From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Comics Review: Witchblade Annual

The average comic book buyer gambles when they buy an Annual. Will it be filler stories unusable elsewhere? Will it give a side-story deepening our understanding of the characters? Will it have reprints? Will it be horribly interconnected with some ongoing crossover event? Top Cow’s first ever Witchblade Annual isn’t quite sure either. Split unequally between two stories, it starts generic and ends odd.

This I believe: every police show will, at some point in each season, have the stripper episode. It might be a brothel, or a fashion show, or an S&M convention, but we will at some point get the excuse to display scantily clad flesh. Bonus points if we get to see said ladies in inappropriate attire stuck in an interrogation room.

The first story– “If Looks Could Kill”– feels like one of those episodes. A little tawdry and a little obligatory. When we open with a splash page featuring a sexy lady in naughty underwear holding a bloody cleaver, we can be pretty sure what’s coming. And it does play by those numbers. That’s a little disappointing given that Jay Faerber wrote it. Faerber’s creator-owned work on Noble Causes and Dynamo 5 has been clever and widely praised. Here we get a standard follow the dotted lines “mystery” that ends with an uninspired fight.

We have our bare-midriffed police detective and Witchblade possessor Sara Pezzini stopping said supermodel from jumping off a building. She’s killed a man but has no memory of the crime. Pezzini and her partner discover other murders linked by each killer having had plastic surgery from the same doctor. They visit the doctor, and we get more excuses for cleavage shots. The sequence does give us the one clever bit in the book as Pezzini gets repeatedly angry at the suggestion that she’s had work done.

They later visit the doctor at home. Of course they happen to catch him in the middle of his ritual to mind control his patients to kill his enemies. Fight. Punch. Sequence Over. I’m not sure what we’re to make of the character’s detecting or fighting skills in any of this. Everything runs on a pretty straight rail.

The one strange bit comes at the end of the story. Pezzini tells her partner she’s going to call other police departments where the doctor likely carried out these murders. She hopes to help them close their open cases. How precisely will that work? In each of these cases the murderer has been caught over the victim and covered in their blood. “Nope– not the right killer. They were being mind controlled by a mystic rite tied to arcane plastic surgery.”

Um. OK.

How does she even bring that story back to her own precinct? Coming into this cold we have to assume she can’t and these innocents will be convicted based on the physical evidence. Unless we have a super-world where such things are acceptable and common? There’s an old Astro City story that wrestled with that, but there we’ve had a world solidly and acceptedly populated by super-beings and high weirdness.

It does point at one of the problems where you have the grit of the investigation and police procedural meet the glam of fantasy and sci-fi. Sci-Fi show like Fringe, Buffy and X-Files wrestle with this conundrum. The problem wouldn’t usually bother me except Faeber draws attention to it at the end. He’s a smart writer, so perhaps he’s trying to point at the absurdity of it?

Or maybe he just wants you to ignore it and look at the boobies.

The second story’s a lighter tale of prison murder and the utility of intestines as a rope substitute. We open with the arrival of a new inmate to Stereotypical Prison #2– (betting on the fresh meat– check; cross-dressing black guy– check; large discreet areas the prisoners can wander around unattended– check). He’s, of course, put in the cell with the quietly crazed killer who has murdered his previous twelve cellmates.

Um. OK…so we can lightly stroll past that absurdity by ascribing his not being in solitary confinement to institutional corruption. Just keep walking and don’t look back. The deadly roommate is named Nottingham and we can assume he’s a significant character in the Witchblade series since he has pictures of Pezzini taped up on his wall.

Following lurid tales of the other prisoners brutally killed by Nottingham, we see the newbie walking in an apparently deserted section of the prison. He’s recognized by a fellow inmate as a master assassin. The truth comes out– he’s here to kill Nottingham to cement his rep as the greatest secret assassin in the world.

So to cover his tracks and keep everything quiet, the secret assassin kills the person who recognized him. And guts him. And hangs him by his entrails from a conveniently placed pipe. Because nothing says subtle like having blood splashed on you from head to toe.

The story ends, post-shower we assume, with the assassin staring at Nottingham in his cell while inner monologuing his plans for artful murder. Aaaaand scene.

That’s it– I assume this will come back in the pages of the main comic with the eventual battle of the two psychotic killers. But I keep trying to figure out what the exact intent of the piece was. Is it to show how badass Nottingham is? If so we only get that in weak dialogue. If we’re trying to set up a real threat to an unsympathetic character, his adversary comes off more than a little lame.

If this book wants to provide a look at fan-favorite plot threads, then the second story works better than the first. If the book wants to provide an draw for new readers then the first story works better. In either case the whole doesn’t fit together, the curse of the comic-book annual.

Lowell Francis loves stories. He spent four years acquiring books for a university press. He’s an avid board and role-play gamer who believes there needs to be a niche for collecting video game strategy guides. He’s currently working on a secret project with Gene Ha. He blogs at http://ageofravens.blogspot.com/.

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