, Asia, and France. However, as we wrap up the shot, we see the last known bearer, Celestine, slain at the hands of Jackie Estacado.

The central image represents the most recent bearers, the original Darkness, the Angelus, Lauren Franchett, the next bearer, and of course, Celestine.

Ron Marz: This image is kind of the third part of the triptych, in that "Witchblade" #116 has a big, kick-ass spread showing the history of the Witchblade and its bearers. Phil Hester did much of the same thing on pages two and three on his first "Darkness" issue, where he had sort of a summation and historical presentation of what the Darkness is. I wanted to get this in there so we'd kind of finish off the trilogy, or the trinity, of the three images. Plus, I always think that the Angelus ends up with the short end of the stick, so we wanted to start treating the Angelus as an equal part in the trinity and establish more of a history for it.

The Angelus is clearly an important factor in "War of the Witchblades," and while it represents the light side of the Balance, not every Angelus warrior is a saint, so to speak - and that's reinforced here as Sabine lays into this poor, down-on-his-luck shlub.

Ron Marz: Just because they're the light side of the Balance doesn't mean that they're the good guys, just like how Jackie Estacado being the dark side of the Balance doesn't always mean that he's the bad guy. Yeah, he's a killer and not a very savory character, but there's a code of honor and decency to him.

As a writer, I'm not terribly interested in characters that are black or white, these simplistic absolutes you sometimes find in comics. I think it's more realistic to present everybody with shades of grey. Part of this scene just establishes Sabine's nature in general, but it also shows that just because the Angelus warriors have wings and shiny armor and all that, they're not necessarily the good guys, for lack of a better term.

Sara and Dani finally come to blows over ownership of the Balance in "Witchblade" #127, and it doesn't end well for either of them - in fact, readers are left to think that they're both dead, particularly Sara at Sabine's hands.

Ron Marz: The end of issue #127 was the halfway point of the story, so I thought we should leave everybody sitting around wondering, "Holy shit - did they just kill the two lead characters?" And we knew there was a skip month coming up, so I made the cliffhanger as edge-of-the-seat as possible.

Stjepan Sejic: It's a devious pleasure - misdirecting, I mean. After getting the script, I really tried to make it look like we lost both characters. I can't deny that the fan responses to the issue cracked me up.

Ron Marz: One of the real pleasures of doing a book like "Witchblade" is that I have enough freedom in terms of the characters that, when we show somebody getting mortally wounded, there's an actual possibility that the character isn't coming back. There's more inherent danger in the kind of stories we're telling than in "Batman," "Superman," "Wolverine" or whatever - you know those characters are coming back. That's the nature of superhero comics, which are kind of about protecting and extending copyrights.

Because we don't play by some of those same rules, the audience actually gets a better ride out of it because they think we might actually do something crazy like that. When we killed off Jake [McCarthy] in issue #100, I think most people assumed he'd be back in the next year - well, no, he's dead! You're not going to see him again, unless it's a flashback. In one of my books, if somebody's dead dead, they're not coming back. As a writer, you have to reserve the right to kill somebody off and have it mean something. That's one of the dramatic tools in your toolbox. If you don't have that, why should anybody care?

In the wake of Sara's "death," her boyfriend gets a chance to shine in this altercation with the Angelus warriors, offering a nice reminder that an everyman like Gleason can hold his own in a supernatural world.

Ron Marz: Gleason was somebody I introduced into the book with my first issue. The purpose of that, right from the beginning, was that I wanted to give readers a way into the book - a point of view character, even if we don't see everything from his point of view. I wanted a normal guy in the book so that we get the reactions of a normal person thrown into these crazy-ass supernatural situations. If all of the characters in the book are used to this stuff, the supernatural aspect becomes kind of mundane. The fact that we still have Gleason in the book allows us to have that more human point of view.

I'm conscious of the fact that Gleason could come across as, quite frankly, a pussy. Sara is the one with the kick-ass power, fighting demons and monsters, so he's left to stand there and watch a lot of the time. I wanted to make sure that he has moments where he can be heroic and can be a New York City cop. His role isn't the damsel in distress. He's Sara's partner - he just doesn't have her kind of power. This was an opportunity for him to step in and show off what he can do, and also to stand up for the woman in his life.

Stjepan Sejic: I love those kinds of moments when an everyman finds himself in a unique situation. I also love the conversations where a good environment is presented, which allows me to set up the light and set the conversational mood. This is exactly why I prefer these types of books as opposed to all-out action superhero titles.

Sara and Dani both survive their injuries and live to fight another day, but that's not the biggest surprise of "Witchblade" #128 - potentially, that distinction belongs to the reveal of Tau'ma and the Curator being... brothers?

Ron Marz: Well, they called each other brothers! We don't know whether they're really brothers - if they are, they certainly look like brothers from a different mother! [Laughs] Obviously, the Curator and Tau'ma both know a lot more about the big picture, about what's really happening here, than either one of them have let on as far as the readers can see.

Part of the purpose here is that we want to leave this trail of breadcrumbs. I like story-arcs to have some sense of satisfaction and conclusion at the end of each one, but there are ongoing plot threads and character moments like this ending scene. If you're reading the book on a long-term basis, these bigger pictures will start to come into focus.

"Witchblade" #129 finally takes us to the climactic battle sequence we've all been waiting for, and it's not just Sara versus Dani, but a full-scale battle between light versus darkness.

Stjepan Sejic: I wanted a big, epic finale. We had built the story up in a calm manner, and for a story named "War of the Witchblades," we needed a big finish - a regular summer blockbuster with a Hans Zimmer score blasting.

Ron Marz: Seeing this visually, it's the best part of any writer's job. The best part of a writer's job is when something pops up in your inbox, and you see these pictures that previously only existed in your head made real. That's totally the best part of the job. When you can turn your artist loose on these sort of epic visuals that I've tried to put in this issue, that's the best part of your job times two!

The battle culminates with Sara not only taking full control over the Witchblade, but also impaling Dani through the chest as she states: "This is really the only way it could end." That struck me as not only a dialogue between the characters, but between you and the readers.

Ron Marz: It's definitely both. I sort of wanted the audience to go, "Aha! I knew it!" I was really satisfied to see that the real hardcore fans that discuss this stuff on Top Cow's message boards and elsewhere, everybody had a different opinion and they've all had every possible scenario mapped out. Some thought Sara would die, others thought Dani would die, some thought Julie would take the Witchblade, or Sara would be the Angelus - that was probably the most satisfying part about the whole story for me. Right up until the end, a big part of the audience didn't really know what was going to happen, which is really tough to do in comics because of the solicitation windows, and the fact that nothing really changes in comics for the most part; it's just the illusion of change.

The fact that we really got people wondering how this would all end up after five parts of this thing, and have a fairly sizeable portion of the audience pretty convinced that Dani was dead and wasn't coming back, was a treat to me. It's pretty rare that you actually get that experience in a mainstream comic, because the things you can do to the characters are so limited. To actually have people wondering about this whole range of possibilities was great.

The misdirection is sold further by having the Angelus select Finch at the end of "Witchblade" #129, signaling that the identity of the next Angelus was finally revealed - even though the title goes to Dani in the next issue.

Ron Marz: I hope we sold that red herring, although I held onto the script for #129 for a couple of weeks and just rewrote and rewrote the ending. I wasn't satisfied - it didn't feel right. It didn't feel like it was going to work. It didn't feel like it was everything that it could be. I actually remember that I'd gotten out of the house to continue to work on it, and went to a Starbuck's. While I was there, it occurred to me: that's how issue #129 has to end.

Sometimes, when you walk away from something, that's when the way to do it properly comes into focus. That's exactly what happened with this - the light bulb went on and I knew that that was what Finch was in the story for. I didn't know that was why I put her in the story! [Laughs] But all of the dots finally connected for me.

By the end of "Witchblade" #130, Sara and Dani are finally allowed this quiet moment to face each other as individuals and as friends. On a creative level, is it relieving to have these two characters truly distinguished from one another after this arc's events?

Stjepan Sejic: I have to say yes. From a story point of view more than an artistic one, Sara and Dani are well developed at this point. Having them both in the same book drastically slowed down the stories we wanted to tell.

Ron Marz: I wish we'd had about 10 more pages for the last issue, even five or six would've been great. As it was, we went a couple of pages over the usual page count. But I'm pretty satisfied with how it all shook out. Like I said, I was the most satisfied that, as far as I can tell, we gave people a story where they didn't really know the ending [going in]. That was exactly what we set out to do, besides having this result in creating an Angelus character that hopefully people will want to read about. We knew where the ride was going to end, but we wanted to make sure the ride was worthwhile for everybody.

"War of the Witchblades," which takes place in the pages of "Witchblade" #125 - 130, will be collected as a trade paperback in December of this year.

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