Talking Twenty Years of Top Cow with Marc Silvestri

Twenty years ago, Marc Silvestri joined forces with Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino, Todd McFarlane and Whilce Portacio to form Image Comics. On this anniversary year, Silvestri has even more to celebrate thanks to the success of Top Cow, the company that started as an Image imprint, broke out on its own and now is re-allied with the company he helped start.

The universe-altering "Artifacts" came to a conclusion earlier this year making things easier for new readers to jump on books like "Witchblade," "The Darkness," "Magdalena" and the now-ongoing "Artifacts." Top Cow also gains its second 100 issue comic with "The Darkness" this week, a milestone which also marks the end of a long run by writer Phil Hester before David Hine and Jeremy Haun take over the book next month. Additionally, the recently released video game "The Darkness II" from 2K Games and Digital Extremes has scored high marks from critics and players alike.

With so much going on in the world of Top Cow, CBR News spoke with Silvestri about his history in the industry, what he thinks makes Darkness and Witchblade iconic and the importance of surrounding himself with people who can help him run his comic company.

CBR News: Since you were primarily an artist when you started Image and later Top Cow, how important was it to you to surround yourself with people who were interested in some of the areas you weren't familiar with.

Marc Silvestri: One of the things I learned relatively early is, don't pretend to have skills I don't have because when I do, things go bad. I quickly realized I either want to learn how to do that particular thing or I just don't have the aptitude for it and [to] get people for it who are enthusiastic and understand what Top Cow is, what comics are, what entertainment in general is and get them on board. I'm there to work with, but I let them do their thing and have them report to me and tell me what's up. We have meetings, sit down and discuss and they go off and do their thing and I do my thing, it works best that way. Since day one, really, it's like, "Oh shit, I don't know how to do that, I better get somebody in there." That was Brad Foxhoven and David Wohl initially, and then Brian Haberlin for the production department and David Wohl was Editor in Chief back in the day. Matt Hawkins does that now and he does it really, really, really well.

Between last year's "Witchblade" #150 and more recently "The Darkness" #100, you've hit a pair of huge milestones for your flagship characters. Was that something you thought would happen back when these characters first appeared?

You kind of hope. There was no real perspective back then. Now, we have the benefit of historical hindsight. It's funny to say, but when I start thinking about the fact that we've been here for 20 years, there is historical context -- that's an entire generation. Depending on the mood I'm in, that's either like, "Awesome!" or, "I feel pretty old." The cliche is, "Snap your fingers and time has gone by," but that's how it feels. I can't believe the early days of Image and coming up with "Cyberforce" and all the craziness that happened was literally 20 years ago. When I meet fans at conventions, there's a lot of the same age group that I am and younger, but I meet a lot of fans who weren't even born yet when we started. That kind of freaks me out, but it's cool. It's not just fans who were there from day one, but new readers jumping on with Image and Top Cow and that's pretty cool. We must have done something right.

Back then, it wasn't something we even thought about, except for Erik Larsen -- I think he always thought he'd be doing "Savage Dragon" #500. I think that was his goal from day one. He just wanted to do "Savage Dragon" forever, which is awesome because it's a great book and he's a great talent. I think Todd wanted to do a toy company, and obviously, we saw what happened there. He changed that industry. For us, I don't think there was really any sense that the stuff we were creating was really going to have a life 20, 30 years down the line, especially with these mini-icons we've created. Witchblade and Darkness are contemporary icons. They're not on the level of Spider-Man, but it's a cool feeling. You couldn't predict that back then, especially with everyone telling us we had six months, maybe, max to be in business before crawling back to Marvel.

What do you think it is about Witchblade and Darkness that have turned them into these modern cultural icons who have been worked on by various creative teams?

That's the key. With any form of entertainment, comic books, movies, games, TV, whatever, there's been hundreds of thousands of stories coming and going and going in and out, but you can only really name how many icons off the top of your head? Not that many. For us, the fact that we've got Witchblade and Darkness that have become these modern icons, that's a pretty big deal and I think that's why we've been able to have multiple writers and artists on those books [who] all put their name on there and their personal stamp. Yet, both those characters are always instantly recognizable. How many times has Batman had a rebirth, but he's always recognizable as Batman. That concept is incredibly sound and people can relate to Batman on a fantasy level on the same way they can James Bond. There's not a lot of playboys who put on latex at night -- that's pure escapism and fantasy. For us, grounding our icons a little bit more into reality, in their real lives, their daily lives and then tossing in the supernatural elements on top of that, that's helped our relatability factor.

It's also been very true to the times, and even though it was 20 years ago, it's still a modern update of the superhero genre. Back when they first started, it was pretty broad in the sense that Superman is a guy from another planet, he's Clark Kent, but which is he, really? You can never relate to the man because he's Superman. They've been trying to modernize him for how many decades? But you really can't because he's Superman and there's not much you can do with that. It's hard to make him a tragic character and someone we can relate to. With Witchblade and Darkness, the fact that they're human with very human frailties has really struck a chord.

You tack onto that these problems that are metaphorical. We all have issues and we all have problems we have to deal with, but you look at Jackie, the Darkness is a metaphor for the rest of us. It just so happens, unfortunately for him, that it's physically manifested. It's caused a lot of pain and suffering, but unbeknownst to him, it's also been the catalyst for a lot of heroism. Jackie's a hero in spite of himself. He doesn't do heroic things for the sake of being a hero, he's not altruistic in the sense that he's doing charity and giving care, but he does these little heroic things just by his nature even though the Darkness has butted in there and keeps trying to take his good side away from him. He's always in a constant struggle to maintain it and keep it in check. To a -- hopefully -- lesser degree, that's something that most of us can relate to. It's the little moments of just being a human that are heroic because of the odds and I think that people respond to that.

To the same extent, Sara, with the Witchblade, has that same battle. I think those are contemporary things that people can look at, understand and just go, "Okay, cool, I get it -- now let's tear shit up."

At the beginning of this year, the Top Cow Universe got a reboot with the end of the 13-part "Artifacts" series. What were your thoughts on that when the idea first came up?

The Top Cow Universe was ripe for a reboot. I hate that term, I like rebirth better. It was due. We were looking at the universe we had, how much we had and how much opportunity we were cheating ourselves and our fans out of by not making a cohesive universe. One of the things that makes that appealing as opposed to unappealing when you talk about Marvel and DC, is the sheer size and scope. Marvel and DC, if they do an entire universe rebirth, there's so much that it's just overwhelming. It's spread across so many titles and characters and so much history that you're hamstrung. It's overwhelming and the entertainment factor dissipates. With Top Cow, we're a boutique operation by comparison and our universe is a lot smaller so our universe is a lot tighter and really gives the idea of a shared universe that's not gimmicky. Our characters can really interact with each other and be a lot more intimate for the reader. The time was right and it was Matt [Hawkins] and Filip [Sablik] and Ron Marz -- who is like a warrior, the guy's such a comics stud it's unbelievable -- we just started putting it all together. Let's think of something that feels big, but also organic and not tacked-on. Ron is great. He took on the responsibility of 20 years of continuity and started focusing it. We started looking at what is it about the Top Cow Universe that was appealing and how we can really bind that together.

Our universe is not based off of mutants and it's not based off visitors from another planet, it's based off of the supernatural. Again, these are things that the audience can relate to because the supernatural really connects them to the human condition in a really hard way. If you look at religion, it's all based on the supernatural. The concept of heaven and hell is all based on the supernatural and the supernatural is only those things coming into our world occasionally. It's all that mythology that we've grown up with and has been around since the dawn of man crossing over into our plane. That's why we all dig it. Even science fiction falls into that category. For us, that's our universe, that's where everything comes from, let's really build on that. "Artifacts" pulls that together and I think it's been a great thing for us. The fans love it and we love it and we're just scratching the surface. Ron is digging it, so kudos to those guys. I think in the upcoming months and years we'll be focusing on this and giving fans a place to jump on if they haven't yet. It's perfect for us.

It's interesting that you refer to Top Cow as a boutique publisher. I noticed a few years ago that you guys kept the number of books fairly low while some other publishers were putting out as many as they could -- was the idea of staying small around from the beginning?

Yeah, we've always known -- which is another reason the universe is supernatural based -- that we're not going to be able to go head-to-toe with Marvel or DC. It's why there's not a whole lot of guys running around in spandex in our universe. You're not going to see a whole lot of capes aside from the Magdalena, but she's got a cloak. They do that already and it's pointless for us to put out another Spider-Man book. It's the same thing with us and our general publishing with the monthlies we're putting out there -- don't go head-to-head with Marvel on volume. First of all, you're going to put out a lot of crap because there's just no way you can keep track of all that and keep the quality high. Trying to make a cohesive universe that people can really sink their teeth into and follow, putting out a lot more titles is completely opposite of that mentality. It runs completely the other direction of what we want to do. If we want to make our universe relatable and easy to get into, putting out a lot of books is not the way to do it. Focusing with laser-focus on what we wanted to do well and reducing the number of titles that come out, but making those titles better, that was our plan, that was the way we were going to shore up the brand and reinvigorate our little corner of the comic book universe. I think that strategy works and I think people appreciate it. It makes sense for the way we've always done things.

That reminds me of when I talked to Ron Marz about the end of "Artifacts," and he said that he could have written one-shots starring each of the Artifacts-wielders, but you guys wanted to keep it all in one series.

For us moving forward, that's pretty much what we're going to continue to do. I don't think the marketplace even supports or wants a bunch of titles like that out there. There's a sense for completists that they have to go out there and buy all those books simply because they're being put out, only to find out that they don't really need it for entertainment purposes, and they're not for collectible purposes anymore because that doesn't really hold into the equation these days. Less is more, to put it bluntly, and it works for us.

Has attracting established writing talent like Ron Marz, Tim Seeley, Phil Hester and David Hine been difficult?

Today, it's a little bit easier than it was 10 years ago in the sense that there was this moment from when Image started, and then when Marvel collapsed, almost went bankrupt and then had a resurgence, where the market had this weird fluctuation where we had guys who were willing to take a chance and they would work with us or do creator-owned stuff. Then people got a little scared, and companies like Marvel or DC offered more stability than the Wild West that was creator-owned. Some people went back to writing and drawing for the mainstream stuff because it was a steady paycheck and insurance or what have you. Now, it's kind of come back and people are seeing that creator-owned stuff actually works. You can have that Wild West feeling where you can stick your toe into that world, but still have Top Cow in the other world that's perceived as one of the larger publishers. I'm not going to burn that bridge, I'm not going to get online and start bitching about it just in case. You look at Robert Kirkman and his success with "Walking Dead" and people go, "Whoa, I wouldn't mind that." Or Mark Millar with "Wanted" and the projects he's got going on. They can look at any of the Image partners, they can look at us and see the Darkness games or Witchblade out there and go, "Geez, that could happen too." A lot of writers are coming back to that mindset where, in the long run, taking a risk might not be that bad of an idea.

We're reaping the benefits of that creatively, plus we're a little more writer- and creator-friendly than the larger companies because they have certain corporate guidelines they have to follow. Obviously, when you're writing Spider-Man there are certain things you can't do with Spider-Man. With us, the first thing we tell people is, "Do what you want and see what happens, send us some ideas," and we work with the writers which I think they appreciate. We don't want to shackle anybody. Guys like David Hine coming in to do "The Darkness," whose work we just love, I think he's feeding off of that vibe that we give off. Same thing with Ron and all the guys. It's like, "Okay, I feel a little relaxed here. There are opportunities I didn't see at the other companies." We're happy and lucky at the same time.

Top Cow also has a reputation for finding amazing artists, from Michael Turner up through Stjepan Sejic, Kenneth Rocafort and more. What is the process like for finding those guys? Is it con portfolio reviews or searching around online, that kind of thing?

It didn't used to be websites, obviously -- that's something of today -- but we scour that stuff. It's mostly, I would say, face-to-face meetings at cons. People will show their portfolios to Filip, Matt, Brian or myself. If it's me directly, it's one of the other guys and they know what we're looking for. They're read through the stuff and show me their picks and I'll pick from that. For us, there's always this crop of talent cropping up that, with pop culture, it's not just comics that drive artists anymore, it's also video games that we didn't have 20 years ago. You've got people growing up on video games and those graphic elements who also like comic books. These artists are influenced by things other than their favorite comic artist of the moment and I think that skill set shows. There's a lot of guys coming in that are just really strong graphically, sometimes not so much storytelling-wise, and that's where we can help. Comics is such a specific medium. It's not just about drawing pretty pictures, you've got to tell people a story from panel to panel.

For us, if there's enough raw material there, we have a history in the studio of bringing raw talent and helping sharpen and hone their skills and throwing them out into the big bad world of comic book publishing. There's those nuggets out there. Sometimes they're not ready yet and maybe another company would pass them by based on a portfolio, but you can see a crumb in there. That's the best thing I can say for us, that we have an eye for talent that some of the other companies don't want to bother with. Over the years, I've found that that was beneficial not only to Top Cow, but to myself personally and to the artists themselves. We still look for that fresh young talent and fortunately there's always a new crop, it seems. There are certain ones that will be hard to repeat that pop up like the Dave Finches and the Michael Turners, if you can find another one of those, it's difficult if not impossible. They come along once or twice in a generation. We've been lucky to have worked with guys like that.

Is it frustrating when you help develop some of these artists and they go off to Marvel or DC?

At first is was, because there's that sense of, "Aw geez, thanks," but then you understand it and it becomes part of your business model. It's like, "Okay, you stick around or you go. It's up to you." It's another thing we're pleased with in the sense that, we don't want to shackle people. If they want to stay, that's perfectly fine, but if you've always had the dream to draw Spider-Man, go for it. Or, if, for whatever reason, you've got a family and you're getting pressure from that family to draw for a bigger company, it's cool, I get it. There's no hard feelings. Does it get frustrating? Sure. But is it part of business? Sure. Are we okay with it? It is what it is, so we model our business around that. We don't punish people for not being loyal, that's for sure. The arms are always open for anyone who wants to work with us who has in the past, always open. It's never a closed door.

This year is a big one for "The Darkness," with the 100 issue mark, the new creative team and the "Darkness II" video game. What was it about David Hine that made him a great fit? Did you pursue him or was he pitching you guys?

We worked with David on a couple projects and really, really, really liked what he did. He's just a really creative and talented guy. He's not just good with words and putting them one after the other, he's a guy that can create worlds, he's got this way of making these two-dimensional characters on paper really come to life and become three-dimensional with very few words, unlike myself. In a sentence, he can throw out a character and you know what that character is thinking that other writers would take two or three pages to convey. He has a real sense of who Jackie is, what that his world is and what the Darkness is. I'm really excited for him to come on board. Like we talked about before, he's a creator who comes on board and puts his stamp on it. I can't think of any writers that we've had who've put their stamp on it who I'm not happy with. I've been happy with every era of "The Darkness" and every run that every writer has had. You get a different flavor, but it's the same ice cream. You always recognize Jackie as Jackie. I'm really digging what David is doing. When he pitched his idea of what he wanted to do it was like, "Oh yeah, you're the guy. Let's go."

Can you talk at all about what that pitch was or what his first arc will be about?

I can tease a little bit, but no spoilers -- I hate spoilers. I still remember the day that someone spoiled that Darth Vader was Luke's father the day I was going to go see the movie. I was like, "Are you fucking kidding me?!" I've been traumatized ever since. Because of what happened with "Artifacts," Jackie kind of rebooted everything to his liking, or what he thinks is his liking. That's the key, the Monkey's Paw aspect of Jackie and the Darkness. In fact, a lot of the characters in the Top Cow Universe have that issue: Be careful what you wish for, and if you do get your wish granted, there's a ripple effect.

That's a theme we love to play with, whether it's with Sara or Jackie. That's kind of what happens with the run that David's starting, Jackie has remolded everything to his vision of what he wanted, but Jackie's not a complete person, so that's going to be a problem. He's kind of reacting to the world around him to make himself feel better after years and years of misery. As we know, we can't play God because we don't know all the details, so what he does not only affects him in ways he didn't expect, but also affects the entire Top Cow Universe. Ron's going to be working off that concept, as well as David and Tim with "Witchblade." It's something they'll be cognizant of, that things have changed, but have they changed for the better of the worse? That's going to be different for each character and the answer for that will be different for the reader as well. It's going to be fun. That's the general idea, he's done this, let's see what happens.

That's one of the nice things about this rebirth, as you called it, some things are different, some things are not, it's a good place for new readers to hop on, but also fun for longtime readers to see what has changed and why.

Hopefully, we can pull it off to serve both purposes. We didn't want new readers to have to come on and go through 20 years of continuity, but at the same time, long time readers are going to be rewarded with some really cool concepts and dichotomies for their favorite character. Because they're based in humanity, the decisions our characters make are going to be very relatable and will have benefits and consequences.

"The Darkness II" has been getting great reviews since it's release. A lot of times, comic-based games feel like they were churned out, but not this one. Was nailing both the story and the gameplay a must from the get go?

We do things a little different, always, here. When the first game came out -- I love that game -- we were very, very conscious of the franchise and not wanting to shoot it in the foot. Having a video game, that's great. Man, we can put that in our portfolio, you can go IMDb it, but it's not going to do you any good if it's a piece of shit. We were very careful in having Paul Jenkins do the writing, which was one of the best decisions made because he had the history with Jackie and he had the storytelling mentality. I think approaching that video game from the storytelling perspective first is what really made us stand out. Then you have a developer like Starbreeze, those guys are geniuses, and they created this playable world that was story-driven. For us, it was perfect. We were fortunate to have those guys onboard.

2K was willing to take some chances and that lead directly to "Darkness II" which has been getting great reviews, people having a great time, loving it and having fun. Again, it's a story-driven game. It's got more action than the first, but it's still story-driven, with Jackie and his struggle with the Darkness and the loss of his love-slash-humanity with Jenny. This franchise is surprising a lot of people and the fact that it does still surprises me. When I read reviews or talk to people about it, it's a little surreal and a little hard for me to connect those dots sometimes between this being something that's out there and it's something we created and we continue to create. The response has been great and we're happy that people are entertained by it. We entertain ourselves by doing this stuff, but we want people who read the comic or play the game or see the movie one day when it comes out to be entertained. It's really important for us that the quality level is up there.

Matt and I, we say to each other all the time, and we say it publicly -- if we don't have the confidence that what we're doing outside the comic books is going to kick ass and be really good, then we're not going to bother to do it. We're not going to get all excited about a certain deal and what have you, and then just toss it out there and have whoever wants to play with it, play with it because they don't know these properties like we do.

With Digital Extremes, the big benefit with these guys is that they're huge fans of not only the first game, but also the "Darkness" comics. For us, that worked out really well. It really pulls from the source material. It has a real graphic novel look to it, which they took a huge chance on. Video games are not cheap, we're talking about Hollywood money now to make these games. When you've got 2K cutting these big checks and Digital Extreme putting their name on the line and it all coming together, it's extremely gratifying. I love the game, I love the way it looks. I think they made smart choices and having Paul back on board to writer proves to the gaming audience that we're serious about story-driven games, about not only blowing things up and slashing thing and shooting things, but [having] a purpose behind it.

You mentioned a "Darkness" movie -- what can you tell us about that?

The only thing I can say is that, yes, it's in the process, and our partners are Mandible Films. Beyond that, I can't say anything other than we'll have some interesting news coming out soon, news I'm personally pretty excited about. Again, we're not interested in putting out a crappy movie, that doesn't serve anybody's purposes. It doesn't help us, it doesn't help the fans. But we're feeling pretty good about this, and that's all I can really say.

We just found out recently that Jeremy Haun and Jason Hurley's "The Beauty" won the latest Pilot Season. What are the plans for that book?

I think it'll be a mini. I can't be quite sure on that. It's a cool concept and I'd like to see it continue on. I'd like to see where they'd go with that. It doesn't necessarily fit with the Top Cow Universe, but Pilot Season wasn't really designed to do that. It's kind of a little offshoot of ours, like Minotaur Press and such, but I'd like to see a lot of that.

Speaking of Minotaur and books like "The Beauty" that don't fit in with the Top Cow Universe, why do you think that's an important part of the overall Top Cow brand?

Again, we're a boutique operation, and for us, our core universe is always going to be the prime motivator for Top Cow proper. That said, we don't want to do things that are restricted to that format. There are certain ideas and certain concepts that really have to be shoe-horned into that world and it wouldn't feel organic. Some of those are really good ideas we want to do. We don't want to force a really good idea and then hurt it because of that. Minotaur Press, for example is, "That's a really cool idea, would it fit in the Top Cow Universe? Well, yeah, if we shoe-horned it, but would it be better without it? Yes." For the little quirky ideas that are great ideas, but fit more within themselves.

After being around for 20 years, what do you see as Top Cow's place in the comic book industry right now and moving forward?

I think we're a company that comics kind of needs. We're that boutique operation that's not afraid to take some big chances. For a company our size, when I tell people that may not be familiar with us the things that we've accomplished, between the anime, the video games, the films and TV series, they're kind of surprised. It kind of surprises me sometimes, too, that we're able to do that stuff and we're able to do it on our terms. We pick partners that make sense for us. The way we look at things and the way we look at creators and the concepts we put out there, they're not necessarily mainstream all the time, and I think that's important because you don't really pop something out that takes people by surprise if you're mainstream. You take people by surprise if you're thinking differently. For us, that's our biggest strength.

With the "Darkness" game, the first one, it was kind of a shocker to people. What other video game can you sit down with your girlfriend and it's like watching a movie? It's that kind of thinking we do that I think is key for us and our growth regardless of the media we're working with. To be successful these days, you can't just do comic books. You have to do other things. "Have to" might be the wrong words, because it's actually a lot of fun and I think for the most part, the fans like it if you do a good job. If you make a great video game off of a comic book that people love, they're going to be happy and want to play that game. If you screw it up, they're going to be unhappy. For us, I think we have a pretty good track record in other media. Our spot is going to be just that, always thinking a little bit outside that box, trying to blaze some new trails with concepts people haven't really seen before or twists on concepts people haven't seen. You make people stand up and notice -- you don't have to shock them, but you have to tickle them a little bit and just show them another way. That's what we do.

"Darkness" #100 hits stands this week with a variant cover by Silvestri, the Top Cow Universe continues on with "Witchblade" and "Artifacts."

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