Comics

AICN COMICS Q&@: Matt Adler talks with the creative team behind the monumental 150th issue of WITCHBLADE!!!

Published at: Dec. 20, 2011, 9:49 a.m. CST

@@@ What the &#$% is AICN COMICS Q&@? @@@

Q’s by Matt Adler!

@’s by WITCHBLADE’s Ron Marz, Stjepan Sejic, & Filip Sablik!!!

Hey folks, Matt Adler here. If you’ve been a comics fan in the past 15 years, you know who WITCHBLADE is. Conceived by Image co-founder Marc Silvestri in 1995 for his Top Cow imprint, Witchblade is the alter-ego of Sara Pezzini, a tough-as-nails NYPD cop who becomes the bearer of a mysterious artifact that enables her to combat the forces of evil on a different level entirely. In WITCHBLADE #150, everything changes; writer Ron Marz (who has been with the series for 70 issues) and artist Stjepan Sejic (onboard for 35 issues) are departing, but before they go, they’re going to radically shake up Sara’s world. I spoke with Ron, Stjepan, and Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik to get their thoughts on this end of an era, and where the series goes from here.

MATT ADLER (MA): How do you feel about this 70-issue run finally coming to a conclusion?

FILIP SABLIK (FS): It's bittersweet for me, so I can only imagine how it feels for Ron and Stjepan. I've been with Top Cow for 50 of Ron's issues and I can credit Ron with really pulling me into WITCHBLADE. I hadn't read the book in a number of years and Ron's first arc with Mike Choi was the perfect jumping on point. When Stjepan came on the book, I feel like he and Ron really meshed incredibly well. Stjepan brought a ton of ideas to the table and new visual style to the issue. I think people will look back at this as the definitive run of WITCHBLADE. At the same time, I'm incredibly excited to see what they do next with the ongoing story of ARTIFACTS!

RON MARZ (RM): You know, I'm honestly not sure right now. It hasn't completely sunk in yet, because it wasn't that long ago that we wrapped up #150 and sent it off to press. So it's still relatively fresh for me. I think it'll sink in more once I'm a month or two away from it. I don't want to sound overly dramatic, but you do get attached to working on certain characters over the long haul. WITCHBLADE has been a constant presence in my life for the last seven years, or so. I guess it's a little like getting out of a long-term relationship. You move on, but there's still a bit of a tug. I can say that I'm proud of what's been accomplished over these 70 issues. Beyond that, I really don't have perspective yet. It's still too close.

STJEPAN SEJIC (SS): On one side I felt kinda sad, on the other, massively relieved. Thing is, for a while I was itching to change the pace, and above all get to play with other toys in the TCU. Thankfully that is exactly what I’m about to do. It has been a fun ride, but now I’m changing that bike for a tank of awesomeness that is ARTIFACTS.

MA: What made now the right time to hand the series off to a new team?

FS: A combination of things - Ron and Stjepan pledged to stay on the title until issue 150 and they've done that. Issue 150 is a nice logical end point for them, both because it's a good landmark issue, but also because it's an organic finale to the story that Ron and Stjepan have been telling. Plus, it coincides with the end of our ARTIFACTS event (in issue 13), which will dramatically change the status quo of the Top Cow Universe.

RM: It was a number of factors, really. It's a nice round number, finishing up on #150. Sara's life is undergoing a fairly major overhaul, so it makes sense to bring in a new team to do that. With Artifacts turning into an ongoing series, that seemed like a good fit for me and Stjepan. If we weren't moving onto a new book together, I think I'd have a lot more misgivings about it. And I think it's not a bad idea to get off stage while you've still got a few more stories to tell. You don't want to overstay your welcome and find out you're just treading water. Better to leave too soon than to stay too late.

SS: For me it was the fact that I was starting to feel burned out--yes, that happens. It was simply that at least for a while I needed to reset myself with something else, and ARTIFACTS is an ultimate reset, and something I can’t get bored of as at any given time I will be drawing some new exciting character.

MA: What did you set out to accomplish with the book? Do you feel you've succeeded?

RM: The main thing I wanted to do was tell good stories. Hopefully I did that, because in the end what matters is the story. I'd like to think we also changed some opinions concerning what this book and this character are about, and what they can be. That was, and remains, very much a one-reader-at-a-time thing. You can talk all you want about how people's perceptions might be outdated or simply wrong, but until they see it for themselves, it's difficult to convince them.

SS: For me it was the desire to give the book a very cinematic look, keeping Sara attractive but making her earn the moments of visual sex appeal. Trust me, if anyone could have cheesecaked the hell out of this book it was me. This is what made working with Ron such a rewarding experience, besides him being a very likeable fella. He understands, and I mean truly understands, the fact that a character has to earn his or her sexy moment; otherwise it loses all of its impact, but when that moment comes we get to treat it properly. Obvious from a few scenes in WITCHBLADE, but I think even more from Angelus. It is a matter of proper buildup that made characters beyond just hot people running around all bouncy and jiggly. It was about the story first.

MA: Have your perceptions of WITCHBLADE as a character changed over the course of the run?

RM: I really don't think so. When I started on the book, I had a pretty clear picture of who I thought Sara Pezzini was, and that's remained pretty consistent throughout my run. Hopefully she's evolved as a character, and grown in some new directions, but I think the core of who she is hasn't changed.

>SS: Same here, for me. We kept Sara badass, and that’s what she always was, but beyond that it was about scratching below the surface. And that was where Ron did his magic.

FS: It's always been a case of one fan at a time, but I truly believe that Ron and Stjepan have done a tremendous amount to change the preconceived notions about WITCHBLADE. The series always had a uniquely strong female lead, but these guys have worked tirelessly to combat the "bad girl" perception some fans have from the early days of the series. With Ron and Stjepan, character and the story came first and imagery second. I don't think I've ever met anyone that we handed a copy of WITCHBLADE to that didn't come back really impressed and wanting more.

MA: What has the reaction from the readership been like?

FS: The fans are sad to see Ron and Stjepan go--for many of them, this is the only creative team they've known, but they are excited to see them continue collaborating on ARTIFACTS. There's definitely some trepidation about a new team coming in, but I think that's natural; we tend to fear the unknown and change to what we're comfortable with. We'll just do the same thing we've done before, which is win everyone over with awesome comics!

RM: Overall, the reactions have been as varied as the readers. When I initially took over the book, and Mike Choi and I got rid of the fan-service metal bikini, we heard from some pissed off fan-boys. And that's to be expected, really. Anytime you bring change to a book, there's always a vocal segment of the audience that doesn't want it. The flip side of that coin is the response from new readers who picked up the book because it was different. I think the most satisfying reactions are from people who admit that the book is something entirely different from what they thought it was.

SS: It was overall positive. Artistically my style was an unusual one, I was never afraid of experimenting and learning new things, as stagnation is the worst thing that an artist can do. I tried my hand at implementing 3D models, several approaches of digital painting, all with the purpose of streamlining the workflow and making the book look better. Yes, there were better results and worse. For instance, a few issues experimentation with self-made 3D models had mixed results, but without that I wouldn’t have come to the conclusion that the best balance for use of 3D with my style was to keep it limited to armor and monsterwork while characters are best when painted.

Results of that are apparent in the last few issues of the run, where I incorporated some cute ZBrush monsters with painted characters for a style that intensifies the cinematic mood. This is something I plan on pursuing and further improving on so that I can streamline the workflow even more, which will leave more time for high detailing. Hopefully readers will notice the improved quality.

MA: Ron and Stjepan, what has the collaboration between the two of you been like?

RM: I feel like we've pretty much been on the same page since day one. Obviously the collaboration has grown closer over the years as you learn to play off of each other, and balance each other's strengths and weaknesses. But we were pointed in the same direction from the first issue. Stjepan always gives me what I need to tell the story, and I always try to give him what he wants to draw. He's also an idea machine. A lot of the stories spring from concepts and designs rolling around in Stjepan's head. It's funny when you realize we grew up in very different places, me in upstate New York and Stjepan in Croatia, and we've got a lot of the same influences, whether it's comics, books, movies, music. I will work with this guy as long as I can lift my fingers to a keyboard.

SS: Ron just gets me, it’s as simple as that. He knows I am the guy who will always put the story and character development first, because that is what makes the fun stuff, the epic and awesome stuff carry an impact. From our first issue, Ron was an easy guy to work with and during that time a friendship was born that essentially makes me capable of saying…I’m genuinely uninterested to work with other writers…why fix what ain’t broken?

MA: How long did you know the run would end with Sara resigning from the force? Do you see this as an inevitable outcome, given her conflicting responsibilities?

FS: I don't remember exactly how long we've been planning this, but I want to say over a year. It seemed like the logical conclusion to the stories Ron and Stjepan have been telling.

RM: We had talked about some storylines where Sara would leave the police force for one reason or another. But most of it was in the context of us using the opportunity to tell some different kinds of stories with her. When we came to the conclusion that #150 would be our last, the story in both WITCHBLADE and ARTIFACTS was really pointing toward giving Sara a fresh start. I think it's also the right thing to do when you turn a book over to the next creative team. You try to wrap up as many threads as possible, so the new team isn't carrying your baggage.

SS: Personally, I knew that was planned as we did talk about it. Initially we were playing with the idea of extending our run beyond 150, so those discussions were inevitable. The idea of Sara working outside of police jurisdiction presents some very interesting possibilities.

MA: Did you closely coordinate with the incoming team to set up the new status quo for their run?

SS: None from my side, but I’m only the shiny art guy.

FS: The teams are largely operating independently, but we have monthly Top Cow Universe calls with Ron, Tim Seeley, and David Hine (who is taking over THE DARKNESS with #101) and all the guys get copies of the others' scripts to keep them in the loop.

RM: Tim Seeley, who is the new writer, and I have talked, and we've read each other's scripts, but it's more a case of comparing notes than me putting in my two cents. I never liked it when I took over a book and got direction from the previous team, so I certainly wouldn't do it to anybody following me. I think Tim has a clean slate to tell the kind of WITCHBLADE stories he wants to tell.

MA: From here you guys are moving on to the ARTIFACTS series, which sounds like it will be ground zero for a reboot of the Top Cow universe. What can you tell us about your plans for that series? Will it be a big shift in terms of what you've been doing on WITCHBLADE?

RM: I don't think reboot or relaunch is quite the right term. We're not putting the lie to anything that's come before, we're just giving the audience a fresh starting point. It should be welcoming to new readers, but not off-putting to our faithful readers. As far as what Stjepan and I will be doing, these stories will be a bit bigger in scope than a lot of what we did in WITCHBLADE. That was very much a procedural/noir book with supernatural overtones. ARTIFACTS will have a bigger cast and a bigger playing field, which will allow us to do stories with more scope. If anything, I think ARTIFACTS will play to Stjepan's strengths even more. Sara will have a presence in the book, Jackie Estacado will have a presence, but our point-of-view character will be defrocked priest Tom Judge.

SS: Okay, ARTIFACTS…so, imagine if you had a competent director for the story parts and Michael Bay for action, combined with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Yeah…it’s gonna be epic.

MA: Any other projects you’re working on?

RM: I'm still writing the MAGDALENA series for Top Cow and my creator-owned book with Lee Moder, SHINKU, is coming out from Image. Together, Stjepan and I are doing a fantasy book called RAVINE. It's Stjepan's story and I'm coming in to write the dialogue and add a little polish here and there. He's already got more than 100 pages completely painted, and it's easily the most breath-taking stuff he's ever done.

SS: ‘Scuse me, I got more than 170 pages done, thankyouverymuch. But yeah Ron and I got a ton of work ahead of us. And hell, I’ll probably bug him to do some of his creator-owned project ideas and get it off the mental sketchboard phase. Fun times are ahead of us.

MA: Thanks to Filip, Ron, & Stjepan. Look for WITCHBLADE #150 from Top Cow this month.

Matt Adler is a writer/journalist, currently writing for AICN among other outlets. He’s been reading comics for 20 years, writing about them for 7, and spends way, way, too much time thinking about them, which means he really has no choice but to figure out how to make a living out of them. He welcomes all feedback.


Editing, compiling, imaging, coding, logos & cat-wrangling by Ambush Bug
Proofs, co-edits & common sense provided by Sleazy G

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