Witchblade Animated was never an animated product. It was, as were many things from the Image founders’ personal studios and the American comic book industry of the later ’90s in general, a cypher, a simulacrum of a possibility or alternate reality. “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a Witchblade cartoon (eventually there was) just like that one Batman cartoon (it wasn’t)? Imagine how neat that would be!” Unlike Todd McFarlane, a full owner willing and able to sink dollars into a fully multimedia Spawn empire, Witchblade co-creators Marc Silvestri, David Wohl, Brian Haberlin and Michael Turner used a mixed-media, semi-false semaphore to evoke and effectively force one into life. Yancy Butler’s Witchblade television series had seen two seasons and a cancellation (and been a frustrating experience for Silvestri) by the time Witchblade Animated saw publication as a comic book; after publication, it only took a year for manga and anime contracts to be signed. That’s fascinating, and sort of admirable.
Witchblade Animated had one issue, and sold — in fact, still sells — vinyl toys. The semaphore faded into reality somehow. It’s from 2003, was written by Paul Dini and drawn by Darwyn Cooke with beautiful Lee Loughridge colours, and is available to read for free on the Top Cow website. It also happens to capture the strongest strengths and weakest weaknesses of the Witchblade concept and property.
Pro: The Voice
Sara Pezini is a cop, the kind of cop who walks down alleys; the kind of cop who trouble finds. She’s a hard hitter, a fast driver, a back-talker. She’s the cop we all hear when we imagine cop voiceover, ‘cept she’s a girl, and she wears jeans. Sara doesn’t have to worry about being undermined (and so neither does her audience), because even though the guys writing her usually probably didn’t understand about institutional workplace sexism they did understand that Sara was the hero, and that the hero stays the distance, scraps it out with death and taxes, and wins despite his (the “her” is a technicality here) injuries. Sara’s tough, and nobody forgets it.
This excerpt is also a strong example of why art team Cooke, inker Bone and Loughridge were such such a great choice for this specific title. “Animated” — who could argue? Motion lines and motion in the lines; the speed of application visible in Sara’s cheek shadows is as energetic as the effect lines in the explosion below, and the street lamp yellow on her face both foreshadows said explosion and emphasises the sensual recognition of what it feels like to be driving fast at night. The reader feels in on the action, which is necessary, because as suggested in the paragraph above Sara Pezini is a direct descended of the action hero of the late ’80s and ’90s. She could have cameoed in Lethal Weapon… she could have been played by a Van Damme costar, ha ha ha. (That’s a Yancy Butler joke. I’m a fan.)
Con: The god-forsaken shiny metallic caption boxes
You may have noticed these already. I’m not sure when they started, and I’m not sure when they stopped, but Witchblade Animated borrowed the metallic backgrounds for its narrative captions from Witchblade — only it was worse there, because they were red. Imagine this on shiny comic book paper instead of as a nice healthy digitally screenshot. It was hell! Ugly, pointless, hard-to-read hell. I’ve born this grudge for years now… I’m glad I finally get to lay it down.
Con: Cop Tits
Sara’s perpetual problem is that the people who draw her have, more often than not, really loved drawing her breasts and making them special. Francis Manapul was a revelation in 2004– he sometimes drew her from the front in a t-shirt with NO breast curve delineated. You can do that?? You can, but most didn’t. Cooke, here, evidences that common urge: the urge to put a policewoman to work in a low-cut crop top because it makes her look pretty. Loughridge makes sure we know how roundly they protrude from her sternum. This Is The Shape Of The Breast.
But this is a spread with a lot of real aesthetic positives and some clever graphic storytelling. Attacked by regular foe Jackie Estacado in the guise of the Darkness (a multimedia star himself, though leaning more to the XBox than the anime), Sara is in danger. The caption box tells us that trough hubris and the spread shows us that with blood red and spooky green eyes as much as by the monstrous figure who’s jumping, claws akimbo, at our heroine. But Loughridge lets us know that it’s not all that simple– look at her eyes. They have the reddish hued brown, they have the lime green shine. Sara is quite as dangerous as Jackie. Ambushes won’t take her down without a fight. This isn’t a Final Girl situation, because even though Sara will leave the room standing she won’t leave it having fought at a traumatic disadvantage. We aren’t looking at victimisation; we’re looking at combat. It’s the germ at the centre of Buffy, here, a woman inherently “just as powerful.”
Sara’s long, untied hair is a character design quandary as much, or almost, as the crop top. Cooke’s version of the character serves as a lesson ignored by the controlling powers of the time. Witchblade proper generally saw Pezini wearing her hair centre-parted and often forward over her shoulders, tendrils framing her face in that “dream of protecting me, hunky reader!” sort of way — effectively the worst possible hairstyle for a woman prone to running after or away from crime and occultic murder. Cooke’s backcombed, hairsprayed Sara makes a lot more practical sense. If she must wear it long, at least wear it away from the eyes, nose and mouth. Presumably the top-down driving is pretty helpful with this.
The questionable costume design is also present in Sara’s co-star for this adventure, Patience, the Magdalena. The Magdalena wields the spear of destiny in her missions for the Vatican. Yes! A magical fighting nun. Her exposed midrif doesn’t really have any sort of defence; it’s impractical for combat, it’s unlikely for a nun. Cooke shows her in a wimple and gown, fairly unusual for her contemporary Witchblade appearances, which only emphasises that her public-facing outfit is weird. It’s designed to make her look nice, and presumably results in having to work a lot harder to not get raked or stabbed by tetanus-carrying demons and whatnot. It’s silly. It’s daft. It’s editorial mandate, and it doesn’t mean you have to act like a creep while you’re drawing the book — here’s another Cooke focus panel, where the focus ends above mouth height so as to emphasise the new, stranger-status presence of the man entering in the background. In a film their voices and the ambient noise would gain an echo for a shot like this, but the comic equivalent is a changed visual presence. So Cooke’s centres their upper torsos, but he takes the high road and doesn’t give any especial breast detail in this shot:
Pro: The gal pals
Witchblade was a solo title: a comic book about one woman, with a pretty regular supporting cast and a reliable rotation of team-up guest stars. Top Cow was blessed at the time with the Tomb Raider license (Lara Croft was still, in 2003, a fully actualised adult woman) and Lara and Sara called each other best friends. They hardly saw each other because they had big lives to live, but they understood and supported each other in the line of fire and in quiet moments in the library with a whisky. Patience the Magdalena dropped in on Witchblade from time to time, and she and Sara built a mutual respect that bridged their different lives and everyday values — more importantly they learnt to get along without pissing each other off too much, because they’re both strange women. Patience doesn’t joke and is earnest, serious, quietly pious. Sara is sarcastic and confrontational, impulsive and intuitive where Patience is scholarly and learned. Neither is the easy definition of a nice girl, so both are aspirational to 2003 girl comic book readers, and neither treats the other as a lesser bitch. They are individual women of individual destinies who make the individual assessment; “this woman is my equal.” They have all (Lara, Sara, Patience) been given enough protagonist validation that, each time, this evaluation means something. It creates a network of strength and appreciation between wildly independent women. They’re loners, together. That’s what I need.
Con: The miniature sexual harassment
Top Cow, in its first decade+ of publication, absolutely loved the idea of tiny demonic creature-freaks sexually harassing a cool, hot babe. It happens here, above, where Sara is called a skank by one of Jackie’s Darkness creatures. It happens elsewhere (such as below) in Witchblade Animated. It happens in 1999’s Spirit of the Tao issue twelve, and it happens in 1997’s Ghost Rider/Ballistic — each a different woman being harassed by a different man’s different mini-beasts. What the fuck was happening, and where did this obsession come from? Billy Tan and D-Tron were both involved in these two earlier examples, though they were working from a Warren Ellis script in the crossover; I haven’t made a full survey of Top Cow’s entire library to check the responsibility as a whole. These examples are simply from the randomly picked bargain-bin back issues I happen to have read in the first five weeks of this year. What on earth was at the root here?
It’s a relevant question, a relevant problem, because much like many Image founders’ pet titles, Witchblade had the ongoing problem of making me feel over-visible as a young female reader. It was a woman-led title about a tough cop with a magic weapon, but it was also a comic with a premise –said magic weapon– designed to allow the artist to get that strong female protagonist at least partially, impractically, and unprofessionally naked with stunning regularity. It was a book about an individualistic, brawler heroine who wore her hair in her face and her shirts hemmed to rib level. Sara Pezini was designed to win, but she was also designed to be made (sexually) uncomfortable for the viewing pleasure of grotty nerds. I saw the grotty nerds when I was buying my books. I knew who was looking. I knew they had the option to also look at me.
I could rely on Sara Pezini to make me feel capable, but I could also rely on her to make me feel pawed at. These little grabby freaks are something I’d have removed from the equation given my druthers, but since they’re there, they sure do work as a neat little metaphor for my teenaged experience with Top Cow and by extension, with “comics.” They could be a metaphor for Top Cow, too, whose books and covers continue to centre physically powerful, beauty-idealised women but which have taken a notable turn away from the unforgivingly horny demands of 2003. For me, for the publisher, for Sara — a lot of things clawed and pulled and were gross… but the heroine persisted.