January 12, 2012

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Another Superhero "New Reader" Experiment: Witchblade 151

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts about how it was cool to get a free copy of Savage Dragon 175, but the issue was so complexly structured and designed for established readers that I found myself leaving the comic with no desire to get #176--or go back and pick up the story from the beginning.

I figured I'd try again, this time with a comic I'd only read part of one issue of before, several years ago.  I'd seen a lot of good press for Witchblade 151, the start of a new arc with a new writer and artist.  I figured it would be interesting to see how it compared.  The difference was like night and day, as you'll see.

Witchblade 151.  Written by Tim Seeley.  Illustrated by Diego Bernard.  Sometimes, life sucks when you're a private investigator.  That's what Sara finds out, as her move to Chicago has some serious consequences.  When a case turns odd and she ends up framed for a death actually caused by a deadly mystical creature, Sara may have to decide if following the path of law and order is really possible for her after all.  It's a new direction for the star of the title and the wielder of the...Witchblade.

This issue actually starts off with a weird interlude written by the outgoing creative team that explains that something big has happened and the world is not quite what it should be.  I was intrigued, but at the same time, I don't see the link between it and the issue itself.  However, as it is a self-contained interlude by a different writer, I'm not going to hold it against Seeley.  In addition, despite being short, it actually told me everything I might need to know, should it be relevant later.  There are some mystical items of great power that should never be together (a concept that's a staple of fantasy, so I can grasp that concept easily), and they got together, with big results that aren't going away quietly.  Got it, Ron Marz.  Good show in a few pages, and I could move on quickly.  I just wonder if this was necessary or not, but again, not a huge deal because it was not confusing at all.

The main story, by Tim Seeley, holds up extremely well as a jumping on point.  We start in the middle of a dramatic moment for the character.  She's jailed.  We immediately see she's got powers, but won't use them to break free, because she respects the law.  I now know all kinds of things about Sara, and I'm barely at page 3.  That's a great job of writing for a new reader in my opinion, because not only does it help me, the new guy, it establishes that something older readers are familiar with is not going to change.  (Think of a new issue of Batman after a reboot that shows him not killing, when he could do so.  Same concept.)  After a few more pages, we know that Sara is a former cop, turned private eye.  She's struggling.  She's having trouble with this new life.  She's getting older.  However, through all this, she's not giving up.  We see her push through these problems, and just as she tries to do the right thing, it all caves in on her by the end of the issue.  We're now back to the beginning, giving a complete story.  We know why Sara is in prison now.  This issue sets the springboard for the strong narrative question of, "What will Witchblade do next?"

Despite referencing quite a bit of Witchblade's recent history, I never once felt like I didn't know what was going on.  Seeley makes a point of keeping me informed, and doing it in a way that does not feel forced as a general rule.  Some of the internal monologue might be a stretch, but other than that, it's all based on things that happen in-story.  I have a pretty complete picture of Sara by the end, including the things she can do with her Witchblade powers.  The way she discusses being a veteran hero is a nice touch, and I even liked that she's a bit concerned about growing older.  It teeters on "woman worried about girl things" territory, but I thought it was appropriate. Maybe it's because I've been thinking a lot about getting older, but that moment really registered for me.

Now, I've said a lot of good things about this book, but there are some sticking points.  The opening showing Sara in a ripped, short dress, is a bit off-putting, and kinda plays to the worst stereotypes of comics.  The female characters are definitely drawn as sexy as possible, especially in the bar scene.  However, it's not like the male characters in that scene are drawn as anything other than really attractive, so I think it's more a case of the artist wanting to draw hot people than being exploitative for exploitation's sake.  Since Sara seems to have a good head on her shoulders, I can be more forgiving.  It's not like she's waiting for a guy to save her or something.  The artist definitely opts for going for poses that show off curves, but I have seen far, far worse.

Overall, I was intrigued.  I don't know that I'd read this monthly as it comes out, but if Seeley keeps the strong storytelling going and the tone is one of heroic action, I would read more issues in the future.  I think there's a potential for Sara to be a good heroine and treated better than the standard female hero by the current creative team.  (Note:  Not saying the old creative team treated her badly.  I have no point of reference.)  A new reader can definitely hook on to this one and if you like action stories with a bit of the supernatural and sexiness attached, it's worth trying to see if this is for you.

Witchblade 151 is exactly the kind of book you need to create if you are looking to hook new readers.  If you had the right potential non-comics person (someone who likes cop movies with a bit of sexual chemistry, perhaps, or maybe private detective novels with a female lead, like Grafton's series), they could read this and not be ready to reach for a bottle of aspirin.  They might actually reach for issue 152, and that should be the point.  While certainly not perfect, this is the kind of book publishers need to do when they're making a push to gain new eyes on their title.  My hat's off to Top Cow on this one.  Good work to all involved!