Sunday 6 March 2022

Gender and 1990s comic books 4: Witchblade

Fourth and possibly last in this series, depending on whether I can muster the energy to do posts on any of Kabuki, Dawn, Aphrodite IX, or Fallen Angel. This one's just on gender, as Witchblade had little interest in race beyond the usual 1990s surfeit of honour-obsessed Yakuza assassins. Previous posts on Shi, Warrior Nun, and Ghost here, here, and here.

She's mostly forgotten now, but there was a time when Witchblade was a pretty big deal. Her comic ran for 185 issues, or 230-ish if you count the spin-offs and crossovers. It appeared monthly from 1995 all the way up to 2015: a run that dwarfs those of most of its competitors. Witchblade quickly became the tentpole of the 'Top Cow' comics universe, relegating older characters like CyberForce to the status of mere supporting cast. It had a manga series (2007-8) and an anime series (2006) and a two-season live action TV show (2001-2). And it provided a launchpad for Croatian artist Stjepan Šejić, who illustrated dozens of issues of Witchblade and its spin-offs between 2007 and 2013 before achieving online fame for his heartwarming lesbian BDSM romance comic, Sunstone (2014).

In later years, the creators of Witchblade were very open about the fact that they came up with her because Shi and Lady Death were the most successful characters in comics at the time, and they wanted a piece of the 'bad girl' action for themselves. However, unlike the other comics I've discussed in these posts, Witchblade was initially written by an actual woman, namely Christina Z, who wrote the first 39 issues. Its gender politics weren't as in-your-face as those of Ghost, but it was still pretty clearly about the difficulties of wielding female power in a world built on male violence and female victimhood. 

As the Witchblade armour shreds Sara's white ballgown, her empowered (and sexualised) 'bad girl' identity rises from the ruins of her 'good girl' femininity.

Witchblade had two opening plot arcs. The first arc - issues 1-8 - tells the story of Kenneth Irons, billionaire, sorcerer, and all-around embodiment of patriarchal power. Irons is obsessed with the Witchblade, an ancient gauntlet which grants great power to its wielder... but all of its previous wielders have been women, and any man who tries to wear it ends up maimed or dead. When it merges with NYPD detective Sara Pezzini, Irons choreographs a series of events to try to compel her to yield it up to him, in a not-very-subtle allegory for the way in which powerful men manipulate women into giving up the power that is rightfully theirs. Sara resists and reclaims the Witchblade, and Irons apparently falls to his death. 

The second arc - issues 9-14 - tells the story of Dannette Boucher, Irons's wife, who is basically a metaphor for the ways in which women become complicit in misogynistic power structures. Abjectly devoted to Irons, Dannette allowed him to experiment with implanting fragments of the Witchblade into her body, wilfully blind to the fact that he sees her sacrifices only as a means to enhance his own power. By the time he's done with her she's a monstrous mutant freak who constantly builds up power within herself, power that she can only get rid of by discharging it into other people, cooking them to death in the process. Realising that she's going to need a steady stream of victims, she demonstrates her internalised misogyny by setting up a modelling agency that keeps her supplied with desperate young women, whom she treats the same way Irons treated her: as disposable fodder. Sara hunts her down and reabsorbs her power into the Witchblade, killing her. 

Both stories set Sara up as a kind of champion of her gender, against the cruel men who seek to steal the power of women and the abject women who help them do it. The Witchblade, as its name implies, is the symbol of her power as a woman. (Pop-feminist Wiccan neopaganism was everywhere in the mid-1990s.) It connects her to a lineage of female resistance stretching back through time, embodied by all the previous women who carried the Witchblade in other times and places - a fairly obvious metaphor for the project of feminist history, which at the time was very invested in excavating histories of 'inspiring' women who could act as heroines and role models for new generations of girls. Interestingly, similar 'lineage' scenes - in which heroines have visions of all the previous women who have wielded the same power they currently hold - appear in both Magdalena and Warrior Nun Areala. Buffy, with its conceit that the power of the Slayer has passed from one woman to another throughout history, represented a minor variation on the same theme. 

So what qualifies Sara to wield the Witchblade, when most women and all men fail to do so? Simple: she's just stronger and braver and tougher than pretty much everyone else. She tells an anecdote at one point about how, when she was young, some boys encouraged her to climb a wall, and halfway up it she realised that they hadn't really done it because they wanted to see her climb: they'd just wanted to look up her skirt. She responds by climbing so far above them that their lustful leering is replaced by awe. But the limitations of this as a methodology of liberation are fairly obvious: it only works because Sara is stronger and braver than the boys who seek to humiliate her. That's great for her - but what about everyone else? What about all the girls who only possess average levels of strength and courage, the ones who will never be chosen by the Witchblade as its wielders? 

Sara frequently expresses contempt for women too weak to walk her path, including her own mother and sister. She scolds Dannette for allowing herself to become a victim, declaring: 'Unlike you, I'm not stupid. I'm not going to blame my plight on some man who screwed me over. I refuse to let anyone, man or woman or object, decide my fate.' (Dannette, as she lies dying, replies brokenly: 'I'm sorry, Sara. I wish I could have been as strong, as independent, as you.') The comic is thus led towards a kind of 'Great Woman Theory of History': advancement comes through the actions of a series of heroines, women badass enough to take on the patriarchal weight of history and kick the shit out of it. Ann Bonney is named as a previous wielder of the Witchblade, and so is Joan of Arc. Everyone else just sort of cowers and waits for the next heroine to come along. 

Sara as phallic woman, from Witchblade #1.

Even more than Ghost, Witchblade thus celebrates a version of femininity which wins power by being more masculine than the actual men. Sara Pezzini's only emotion is anger, her only mood is 'pissed off', and her only problem-solving technique is violence. Her favourite movie is Dirty Harry, she loves guns, she idolises her detective father, and when her partner is murdered she refuses to do anything as girly as talking to a counsellor: instead she works out her grief in true macho style, through boxing practise at the gym. However, whereas Ghost pairs its aggressive heroine with calmer, kinder men - 'beta heroes', as they were called in the romance literature of the time, before the internet poisoned the term beyond usefulness - Witchblade, like most female-authored media, pairs its alpha heroine with a man who is even more alpha than she is. 

Enter Kenneth's personal enforcer, Ian Nottingham, a sexy bad boy so over the top that only a woman would ever have written him. He has knee-length black hair and a British accent and he catches bullets with his bare hands and cuts cars in half with katanas. Ian actually does wield the Witchblade for a while, despite his gender - probably because, like most male love interests written by women and unlike the ultra-macho Kenneth, Ian actually has quite a lot of femme traits, including physical and emotional vulnerability, a history of abuse at the hands of patriarchal authority figures, and a tendency to wear floor-length gowns and pose with pink roses. Ultimately, though, even a gender-fluid man isn't woman enough to handle the Witchblade, and it is to Sara that it always finally returns.

Apparently Ian's pay is 'a high seven-figure salary and access to Irons's vast laser disc collection'. Adorkable.

Witchblade is also notable for being much kinkier than its competitors. The whole 'bad girl' genre owed its existence to the fact that, in those innocent days, internet pornography had not yet become ubiquitous, meaning that there was still a market of horny adolescent boys willing to pay two or three dollars a month for comic books full of pictures of mostly-naked ladies. Witchblade provided fan service in spades: every time Sara activates the Witchblade it rips her clothes up, providing endless excuses for her partial nudity. (Later writers dialled this up to absurd extremes.) But it also repeatedly featured tableaux of men and women in bondage gear or fetish fashion, and depicted Ian and Kenneth's relationship as deeply homoerotic and sadomasochistic: in one scene Kenneth even dresses Ian up in chains and a rubber gimp suit for a spot of water torture. Sadomasochism, of course, also structures Kenneth's relationship with Dannette, Dannette's relationship with her victims, and even Kenneth's relationship with the Witchblade itself, which is explicitly described as an abusive relationship in which the more the Witchblade hurts him, the more he desires it. Even Sara's triumph over Kenneth has a sado-masochistic edge to it, as Kenneth pleads with her to show him the full power of the Witchblade by hurting him as badly as she can. Sara refuses, which reminds me of the old joke: Sacher-Masoch meets De Sade in hell. 'Torture me!' begs Sacher-Masoch. De Sade thinks for a moment and then says: 'No.'

Ian Nottingham: assassin, anti-hero, gimp.

As a result, while they feature relatively little actual sex, Christina Z's Witchblade comics are much more sexually charged than, say, Shi. She's clearly interested in the inseperability of sex, power, and violence, and in the way that Kenneth, Ian, and Sara are all attracted to one another precisely because they keep trying to kill one another. She also has a much more grown-up understanding of what it feels like to be fascinated with someone else's body, as in the scene where Sara borrows Kenneth's coat and finds herself thinking about the warmth and strength of his body inside it. Sadly the art doesn't back her up on this, remaining fixated on busty women in revealing clothing to the virtual exclusion of all other forms of eroticism, although it did feature a surprising number of hot guys in bondage for a comic so clearly marketed at heterosexual boys. 

After the first fourteen issues, Christina Z's run carried on for another couple of years. She started lots of new plot threads - a cult, a conspiracy, Ian's backstory, Sara's childhood traumas - but never resolved any of them, and her run ultimately just trailed off into nothing. After that the comic passed into the hands of other authors and dissolved into stream-of-consciousness fanservice gibberish for a while, before going to David Wohl, who upped the fanservice even further but also tied up most of the dangling plot threads left over from Christina's run. Finally it went to Ron Marz, who wrote Witchblade from 2004 all the way to its final demise in 2015. Marz professionalised the comic: he gave it a consistent tone, cut back on the nudity and nonsense plotting, and tried hard to elevate it above its trashy 'bad girl' roots. But he also masculinised it, ditching Ian in favour of some generic 'nice guy' hunk, and dropping any attempt to engage with gender politics. 

I can't really claim that Witchblade is a good comic. Its art is amateurish compared to that of Shi or Ghost or Kabuki, and the writing is mostly pretty weak. Its 'solutions' to the social problems that it identifies are not exactly sophisticated: when Witchblade had a crossover with Darkminds in 2000, it takes the more emotionally intelligent Nakiko just a few pages to realise that the Witchblade's all-violence-all-the-time methods ultimately mark it out as just another abuser, and that what its wielder really needs is a supportive female friend and a good hug. But for its first 14 issues Witchblade is at least an interesting comic, worthy of note for the way in which both its author and its heroine struggle to find ways of using the 'bad girl' formula to assert themselves within a male-dominated world. That their answers are necessarily imperfect does not lessen the significance of the fact that they asked the questions in the first place!


  1. I would have thought that Witchblade would be the most famous of these. It had a live action adaptation, an anime, frequent crossovers with The Darkness, and a YA spinoff from the guy who writes Death Vigil and Sunstone

    1. It did - along with a 2017 reboot, which marked the first time since Christina Z's mid-1990s run that the series was actually written by a woman. I get the impression that its position as poster-child for the 'bad girl' craze seriously damaged the franchise in the longer term, though. All the introductions that Marz got people to write for his collections basically consisted of them saying: 'Guys! Remember that stupid comic from the 90s? It's actually good now! I promise!'

  2. One really wonders why I clicked on this - I probably could have read this article with my eyes closed and obtained exactly the same insights.

    Does writing these pieces lift you sufficiently high enough to alleviate the shame re: your extensive reading of glossy '90s trash comics that even teenage boys *at the time* could find silly?

    1. If it's not a topic of interest to you then I would indeed encourage you not to read them, as I noted in one of my previous posts. However, if you could have reached the same conclusions then presumably you must have possessed the same knowledge upon which to base them, which I certainly didn't have until a few days ago.

      I feel no more shame in reading these than I do in reading 1790s chapbooks, or 1830s penny bloods, or 1970s bodice-rippers, or any of the other forms of popular fiction I've studied over the years. Any popular form can provide an insight into the cultural patterns of its time. I became interested in these because my naive expectation, as someone who had never read any until a few months ago, was that they'd just be straightforwardly sexist and exploitative: I found the actual picture to be more complex than that, in ways that I felt helped me to further understand other currents in the media landscape of the period. If that's something you knew already then I freely concede I've probably got no additional insights to communicate beyond those you already possess.

      In any case, they only take a few minutes to read per issue and make a welcome break from my current professional reading, which is all relentlessly grim material about early Victorian cholera epidemics!

    2. Oh, and nice job on that city guards table!

    3. Literary criticism is not exclusively based on reading serious, high-quality art and talking about how great it is, after all. If it were, we'd still be in the long period where a holder of an English degree could expect to quote Shakespeare and Milton by heart but know very little about what any of it meant, much less what it didn't mean but could still be learned from it.

    4. Yes - I feel that studying any kind of media can be potentially illuminating provided it's approached in the right way. It would obviously be crazy to read 'Witchblade' in the same way as, say, 'Paradise Lost', because 'Paradise Lost' is packed with endless layers of thought and nuance and complexity and 'Witchblade'... isn't. But 'Paradise Lost' can't tell you anything about the shape of popular culture in the 1990s. It can't even tell you anything about the shape of popular culture in the 1670s, because barely anyone at the time actually read it. So anyone using literature as a source for cultural history needs to be ready to do a lot of skim-reading of low-status texts!

    5. Just a brief word to say that, Joseph, I have a lot of respect for your ability to give relentlessly polite and thoughtful responses to even the most bad-faith goading comments. The internet can be a miserable, angry place sometimes, but your refusal to give in to that is a much appreciated.

    6. Thanks, Montefeltro. My faith in reasoned online discussion is no doubt naive and misplaced, but it gets me through the night!

  3. Witchblade had the potential to be such a good comic - that's the real shameof it imo. Admittedly it basically lost me after the Danette storyline, but if they could've kept going with coherent storylines and interesting villians it could've been as good a series as '90s Ghost Rider.

    1. It did suffer a weird lack of focus after issue 14, and I can't help but wonder if Christina Z, having told the one story she had to tell, simply lost interest in it after that. (The same thing happened with 'Shi': one strong opening arc followed by lots of helpless flailing.) I'll have to look into Ghost Rider!

    2. That could easily be the case - Spawn suffered the same problem iirc. Regarding Ghost Rider some of the best storylines are actually crossovers with its spinoff books (and eventually Dr Strange) so be ready for the starting around #25 uirc. They're all easy to find in cbr format tho ;)

  4. Again, thank you for writing this series! It's been a fascinating read and something that warrants further inspection.

    I feel that the issue inherent to the "bad girl" trope - how do you write something empowering when in order to sell issues you have to play to the very things you're criticizing? - pops up in other ways in comics all the time. (Other forms of media as well - superhero stuff in general - but most often comics, from my experience.) On one hand they often have messages of personal triumph and standing up for the little guy, but on the other, the characters are rarely, if ever, truly normal individuals. Sure, *anyone* could have been bitten by a radioactive spider, but they point is that they weren't. Any message of personal empowerment is undercut when the character is, well, empowered. That 90s bad girl comics are constantly reminding the reader that their protagonists aren't really in control of their own destiny and/or wardrobe only serves to undercut any inspiring message, on top of the effect of the wardrobe itself. There can be still be a good story underneath such a failed attempt, but in most of these cases, what remains is, as you said about Ghost, nothing but boobs and gunfire.

    (Also I applaud the return of the MANLINESS tag.)

    1. Thanks - and that's a really interesting point! I think you're absolutely right to see superhero media as torn between its conflicting imperatives of identification ('this character is just like me!') and wish fulfilment ('this character is who I wish I could be, but never will be'), and that this tension can cause weaker ones to self-destruct into incoherence: 'You just have to stand up for yourself! And be able to lift ten tons with each hand!'

      The best ones find ways of using it to their advantage, though. In 'Buffy', for example, the things Buffy does that we *can't* do (stabbing a room full of demons) are usually metaphors for things that we *could* do (standing up to social pressure). And classic Marvel comics like 'Spider-Man' get their whole energy from the regular oscillation between wish fulfilment (Spider-Man flinging cars) and real life (Spider-Man worrying about paying his aunt's medical bills). Every time the story starts to feel too grim and real, it gets an injection of fantasy; and every time it threatens to spiral away into pure fantasy, it gets yanked back down to earth.

      I think you're right to see the problem as particularly acute in series like these, though, insofar as even their moments of apparent empowerment are simultaneously moments of disempowerment. At the very moment that Sara stands, bladed and invincible, over the prostrate body of Kenneth Irons, she is simultaneously exposed to the fetishising gaze of the reader, the one person the Witchblade cannot cut. So for a female reader even the moments of exultation - 'girls *can* beat boys!' - are also moments of defeat - 'but they'd better make sure they have perfect hair and make-up while doing it'. Villains can be vanquished, but social pressures are unkillable, because they're embodied not just by characters within the comic but by *the comic itself*. As a result, comics like 'Witchblade' have historically struggled with performing the same role in the fantasy lives of girls that comics like 'Spider-Man' have performed so successfully in the fantasy lives of generations of boys.

      (Compare and contrast a genuinely female-driven popular fantasy like 'The Hunger Games', where having to live up to other people's standards of femininity and attractiveness is one of the things Katniss is rebelling against!)