Twenty years ago, seven of the biggest creators in the industry banded together, created their own comics and made up their own rules as they went along. One of those artists happened to be Marc Silvestri, best known for drawing “Uncanny X-Men” and “Wolverine” at the time. Silvestri, who was thinking of leaving comics for Hollywood at the time, teamed up with Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio and Rob Liefeld to form Image Comics.
Instead of heading to the bright lights of tinseltown, Silvestri launched his own company, Image Comics partner studio Top Cow, and immediately got to work on a brand-new series called “Cyber Force,” an idea that actually began life in his mind as a potential X-Men spinoff. From there, Silvestri amassed a group of writers, artists and editors all looking to make their mark on the comics industry. As the company developed, so did its talent and characters, including a pair of creations that are still going strong today: Witchblade and The Darkness.
On the twentieth anniversary of Top Cow’s incorporation, CBR News spoke with Silvestri and Top Cow’s President and Chief Operating Officer Matt Hawkins, who also happened to be around when Image was founded as one of Liefeld’s employees. The resulting conversation is an epic trip down memory lane, starting with the chance meeting that lead to Silvestri’s involvement in Image and leading all the way to this week’s “Cyber Force” relaunch (which can be read for free on CBR).
We covered so much ground, in fact, that we’ve split the interview in half! This first part focuses on how Image worked, the conflicts that rose up, the brief time during which Silvestri and Top Cow split off from Image and the creation of Witchblade and The Darkness.
Let’s start way back in the beginning, Marc. How did your involvement in Image begin and what were your first impressions of all these creators getting together to branch out on their own?
Marc Silvestri: I’ve told this to people before and they didn’t quite believe me, but I was actually at that time looking for a way out of the business. I wanted to get into the film business because I had been in comics since ’81, so it was like 11 years. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time, but comics, when you’re on deadlines 24-7, it’s like dog years — there’s a fast burnout rate.
At that point in my life, I’d reached the pinnacle. I’d worked on “X-Men,” I’d worked with Chris Claremont, and beyond the X-Men, there was “Wolverine,” which was great because I loved working with Larry Hama. Twenty years ago, there wasn’t much else you could do beyond that. I didn’t really have much interest in any other characters, I wasn’t built for Spider-Man, I was crappy at Spider-Man, so I really didn’t know what to do and I was looking for something that was going to pull me into some new kind of creative direction. I didn’t see that in comics at that point.
For me, the idea of creator ownership was in the stratosphere, it wasn’t going to happen. Frank Miller, who at that point was already wildly famous with “Dark Knight Returns” and even “Ronin,” was getting a lot of eyeballs. That wasn’t me at that time, so I didn’t consider that an option. For me, the timing was perfect, I needed something to keep me in comics and to keep me creative. Ironically, I went over to New York for the big X-book meeting. Bob Harras was the editor-in-chief who pulled us all together. Rob Liefeld was there, Peter David was there and we were in a conference room talking about the direction of the X-Men books. In that room I was pitching the idea of Cyber Force to Bob Harras as a spinoff book of the X-Men, which accounts for a lot of the similarities Cyber Force had in the early days with the X-Men. I wanted my own book, Jim Lee had just had success with “X-Men” #1 and spinoffs were going all over the place. I’d pitched a spinoff of “Wolverine,” and that didn’t go anywhere because they were doing something with Weapon X. Rob would later tell me that he wanted to kick me under the table because he already knew about Image Comics and was thinking, “No, no, no, don’t tell them. Save this. This would be great for Image.”
After that meeting, I ran into Todd [McFarlane] at the hotel. He pitched me what Image was and said that Rob was on board and Erik Larsen and Jim Valentino. Jim [Lee] was still on the fence with it. Jim was the prize, that’s something everyone knew, that if the golden boy, as Todd called him, switched over to Image, that’s when the earthquake would happen. In my head, it was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. I had mad respect for guys like Todd and Jim. Those guys were the most successful guys in comics at that time and probably that comics had seen. It was that time in comics history when the rock stars were being grown for the first time, and those guys were the rock stars. I said, “Let’s do this.” In my head, I’d already made the decision to do it. I was in a relationship at the time and had to move, so there was a conversation I had to have, but I was already going to say yes. It wasn’t until later that night when I told Todd I was in, but he had me at hello, basically.
The idea was perfect, the idea that it was a group of guys instead of one guy. I think John Byrne had tried it at that time with “Next Men.” One guy going out wasn’t a big deal unless your name was Frank Miller, but these seven guys making it happen at the same time? That’s going to make a dent. And obviously, it did. I jumped in with both feet and both hands, all in.
Readers now might not realize that while creator-owned comics were around, they were not very prominent. Did you have a lot of original ideas bouncing around while working at Marvel?
Silvestri: Cyber Force. That world, not the specific characters, but that world had been floating around my head for a long time. I was working with Chris Claremont, and Chris is Chris and I drew Chris’ stories. I was more than thrilled to be involved with him and was just going to draw what he wanted. I didn’t really feel it was my place to stick ideas in there. I grew up a sci-fi geek, that’s where I come from. When I was a kid it was all about sci-fi, fantasy and horror. If you look at “Cyber Force” and the world, it mixed elements of sci-fi and Frankenstein back from my horror roots. Those have always been stewing around in there.
There was very little opportunity. Neal Adams was doing something with Continuity, but at that time it wasn’t really looked at as a serious contender for creator ownership because there wasn’t really a model for it to go anywhere unless you did “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” That got people going, but how do you create that and how do people know what it is? How do you get that lightning in a bottle?
Matt, from your perspective looking at the industry, if one of the Image guys had gone out on his own, and Rob had done that technically before Image started with “Youngblood,” what do you think the impact would have been?
Matt Hawkins: I think it would have been much less. The unity, the sort of band of brothers thing going on [appealed to people]. There were other companies that were launched, like Chaos, Brian Pulido’s company, and other one-man troupes. The majority of those don’t exist today. That alone speaks volumes to me. Image has been growing over the past few years. Some of them are making a comeback like Valiant, but I don’t think Valiant would be coming back if it hadn’t been gone for 15 years. There’s something about Image and those guys and their books still do very will.
I think the fact that they only added one partner in the history of the company in Robert Kirkman [speaks volumes]. Guys like Grant Morrison and Mark Millar all doing projects at Image says volumes about what they did. I came along a year later and have been part of it ever since, but it changed everything.
A lot of that seems to come from the huge status of the founders and that they were big name guys doing something that wasn’t being done by many people of that stature in comics at the time.
Silvestri: That was the secret to the initial success. I joke, but not really, when I say the main function of Image Comics was its dysfunction. The fact that you had these guys who could do pretty much whatever they wanted to because the fan base followed them everywhere and bought whatever they published. It was a perfect storm of timing, the industry was looking for something like this. You had these seven big personalities that pretty much made press every time they opened their mouths. “Wizard Magazine” existed pretty much because of Image Comics. There was suddenly a gossip magazine in comics. [Laughs] Why did you need that? You didn’t need that before, but you’ve got these knuckleheads who say all kinds of stupid shit and they’re making all these waves, making people nervous and making fans excited, let’s follow them. There was this whole industry that kind of sprung up around Image Comics. As Matt said, there were companies like Chaos, and Dark Horse had been around a long time, but nothing of this scale where you had the creators literally owning and running everything they did had been done before. The fact that it was the guys drawing “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” and “X-Force,” that was a big deal back then.
I’ve said this before too, but up to that point, everything that had happened in comics, even Marvel Comics when they were formed, was kind of like a soft entry, kind of like evolutionary stuff. Like, “Oh cool, I like this Spider-Man guy. Oh cool, Hulk,” but it wasn’t an impact, it wasn’t an explosion that rocked the industry. When Image hit, it was such a sudden bomb that everything changed, not just new characters being introduced, but a whole new way of doing business. That was something that I think was the most lasting change from Image Comics, it literally changed the whole industry, the paradigm, when it happened.
Aside from creator ownership, what other aspects of the comic book paradigm changed thanks to Image’s existence?
Hawkins: It’s a lot of things. Image changed the paper stock they used, they changed coloring, they changed a lot of stuff everyone imitates now. You look at the standard for the top ten Marvel and DC books today, they are still following what the Image guys did in 1994. It’s interesting that a lot of the top tier guys at Marvel and DC came from Image.
Silvestri: That’s a good point about the production stuff. I remember when Image was just getting started, that was a huge thing for us as artists, the print quality that our work was being put on. Even around that time, Marvel was looking to cut back on paper quality. One of the first things we did with Image, even before we blew up successfully, is we looked into higher quality printing and production in general. When Todd did that first issue of “Spawn,” literally all of our jaws dropped when we saw that first issue. That’s when we knew we’d really found something different and people were going to take notice of how these books looked. There was no turning back at that point.
Hawkins: I remember some of those early discussions. No one really seemed to care what it cost. They just wanted to make it look cool, make their work look better. It was a different time.
Silvestri: And it was because of that dysfunction. None of us knew what the hell we were doing as business people. The fact that it did blow up so hard and the fans did respond to what Image Comics was, like Matt said, we were all able to throw money at an idea and see what would happen. That’s where all those crazy covers came from, the heavier printing stock, late books. [Laughs] Because we could get away with it. It was a crazy time for experimentation and changing the entire ball field.
Was the idea of everyone having their own imprints and doing a lot of their own thing part of the Image concept from the beginning?
Silvestri: Yeah, I think that was the first rule of fight club for us and I use the term “fight club” purposefully. In the early days of Image it was necessary for all of us to have separate companies. That was one of the first rules and it was all in the spirit of Image. It’s still part of our maxim today, it’s your thing, you do your thing. For us it was pretty simple, we’re going to have this confederacy of seven businesses, seven different companies all under the umbrella called Image Comics because that unity, that size, that market share of all of us together under one banner allowed us to make better deals with distribution and printing and all those things. Under Image we had these blanket deals that we couldn’t have had if we were seven different companies.
At the same time, none of us wanted the other partner to tell us what to do on a micro level. Macro, okay, this is Image Comics, here’s our five rules of conduct, but aside from that, Todd, you want to destroy yourself and make toys? Go ahead, though that worked out pretty well with him. We all shook our heads and rolled our eyes when Todd told us his plan to make toys, like, “Really? We’re not making that much money yet, dude.” That was the beauty of Image Comics back then, you could do something stupid like that and make it work. But we couldn’t have done that if Todd and me and Jim and Rob and everyone all had to make those decisions together. We probably would have voted to not do the toys, but that’s not how it was put together, Todd could do what he wanted, I could do what I wanted, Rob could do what he wanted.
It’s that dysfunction that made us functional and ultimately, I think it’s why we’re still here today. If we had behaved like a real company, like a real corporation and been a single unit, it would have self destructed like everyone predicted within six months. When you think about the very reason Image was formed was completely against corporate common sense, it was about, “I want to do what I want to do, I don’t want anyone telling me ‘no.'” Aside from stuff that made common sense that we would all have to vote on, what a person did with their own company was their own business.
How did you go about recruiting talent and staff for Top Cow? Was it difficult getting people to join up with this new idea in the early days?
Silvestri: To staff up, where were we going to go? We had to go where people knew already what they were doing in the business. Those days we were all like, “Fuck the man,” especially guys like Erik Larsen, who was like, “Fuck Marvel! Burn that bridge right now!” It was a fight, at times. We were surprised that more creators didn’t jump on board with us. We had a few brave souls, like Dale Keown and Sam Kieth, but otherwise, it was kind of hard to pull people away from a steady paycheck. There was a lot of money flying around, so we were able to offer a couple extra dollars, a plane ticket and help you move in to California. A lot of these guys lived in New York with the cold and the winter. It wasn’t hard to seduce people that were ready for a change. San Diego is beautiful, and if you’re living with winter, it’s not hard to be coerced into joining the dark side. That’s what we were doing, making phone calls.
[Future editor-in-chief and executive vice president] David Wohl actually came into the fold because Jim Lee had called him and brought him out. I don’t remember the reason, but it wasn’t going to work out with WildStorm and David Wohl, but David was already out there and I had a conversation with him. Dave’s a great guy and he seemed like a good fit, so we hired him. It didn’t work out for WildStorm, but it worked out for Top Cow. It becomes like a ripple effect, that person then knows some people to call, and you start getting your letterers.
At Homage, we shared some talent. Mike Heisler was a letterer, and he didn’t belong to Top Cow or WildStorm. He was a freelancer in our office at Homage. He did all of our lettering. Then, [editor] Brad Foxhoven, I think was brought in off a resume straight out of college. He was a punk ass kid, like 22 or 23, something like that. We liked what he had to say. I believe I already had a relationship with the Foxhovens. They would buy a lot of my artwork for their store in Arizona.
What was the Homage studio like with Whilce Portacio, WildStorm and Top Cow all under the same roof?
Silvestri: It was one of those things, especially once Image started to look like it was going to stick around for more than six months, and again there was a lot of money to be paid. It was getting a little easier to find talent, especially since Extreme and Homage had a studio. We had this studio where this was a big thing and it was put together by these comic book rock stars. You had a studio where it was Jim Lee, me, Whilce Portacio, Scott Williams — it wasn’t hard to start attracting young talent. These guys could work in the same studio as us. Very quickly we started getting guys like Jeff Scott Campbell, Batt, Travis Charest, Joe Benitez, David Finch. The list just kept growing because the working environment became irresistible.
For me, early on, I knew that I didn’t want to be on my own with no one else who could do what I did up in LA. I was trying to start this business and trying to create new content all at the same time. Going down to Homage and joining up with Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio who were already partners, and all of us being together, at least we could look at each other and have conversations about making things work better and through osmosis learn the business from our mistakes and successes. For me, the decision to go down and be part of Homage was pretty simple. I wanted to be around an environment that was conducive to learning both for business and artistic purposes. It just grew naturally. Once things hit, we were able to make phone calls and people were more and more interested to join up.
You’ve talked about how competitive it could get between the founders. Is that what led you to split Top Cow off from Image?
Silvestri: It was a little bit crazy, obviously. Image had only been around for three or four years and I was already like, “I’m outta here! Fuck this, it doesn’t work!” There was a lot going on for all of us. It was at the time of the dawn of when Hollywood was getting interested in comic books. Tim Burton’s “Batman” movie did well, it was before “X-Men” came out, but “X-Men” was a successful cartoon, so there were possibilities. We were making all these deals and there were opportunities out there for us individually that there weren’t for us before and we could be successful on our own without the safety net of Image.
For me, personally, there was a lot of BS going on that I wasn’t happy about, we weren’t watching each others’ backs like we were originally and were starting to feed on each other. Basically, the way that it worked, Marvel was just sitting back and waiting for us to implode because we were our own worst enemies at this point. Production costs were going sky high because we were competing with each other as partners and for talent. Talent was doing great, because they were getting the benefits of these partners who wanted the best out there and were willing to pay the price. It got to be too much, so I went, “You know what, I’m out of here.”
And what made you want to bring Top Cow back to Image? Were the things that were bothering you fixed?
Silvestri: We can’t really discuss this in any real depth, but a few conversations later and a couple of things that I needed for myself and as a company that needed to be taken care of got taken care of, and we came back in. Within Image, it just went back to business as it was, but from my perspective, a little calmer. It was a wild time in the history of a wild company. It’s never not been wild. You can ask Matt this — there’s always something.
Hawkins: I talked to the guys who did the Kickstarter “Image Revolution” documentary, and it turned into a bit of revisionist history with everything being so positive. The early days of Image, it was like that group of brothers thing where they were out to get each other, but the second anyone from the outside tried to fuck with them, they all rallied together. I worked with Rob in the early days, and we absolutely saw WildStorm and Top Cow as our enemy. That was the mentality. It was bred into us that these are our rival publishers. That was my recollection of it.
What effects did this inter-company rivalry have on the books and the relationships between the founders?
Silvestri: That’s where the problems started, the fact that we no longer considered Marvel and DC to be our competitors. There was the joke where Marvel was our farm club. Marvel would get these guys and then we’d steal them. It would reverse later on, ironically, but back then, we were throwing dollars at anybody and Marvel had to try and compete with what they called super contracts for some of their main talent, which was a lot of money. Quite frankly, I think it was deserved because I think comic book people are underpaid for the work they do. Back then, a lot of the money to certain talent was deserved. It wasn’t deserved for a lot of it, but you had the trickledown effect. If you’re paying this guy, you have to pay this guy. We did become our own worst enemy. It was inevitable. You had these massive egos that built a company on making sure nobody could tell you no. When Marvel no longer became competition for us, who was our competition? Well, our partners.
That said, we were this band of brothers. But then again, which one of us is Michael Corleone and which one is Fredo? [Laughs] At the end of the day, we thought, “Fuck that, you’re my brother. I want to strangle you, I want to put a hit on you, but at the end of the day, we’re Image Comics. We’ve fought together, we’ve fought side by side and we survived.” At the 20 year anniversary that we celebrated at the Image Expo, there was a real sense of the fact that we did survive some heavy war within the industry and with ourselves. We did make a difference. We do have each others’ backs.
Hawkins: They couldn’t be more different, now. There’s almost no acrimony at all.
Silvestri: In fact, there isn’t any. Matt was there during the heaviest times. Once the bloom was off the rose and the competition internally had started. Matt and I met on the phone.
Hawkins: That’s a funny story, actually. The first time I spoke to Marc, I called Top Cow to talk to Mike Turner because Rob had told me to hire him. To be fair, Mike had come up and spent time at Extreme, so he was courting different studios. I know he was at WildStorm, too. So, I called Mike, who I had built a social relationship with at Top Cow, and the next thing I know, I’m talking to Marc, who’s yelling at me. That was the first and only time I spoke to Marc before I started working there in ’98. I remember him walking up to me and saying, “This is pretty funny, isn’t it?” For the longest time, I thought Marc, after screaming at me on the phone, was this lunatic guy. Now that I’ve worked with Marc so closely for the past 13 years, I can tell you he’s probably the most mellow guy I think I know. I don’t think I’ve ever heard you yell again since that initial phone call.
Silvestri: [Laughs] No, not like that. You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.
Hawkins: I’ve seen you plenty angry in the past 14 years, but never like that.
Silvestri: It all boils back down to how the acrimony that was there isn’t there anymore. We are the survivors. Todd has his own successful business, Top Cow is its own successful business, Kirkman’s shown the world what creator ownership means. He’s the greatest success story of Image, really, because he came in after the recruiting, after the wild west behavior, and showed us that the basic idea of Image Comics works. It is what you make it. If you want to put in the work, put in your own dollars, put your money where your mouth is with a great idea, it can work for you. We had some good times, though, some good arguments.
You’ve been the type who can spot artistic talent at a very early stage and help foster it. Is there something specific you look for in the art or even the person themselves?
Silvestri: It’s not so much the type of person, because you’re going to get all kinds of personalities. You’re going to get a lot of personalities. Some you’re going to gel with, some you’re not going to gel with. I gelled really well with Mike Turner and most of the other guys, too.
That was an odd benefit of Image that I wasn’t expecting, the whole studio aspect and the teaching school aspect. It wasn’t a goal initially for me, I didn’t think we would have a studio where new talent would come in and learn in this amazing creative space. It just kind of happened. It was very organic. One of my favorite parts of my corner of Image Comics was working with new talent and seeing those corners turn and seeing looks on artists faces [when comics] got published with their names on it.
Back in the ’90s at Top Cow, we had this tradition where we would have this big dinner for all the guys when somebody’s first book came out, like “Weapon Zero” with Benitez. It was great. We had, I don’t know how many people working in The Pit, the artist area. Matt, do you remember how many?
Hawkins: That’s a funny story that I tell sometimes, because when I walked into the studio for the first time, there were ten or twelve guys in the bullpen. I came in to oversee editorial and I started meeting with all these guys and realized that none of the guys in the bullpen drew comics for Top Cow. You guys had taken it a little too far almost. They had a lot of talent, but they wouldn’t draw actual interiors for Top Cow. They were there for months and always coming in and asking me for work. I remember one day I went in and asked you, “Are you ever going to use these guys in the bullpen?” And you looked at me and said, “That one kid’s pretty good.” So I said I’d tell the other guys to just go away because we weren’t doing them any service by having them basically interning, thinking they were going to get work when they’re not. I let like nine of those guys go in one afternoon. I did that because I thought it was a service to those guys, because they were waiting around for work that wasn’t going to come. I’ve talked to a few guys since then, and some of them went on to do some really amazing shit.
Silvestri: There were a lot of talented guys in there.
Hawkins: A lot of talented guys, just not what we were looking for. The early bullpen was Finch and Benitez, Billy Tan, D-Tron and Marc, you were in there. The early Pit was all you guys. When you moved to that bigger space, all the bigger guys got their own offices and there was this big bullpen for the guys who were sort of interning, doing backgrounds and pin-ups and stuff.
How did the bullpen go from such a solid, streamlined core group of guys to something so overwhelming?
Silvestri: We were doing this big expansion, we had plans for all these books and it got out of hand. There was a point where I’d walk into The Pit and not even know who some of the guys were. We’d have friends of friends coming in, and we needed to put the brakes on it. Before that, like Matt said, with guys like Finch, Benitez, Billy Tan, you bring in these guys who really fit the comics. Those were great times. I was always looking for that little spark of talent. If this guy has a little bit more exposure to this part of his talent, if we could pull this part of his talent out a little bit more, we could really get something out of this guy and see what he can do.
That’s where the idea of the Darkness power came from. This guy can make things, he could create anything he wanted — as long as it was in the dark. Then Garth came on board and fleshed out some of the concepts and characters and Jackie and gave him this swagger that made for a great anti-hero. He gave him this unique voice in comics and I loved it. I loved working with Garth and had a great time. He’s still one of my favorite characters that we have, if not my favorite character.
Obviously, The Darkness has gone on to do some really cool things like the video games and such, and so has Witchblade. We’ve had lots of success with Witchblade. I think a lot of people are surprised at how well those have done. It’s not Marvel, it’s not DC. It’s a small little company by comparison, and we’ve been able to make some pretty big waves. It all comes down to what we still think today, which is just do things differently. Even the way we’re launching “Cyber Force” and re-imagining that universe is something that no one else is really doing. It worked for us in the past and it’s going to work for us in the future.
“Withblade” and “Darkness” hit some impressive milestones recently. Was there ever a time when you thought about shuttering them for a bit?
Hawkins: We certainly looked at the idea of relaunching the books. One thing that’s not well known and we haven’t told anyone about, but it’s interesting, is that about three years ago, we started talking to Ron Marz about building to this thing and relaunching the books with new number ones. We’d been planning this thing for a couple years, and then all of a sudden, out of left field, the DC [New] 52 thing got announced and we were like, “Fuck, if we do this when we had planned on it, we’d look like we were just copying these guys.” That’s what the whole Rebirth initiative was. We were looking for the ability to reboot these things, but we decided to do it in terms of the ongoing numbering. It certainly made it more difficult. It’d been easier to pick up readers and do it that way, but we opted to do it the traditional way, to do something different.
“Witchblade” #151, “Darkness” #101 and “Artifacts” #14 were all, in effect, launch books. They were retooled, rebranded issues. We could certainly, at any point, relaunch those books, but there’s a certain stature of having these long-running titles. I’m curious to see in the long runs how comics will work out, if it’s going to be seasons and how Marvel and DC work out some of their stuff. For now, we’re content that “Witchblade” published its 160th issue. That’s cool, and “Darkness” is on #107. That’s a testament to a smaller publisher where they don’t usually get books into those large numbers. Image has several of these: “Savage Dragon,” “Spawn” and “Walking Dead.” we’ve got a number of titles in the three figures, and I think that’s pretty cool.
I don’t think we ever had any intention of stopping the books. We’re always looking to do new stuff, to get people to try them out. With new media, we’re trying different things. I think “Darkness,” “Witchblade,” “Artifacts,” “Cyber Force” — what we’re doing right now is the best it’s ever been. I think in the last six months or so we’ve had, creatively, quite a renaissance. As people start reading these books, and you start reading some of the reviews and commentary on them, it’s pretty universally positive. The one thing you learn when you manage a line of book like this as long as we have, hundreds and hundreds of issues over 15 or 20 years, is that it’s very difficult to maintain a consistent quality over time. If you look at all these long-running series, even if you look at “X-Men” or “Amazing Spider-Man,” it’s amazing highs and lows and you kind of do what you can.
Thus concludes the first part of our interview chronicling the history of Top Cow. Check back with CBR soon to learn out more about some of the company’s bumpier moments, a brief foray into licensed comics, the building of the Artifacts-based universe and the rebirth of “Cyber Force.”
Plus, be sure to check out the full first issue of the “Cyber Force” relaunch on CBR.