Unsheathed: Ron Marz talks "Witchblade's" 10th Anniversary

As one of the series that helped to put Top Cow comics on the map, "Witchblade" has been one of company's projects to be featured in a variety of other mediums. From a live action television series to a comic book soundtrack, "Witchblade" has been a series that defied convention by succeeding in large part due to original series artist Mike Turner's sexy version of the character. For many fans, the writing on "Witchblade" has been the book's weakest aspect, or at least its most ignored. But that changed when Ron Marz came aboard the book less than a year ago, and the series began receiving acclaim for his writing. With the tenth anniversary of "Witchblade" this winter, CBR News caught up with Marz and he provided a "Witchblade" primer for those who might have shied away from the series.

"New York City Police detective Sara Pezzini is the bearer of the Witchblade, an ancient artifact of immense power," Marz told CBR News. "That's kind of the shorthand version. The book is actually unlike anything I've written previously-- part crime drama, part supernatural, even part super-hero despite the lack traditional trappings like a costume. Sara is burdened with this semi-sentient ... well, it's almost a parasite. She doesn't truly know what it is, but she's trying to do the best she can with it. This wasn't a book that I thought about much at all before the offer to write it came in. In fact, I'm not sure I'd ever read an entire issue before the offer came in. But now I'm having a ball doing it."

Marz's tenure on the book has shaken up the cast quite a bit, with Sara as the only character in the book who seems safe-- a relative term in Marz's eyes-- and he's added some new characters to the canvas. "The other strong presence in the book is an Irish-American cop, another detective, named Patrick Gleason who is Sara's sometimes partner. He got pulled into Sara's world, so he's aware of the Witchblade and all that it entails. And before you ask, no, I didn't name him after the artist presently drawing 'Green Lantern Corps.' The name Gleason actually came from a guy I went to high school with, and Patrick just seemed like a good fit. It wasn't until after we were in print that I realized there was a Patrick Gleason in the business. I actually met Patrick for the first time out in San Diego this year. A good guy and a damn good artist. Be kind of cool to have him do a cover sometime.

"We also have a character who's simply called the Curator in the book, a mysterious old Chinese gentleman who runs what appears to be a curio shop. He knows far more than he should about Sara, and his story continues to unfold. And Sara's former partner, Jake McCarthy, is presently in coma, so I guess he's in the book, but not doing anything."

While Marz has been successful in revamping books such as DC Comics' "Green Lantern," the Top Cow book presented a different challenge, as the sexuality of the character was at the forefront of many people's minds and Marz had no intention of giving in to the stereotypes, when he saw such potential with the series. "When I was initially offered the book, I said I didn't want to do something that was going to be an exercise in T&A. If that's what you're looking for, go buy Maxim, you know? I didn't want to play into what, rightly or wrongly, was the book's reputation. I was interested in character and story, and I wanted to concentrate on the police procedural and supernatural aspects of the book. Top Cow was completely supportive of the direction. We don't shy away from Sara being a beautiful, sexy woman, but we don't look for excuses to have her clothes fall off, either. Truthfully, Sara's clothed more demurely within the book than most of the female leads in mainstream comics.

"I also wanted to make the book as accessible as possible right from my first issue, which was #80. I wrote that first six-issue arc to be as new-reader friendly as possible, and followed it up with three single-issue stories, which also should have been welcoming to new readers. I wanted to make sure that a book with 80 issues in the rear-view mirror didn't have any barriers to keep people from picking it up. So far, so good, since readership has been going up steadily."

Another readily apparent change in "Witchblade" is the increased time that Sara actually spends as a cop and investigating matters unrelated to her magical partner. While Marz isn't a legal expert by any measure, he has been researching the cases portrayed in the series, hoping to imbue them with a feeling of authenticity. "Reading what I can get my hands on, scouring the internet for detail stuff, like Miranda rights. My wife also used to be a police reporter for a newspaper, so she's got some insight as well. I'm sure we're not getting everything right, but we want it to at least have enough of a realistic feel that the police details don't pull you out of the story."

Astute readers have commented on the fact that Marz's Sara has little in her life beyond her work-- of both the ordinary and extraordinary-- and while it might seem to be the result of the breakneck pace in "Witchblade," Marz explained that there is a method behind his madness. "The more I write the book, the more I come to the conclusion that there's not much else in Sara's life beyond her job and the Witchblade. It's kind of a lonely, sad existence, chiefly because she's bearing the burden of the Witchblade. The only family she has left is her sister, who's in jail. Her only real friend is her partner, Jake, who's in a coma. The people around Sara tend to pay the price for her having the Witchblade. And by extension, the price Sara pays is being alone. There's definitely an aspect of 'with great power comes great responsibility' here. But the difference is that Spider-Man goes home to his super-model wife, and Sara goes home to an empty apartment with sour milk and leftover Chinese takeout in the fridge. It's something we're going to be dealing with as the book goes forward-- Sara wondering whether this is what she wants out of life, how long she wants to bear this burden."

Religious overtones have always permeated "Witchblade" and Marz's first arc highlighted that, with Sara fighting a literal spawn of Satan, but Marz is cognizant of how alienating those themes can be and says that he'll be exploring those ideas in a different series. "We probably won't be dealing with religion in an overt fashion again, at least in the near future, but it's not a question of steering clear of controversy. I just feel like we addressed some religious aspects in the first arc, and now we're on to other things in 'Witchblade.' I'm writing a Magdalena mini-series that Keu Cha is painting for 2006, and religion is obviously going to be a huge part of that story. "

A quick snapshot of Marz's career, from his work at the ill-fated Crossgen to the straight-superhero work on "Silver Surfer," would seem to indicate that a darker book like "Witchblade" wouldn't be the scribe's cuppa, but the opposite happens to be true. "That's the kind of material I'm actually drawn to as a reader, something a bit more realistic, with real consequences. It was a pleasure to be able to do something a little grittier or darker than your average super-hero fare. We've tried to make this a more realistic, street-level book. Despite the supernatural overtones, I want the book to read as real as possible. If your characters and situations seem real to the readers, they have an easier time accepting the supernatural stuff when it appears."

Joining Marz for this journey on "Witchblade" is artist Mike Choi, who has been developing his style quite quickly on the series, much to the delight of fans, and Marz couldn't be happier to have him on the book. "Mike has been a revelation. When he and I took over the book, Mike had only drawn something like four issues in his life. And I'll admit that I wondered if the book wouldn't be better served going with a more experienced artist. Shows what I know. The growth Mike has exhibited over the last year is just incredible. I've been around some other guys who have shown the same kind of growth in a short span, namely Steve McNiven and Andrea Di Vito, both of whom were basically amateurs when they came into the CrossGen studio. Within a year, they were both doing phenomenal work, just like Mike is doing now. The common factor is that Steve, Andrea and Mike are three of the hardest-working artists I've ever seen, always striving to get better, to make each page better than the last one. That, and all three of them spent time in a studio atmosphere, where they soaked up all the influences around them. "It's been really intriguing for me to see Mike go through artistic influences, picking up a little from each one. Obviously Marc Silvestri, but also Mignola, Eduardo Risso, Travis Charest and on to guys like McNiven and Jim Cheung. Mike is really coming into his own in terms of style and approach. He's far more interested in telling the story than he is in scattering pin-ups through the issue. He's getting scary good, and I will happily work with him for as long as he'll have me."

Even with that kind of enthusiasm on "Witchblade," it seems that superhero "events" and crossovers are ruling the sales charts, a fact that has led some creators to criticize these stories, but Marz has a different point of view. "I think in the long run, good comics bring in more readers, regardless of the nature of the stories. The comic industry is really like any other entertainment medium. Things fall in and out of fashion. For a while, continuity-based stories and crossovers were ignored to great extent by the Big Two publishers. Now the pendulum has swung back the other way, where both Marvel and DC are doing line-wide crossover projects that are going to have long-term ramifications. At some point, the audience will have had enough of that kind of material, and the pendulum will swing back in the other direction. I don't think there's any one magic bullet that will bring in more readers. Publishers have to walk the line between satisfying the current audience, and making sure that the material doesn't become so insular that new readers are put off. It's not an easy thing to do, but it seems like the big crossovers are being used to set the stage for new status quos. They're a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. If that end means more good comics, then we're all better off."

The next few months will continue to ramp up the excitement in "Witchblade" and Marz promises some exciting happenings for fans. "Right now Mike and I are finishing up a three-part story that's kind of the dark side of the Captain America archetype. November brings issue #92, our double-size 10th anniversary issue. We're finally going to reveal the origin of the Witchblade-- what the damn thing is and where it came from. We're pulling out all the artistic stops for that one. In addition to Mike Choi, we have pages by Darwyn Cooke, Eric Basaldua, Keu Cha, Luke Ross, Francis Manapul, Rodolfo Migliari, Brandon Peterson, Bart Sears, Terry Dodson, Chris Bachalo, George Perez and Marc Silvestri. We also added a few pages by another, secret artist, kind of an unannounced bonus. I have most of the book in front of me now, and it just looks spectacular.

"Issue #93 will be a very character-driven issue by me and Mike, as Sara deals with everything she learned in the anniversary special. After that, #94 and #95 will be a two-part story with Steve Sadowski of "JSA" fame providing the art. Steve's got a bunch of pages done already, and he's really nailing the material. Then Mike will be back as we build up toward some pretty major shakeups that will pay off in issue #100, and pave the way for the next stage of Witchblade."

But wait-- Marz taking over a series with a popular lead who uses a magical item and needs a sales boost? Sounds a lot like "Green Lantern" over a decade ago, when Marz jettisoned long time hero Hal Jordan and replaced him with Kyle Rayner. Might history be repeating itself? "From what I hear, Kyle has other plans for next year, so I guess we'll have to find somebody else to replace Sara," laughs Marz.

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