In the first installment of CBR's WEEK OF TOP COW, we spoke with Top Cow Productions founder Marc Silvestri about the early days of the company, and we later followed up with Filip Sablik, the prodigious Publisher of Top Cow, about the company's current direction, experiments with online content, and what sets Top Cow apart from other outfits. We then spoke with Ron Marz and Phil Hester, the writers of "Witchblade" and "The Darkness," respectively, about working on Top Cow's flagship titles as well as what makes the Cow a creative oasis in the desert of corporate comics.
In today's edition of WEEK OF TOP COW, CBR News talks with Rob Levin, Vice President of Editorial, who joined the company four years ago while still in college and now oversees the content of the whole line, including "Madame Mirage," 'The Darkness," "Witchblade," and the numerous Pilot Season projects -- one-shots featuring new or underused characters that readers can vote for via MySpace to determine which title will graduate to ongoing series.
CBR: You started working for Top Cow as an editorial assistant in January of 2004. How did you wind up at the company?
Rob Levin: I had just moved out to L.A. in August of 2003 for film school, and I was looking for more satisfying work. Running catering (a fancy word for delivery) wasn't cutting it, especially with all the entertainment opportunities around. I started looking for jobs and internships at various companies and discovered that Top Cow was L.A.-based. At the time, there were separate contacts for editorial, marketing and film internships. I sent my resume off to all of them and awaited a response.
[I was told] that [Editor-in-Chief] Renae [Geerlings] was probably looking for an editorial assistant. So I waited for a response from her. Not sure exactly how long it dragged out, but I managed to get the main line for Top Cow one afternoon and got through to Renae. I asked if she had had a chance to review the resume and she said, "Oh, yeah. I was going to hire you." And thus a career was born, or something to that effect.
CBR: What was your next step on the road to VP of Editorial?
RL: I did the unpaid internship bit as an editorial assistant from January to May, and then was headed home for the summer. I really dug the gig and the work environment, so I asked if they would keep my name in the credits while I was gone, and save a spot for me when I got back in August. They were kind enough to do just that, and I stayed on until the end of the year.
Then came my first title change, to Production Assistant. I still dipped my toes in the editorial pond, but our production manager/lead graphic designer, Chaz Riggs, needed some help and everyone thought I might be semi-competent. So I started getting a paycheck and experiencing a whole different side of the publishing business. Until I started working under Chaz, I didn't really have any idea about how intricate all the processes are, and how time consuming Quark is. InDesign, we love you...
The exact timing is a little fuzzy, but eventually we had some personnel changes and were short an editor. The funny thing is, I had previously talked to [Top Cow President] Matt [Hawkins] about whether or not there would be a full-time position for me once I graduated from school, and he gave me the honest answer that he probably wouldn't hire any other editors. So when a spot opened up, I got to take the best of both worlds and keep my production duties, but also add a whole heap of editorial awesomeness to my plate. And I got the snazzy Editor title.
The move to Managing Editor was much less exciting. It was a few months later and I got a few more duties, especially as regards talent management and recruitment. I remember it was a couple months before San Diego Comic-Con 2006, as I was making some big pushes to try and get new talent and new ideas going at that show and just prior to it. Eventually, I was able to relinquish my production duties when we brought a new production assistant on, and my hair stopped falling out.
When Renae Geerlings stepped down as Editor-in-Chief in December 2006, Matt called me up and told me that she was leaving the company. I didn't really know what to say, as she had been there for ten years and was the person who hired me on in the first place. I told him whatever he needed, I'd do it, and we agreed to talk in person the next day at the office. We talked for a while, and he agreed to put his faith in me to run Editorial at Top Cow. I'm still here almost two years later, so hopefully I delivered.
CBR: What do you think sets Top Cow apart from other publishers?
RL: A commitment to quality. That's not to say that everyone else doesn't strive for it, but the more you do, the further you extend, things are bound to slip through the cracks. We do 4-6 books a month because we know we can make 4-6 great books every month. We could easily do 12 or 20, but we wouldn't be putting out 20 books every month that we were 100% happy with. If it's got a Top Cow logo, you can bet it's been put through the ringer, care paid to it, and that it's going to be a fantastic end product.
We're also committed to the New. We do the occasional custom comics job, but if you look at our lineup and publishing history, we create new concepts. Year after year, we stay committed to new and original properties. Even in a market that is increasingly less receptive to them, new ideas are where it's at. We're going to keep giving them to you.
CBR: What kind of changes have you seen at Top Cow since you've been there?
RL: When I started, the company was midway through the Jim McLauchlin editorial era. The past had seen some great stories, but Jim was a story-first kind of guy. Beyond that, he really knew how to marry artistic talent, a Top Cow staple, to those stories. I think the changes people have taken notice of over the past few years really began with him and continue on today. At the end of the day, we remain an art brand. We groom the best and brightest young talent out there, most of which is under the direct tutelage of [founder] Marc [Silvestri]. But we're telling demonstrably better stories than many in the past, and people are seeing us as the steak too, instead of just the sizzle.
Outside of editorial, everything has gotten stronger. Our ancillary media presence has stepped up with an anime ("Witchblade"), video game ("The Darkness"), and movie ("Wanted") in the past three years. That's definitely changed the scope of things for us, and how we're perceived by the world outside of comics. But of course, we're still committed to comics first at the end of the day.
CBR: What are some of your favorite projects you've had the opportunity to work on at Top Cow?
RL: Obviously it's hard to pick a favorite, but in terms of personal connection I have to go with Pilot Season. Not only did it feature books I'm incredibly proud of, but it sparked an augmentation in our publishing strategy and the way we can deliver new books and concepts to readers. The fact that it's constantly evolving and the response to it from the creative community as well as fans and critics shows that we're doing something very interesting. I think it's exactly the kind of initiative that maybe could have been tried by another publisher, but abandoned before it really had time to take hold. We've made a commitment to it, and I think the quality jump in this year's slate over an already stellar initial salvo in 2007 shows that.
"Witchblade" and "The Darkness" are our bread and butter, but I feel like the teams we have on them now, and our working relationship, really makes those great projects to be a part of. It's a constant flow of ideas between all of us, and the books continue to head in great directions. Definitely having all the teams set before we went into "First Born" last summer has paid dividends, continuing on to the current "Broken Trinity" series. We've got a big road map to cover, and no one is going anywhere. It's going to be a long, fun ride.
And "Madame Mirage" was a privilege to edit, but a ton of credit has to go to McLauchlin who brought it in from [writer] Paul [Dini], and Renae who shepherded it from concept to the early scripts. She also had the foresight to bring [artist] Kenneth Rocafort on board. Even though he was already one of my favorite artists, I wasn't sure about launching with a guy who had only drawn four books for us. That's where her experience really paid off for us.
CBR: Can you talk a bit about what's coming up for Top Cow?
RL: The short answer is tons. Of what's already been announced - "Cyblade," a new "Impaler" series, "Berserker," "The Darkness/Pitt," a new project with a huge name, something we haven't announced but hinted at in our "Impaler/Black Vault" preview book, those two projects that were in the preview book, DiniCartoons, the return of some old characters, more "Twilight Guardian" and "Genius" from this year's Pilot Season, more original books in next year's Pilot Season, big changes in "Witchblade," "The Darkness" getting darker, new writers, new artists - and that's just the publishing side!