Friday, August 20, 2010

Chronic Review: Witchblade Due Process!

Witchblade: Due Process (one-shot)
Image Comics/Top Cow imprint

Script: Phil Smith
Pencils: Alina Urusov
20 pages (+2 extras) for $2.99

Witchblade, to my mind, has always been a T&A book. I'm not being derogatory, mind you, just stating facts. I happen to enjoy both the T and the A, and not everything has to be Grant Morrison for me to enjoy it.

I'm probably being unfair even if I'm being unintentionally pejorative, because I read the first twenty issues or so of the Ron Marz era and found it to contain some pretty solid storytelling. But still, when you come to Witchblade, the house that Silvestri and Turner built, you expect a lot of skin and a little action.

Witchblade: Due Process is not your father's Witchblade. This is more like an episode of the X-Files. Lots of mood and attitude, a couple parts police procedural, and a little supernatural horror.

The story revolves around the plight of one William Hicks. (first pancreatic cancer and now an unjust 10 stretch in a comic book? Yeesh) Early in Sara's career she helped pound the poor guy into hamburger and frame him for a crime he didn't commit.

A decade later Det. Pezzini has gathered enough evidence to free Hicks, but really, the damage has already been done. His family has basically disowned him, he has no hair because he joined the local "White Power" guild, and he's collected an old Christian demon named Agares to help protect himself in the shower. I thought it was interesting that Phil Smith went with Sara caving to peer pressure and then trying to make amends. I think most comic scripts would make their protagonist Serpico, immune to the powers of social persuasion in the name of pure justice. It's a risky move, frankly. It taints the character, but it also makes her more real.

Anywho. Once outside the prison gates, Sara reaches out to Hicks and offers her help, but he wants none of it. The demon in the guy's neck reaches out to Sara for a conversation, too, so now she really interested.

Things go downhill for Hicks from that point on. The choices he's made and the company he's kept make his road to redemption essentially impossible. It's pretty tough to explain to your black wife that you're now a member of the Aryan Nation. When the smoke clears, there's almost nothing left but Hicks' daughter. And now she has the same choice her father had. She's in a tough spot that she didn't create, and she's got a demon and a cop extending their hands. Which will she choose?

I was not familiar with Phil Smith, and did a little nosing around to see if I could find other work of his. I could not. The fine print on the inside cover says that Mr. Smith is the managing editor of Top Cow, so maybe he just wanted to see how the other half lives?

The story reads like an editor's script, actually. The plot and the structure are very tight, you can see where all of the building blocks fit, (exposition goes here, frame the location/characters here) there's some parallelism at the end, and he even did some scriptural research on his demon. Plus, there's a complete story done in twenty pages, which is pretty much a world record at this point, where your typical conversation runs eight pages, and a trip to the grocery store represents a four issue arc. So Smith did all kinds of good things that Jim Shooter would be proud of.

Which is not to say that there aren't issues in the script. A couple of elements yanked me pretty hard out of the narrative, and they both had to do with doling out exposition. The first instance was the introduction between Sara and Agares, in which the demon spells out exactly what Sara can cannot do to him, and the approach she'll need to take in order to beat him. I just don't buy that. My sense is that Smith would counter that he introduced Agares' desperate need for somebody worthy to play with him inside the script, so he baited her with some easy answers. But it felt bizarre to me for a villain to hand out answers like that. My guess is that he had all this cool research that he couldn't wait to parcel out, except there was no readily available way to do that so he just let the demon say it.

The other piece that threw me for a loop was this rather long speech from one of the "white power" types. Nobody would ever say that. Ever. Certainly not that dude. "Thanks to the misperception?" "We are free to do our benefactor's work?" No. I'm not buying it, and it's jarring. That's just a pure exposition dump from a really unlikely source.

I'm lukewarm on the issue. I did enjoy the darker tones of the story. This one is less a superhero book and more of a horror story. The front cover says that it contains graphic content for mature audiences, which sounds about right. It's not that anything is particularly gory. The action is quick, and fairly subdued. In fact, all the damage caused by the demon is temporary. The issues mostly deal with the thugs in the apartment at the end who just can't wait to turn Hicks' teenage daughter into a whore and a rape victim.

I think somewhere inside of Phil Smith is a pretty good writer. He's certainly got structure down, and the concept of this issue was quite good. I think part of the problem is that the real punch comes from caring about Hicks and his family, and its difficult to really form a connection inside of so few pages. Maybe I'm wrong about that.

And if you've ever wanted to see a Witchblade episode of the X-Files, this is pretty much it.

- Ryan

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