90s comics, for better or worse, were over the top. Muscles had muscles, guns were impractically huge, spandex so tight you could not tell where human skin started and costume ended, and useless belts, pouches, and giant metallic shoulder pads ran amok. Hell, even Superman had a mullet.
Call it satire or products of commercialism, the insane if not hilarious character designs went hand-in-hand with hyper violence and sexualization. Among all the indie capes and cowls of the 90s, none better surmised this than Witchblade. Often cited as having one of the most badass of heroines, even garnering international popularity, it was also a title whose main character was a half naked woman, written and illustrated by men, albeit talented, but still men with male gazes. Decades of reading Witchblade presented something problematic for female fans and certainly opened a floodgate of conversation.
Needless to say, fullest respect for the lady lead duo of Caitlin Kittredge and Roberta Ingranata for taking on the indomitable task of rebooting such a controversial, beloved 90s title.
Kittredge honors the history of the Witchblade without bogging down newcomers in research, all the while turning the pen away from the title’s excessive sex appeal to instead a potentially more nuanced and empowering noir story. Alex Underwood, a former war journalist turned advocate for battered women and victims of domestic violence, takes the mantle over from Detective Sara Pezzini. Although this appears to be a complete reboot and there’s no sign of Pezzini or former lore, Kittredge quickly but effectively inserts a few panels showing a confused Alex the long, multicultural lineage of Witchblade hosts. This leaves just enough wiggle room to possibly tie in past story arcs and characters.
It’s always appreciated when a writer toys with chronology and avoids heady exposition, especially in a detective story. Alex’s introduction to the Witchblade is feverish, just as the reader’s introduction is to her, who is met bleeding out in an alleyway with very little context. However, Kittredge may play with chronology a little too well. It may take a second read to build sympathy for Alex, but take a closer look and piece together the issue’s frenetic timeline, she is a broken woman trying to pick up the pieces of a past trauma, all the while maintaining a reckless ambition to care for others. Subtly inserting just a single panel of Alex’s retinue of pill bottles and panels of dragging herself home despite a fatal gunshot, Kittredge offers a more humanized, vulnerable, but strong female lead, as opposed to the hardboiled, loose cannon cop that Pezzini was.
Ingranata compliments Kittredge’s detective story with a New York cityscape in the dead of an unforgiving winter, panels are painted in cold, steel blues and greys. The panel composition is surprisingly fluid and cinematic for a book with so little time to introduce a new character. There is an ominous panel that views Alex from above on a train, then followed by a panel with a view behind her ascending up from the page, showing without telling that she is walking up from a subway station. This may seem insignificant in the book’s greater narrative, but it seems Ingranata has no problem in experimenting with angles. In a sequence when Alex is spiraling into madness as the Witchblade infuses with her, readers watch from feverish Dutch angles and tilts.
The boobs, gore, and occult horror may take the back burner in this premier issue, detouring some traditionalist fans of the series. The first issue reads more as a detective noir with little action, but complimented by Ingranata’s eye for bleak color palettes and cinematic panel composition. Readers, new or old, should stay for Kittredge’s more relevant and humanized Witchblade host, who tackles trauma and domestic violence, appealing to the title’s feminist quality without the typical, flat “badass female protagonist” trope.