Brian Haberlin first became friends with Brian Holguin as a teen, when both attended neighboring high schools La Canada and La Crescenta in Southern California. Holguin and his brother, Kevin, hooked Haberlin on comics by showing him the great sequential works of the ’70s and the ’80s, including iconic runs from Frank Miller, Jim Starlin, John Byrne, and Wally Wood.
Holguin and his brother, Kevin, hooked Haberlin on comics by showing him the great sequential works of the ’70s and the ’80s, including iconic runs from Frank Miller, Jim Starlin, John Byrne, and Wally Wood. In addition to comics, the two Brians bonded over history, music, and animation. They even had a similar sense of of dark, ironic political humor—a quality that Haberlin cites as the single most important ingredient in their healthy collaboration.
That profound friendship eventually transformed into a professional relationship. “Holguin was always writing, while I was always drawing,” Haberlin says. “And he just got better and better...so it was a no brainer to [work with] him once I got into the industry.”
The pair collaborated on their first Spawn comic together in the late ’90s and would go on to work on a slew of projects together, including their urban Celtic fantasy, Aria, in 1999. This week, 20 years later, the two Brians are treating fans to a Medieval Spawn and Witchblade miniseries, introducing a brand-new Hellspawn and Witchblade bearer.
While the narrative in Medieval Spawn and Witchblade #1 doesn’t obsess over legacy, its co-leads both share a storied lineage. Spawn and Witchblade (the latter co-created by Haberlin) stood at the epicenter of the creator-centric Image Revolution of the ’90s, a revolution that has sparked untold careers in comics, animation, and film.
Spawn and Witchblade themselves are, in their own ways, legacy characters. A slew of damned souls besides original Spawn Al Simmons have become Hellspawns—captains of hell adorned in chains and ectoplasmic garb—and a line of heroines have donned the Witchblade—a shape-shifting symbiotic gauntlet—besides original bearer Sara Pezzini. "That's one of the things, when we were creating Witchblade, that we liked," Haberlin says. "We could always jump into the past to tell stories of previous bearers.”
However, unlike the mostly bright and cheery hand-me-down mantles of classic superhero comics, Spawn and Witchblade’s birthrights revel in darkness, pain, and corruption. They are burdened by otherworldly responsibilities passed up and down the winding path of history. This is one of the reasons Haberlin finds himself continually drawn to these Faustian characters, wielding weapons that often come with a terrible price. He asks, “Can you take power that is by its very nature evil and do good with it?”
Mix that dynamic morality with a decades-long working friendship between the aforementioned Brians, and readers have a comic that vibrates with legacy, history, and harrowing action.
The cover to Medieval Spawn/Witchblade #1, the aesthetic hybrid of an epic religious painting and a black-light poster lovingly pasted to a basement wall, sets the stage for an atypical sword-and-sorcery tale. The entire first issue exudes the feeling of an extended heavy metal album cover. How can it not with a main character like Spawn—in this case, a half-alive amnesiac king possibly named Valon who wields a sword called Peace Bringer, glowing neon-green with the infernal power of the underworld? (The new bearer of the Witchblade doesn’t appear till the sophomore issue.)
Readers first meet this new warrior when he rides into battle to defend a group of severely outgunned villagers besieged by a battalion of the undead. Although he considers himself an anonymous warrior doing his duty, a young boy quickly recognizes him. According to the boy, Spawn is the aforementioned Valon, returned to the realm after many years abroad. But Spawn's memories are fleeting. He doesn’t fully remember his past, nor why the world he left has become overrun with monstrosities and ghouls, but vows to find out and return his kingdom to its former glory.
The tale unfolds during a hazily defined period in the middle ages in a quasi-European locale. The period is, at a glance, decidedly Medieval. But Haberlin and Holguin have taken their liberties, opting more for visual impact than fastidious historicity: the comic offers period-appropriate weapons and armor for the human characters and undead warriors alike. But raging zombie warriors are only the tip of the iceberg in a comic book property so steeped in the politics of heaven and hell. Haberlin promises a host of undead creatures, giants, angels, demons, and even gods in future issues.
Haberlin and colorist Geirrod Van Dyke work in a painterly style that complements the visceral subject matter and time period. Barbarian auteur Frank Frazetta’s brutal warscapes lie in the periphery of this visual DNA, but the comic also sports a digital sheen that evokes a sense of fusion between the old and new. In some instances, this combination lends itself to the grotesque, in others, the otherworldly and the magical. "With my current style, there is so much detail, we often find that color is needed to add atmosphere and reduce some of the detail...using color more like a cinematographer."
Haberlin embraces the power and flexibility of digital art in more than just the reading experience. The cover to Medieval Spawn and Witchblade #1 uses augmented reality to bring Medieval Spawn to life by adding animation to the composition. Through an iPhone and Android app, readers will also be able to swap their faces with characters from the book. Additionally, they'll be able to flip through Haberlin's layouts, pencils, and inks with notes from both him and Spawn creator Todd McFarlane.
This Medieval Spawn is a "newbie" according to Haberlin. He doesn't know who he is, where he's going, or how he's going to get there. But this Spawn—like Witchblade, and the myriad characters who have claimed those names as their own—is part of a grand tradition, a legacy that stretches back a quarter of a century. Haberlin and his old friend Holguin are part of that legacy, too. They've added their stories to a vast tapestry, a tradition that will outlive them both. But Haberlin's idea of working on Medieval Spawn/Witchblade is more intimate than that. For him, returning to the characters he helped shine, and in some cases create, is another day on the job.
"It's more or less like going home."