Welcome back for another installment of THE COMMENTARY TRACK. This is the recurring feature at CBR in which we invite creators to stop by and talk about their most recent releases, often in spoiler-filled detail. Go behind the scenes and into the minds of your favorite creators and flip through their comics with them. It'll be just like a DVD commentary, but without all the awkward pauses.
How time flies: Top Cow's "Witchblade" has been around for a decade now. The current creative team of Ron Marz and Stjepan Sejic are looking to bring in new readers with the 116th issue, now available at a comic shop near you. It's a safe jumping-on point, written to bring everyone up to speed on the character and to kick off a new direction for the series. There's a second printing already on the way.
This week, Marz joins THE COMMENTARY TRACK to discuss the making of the book, his thinking behind the script, and a little bit about where it's all going.
As always, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS BELOW -- the kind wrapped in ages-old mystic armor that looks like a slightly gaudy piece of jewelry at first glance, but holds much more power....
Usually when a publisher puts on a push for a particular issue, there’s an obvious numerical reason -- a #1 issue, or at least a nice round number like #100 (if a title actually makes it that far, which is increasingly rare these days). So at least in terms of numbering, "Witchblade" #116 doesn’t initially jump out at you as a jump-on issue. But that’s exactly what it’s been designed to be.
Painter Stjepan Sejic -- with whom I collaborated on the "First Born" crossover -- takes over the regular art duties on "Witchblade" with #116. He and I are committed to the book as a team through at least issue #150. We want to settle in for a nice, long run (something else that’s increasingly rare these days). So here’s the first issue of our regular run, the first of three dozen issues over the next three years.
I know these commentaries usually concentrate on what’s inside the book, but I want to start with what’s outside. Note the new logo, designed by Todd Klein, Master of Lettering. The new logo is bold and more easily read, two hugely important aspects of logo design. The new logo had already appeared on the rebranded Witchblade trade paperbacks, but this is the first time it’s been used on a regular monthly issue. Money well spent.
You can check out Todd’s blog, where he takes you through the whole process, including a number of unused versions.
This opening sequence wasn’t part of the first draft of the script. The issue actually started on what is now page six. But in discussing the story, we felt like the issue could use a bit more visual excitement. So we ended up adding pages to the issue, at no additional cost to the readers.
When we were working on this, Phil Hester and Michael Broussard had just handed in a terrific encapsulation of the Darkness concept and Jackie Estacado to open the relaunching of that franchise in "Darkness" #1. We decided to create something similar for "Witchblade" #116, which would serve to introduce the characters and concept to new readers. The montage-style illustrations would also serve to show off Stjepan’s art right up front in the issue. And, really, anytime you can start you book with a couple of ethereal beings having hot cosmic sex, that’s a pretty good thing.
One of the aspects of Witchblade that I really enjoy is the historical tradition, the idea that each generation has its own bearer, all the way back to pre-history. The spread on pages 2-3 was a chance to display that, as well as introduce the main characters of the book, Sara Pezzini and Danielle Baptiste. Nearly all of the bearers shown in the spread have appeared previously -- the samurai, the Musketeer, the pirate, the World War II-era Russian and others. We’re hoping to eventually tell stories featuring a number of these previous bearers.
Page 4 showcases Stjepan’s talent for textures, really giving the Witchblade a creepy, alien quality.
I should also mention the lettering on the first four pages, done by Top Cow letterer Troy Peteri. Besides having exceptional taste in music, Troy is a terrific letterer. The reversed (white) lettering, without caption boxes, makes the text an organic part of the page, rather than simply looking stuck on.
This ties the opening sequence into the rest of the issue, as we realize Dani is finally telling her new boyfriend, David Worthy, the whole truth about the Witchblade. Dani’s the rookie here, having had the Witchblade a relatively short amount of time. Whether this true confessions moment was the smartest thing to do remains to be seen. . .
In panel 5, the scrolling texture of the Witchblade serves as a subtle transition element to the barbed wire on the next page.
This originally was to have been page 1. It’s not unusual for me to open an issue with what is essentially a tracking shot. In film terms, our camera is slowly pushing in here, taking us inside the walls of the prison. The idea here is to lure the reader into the story, a slow reveal to tease you into turning the page.
When I take the train into New York City, the tracks are literally right next to the state penitentiary at Ossining. The thick exterior walls are so close you could reach out and touch them. It’s a foreboding place, with razor wire on top of the walls. Obviously that made an impression on me.
PAGE 7, PANELS 4 and 5
Panels 4 and 5, look ma, clothes! I get so tired of hearing of the sniping comments about "Witchblade" being a “T&A” book; always from ill-informed dopes who haven’t looked past the cover of the book in, say, the last five years. Books and characters evolve. Batman isn’t a grinning boy scout fighting space aliens anymore.
When I took over writing "Witchblade" with issue #80, I said I wasn’t interested in writing stories that were excuses for Sara’s clothes to fall off. My intention was to do what I always try to do: tell stories that make you care about what happens to the characters. Top Cow was absolutely supportive, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
The most satisfying feedback concerning the book always comes from people who had a preconceived notion of what "Witchblade" is. Most of the time, those comments go something like this: “Boy, I read the issue, and it wasn’t anything like I thought it wasn’t going to be.”
Look, I like the semi-clothed female form as much as the next guy. Probably more than the next guy. We won’t shy away from showing sexy stuff -- when it’s part of the story.
You want to look at naked women, go buy Playboy. Or if you don’t quite have the stones to march up to the counter with a copy of Playboy, buy Maxim. You want a story every month, buy "Witchblade."
This is the first time I’ve written Sara’s sister, Julie. When I took over the book, I wanted to keep Julie off stage so we could concentrate on building Sara into a character that readers cared about, someone they’d want to read about. But now, after almost 40 issues, I felt like it was time to bring Julie back, even though she’s still in the slammer. Julie also serves as a convenient device to have Sara update what’s been going on in her life, particularly the birth of her daughter, a storyline that culminated in the "First Born" three-issue series.
A lot has been happening in Sara’s life, some real change. Unlike most superhero titles, which strive for the illusion of change because they are essentially frozen in time and always come back to status quo, I can write permanent change into "Witchblade."
Panel 4 reintroduces Julie to both Sara and the reader. Stjepan made a great decision in leaving so much empty space in the panel, and I kept the dialogue to a minimum, so the emptiness wouldn’t be filled with balloons. That emptiness serves to emphasize the gulf between the sisters, who have not seen one another in a while. The space between them literally reflects the space between them.
Panel 5 is a great bit of acting courtesy of Stjepan, as Sara and Julie don’t really look at one another, each of them glancing elsewhere.
Damn near all artists can draw a splash of two hulking brutes beating the daylights out of each other. That’s the meat and potatoes of our superhero-centric industry. But stuff like this -- two characters just sitting and talking -- is the tough stuff. It’s hard to do it well. We refer to it as “acting” -- drawing the emotions and gestures well enough to make the exchange not only believable, but give it some dramatic impact.
I had suggested a simple grid-style layout for the page, since I think most of the time, the simplest way to do a sequence is often the best way. There’s a lot to be said for KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Stjepan still kept it simple, but went away from the simple grid to give the page a little more visual interest.
In panel 1 Julie breaks the ice by making a fairly inappropriate comment, something you couldn’t say to anyone except your closest friends. Or your sister.
Panels 2 and 7 are reverse angles of one another, making the sisters symbolically closer by mirroring them. One of my favorite bits in this sequence is in the glass between the sisters, with a pattern of holes drilled in it. To me, that kind of detail lends the book more realism, an important quality when a story has supernatural aspects. Building belief is the first step to accessing the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief.
Panel 5, yeah, we can say that in this book. It’s great to be working on a book without language restrictions. In that respect, we compare what we do on "Witchblade" to an FX show, like “The Shield” or “Rescue Me,” which happen to be two of my favorites. We haven’t thrown the F-bomb yet, though.
PAGES 11 & 12
A pair of seven-panel pages. I tend to write denser scripts, in terms of average panel count, for "Witchblade" than I do for some other projects. "Witchblade" is essentially a crime/noir comic with a big dose of the supernatural. It’s a different animal than a huge cosmic battle, or teams of superheroes and supervillains tearing up the landscape, so it needs a different type of storytelling.
I write full script, as pretty much everyone does these days. The dialogue in the scripts is usually of a “first draft” variety. In other words, the dialogue gives the artist a sense of who’s saying what, but it’s not polished, finished dialogue. Sometimes I’ll even leave out chunks of dialogue, with the intention of filling it in later. As the art comes in, I’ll go though the pages and revise the dialogue to its finished form, revising not only the dialogue itself, but the order for placement and even for balloon sizes. If, as the writer, you’ve written six brilliant balloons for a panel, but the artist has only left room for three or four balloons … guess what? You’re cutting your brilliant dialogue down to size so it fits.
There are writers who will write their final dialogue with their initial script. If it doesn’t quite fit the art. . . too bad, that’s somebody else’s problem. They’ve moved on. But I think the extra step of writing the dialogue to the finished art results in a better book. Yes, it takes more time, but it allows the writer and artist to be more like true collaborators, rather than assembly-line workers who don’t communicate with one another.
We return to David Worthy’s apartment. This is another tracking shot, just like page 6 (which was originally intended as page 1). It’s not an accident that we begin Sara’s sequence and a Dani sequence in the same manner, though obviously for very different reasons. There’s a duality to the characters because they’re sharing the Witchblade
The decorations on this page are not random. They’re clues. David has claimed to be a procurer of antiques, so the suit of armor, for instance, isn’t there just because it looks cool.
In panel 2, I’m not sure whether or not that’s the crystal skull Indiana Jones is looking for.
PAGES 14 & 15
As I said, we’re not going to shy away from showing sexy stuff . . . when it’s part of the story.
One thing to note on page 15’s panel 3: the tattoo on David’s arm is not just a random design. Look for that symbol for recur in issue #117, which will be out in a few weeks.
A new character is introduced here, a reporter who goes by “Gretch” and works for an alternative weekly newspaper. Every reporter character in comics is going to be measure against "Daredevil"’s Ben Urich. Or, to a lesser extent, that feisty female reporter and her pal with the glasses who work at the Daily Planet. I actually used to be a newspaper reporter, so I know a bit about how the job works.
Gretch isn’t a one-off character, she’ll be a recurring presence through the series. She also figures prominently in Top Cow’s Free Comic Book Day issue, which features a new story by me and Stjepan. That whole story is worked out on a 16-panel grid, the same format “The Dark Knight Returns” utilized so well. And then a character who figures prominently in the FCBD story will be a main player in this summer’s crossover, “Broken Trinity.”
PAGES 20 & 21
The idea here was to give Stjepan another chance to create a big, powerful image, something that would jolt readers.
I suggested the railroad ties as crucifixes. It was Stjepan’s decision to hang the victims from chains. Birds of a feather, apparently. If your reaction is, “Oh my God, that’s disturbing. . . ” that’s exactly what we were hoping for.
A friend of mine read this issue and said (I’m paraphrasing here), “If you took out all the supernatural stuff, this would still be really good crime story, like a 'CSI’ episode.” I have to admit, I’ve never seen an episode of “CSI” (in any of its many varieties), but that real-world crime feeling is what we’re going for.
We introduce another new supporting character, Inder Chandrakhar, who heads up one of the crime scene units that Sara often interacts with. He’s of Indian descent, obviously, because I wanted to make our cast a little more integrated.
The name “Inder” is actually borrowed from the father of a friend of mine from high school. And my friend is now a faithful reader of "Witchblade,'" so. . . hi, Paul!
Just to whet your appetite for the next issue, we get a glimpse of the apparent killer. Come back next month and found out who this guy is, and why he’s doing what he’s doing. It might seem like Sara and Dani’s plotlines are completely separate, but the threads will actually begin to tie together with issue #117, and culminate with issue #118.
Special thanks, again, to Ron Marz for stopping by to share his take on "Witchblade." The issue is in stores already, with a new sketch cover coming for the second printing.
Coming up next: Mark Smith and Paul Maybury, the guys behind the new Image Comics original graphic novel, "Aqua Leung," stop by to share some pages and thoughts on their new release. It's in stores next week, and their COMMENTARY TRACK will go live two days later on April 18.
If you have any titles or creators you'd like to see a commentary track from, or you’re a creator with book due out that you’d like to talk about in detail, drop us a line. We're especially looking for artists/colorists/letterers who are looking to talk about their craft, as we've had a shortage of those so far. We're busy behind the scenes lining up books for the weeks ahead, but there's always room for more!