'Witchblade' tosses aside the character's "bad girl" history for a timely upgrade

‘Witchblade’ tosses aside the character’s “bad girl” history for a timely upgrade

By Courtney Ryan. I must begin this review by admitting that I was never a fan or reader of the original Witchblade series. I had heard of the comic and knew it was popular enough to inspire a television series here in the US and an anime and manga franchise in Japan. The premise always intrigued me, too: a mystical artifact haunts the world, exclusively bestowing its great power to women. I can get into that. Plus its hero was apparently a badass homicide detective. But when I finally picked up a copy and flipped through its pages, all I could focus on were the protagonist’s porn-mangled limbs and elephantine tits. It was clear this comic wasn’t written for me.

I also admit it’s very possible I didn’t give Witchblade the chance it deserved. When its 20-year run ended in 2015 I briefly considered whether or not I had missed out, but that moment of reflection passed. However, the news of a reboot did interest me. Witchblade, a story that has and, by its own premise, must always revolve around a woman, would be produced by a woman-led creative team for the first time. At the very least, I hoped, this could mean her breasts wouldn’t be so distracting.

Witchblade #1Witchblade #1

Written by Caitlin Kittredge.

Art by Roberta Ingranata.

Colors by Bryan Valenza.

A new host. This resurrection of Witchblade follows Alex Underwood, a war correspondent-turned-lawyer, whose role at the district attorney’s office appears to involve supporting and protecting witnesses and victims of violent crimes. Her story opens with her death, where she is spared a permanent end by the titular witchblade after it uses her body as a host, indicated by her sudden accessorizing with a bejeweled, silver bracelet. Though she’s been given the chance to live, it comes with mysterious and likely terrifying responsibilities. Alex must use her newfound powers to defend vulnerable humans while fending off demons that are out to destroy her. But before she can accept this as her destiny, she must first accept that this is her reality.

Writer Caitlin Kittredge employs her experience writing young adult and adult dark fantasy novels to seamlessly weave together Alex’s inner and outer conflicts. Though Alex is ensnared in a grim and chaotic conflict, we never lose sight of where she is, be it in her head, her dreams, or her physical reality. And that is very much to Kittredge’s credit. She’s also managed to flesh out a layered character in this first issue. Alex’s questions echo our own and her reactions to the nightmare she’s found herself trapped inside feel real and relatable. Though Witchblade #1 doesn’t have her taking up the tough renegade mantle just yet, I have no trouble believing that she will arrive there once it’s time.

Interior page to 'Witchblade' #1. Art by Roberta Ingranata and Bryan Valenza/Top Cow/Image Comics

Interior page to ‘Witchblade’ #1. Art by Roberta Ingranata and Bryan Valenza/Top Cow/Image Comics

The “bad girl” host. Witchblade began in 1995 as one of the flagship series for Top Cow Productions, an imprint of Image. Top Cow’s founder and owner Marc Silvestri created the series alongside editor David Wohl, writer Brian Haberlin, and artist Michael Turner, and the team quickly saw their work achieve a cult-like following. Their success peaked in 2000 when TNT premiered a popular television adaptation of the comic starring Yancy Butler. (NBC has since announced plans for its own Witchblade series.) In 2006, Japanese anime studio Gonzo produced a new version of Witchblade with Japanese characters. This corresponded with a manga adaptation from publisher Kodansha and an illustrated novel by Satoshi Ichikawa and Makoto Uno. An unrealized American feature film was also planned in 2008. In other words, Witchblade was a success—and central to that success was its protagonist.

Though the Japanese versions featured different female protagonists, the US audience has only known Sara Pezzini. A product of the 90s “bad girl art” trend, Sara was cartoonishly sexy, morally loose, and brazenly violent. Her physique and overall panache was created by artist Michael Turner, whose untimely death in 2008 ended a prolific career illustrating babelicious bad girls, including Aspen Matthews of Fathom and Lyla Lerrol of Superman: Godfall. For better or worse, Turner pegged Sara as the voluptuous vixen, which overshadowed her backstory as an NYPD homicide detective and diminished any emotional tolls she may have endured as the receiver of the witchblade.

In this run, though, artist Roberta Ingranata clearly has different plans for her heroine. In many tight panels she omits Alex’s figure entirely and instead emphasizes Alex’s expressive face, with steely eyes that at different times convey fear, shock, concern, and determination. When we do see her physique it appears strong and her stance demonstrates a willingness to defend herself and others. In other panels, however, her body reflects distress and we witness her coiled into a ball under the tension of her present situation. These contrasting depictions detail a complicated character who is both tough and sensitive. Additionally, colorist Bryan Valenza serves Ingranata’s emotive imagery well with icy hues and murky shading that result in pages that are both beautiful and chilling.

Interior page to 'Witchblade' #1. Art by Roberta Ingranata and Bryan Valenza/Top Cow/Image Comics

Interior page to ‘Witchblade’ #1. Art by Roberta Ingranata and Bryan Valenza/Top Cow/Image Comics

A procedural concerned with PTSD. Though Alex’s journey with the witchblade is ultimately the central plot here, I’m intrigued that Kittredge appears to be creating a crime procedural as well. The work Alex does at the district attorney’s office is already tied in with the witchblade since it’s a case that leads to her death, and I’m looking forward to seeing how future cases are woven in. I’m also quite curious about her history as a war correspondent and her subsequent transition from that career. I appreciated that her reluctance to believe in the reality of the witchblade was partly due to how she is actively coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a poignant direction to take and further links her experience with the witchblade to the work she does with witnesses and victims of violent crimes.

There’s no reason why Alex’s timeline can’t interact with Sara Pezzini’s timeline, and if it does I’ll be very interested to see how Kittredge and Ingranata confront the previous Witchblade series. But even if they remain firmly inside their own story arc, this creative team has already laid a foundation for a promising series. Witchblade #1 is a visually rich entry into a story that explores how a traumatized mind overcomes its scars to accept a heroic fate.

8 out of 10

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