In Grant Morrison’s book Supergods, in between all of the other things, he noted one fact that inadvertently explained a lot: that the three issues he wrote of Spawn made him an absolutely insane amount of money. With that knowledge in hand, it suddenly becomes clear why Alan Moore was plied into writing Violator vs. Badrock (which I’ll get to in due time), or why Chris Claremont wrote an arc of WildC.A.T.s, or why Ron Marz split time between a relatively high-profile gig on Green Lantern and the WildStorm b-title, StormWatch. Marc Silvestri’s Top Cow imprint was more low-key with its writers, instead mostly banking on superstar-artists-in-the-making like David Finch and Michael Turner (in addition to Silvestri himself). The only “star” writer I can recall them popping out is one who only went to the well twice: Garth Ennis.
Remember, too, that back in 1996, “Garth Ennis” wasn’t even an adjective yet. He was a foreign star still on the ascent in the American market, doing Preacher, soon to be doing Hitman, not even close to Punisher. He did the first six issues of The Darkness, which spun off from Witchblade during that brief, bizarre moment when Witchblade was one of the hottest titles in all of comicdom. He also did this: Medieval Spawn / Witchblade, a team-up crossover that on first glance is just bizarre, and on second glance is still bizarre but telling as an ancestor of Ennis’s current output.
Prior to this, Medieval Spawn had appeared a handful of times; Medieval Witchblade had never appeared anywhere, ever. Medieval Spawn was a plot device conjured up by Neil Gaiman during the Critics’ Choice pseudo-arc of Spawn: he appeared, he was killed by Spawn-hunting angel Angela, and that was that. Had he not received an action figure in the first line of Spawn action figures, he would likely not have made any further showings (then again, he hasn’t been used in fifteen years anyway, thanks to legal shootouts between Gaiman and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane). Between the two characters, he was the known quantity. Nonetheless, this was a series sold less on the value of the characters we were actually reading about, and more on that of the characters that they were based on.
In shaping Katarina, the Medieval Witchblade, Ennis gave her two qualities: a fondness for drinking, and a fondness for fighting. (Okay, two and a half: she has a fat, scheming sidekick named Stalker.) Medieval Spawn doesn’t even get that much — he’s a guy who goes around fighting bad people because there are bad people around to fight. The point of the whole thing would be a bit lost on me if I didn’t recognize a splash page in #3 that connects one of the villains of the piece to Arcanum, the short-lived creator-owned series by MS/W artist Brandon Peterson. Having not read Arcanum, I can only imagine that this mini uses Medieval Spawn and Medieval Witchblade to shoehorn in a stealth pilot of some kind for Peterson’s new thing. If not, well, then it’s just a huge brawl for three issues.
Let’s talk about Peterson for a minute: this may actually be the point where he well and truly came out of the “hey, guys, I really like Jim Lee” style that marked his early efforts on titles like Uncanny X-Men. This was also way before his current style, which involves 3-D modeling and bright plastic colors. He was still building this style, though — it would only really peak around ’99 or so, with his three issues of Astonishing X-Men during the Alan Davis years. Having about fifteen million billion inkers doesn’t help — nor do the fill-ins in #3, including two pages from a young Michael Turner, and a couple from Billy Tan that show just how far Tan has come since then. (Stalker goes from being fat to being, in Tan’s pages, an outright dwarf.)
Still, when I said that this was a bit of a glimpse into the future, I meant it. Nowadays, “Garth Ennis” is his own house style, and some products of it are markedly less inspired than others. This is an early case of that. While cynicism doesn’t drip off the page, the story also barely makes any attempt to draw the reader in — it’s content just to entertain with mindless fighting, and a joke or two. Don’t break your back looking for it, unless you’re just dying to learn about… uh, Medieval Witchblade.