“Stalingrad” by Ron Marz (writer), Tony Shasteen (pencils and inks), Jo Mettler (colors) and Troy Petreri (letters). “Interlude” by Ron Marz (writer), Matt Haley (pencils), Jason Gorder (inks) Michael Atiyeh (colors) and Troy Peteri (letters). “The Devil’s Due” by Matthew Dow Smith (writer and illustrater)
The Story: Like most annuals, this one contains multiple stories. Unlike other annuals, this one actually has a through-line running through (the comic portion) of the stories that ties them together with a broad, overarching theme (in this case, past bearer’s of the Witchblade.) We get a tale of a Bearer who uses the Witchblade to excellent effect during World War II (the Battle of Stalingrad, natch), a story about Joan of Arc, and a non-historical Bearer related prose tale that can’t quite make up its mind what it’s trying to be.
What’s Good: I really enjoyed this issue! I’m always a sucker for putting things (especially ancient, mystical artifacts like the Witchblade) in some sort of historical context, so I love hearing tales of the past Bearers, and the ways they chose to use its exceptional power. Marz does an excellent job bringing his two stories to life (although the Joan of Arc interlude was criminally short…more on that later) and Smith’s prose story was well written and entertaining.
“Stalingrad” is clearly the centerpiece of the book, and it serves that purpose very well. The visuals are appropriately dark, with the occasional otherworldly flare that fantastical stories set in the real world need to be effective and believable. The present-day scenes that bookend the piece are strange (in a good way) and throw the reader just off balance enough to sympathize with Sara without losing the overall thread of the story.
Although I love prose, I’m not usually a fan of having short stories in my comic books (after all, if I wanted to read a short story, I’d have picked one up, wouldn’t I?) and Smith does nothing that’s so exceptional it changes my mind on that front, but the story is good enough that it doesn’t detract (much) from the annual, and is a quick and fun read in spite of its length. The illustrations, on the other hand–while they are nice enough–feel quite perfunctory and unnecessary, and the page space could have been far better spent on almost anything else.
What’s Not So Good: While I love the Joan of Arc “Interlude,” I can’t help but feel a tad ripped off by it. I understand that “interlude” means ‘short,’ but a few more pages to round it out would have improved the annual immensely, especially when its followed up by so many pages of a pure-text story. Cutting down the short story a bit, and dedicating that space to fleshing out “Interlude” a bit more (whether that’s more space spent on Joan of Arc herself, or more space to Sara’s reaction to the dream and strange events of the past few days) would have improved the overall reading experience of all the stories immensely.
Conclusion: This annual isn’t for neophytes of the Witchblade universe. It was clearly written for people who already know and understand the premise of the series. With that in mind, however, if you are a fan, this is worth the price premium to own and enjoy.