WEEK OF TOP COW: Ron Marz & Phil Hester

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, the launch of Image Comics, its enormous success in the 1990s, the challenges it faces in today's much more competitive comic book industry, and the forthcoming film adaptations of Top Cow's Witchblade and Magdalena characters.

We followed up with Filip Sablik, the prodigious Publisher of Top Cow, about the company's current direction, experiments with online content, what sets Top Cow apart from other outfits, and what fans can expect in the new year.

For our third installment of WEEK OF TOP COW, CBR News spoke with Ron Marz, the writer who's helmed Top Cow's flagship title "Witchblade" since issue 2004, and Phil Hester, the artist-turned-writer who successfully re-launched "The Darkness" last year. In this extremely candid and in-depth interview, Marz and Hester discuss their individual creative experiences at the publisher, their philosophies on writing, views of the comic book industry, and tell us what's in store for the twin pillars of the Top Cow brand.

CBR: How did you both come to Top Cow in the first place?

Ron Marz: With me, it was Jim McLaughlin's fault. He was the Editor-in-Chief at the time that I started doing work for them. I got there because, when CrossGen was going down in flames, McLaughlin called me right around the time that I was getting ready to walk out the door there. I suspect a little before I actually walked out the door, because Jim knew what the situation was, and he said, "What do you want to do for us?" And I said, "I don't know, what do you got?" And I ended up doing a four-part Darkness story. And then a Darkness one-shot. And then at that point, Jim came back to me and said, "What else do you want to do?" And I said, "I'd like to do Magdalena, I think that's a really cool character." He said, "Great, why don't you do Witchblade? That one needs fixing."

So that was four years ago now. I took over "Witchblade" with issue #80 and I've been doing it ever since.

Phil Hester: I guess I'd have to say it's probably Ron's fault that I'm [at Top Cow]. I think Ron put a good word in for me, and also Rob and [Publisher] Filip Sablik, I think, were fans of stuff I'd been doing at Oni and Image, and so they gave me a shot at pitching "The Darkness." And I was one of many pitches they received, and I think I went in a different direction than they expected, and they liked that, and they brought me on.

And the place has not burned down yet.

RM: And Phil's pitch was the best one, because I got to read them all.

PH: You were in on that executive level decision.

RM: Truthfully, they knew they wanted to get a kick-start on "The Darkness," and Rob came to me and said, "Do you have any ideas?" And I said, "Most of my Darkness ideas were in the four issues I wrote, I got nothing else." I enjoyed the character, I enjoyed sort of writing an anti-hero, but I just found that I couldn't really get my head around somebody who was, in some respects, all-powerful. I came up with an antagonist for Jackie [Estacado] that was hopefully worthy in the four issues that I did, but after that I kind of felt like the well was dry. So when they said, "We want to give 'Darkness' a kick in the ass," you know, I suggested Phil because I felt that he was twisted enough that he could probably do the job.

As comics creators, what has your experience been at Top Cow?

RM: Well, I just signed on exclusive with them, obviously it's gone very well as far as I'm concerned. And I certainly wouldn't be tossing out the names of friends and trying to drag them into the whole thing if I didn't feel like it was a really good experience. They want to do the material; they are willing to let you run with the stuff. To me, it's much more like a family, because it's a small company; it's kind of a boutique publisher. So you get a lot more leeway in what you do if they trust you, and I guess I've gotten to the point where they trust me with this stuff. It's a lot more satisfying creative experience, because getting to tell the stories that you want to tell in the way that you want to tell them, and that's not always possible when you're working for the big two, because you're just a piece of the puzzle, you're just getting your story from point A to point B to fit into the bigger picture.

PH: I think that's been my experience too. The thing I cherish most is that editorial interference is at a minimum at Top Cow.Like Ron said, I think they do the majority of their editorial work before they make the hire, and then they make a hire and let you run with that character, instead of hiring a guy and then standing over his shoulder and asking for changes, they ask for sort of a long view from you of how you see the character, and if it's kosher, they're going to let you run with it. That's tough to find in today's marketplace, and to find a publisher that pays a page rate and does that is pretty rare.

RM: I think it's a rarer and rarer thing because most of the time now you get hired to tell somebody else's story, at other places. And at Top Cow, they hire you to tell your story. If your story is the one that they're comfortable with, you get the gig and then they let you tell the story. Editorial is not inserting themselves into the process every step of the way. Mostly they keep the trains running on time.

PH: Ron has been at this game longer than I have as a writer, but already I know that that's a rare situation, and that when you stumble onto a situation like that, you grab it with both hands and hang on.

RM: Like Phil said, I've been doing this long enough that I've seen all aspects of how books are put together, and how companies interact with the writers. And a lot of times, when you end up working on a project, for me anyway, your comp copies show up in the mail, and half time you don't even want to look at them because you know that it didn't turn out like you wanted it to turn out. Either your story got truncated in some way, or somewhere along the line in editorial, something got dropped, there's a mistake, or there's just too many cooks in the kitchen.

With the Top Cow stuff, I'm always anxious to see the finished, printed book because I know it's what I wanted it to be. I mean, they let me look at the files as they're getting prepped for print. I go over the lettering, I go over the color, I'm included fully in the process so that we can catch mistakes. We can make things better along the way. If I see a line of dialogue that I can do better with, or that needs to be changed, we can do that. If there's even balloon placements or stuff like that I want moved or that we can do better on, all that stuff gets done. That's, again, a rarity in this business, because most of the time editors at other places are just so swamped and so running breathlessly to keep ahead of the train of deadline doom that's always bearing down on them, you don't get to be involved like that, you don't get to make the product better. Your role is to keep your fingers crossed and hope you're not too embarrassed by the time it comes out.

PH: Yeah, I think ultimately in this business -- and even at Top Cow, ultimately we're hired hands -- but at Top Cow you don't feel like a hired hand, you feel like you have a vested interest in the books you're creating. Even though they're franchise characters that were created by other people and belong to the company, they trust you enough that you feel some sense of ownership of the character. It gets better work out of people.

RM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think the fact that Sara [Pezzini] feels like mine, and I'm sure Jackie feels like Phil's, and I'd like to say that having Sara feel like mine is much better than having Jackie. That's why it helps to be the first guy in the door, not the second one, Hester.

Absolutely, you feel a sense of ownership, and you feel like it's your job to do the best job possible, because that's what everybody else is doing. Everybody else is pulling their weight; you can't give any less than 100%. They just solicited a Witchblade annual for early next year that I'm not writing, just because there's too much else on my plate, so Jay Faerber is going to jump in and write that. And I got to say, I felt bad about it.

PH: Did you feel jealous?

RM: Yeah, I kind of did, I kind of felt like somebody else was getting to play with my toys. It was a situation where there are other things I have to attend to, I really didn't have time to work it into my schedule. But, yeah, there's almost a jealousy, you feel like somebody else is kind of stepping on your toes. Like Phil said, these are company characters, these were created by somebody else, yet when you really are allowed to invest yourself into the characters and into the work, that's what you come away with.

PH: Could you ever conceive of yourself feeling that way about Wolverine? I mean, I could get in to those characters, and I could feel like I was really pouring myself into them, but to expect that you would have any sort of broader sense of ownership to that character is ludicrous. And Top Cow is small enough and a tight enough ship that it feels like while you're at the helm, it's your character.

RM: Certainly, in "Witchblade," the stuff that I'm doing on the book is stuff that I came up with, it's not like anybody handed me, "Well, here's the big storyline for next year, go write this." And that's obviously what happens in other places, because there's a much larger editorial brand in place and you're selling Underoos, basically. You're dealing with licensed, icon characters. And sure, Witchblade has had the TV series, the anime and all that kind of stuff, but yet I've decided where this character has gone for the last four years, including getting pregnant and keeping the baby and splitting the Witchblade between two people. I mean, all of this frankly crazy shit that I know I couldn't get away with at Marvel or DC universe because you can't bring a lot of change to those universes. Everything has to essentially have the illusion of change, but things don't really change. For all of he wailing and gnashing of teeth, I don't think anybody in their right mind believes that Bruce Wayne is not going to ever, ever be Batman again.

PH: I'm writing down this Witchblade Underoos idea.

Obviously, Sara and Jackie are fairly intertwined as characters. Is there a lot of back-and-forth between you guys about the direction of both books?

PH: Yeah. I mean, when they do collide, yeah. I've never called up Ron and suggested directions he take his book, and he's never done that to me, but they have instances where their stories naturally intertwine, so it's a quick phone call or an e-mail shot back and forth, we're pretty agreeable fellows, we reach a concordance very quickly.

RM: I think we both subscribe to the theory that it's cool that the books take place in the same universe, and when there's a chance to do a nod or a slight crossover, it's great. I always refer to it as the Human Torch flying through the background of a "Spider-Man" issue. Which is kind of the way those little nods used to get done.

PH: It used to be special.

RM: Yeah, it used to be. The Torch would fly through, and there'd be a nod or whatever, or Daredevil would swing by in the background, and that would be it, so it gave you the sense that these characters had their own stories, yet they were in the same place. I mean, now when the Human Torch flies through the background, it's a 26-issue crossover. So I think we like to do that stuff, and then when the characters do actually get together, because now there are reasons for them to get together -- the baby being the reason there's a tie between the two characters. And I think, frankly, Jackie and Sara are thought of as really the twin pillars of the Top Cow universe because those are the characters that have been around the longest, with the exception of Cyberforce, and they're the ones that have certainly been in continual publication the longest, so when we really do have them crossover, we want it to be a big deal. But it's not going to happen every three months, because then it's not special anymore.

Plus, we both have our separate stories to tell. And I know when Phil came on "The Darkness," the idea in everybody's mind was that "The Darkness" needed to stand alone. It needed to be its own book and establish its own framework, and sort of reasons for being above and beyond "Withcblade," I think that's one of the reasons that Phil's first storyline worked out so perfectly because it completely took Jackie somewhere else, out of his comfort zone. It wasn't just more of the same, it was a progression of the character. Which, again, is something that we're lucky enough to be able to do with these characters, we can evolve them, we can grow them, much more than you can with a Wolverine or a Superman just because, again, those characters are commercial icons at this point and you can't really do a whole lot with them.

What's coming up for Witcblade and The Darkness" in their individual books?

PH: In "The Darkness," the first story arc ended kind of badly for Jackie. He's sort of on the outs with The Darkness itself, and not really at full power anymore. So we're sort of knocking him back down to his hitman roots for a while. Instead of being basically an evil Green Lantern, he's now a hitman who is a lot tougher at night. And he's back to sort of scrounging his living the way a criminal does.

All that said, there's still lots of Darkness machinations working in the background, there's still evil forces swirling around him looking to steal the Darkness power from him, or in some way influence him. Over the next six or seven issues, he's going to get an actual villain that can stand up to him in the form of the Sovereign, who's a villain that holds a grudge against Darkness wielders from centuries ago, and Jackie's the current one, so Jackie is the current focus of his wrath. And that character will be playing with Jackie for about six issues before Jackie comes to realize just what his intentions are towards him.

And we'll come to find that Jackie does manage to get a deeper understanding of what The Darkness is, and exactly what its designs are for him, and sort of establish his own will on The Darkness, rather than The Darkness establishing its will on him. That will take place all over the world, he'll be jaunting from one city to another with his conflict with the Soveign, there will be a lot of evil hitman stuff going on for the next year.

RM: I'm excited. And those will be drawn by Broussard?

PH: Yeah, Michael Broussard and Jorge Lucas will be alternating on art, to give Michael a chance to catch up and get ahead with his intricate, time-consuming style. A monthly is just not in the cards for him. Jorge's also really capable, but of a completely different style than Michael. [He] will be coming on and helping with those story arcs, and it's really perfect for him to do a lot of these street-level, gritty, crime stories with Jackie because his style's a lot more gritty, high-contrast, so he's a perfect fill-in guy.

RM: Do you know who's going to draw which one, so you can write to each one?

PH: For the most part. Sometimes there's a last minute switch, but when I know I have Jorge, I tend to do stuff that's more -- I hate to say it, but I tend to do stuff that's more brutal when I know I have Jorge, and I tend to do stuff that's more fantastic when I know I have Michael.

RM: That's cool. To me, that's one of the great pleasure of doing this job is that, the guys that we work with. Maybe Phil sees this somewhat differently because he works both sides of the street, but to me, one of the great pleasures of the job is figuring out, "Okay, I want to work with artist 'A' on this job, how can I write the job so he can show off what he can do to the fullest extent, and we get the best story out of him?"

PH: Oh, the best part of the job by far is getting back artwork that is better than you have seen in your mind.

RM: Yeah, which happens all the time.

PH: For me, that happens every time I get an issue back.

RM: Do you often say, "Man, I'm glad I didn't draw this one?"

PH: Yes. I just got a scene back from Jorge that takes place in a cornfield. And if you're not an artist, you don't know that corn is really hard to draw.

How about "Witchblade?"

RM: Issue #122 just went off to press, and issue #123 wraps up that storyline, which was actually set in the orthodox Jewish conclave in Brooklyn. I find that whole sort of society within a society kind of thing fascinating, and visually very fascinating as well, just because the orthodox Jews have such distinctive style of dress, the way they present themselves to the world I think is really fascinating. So we did kind of a murder-mystery, horror story within that community.

And then #124 is kind of a standalone issue; a kind of jump-on issue that sets up who's who and what's what, and then #125 starts a six-issue story arc that we titled the most obvious thing possible, which is "War of the Witchblades." We've had two Witchblade bearers for I guess going on two years now. I think sometimes, as a writer, I tend to forget how long I've actually been doing something, because it story time it only seems like a couple of months, but it's been almost two years now. I've had two people bearing the Witchblade, and that situation will come to a head in "War of the Witchblades" and by the end of it, by issue #130, only one of them will be standing.

PH: Do you know who's drawing that?

RM: Yeah, same guy who's drawing damn near everything.

PH: He's fast enough.

RM: We're talking about Stjepan Sejic, who is joined to me at the hip on "Witchblade" from now until doomsday. And he's a digital painter, obviously, so he can work pretty damn fast when need be. He's a monthly guy who can do a monthly book. It's all him, the script goes to him and we get completed, finished, painted pages back in like no time flat. We've done entire issues in two weeks, like start-to-finish, and sent them off to press. Maybe I can see where he's cut corners a little bit, but most of the time, the places that he's really had to jam an issue out, you really can't tell. He's a pleasure to work with, he's an idea machine. He's just like a fountain of fantastic crazy shit, and most of it's really good. So a lot of the ideas that he kicks into the pot will eventually show up in the book in large places or small places.

PH: And in his home country, being known as a "Fountain of Shit" is like a term of endearment.

RM: Apparently, yeah. Watch, this will wind up in the interview, and at the New York Con he'll come after me with a hatchet. It'll be me at Stjepan from now until at least issue #150 - that's the plan for "Witchblade," we're going to be the monthly team, month in and month out. Thus far, the idea is no fill-ins. He can turn them out. So that's up through issue #130, and then I don't want to say too much past issue #130 because it will sort of give away how this storyline ends. But we have tentative storylines plotted out through about #150, we know kind of what we're going to do and where we're going to go, at least in the broad strokes, for what looks to be up through #150. And frankly, we'll probably last longer, because I think we both have stories we want to tell that would take us past #150. So far, I'm having a hell of a time on the book, and it still feels fresh to me every time I sit down to write it. So I don't foresee me leaving at any point.

PH: That's pretty incredible. I mean, that's a long run, because you've already been on the book for years.

RM: It'll be #80 through #150, so it'll be 70 issues in a row. And frankly, probably more. But I've done that before. I did 75 issues-plus of "Green Lantern." I've found that, as a writer, once I get comfortable with something, and I feel like the characters are my own, I can stay on it for forever, really. And I know long runs are not the modus operandi in the industry anymore. Pretty much, most publishers want you to do twelve issues and get the hell out so they can try to boost sales by bringing in a new team, which is one of the only ways to boost sales these days. Frankly, Top Cow has been great with me in terms of saying, "It's your book, stay as long as you want."

PH: That's another way to grow readers is to be consistent.

RM: Of the tortoise and the hare, that's more the tortoise route of route of growing your sales. The hare route is throw everything out and start over again every twelve months.

PH: You're sort of on that "The Walking Dead" trajectory, that people know what they're going to get each month, and they reward that with some loyalty.

RM: I hope so. You know, as a reader, if I like the book, please keep doing it. I hope Kirkman does "The Walking Dead" from now until issue #250. I've been on books previously where I just wasn't the right fit. When I did "Superboy," for instance, within three or four issues, I really came around to the idea that I don't really care about his problems. It wasn't that I didn't like Superboy, I really like Superboy; he's a fun character. But it ultimately turned out that I liked reading Karl Kesel's "Superboy" more than I liked writing it. And I think there are certainly those books that we, as writers, shouldn't end up doing. And I've come to the conclusion what sorts of books those are.

But like I said, when you do find a book that you click on, and feel like you have a real connection to, I want to settle in and stay as long as I can. That's certainly the way it was for me with "Green Lantern," because it was a situation where I was really comfortable with the character that I was working with. And with Sara, I've gotten to add a lot to her personality and flesh her out to make her somebody I was really comfortable with. I end up having to have some emotional connection to the lead character in order to really settle in. You can either really like the character, or really despise the character, and get a kick out of writing it because of that, but I think the worst thing that you can have is you wind up being ambivalent about the character.

PH: And I think that's something that I'm learning about the business right now, and I know Ron knows this already: You don't know what characters those are going to be until you get in there. Sometimes you can love a character and get in there up to your elbows with that character and realize you're not meant to write that character. And sometimes from the outside, you can have an apathy or dislike for a character, and find out that you're really good at writing them. And that's something that I did not expect.

RM: Yeah. I mean, to be perfectly honest, you could count the number of "Witchblade" issues that I had ever read on one hand before I took the job. "Witchblade" was never a book that I ever envisioned myself writing. But I think sometimes you get in there and you discover things, and you also make up things, that really let you latch onto that character, whereas another character that you have a real affection for and have maybe read since you were a kid, I think sometimes you know that character so well that there's nowhere for you to go as a writer.

PH: Like, I love Spider-Man. But I would never want to write Spider-Man. I don't know where I'd go with that. But I hate The Punisher, and I think I could write the hell out of a Punisher story.

RM: It's a very weird thing, because I've been in that situation where I've characters that I've either written, or at least were offered to me, that I had a real affection for as a kid, and it doesn't turn out like you wanted it to turn out. I did a really wretched year on "Thor." It was just a bad fit all the way around. The kind of stories we were telling didn't click with me. Still one of the runs that I love more than anything in the world is Walt [Simonson's] "Thor," and I got my chance to write "Thor," and it promptly spiraled into disaster. I think there's actually like one issue out of the entire run that I can even look at. So as a writer you just never know. I think, sometimes, it's almost good to take the job that you're not sure about, because that one might turn into the one that you write for seven years.

What other books are you guys working on for Top Cow?

PH: I'm not as smart as Ron, so I can't really keep track of four different books at once. "The Darkness" is it for me at Top Cow. I mean I may do a creator-owned thing there at some point, [editor] Rob [Levin] and I are always talking about that, but it would be premature to talk about things that we're still pitching.

RM: Why don't you tell CBR that it's, like, totally approved and it's a go, and that way Rob will be too embarrassed to tell you no.

PH: Is that how people do it? I didn't know that.

RM: Yeah, but you have to liberally throw around Nicolas Cage's name every once in a while.

PH: Yes, I will be producing the next Spider-Man movie. You heard it here first. I need more of that self-promotion gene I was born without.

RM: Yes, it sadly skipped my generation as well. I will never intimate that Eminem is involved in any way in any of my projects. In fact, even the candies, M&Ms, will never appear in any of my projects.

At the moment, the focus is getting "Witchblade" firing on all cylinders, and finishing up "Dragon Prince," which is the first creator-owned thing that I did through Top Cow. We're wrapping up the last issue now. Part of my exclusive agreement with Top Cow was that I would be bringing creator-owned projects there, so we're going to wrap up "Dragon Prince," and I believe the next one that we're going to do is "Russian Sunset," which is an espionage/crime sort of thing with the Russian Mafia and lose nukes and all that kind of stuff. It started life at Desperado, but for various reasons didn't actually come to fruition there, so it looks like we'll be doing it at Top Cow.

And then there's more creator-owned stuff in the pipeline that I'm not at liberty to talk about yet. And we'll also be doing a "Magdalena" re-launch in either 2009 or 2010, depending on this stuff in terms of schedule, and how the "Magdalena" movie moves around.

So, ultimately, four years ago or five years ago, Jim McLaughlin called and said, "What do you want to do?" and I said, "Magdalena." I'm finally getting to scratch that itch, it just took five years.

PH: And you've been working on it a while too, I think it's just taken a while to come out, right?

RM: Well, it's gone through a couple of different permutations, and I think and I believe the guys at Top Cow think that Magdalena is one of the stronger characters and concepts that they have, but it just hasn't really clicked, story-wise. And the intention is to make this Magdalena storyline, it takes place in the here and now, it doesn't ignore anything that's happened in the past, but to make it as much of a ground-floor, new-reader friendly project as possible. In some ways like the first six issues of "Witchblade" that I did, or the first six issues of "The Darkness" that Phil did. This will be a really good starting point for the character. And the history of Magdalena is somewhat complex and confusing, so we want to simplify all that and just make people very comfortable with the character and with the concept, to feel like they can just jump on and go with where it's headed now. So we've got a couple of different types of Magdalena projects working at the same time, so we're still in the throes of figuring out the timing of it all.

But I'm really happy to report that the notion from both Top Cow and me is let's do it right, let's not rush something out there and have it be less than we want it to be, or rush something out there and then kind of stagger along. Like Phil said before, you can at least maintain your audience by being consistent every month, so that's what job #1 is, to put a good book out every month, or at least every month you're solicited, stick to the schedule, and give people at a very minimum what they expect, because these things aren't cheap. They're not cheap, and getting less cheap all the time. Jesus, you can't ask somebody for four bucks and give them an extended talking-heads scene for 22 pages.

PH: Maybe you can. We just don't want to.

RM: Depends on whose talking heads, I guess, but I feel like we owe the readers a little something more. My wife actually now reads and enjoys "Witchblade," and for the most part she doesn't want to read the single issues because she gets impatient to find out what happens next, so she waits until the trades come out. And I think more and more people are like that. My wife being a "civilian," she didn't read comics, she doesn't read comics now except the ones that have my name on them. So I always kind of feel like she's a pretty good barometer for the large, silent audience out there. So if there's not enough meat on the bone in a particular issues, I'm going to hear about it.

PH: And Ron mentioning Magdalena made me think of something I should have promoted about "The Darkness," and Rob will be mad at me if I don't, which is that we have a special anniversary issue of "The Darkness" coming up that's going to be oversized, and actually features Magdalena in a way. And will have an all-star cast of artists that I really shouldn't get into right now, because some may come and some may go, but the lineup right now looks really staggering. A lot of great Darkness artists past will be coming back to do chapters of the anniversary issue. And the stuff I've seen to date -- like I said earlier about when you get something back and it looks better than you imagined it, every page of this anniversary issue is like that.

RM: Will the acclaimed Phil Hester be contributing some art to that issue?

PH: I don't know. I will be drawing some "The Darkness" in the near future, but maybe not the 75th issue.

RM: What you're saying is, if somebody really fucks your deadline, and you have to jump in and finish those pages, you're on the job, baby.

PH: If one of the big names that I'm too scared to mention flames out, then, yes, I will be drawing a chapter of this story.

RM: So what you're saying is, you will be drawing a chapter of this story.

PH: We'll see.

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