Thursday, January 14, 2010

Dispelling the Cheesecake Stigma - Ron Marz's Witchblade

On a random Wednesday back in 2008, it was just another new day for comic books at Comic City, my local comic shop, and I was there getting my books for the week. At my LCS, the manager always likes to put a few copies of her pick of the week on the front display to attract interest.
These picks could be anything, like Civil War #2, where Spider-Man unmasked to the world, or the final issue of Y: The Last Man, which capped off Brian K. Vaughan's magnum opus. But this week's pick was not just a regular comic, but Witchblade Vol 1: Witch Hunt, the first trade of Ron Marz's run on Witchblade. This resulted in the following dialogue between the manager and myself:
"Witchblade?" I asked the manger. "Isn't this that cheesecake comic where the girl's clothes get ripped off every issue?"
"It used to be." The manager smiled.
It was a light week for comics and the trade was only five bucks, so I decided to give it a shot, and, simply put, I was hooked.  Are you one of the many that still views Witchblade as a cheesecake book?  Want to see how far the book has come under the guiding pen of Ron Marz?  Hit the jump and be amazed at how much this title has changed!

Today's Witchblade-centric guest post comes by way of Mike Panetta, an avid comic book reader and self professed lover of comics, games and all things geek related.  You can also follow him on Twitter @mikepgamer.

Witchblade: A Brief History

Witchblade, for those who aren't familiar with the title, was one of the first comics to come out from Top Cow Productions, a partner studio of Image Comics, and was created by Marc Silvestri and Michael Turner. It starred Sara Pezzini, an NYPD homicide detective who came into possession of the titular Witchblade, an ancient weapon passed down through the ages to various women, including Cleopatra and Joan of Arc.

The early issues of Witchblade were, arguably, light on plot and it was more of a showcase for Michael Turner's art and the cheesecake "costume" the Witchblade bestowed upon its users. Every time Sara used the Witchblade, it would literally rip her clothes to shreds while forming a type of green, scaly armour that barely covered her naughty bits. As one could expect, and probably still believe, the book quickly gained a reputation for its cheesecake and was actually quite popular at the time, spawning a number of crossover comics and a short lived television show on TNT.

The Ron Marz Era

This fame, or infamy, built on the rocky foundation of cheesecake didn't last long.  Despite last 79 issues - a lofty feat for any new comic or property these days - the book wasn't exactly held in well renown.  Thankfully, Ron Marz, best known for his work on Green Lantern, would eventually take over the book starting with issue 80. Some may have seen it as a lesser job, but Marz had a plan to turn Witchblade into something special.

Clothes Make the Woman

One of the first things Marz did to differentiate his run on Witchblade was to change Sara Pezzini's character. Gone was the young, inexperienced Sara of old and, in her place, was an older and more experienced character. And with this new maturity came one of the most fundamental changes to the comic - as Sara was now more experienced with the Witchblade, it no longer tore Sara's clothes to shreds when she used it. Instantly, the character had gone from the itty bitty floss bikini costume to a full-body armour over her clothes, eliminating what many saw as pointless titillation that had once been the only defining characteristic of the book.

Mother Knows Best

But that was only the first stage of Ron Marz's plan to overhaul the Witchblade franchise. In the landmark 100th issue of Witchblade, Sara discovered that she was pregnant, even though she has not had sex in over a year.

Pregnancy is a topic very few comics tackle with maturity. Often times it's just used as a plot device and then discarded with a convenient miscarriage, rapid aging of the baby or some other means that helps maintain the status quo prior to the pregnancy, which, in turn, robs the characters of any real development and cheats the fans out of months, or even years, of following that story.

This was not the case in Witchblade. When Sara found out that she was pregnant, she decided to give up the Witchblade so she could raise her baby without putting her in danger.  Enter Dani Baptiste, a young girl unsure of her place in the world - not unlike how Sara was at the beginning of the series.  A chance encounter between the two saw the Witchblade react to Dani's presence and, through a series of events, becomes the new bearer of the Witchblade at Sara's behest.

Sara's giving up of the Witchblade would lay the foundation for the First Born story (Witchblade #110-115) where the truth behind Sara's pregnancy finally came to light. Sara not only has her baby, but actually keeps it and raises it with her partner/lover, Patrick Gleason (no relation to the Green Lantern Corps artist!). Over this time, Dani comes into her own as a user of the Witchblade and, eventually, the Witchblade itself ends up being split in two with Dani and Sara each wielding half of it.

The Devil is in the Details

One of the strength's of Marz's run on Witchblade is how far ahead the plot is written in advance. The new Battlestar Galactica is one of my favourite shows, but I do admit the latter episodes did suffer from the lack of a long term plot. That's not the case in Witchblade. From the minute Sara became pregnant, she was meant to give up the Witchblade to Dani, who in turn was meant to give half of the gauntlet back to Sara during the First Born story. It's a coherent plot that does not flip-flop back and forth between plots or rely on fan reaction to determine who wields the Witchblade.  It's Ron Marz's story and it shows he has a longterm plan for the series.

For example, that splitting of the Witchblade would eventually lead to friction between Sara and Dani in the what would be known as War of the Witchblades (Witchblade #125-130) wherein one of the two reclaims the full gauntlet by any means necessary. And, because of Marz's tight plotting, the characters' actions feel natural and organic. There are no leaps in logic or out of character actions to get the story to a certain place and this feels like the natural progression of the story. 

And not only do the characters' actions feel natural and organic, but this also carries over in the way they deal with issues. Without going too far into spoilers, Sara's actions during the War of the Witchblades storyline strained her relationship with Patrick and the two spoke at length about it in the latest issue. It's clear that the relationship between the two is a bit rocky, but the two are willing to talk and work things out like people would do in real life. 

Bu-bu-but Where's the Cheesecake?

So where does the cheesecake fit into this new Witchblade? Simply put, it doesn't.  Marz does work a little bit into his stories, but only when it's appropriate to the plot and nothing remotely close to the blatant cheesecake of Witchblades past.

For example there is a tastefully done sex scene between Sara and Patrick, but it came only after about a year and a half's worth of the characters growing close and becoming a couple. Another sex scene occurs between Dani and David, someone she was dating at the time, but even that was after a few issues of the two casually dating and neither scene is overly graphic or gratuitous sex. Those looking for the cheesecake of old might want to look elsewhere to fill their needs.


So, if Ron Marz turned Witchblade into a more dramatic book and eliminated many of the things that made people dismiss it in the first place, then why, oh why, aren’t there more people picking this book up and talking about it? The sad truth is that Witchblade still has that stigma of being a cheesecake comic from its Michael Turner days and it’s still fighting to shed that image, even if it’s been over five years (!!) since Ron Marz took over the book.

Of note, there is some good news for those of you who are interested in learning more. As of this writing, has a deal where you can get one of the first two trades of Marz’s Witchblade run for free with purchase of another book. This is a good opportunity to find out that Sara Pezzini is more than just a pretty face while getting your regular trade fix of your favourite series.  Please, give it a shot, I'm sure you won't regret it and I know you'll have a different opinion of the book if you only give it a chance.

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Ethereal said...

Nice post. I was planning to do something to this with Spawn, since I've read Todd's return arc, and I started reading all of it, starting from issue 1. However, it's nearly a 200 issue book, and it's long. Regardless, it's good stuff, at times.

Have you only been reading Marz' stuff? or all of Witchblade? I want to know if it's fluid at all, or if Marz is like vol.2

Andrenn said...

This was a great article. I almost feel tempted to remove my Witchblade part of the Image Primer Guest Post I've been writing up. You did an excellent job showing what a great comic Witchblade has become and dispelling the frustrating rumor of it being a dumb cheesecake comic.

I'll admit I have a couple of old issues of Witchblade prior to Marz' run. They where decent and had solid art but but the cheescake in your face ass-shots and constant near nudity was just so boring and turned me off to it. But when I saw that #116 had such gorgeous art from Stjepan Sejic and was new reader friendly I decided to give it a try. I also noticed the full body armor as you mentioned and had high hopes. Witchblade has since been on my pull list and I've been loving it.

I'll admit I didn't like War of the Witchblades as much as I thought I would. It was a fun read with some great moments but as far as an epic story it sort of failed there. Though the ending was great and I'm currently enjoying the new Angelus mini that spun out of it.

So yeah great work and I hope this gets more people interested in Witchblade which is a great comic.

Anonymous said...

Order the first Cap Omnibus the other day and added vol. 10 to my order b/c it was free. This article makes me glad that I did.

Dane said...

Why do you hate Michael Turner so much? You've ranted and railed against him for years even after he died you wrote a post about how a convention wasted space when they gave tribute to the man. I understand if you don't like the guy's art but there has to be more to it when the very mention of his name brings such venomous tones.

Michael said...

Ethereal: It's essentially Witchblade Vol. 2. There are a few references to events that happened before Marz's run, but nothing that you can't find on Wikipedia.

Andrenn: Thanks for the kind words! But don't feel like you have to omit anything about Witchblade from your article. The more people who talk about the comic the better.

mugiwara said...

Well, firts I was not interested in the first issues of Witchblade because I didn't like Turner's art and now I'm told that the art is better, but there is no more cheesecake?
Pass! If I have to read a Witchblade thing, I'll choose the manga versions. At least, Japanese are not ashamed to put fan service in their comics.

Kirk Warren said...

@Dane - Uh, to whom are you referring? No one has ranted and raved about Michael Turner for years (the blog is only about 2 and a half years old for one thing). Mike's guest post here only mentions him in passing and states how people bought the book for his art, which is more of a compliment than anything. And I have no recollection of ever making a post saying they wasted space giving him a tribute after he died. Did you even read this post?

Primewax said...

I hope you're right Michael. I just ordered Vol. 10 alongside my Cable and Deadpool Vol. 1. Of course, it was free, so nothing lost if I don't like it.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

Very well written article, hugely impressed. I've never read Witchblade, but you make it sound very interesting indeed.

As for some of the commenters, I have to ask; where are these FREE trades coming from and why?

Kirk Warren said...

@Ryan Lindsay - The link at the bottom of the post. They have an offer where you get the first 2 trades free (well, you can pick one or the other for free) with any purchase.

Dane said...

Sorry Kirk. I did read the post and I enjoyed it (and I agree with Mike on Witchblade's turn for the better even if I missed the fact he wrote it). Though you have laid into Turner quite hard in the past I am sorry if I came off as an asshole reading into something that wasn't there.

Kirk Warren said...

@Dane - No problem Dane and no need to apologize. I expect our readers to let us know when we've done something stupid or crossed a line in some way.

In regards to Turner, I can only recall one post in which I lay into him and, in all honesty, I only attack his art, not him as a person. It wasn't my finest piece and something from early in the blog that, while I agree with still, I am not particularly fond of how I wrote it or the tone of the piece.

Other than that one instance from 2+ years ago, I really can't recall ever going off on Turner and typically avoid mentioning him in most cases due to that art critique post I made about him. I've probably said a lot of stupid things in the past 2 years, but I can't recall saying that much about Turner, especially anything about the tribute he received. If I did, I deserve to be called otu on it and don't knowwhat I was thinking at the time.

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