David Wohl et al’s The Witchblade Compendium, Volume 1

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Andrew Wheeler penned this review.

Some stories are merely bad — dull, uninspired, or simply misformed. Others are bad in entertaining ways — bad movies, outsider art, and demented pulp fiction. Some stories are so horrible that it’s physically painful to read them, such as the work of Rob Liefeld. And then there’s Witchblade.

It’s sexist, of course, in that inbred superhero-comics way. The art depicts creatures that bear a slight resemblance to human beings — though, as the art team changes hands several times over the course of this very long book, those creatures often bear little resemblance to themselves — and inhabit a world that occasionally includes reasonably realistic buildings. The tedious and endless dialogue and narration turns from explaining the plot — usually by telling the audience t hings we didn’t know as if they’ve been explained repeatedly, and can now be told in shorthand — through petulance and whininess (dialogue) to the requisite bombast and windy philosophizing (narration). The story is a fever dream of thriller clichés, soft-core porn plots, and what superhero comics turn into when their creators get too old to believe in selfless heroism but stay just as childish and limited. In fact, what Witchblade resembles more than anything else is a very late night spent very drunk watching Cinemax — if Cinemax had a glitch that semi-randomly intercut scenes of about ten movies from the same soft-core supernatural-cop series — and then trying to describe the plot to an unsympathetic listener the morning after.

The most positive thing I can say about Witchblade is that, if one likes to look at drawings of scantily-clad women (and well-dressed men with very long, fine hair and what are supposed to be good looks), this volume provides a hell of a lot of them. And that the plot threatens repeatedly to start making sense — in fact, a dedicated team of government researchers, if given enough time, budget, and time off to maintain their sanity, just might be able to explain the plot of Witchblade within five years or so.

Now, that’s not entirely fair — the last eleven issues collected here see the series effectively relaunched, with long-time writer (Christina Z) jettisoned, along with most of her baroque plot overcomplications and the dangling ends that were never going to go anywhere, and the whole thing retooled as a moderately successful supernatural-detective series — but it’s close enough for government work.

What is this appalling object? you may well ask. The Witchblade Compendium collects the first fifty issues of Witchblade — originally published from November of 1995 through August of 2001, over twelve hundred pages of comics — and it stands as a monument to a particular kind of ’90s comic, and, perhaps, to Image Comics itself. If you don’t know the history of ’90s comics, you’re much better off, and you wouldn’t believe me if I told you, anyway.

(I’ll leave aside those last eleven issues — mostly written by Paul Jenkins and illustrated by Keu Cha — for the bulk of this commentary; they take the original concept, strip away most of the established continuity, and tell serviceable but unspectacular stories. That they seem like a ray of pure gold at the end of this volume only underlines how lousy the first nine hundred and fifty pages are.)

Our heroine is Sara Pezzini, who is supposed to be a tough New York City homicide detective, but is drawn by initial artist Michael Turner — who became a hugely popular sensation from this series, proving one last time that this is an inescapably fallen world and we are all prisoners of a demented demiurge — as if she’s twenty-two years old, with a wardrobe that veers between off-duty fashion model and struggling art-college student. (She routinely wears torn jeans to question suspects; I’d suspect Turner of having a knee fetish if she weren’t much more naked so much of the time.) In the first issue, she stumbles into one of those secret extra-legal events run by the ultra-rich and -powerful and ends up with an ancient superpowerful artifact — the titular Witchblade — bonded to her.

The Witchblade doesn’t have any obvious connection to witches, and it’s not usually a blade — making it the Holy Roman Empire of bad comics — but it does manifest tentacles and other extensions in times of danger, though it resembles a green organic-looking gauntlet when at rest away from a host and usually takes the form of a bracelet on its wearer. (Like so many comic-book superweapons, it can grow and shrink as if the principle of conservation of mass were merely a rumor.) It does, however, tear Sara’s clothes whenever it manifests, leaving her usually in the superhero equivalent of a Brazilian bikini. Strangely, no one notices this until those Jenkins-written issues, a good five years along.

The particular ultra-rich businessman who organized the event Sara disrupted is Kenneth Irons, who is gorgeous and ruthless — we know this because he has flinty little eyes and a little white ponytail — and controls nearly everything in the world, in the most over-the-top and thoughtless pulp-fiction ways. He even has a fanatically loyal and incredibly deadly bodyguard/assassin, Ian Nottingham, who has the kind of cultured English accent that is utterly pointless in a comic book, since we can’t hear him.

The first thirty-nine issues see: 1) Irons and Nottingham killed at least once each, though they both get better with no explanation, 2) several crossovers with a similarly-themed series called The Darkness (about a mob hitman, Jackie Estacado, who has a magical superweapon of his own) that make even less sense than the other issues, since we only get half of the crossover each time, 3) enough unconnected plot threads to make late-’80s Chris Claremont blush, 4) lots and lots and lots of tiny text in hard-to-read yellow-on-red, mocking the very few Witchblade perusers seeking something more than Sara Pezzini tits and ass, 5) two different partners/sidekicks for Sara, each with his own secrets and quirks, even though they look essentially identical, 6) double-page spreads at least once an issue, 7) the mature and thoughtful sexuality of a hydrocephalic twelve-year-old boy raised by rats at the bottom of a well, 8) no explanation of the Witchblade’s history or powers, and no real effort on Sara’s part to find out about it or understand it, 9) a religious movement that is horribly funny, though not in the way the creators intended, and 10) a neck-and-neck battle for dominance between clenched teeth and heaving bosoms.

Witchblade was a bad comic book. Worse than that, it was a trend-setting bad comic, paving the way for a thousand supposedly-tough-woman-with-very-few-clothes-on books, many of them by creative teams even less skilled than Michael Turner, Christina ZZ, and their ilk. It is a thing not only lousy in itself, but the cause of lousiness in others, and for that it deserves nothing but our scorn. It’s not good-bad, or so bad that it’s entertaining — it’s simply a tedious, confusing, sexist slog through bad writing and bad art, and all involved should have been ashamed of themselves.

(Top Cow, 2006)

[Andrew Wheeler]

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog, both of which are my properties. My current reading is Ken Macleod's The Cassini Division, Red Knight Falling from Craig Schaeffer and Peter Beagle's Summerlong. I'm listening to a whole bunch of new Celtic and Americana new releases too vast to list here. Though I'll dip in my music collection for such artists as Jay Ungar and Molly Msaon, Musikas, Frifot... Well you get the idea...

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