Marc Silvestri: Image Shot the Sherriff

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

I had a fantastic time at February's Image Expo catching up with as many of the original seven Image Comics creators as I could. One of my favorite interviews from that weekend was Marc Silvestri. Not just because Marc and his lovely wife Bridget gave me cocktails at the end of an exhausting day, but also because his stories of the beginning days of Image Comics are so wonderful and fun and interesting. I think any fan of comics will love this interview.

Marc Silvestri: Dave Marquez who's working on Magdalena works almost, I think, exclusively digitally now.

Marc SilvestriJason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: You start digitally.

Silvestri: Yeah, the main thing I think you really have to work on is getting an kind of line weight because even as, at this point the Cintiq and everything is sensitive enough to where it reflects the line you're putting down but it's still, at the end of the day pixels

CB:  Yeah right, because you gotta drag the pen in a different way than you're used to on paper too that so many artist friends have said. I'm more a writer myself but just to get the same texture and feel.

Silvestri:  I need the tactile feel.

CB:   I mean some people, Adam Hughes; I mean his stuff is fantastic.

Silvestri:  Is he working all digitally now?

CB:   Well I don't know if it's all digital, but it's got really strong digital elements to it.

Silvestri:  I don't know if he draws old school then scans it and finishes of digitally.

CB:   Yeah, I wonder. I don't know, I was talking to Craig Thompson at San Diego last year and he did all of Habibi, 640 pages by hand and actually did several drafts of it.

Silvestri:  Hmm, several Drafts of it?

CB:   Yeah, he said he actually through away his first draft and then the second draft he kind of merged all around. It took him six or seven years to create the thing.   

Silvestri:  That's like my schedule on Hunter/Killer. That's really what I was doing the whole time; I was just like frustrated and throwing stuff away; I actually finished the book in like a month.

CB:   When you finally got your groove?

Silvestri:  Yeah, that's it.

CB:   So I thought in honor of the 20th anniversary of Image, I was hoping to talk to all of the Image founders about how you came together to create Image, and how the company evolved over time .

I know that you broke into the industry that way that most people did in the early '80s; you did some horror stories for DC and then gradually kind of moved up it the industry and then you got the X-Men assignment right? And things kind of took off.

Silvestri:   Yeah, yeah, so you remember the DC stuff huh? 

CB:   It's amazing what Wikipedia will do for me.

Silvestri:   [Laughs] Which is like half accurate but yeah. I started, got my job at a DC talent search at the Chicago Comic-Con in 1981. I had no clue what I was doing cause I didn't really grow up on comics. That's there out the already so I'm not divulging anything away. But I grew up on horror and sci-fi and fantasy stuff and which I've talked at length about Top Cow but our universe is based more on that sci-fi stuff than guys from another planet or people bitten by radioactive spiders.

CB:   Don't think about it too much or it all falls apart.

Silvestri:   Yeah, yeah, but for us it's like, each of the Image partners and I'm going to talk about the seven original guys, even though we're down to four originals and now we've got Robert Kirkman who basically is the rock star of  what used to be the rock stars. I had personally reached the pinnacle of comics in that day. I was doing the X-Men. And there really was nothing beyond that; what are you going to do? Literally all you can do is either do the X-Men forever, which you're not, 'cause somebody's going to come along, like some punk named Jim Lee or whatever.

CB:  Right.

Silvestri:   He's gonna come along and you're just gonna be tired of it and kids grew up on it, they're at the man, and so on and so forth, so where do you go? I was literally, personally, looking for ways out of comics because clearly I didn't know where to go with it.  I made a lateral move to Wolverine 'cause I was still doing comics, I still loved to draw, obviously and loved the X-Men, and there was really no other Marvel character that I wanted to draw.

Because I know my skill set, I know my limitations and I know where my interest lies and to be honest with you I love Spider- Man and more power to Todd, when he was doing Spider-Man but if I had to draw those webs, especially on his face because you gotta to count them, except for Todd, he didn't care. but you've got to count the webs and you gotta be in the right spot and with Captain America you've got the stripes and the stars, you've got the scallops; that's not where my skill set lies.

Give me Wolverine, he's a hairy guy and he's got claws and he tears things up, that's good.  But that was it, now what? So I was looking for ways to get out of comics. I wanted to get into movie business, I was living in L.A. by that time, which I still do now, and then lo and behold, at a X-Men summit in New York, ironically they flew us out there, to talk about X-Men, me, Rob Liefeld, I think Peter David was there and I believe Chris Claremont was there and the editors where there, that was where I was approached by Todd McFarlane. And I believe -- I'm not quite sure, you'd have to ask Erik Larsen this -- but I think Erik was there with Todd. But Todd did most of the talking which is a shocker.

CB: From what I hear yeah.

Silvestri: And sure enough they just gave me the quick pitch about what Image was, the trigger hadn't been pulled yet but it was ready. And literally ninety seconds into his pitch I was like, "Sign me up, I don't need to hear any more. Just the fact that it's you guys and just the bones of what you're describing to me, is exactly what I personally need." Because I had nowhere else to go.

CB: You had the chance do your own stuff, sell plenty of copies of it, have the freedom to do whatever you want, is that what appealed to you?

Silvestri: Absolutely. And all seven of us at that time had that mentality. It was the Wild West and we were the gunslingers. If Marvel was the sheriff in town, we were the guys in the black hats coming in and you know we shot the sheriff. You can use that by the way, I think you need to get permission from Marvel.

But yeah, it was perfect timing for me. I'm gonna speak for the Image guys because I think I can on this. It was perfect timing for all of us, in our own way. I was personally at my peak and limit within comics creatively; there was nowhere else to go. The idea of going all in, which all of us had that spirit, just too much; I couldn't turn that down. And the energy about the whole project was just intoxicating. None of us knew it was really gonna work as well as it did, obviously, until it did; until we saw the first members of Youngblood #1.

CB: Through the roof.

Silvestri: Yeah, which technically wasn't part of Image; there was no Image when Rob did that. So Rob gets the props from really kicking it off. Although it never really would have worked, unless the people who were involved, were involved. You had to have the big names. Otherwise, you know…

CB: You guys really were rock stars at the time; you were selling crazy numbers on your books.

Filip Sablik: Complete with the tour bus.

Silvestri: With what? 

Sablik: Complete with the tour bus.

Silvestri: Yeah, this was another story, but yeah. The mentality was that: we were not status quo guys; we were all, in our own way, looking for something new. We were all restless and we all felt that we were being, in some way shackled. And Image, by design, addressed all those issues.

CB: Did you expect it to take off the way it did? Because Jim Valentino was telling me you guys were mobbed. Was it Chicago or San Diego, where you had to get your own tents outside so you didn't overwhelm the floor? That really is like rock star stuff. You must have felt like Mick and Keith or something. 

Silvestri: Well, now we're that age so now I feel more like Mick and Keith now. No, it was insanity, it really was and I think we took not only ourselves by surprise, which is why I think it will never be repeated, because it was a perfect storm of timing and the culture of comics and pop culture was still in its infantile stage and things like the San Diego Comic-Con was still about comics.

So we became big rock stars in a relatively small pond that was desperate for something like that to happen.  We were about creative rights. That's what we want; and for a brief time when it hit and everybody went, "Oh, fuck;" which was basically the reaction from everyone, whether it was good or bad, it was an, "Oh, fuck." For the most part, from the fans and such, it was good, right? And I can speak confidently that from Marvel, from the big publishers, sounds like I'm picking on people; .that was an, "Oh, fuck," bad.

Because it was working and I believe the all felt, "you know what, it's a temporary threat." These guys, I got those phone calls from, (for those who can't see us we just got delivered cocktails so my interview is going to be a lot more entertaining). I got phone calls from the people I was working for at that time and says, "Well what are you doing? You're going to be back here in six months." And they kept trying to tell me, this is true and a valid point, a lot of guys did do this exact thing, said, "Look, with guys like Todd leaving, Jim leaving -- Jim Lee and  Rob Liefeld -- you're gonna have your pick of books with Marvel if you stay. You're gonna have the pick of books."  And I said, "The pick of books is still the X-Men"

CB: It's still Marvel, it's not your thing.

Silvestri: It's still that. "Are you gonna give me percentages on Wolverine? No. It will not have changed; you'll just give me a bigger book. And you'll promote the fuck out of me because I'll be your last guy." But there were guys that did that; because we went to everyone and put the offer up, "Hey, come join us." And as history will tell you it was just us seven guys and a few risk takers like Dale Keown and the Maxx…  Sam Kieth, a few other guys, Larry Stroman and all that, but no writers, no writers of any note, joined us.

But when those sales came in on Youngblood and that wasn't even the proper kick off book, yeah. It was a kick off book, but it wasn't Image, as Image was to be known. I think after the first six months, when people realized that we were not going away yet, obviously twenty years later we can really say that.

CB: Yeah

Silvestri: Yeah. People saw the numbers cause they got out there, we put them out there sometimes and also it's just available to the public; it's gotta get out there. They saw the tent and Chicago.

CB: Wizard was hyping you guys a lot too, I mean that helped too.

Silvestri: Basically Wizard happened because of Image Comics; with all due respect to Gabe and all those guys, they had something to report, because right at that time something happened. I don't think a lot of people would have really gotten a magazine that was about Captain America at that time. You can't publish an entire magazine about that. But we gave them something to publish.

CB: Yeah, you became like one of those entertainment TV shows. Suddenly the story behind the comics is just as exciting as the story in the comics.

Silvestri: For a brief moment, which is good it was just brief, cause it should be the other way round, I think, to a certain degree the other way around, I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but for a brief moment I think it was the first time really that the creators were bigger than the creations. And I think that's when Marvel and DC kind of freaked out. Because that was their big stab at us, was that it's not about the creators, it's about the characters, which when you think about that logic for even a split second you go, "Well who the hell creates your characters."

CB: Right, right. They'd been going against that for years anyway. Miller, and Gaiman, and Moore where all bigger than the books they worked on.

Silvestri: Yeah, absolutely. Well, those three names are the three names, back in that day. John Byrne took a few stabs too and obviously Neal Adams was kind of at the forefront that was trying to do creator’s stuff. The key will always be that it wasn't piecemeal; it wasn't one guy going out and trying it; it was the seven of us, who were at the top of our game at that time. That's why it mattered; that's why it made news; and the fact that you had names like Todd McFarlane and Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld who were without doubt the biggest names in comics at that time. Without them, I'll through that right out there, there would be no Image Comics, obviously, because you needed that muscle; you needed that star power to make a difference. If I were to go on out, even if me and Eric and Jim Valentino were to have gone out on our own, it wouldn't have done anything. We're pretty good at what we do.

CB: It's kind of on the heels of Jim Lee selling what was it seven million copies of X-Men #1 or something insane like that? It was literally more than they sell in a year now in the comics industries.

Silvestri: It is sad to say.

CB: Yeah, it is sad to say.

Silvestri: It's unfortunate, for all of us who love comic books but it's the truth. But yeah, it was a moment in time, because timing was on that it just won’t be repeated.

CB: Must have been exciting to be part of it though; just at that moment right?

Silvestri: It was crazy, it was crazy. It was continually crazy for about three years. Then the whole market started to shift a little bit and everybody kind of went to a different mindset.

The infamous DeathmateCB: Yeah, the Death of Superman threw this whole other layer onto things that collapsed the industry in some ways. Or do you think it was like a lot of different things that happened at that point?

Silvestri: It was a ton of things, it was the inevitable collapse because the balloon blew up so big and John Byrne caught a lot of flak for putting a number on how many hard core comic fans he thought there was; which was pretty low, I think he said like 250,000; I think that was low, but not by as much as people thought. I think people like to think, "No, there's tens of millions of comic readers out there;" but no there isn't. So there is this inflation in the value of comics that we had, because the Image formula worked, I think at one point we had like fifty publishers out there.

Sablik : Yeah, that wouldn't surprise me, I know from the distributer end at one point Diamond had something like 40 distribution warehouses and now they have 3.

Silvestri: That's Filip Sablik by the way, who basically keeps Top Cow running it the right directions and he will be answering any question tougher than what's my name. So yeah, at that time I remember going to comic shops and seeing all these publishers. "Who the hell are you and what's Banana Man?" But it was true and the Marvel and DC reacted by flooding the market with all kinds of books.

Sablik: Well in fact at the time it was like that second independent boom and so the guys that followed, like Jeff Smith and Terry Moore and those guys, I  mean I remember at one point Bone was selling, I think on par with a top ten book right now, in black and white.

CB: Wow, I mean it deserves it but that's still incredible numbers.

Sablik: And I remember talking to a couple of guys in early 2000 after the collapse and they, these were guys that had been in comics in the  mid and early '90s and were used to certain numbers and then they came back and started self-publishing, got their numbers and were like, "wha?"

CB:" What? How did this happen?"

Sablik: Yeah.

Silvestri: There was a fairly brutal recalculating within the entire industry but our initial success was so high that we were able to kind of function and make the proper changes that were still good twenty years later, with four of the original partners and one new one in Robert Kirkman, that has shown everyone, this is what could happen.

I always use Robert Kirkman as the example of why Image Comics worked, and what it means,  and the opportunities it gives you if you can have the balls for it. Robert Kirkman, haven't seen them personally, but he has big balls. Filip tells me but I take his word for it. So yeah, in the early days that Wild West lasted for a few years. And then the Wild West started again, within the creator-owned industry, or a bunch of comics, when Hollywood started taking notice.

CB: You definitely did well from that, right? I mean you got your share of that with Wanted, big hit; Part 2 is coming out, right?

Silvestri: We hope.

CB:  Oh, it's still in development, OK. I thought I saw hype about it.

Sablik: There's been a lot of discussion and I think Mark Millar has been very optimistic and vocal about it.

Silvestri: You just never know, until literally, the movie is out there, cause I've done this long enough that I remember when we did the Witchblade TV series, the live action one, which was twelve years ago now.

CB: It is that long? I just feel older and older Marc, as we talk. Jeez.

Silvestri: Well I'm about to hit thirty. I started Image when I was ten.

CB: Yeah, I wish I did that well when I was ten, yeah.

Silvestri: Yeah, That's a midfield and a half but again it's this great opportunity that didn't exist 21 years ago. It exists now, for people who are not marvel and DC, because of stuff that we took a chance on all those years ago.

I think history will tell two stories of Image Comics and one will be the fun story, about the seven coconuts, who had these legendary and mostly true meetings where we're at each other’s throats, because part of how Image worked was its dysfunction. That's how Image was structured and that's why it did change things; it's because we didn't have any corporate structure. It literally was guys getting in a room, rolling us and wrestling. Well not literally.

CB: I hope not. I try to purge that image from my mind.

Sablik: If Kirkman had been a founding partner, you would know what size his balls were.

Silvestri: Well yeah. Well done Phillip, that's outstanding.

Sablik: If the banana hammock fits Marc.

Silvestri: Yeah, exactly. So it all just worked out in the end. The fact that we're celebrating twenty years is crazy. The fact that we can literally look back now and, because we have history behind us, and look at Image Comics and go, "You know what, we're a part of pop culture history that will be forever a part of pop culture history." Which is just the fact of being there and knowing behind the scenes of how crazy it was, makes me laugh.

CB: Ok you got to tell one story; one story about you guys at each other’s throats.

Silvestri: Just one?

CB: You can tell as many as you want; you just gotta know it's gonna be out there on the web and anyone can listen to it.

Silvestri: There's so many damn stories. My favorite, which is not about us being against our throat, but it just kind of shows the sometimes friendly competition that we had was, we were up at Todd McFarlane’s house, I think he was living at Seattle at the time. Was it Seattle? I think it was Seattle.

Sablik: I wasn't there but I know he lived up there for a while.

Silvestri: We went up there before he moved down to Phoenix. And there was all of us, the original guys, I think Whilce was part of that, cause it was relatively early. We were just getting all of, I can't say our ducks in a row because they never got in a row; that was part of the great part I guess. A ramshackle little organization.  But Todd was like an athlete, it was like he was going to be a baseball player, at one point in his life. And we had these creator tournaments back in the day, there was this great card of Todd, shirtless, swinging a bat. And if I ever see that one again, I'm buying it because gotta blow that up and post it.

CB: I'll hit eBay for it.

Silvestri: Oh, it's great. We were at the batting cages and I don't know if you know Jim Lee very well but he's a hyper, hyper competitive guy. I mean it's almost an illness with him. He says he's got to win, regardless of how long it takes; even if he has no chance of winning. And we're at the batting cages and we're all hitting them, I mean Todd's the guy, it's like he's hitting the fastballs with the bat. I used to play, not at any real level, but I played, so I was hitting them and Rob was hitting them, and no matter how slow you set the damn thing, you couldn't set it slow enough, Jim could not hit a ball; and he was relentless. And we kept betting and challenging, It's like, "Oh, I'm gonna do this, I'll hit one of these" and I was like, "What are you talking about? You haven't hit one yet." We're one-handing it at that point, because we're getting bored and he's going like, "Come on, come on, wiff, come on, come on, wiff, come on, come on." I think he hit a couple at the tip of the bat.

CB: I know exactly what you mean.

Silvestri: That was kind of the mentality and the good camaraderie; ultimately it was all good camaraderie even when it was more antagonistic. It was seven guys, who all knew they were swimming in shark infested waters, that at the end of the day, fun and games or not, we were each other’s life preserver. We all had that in common, in those early days.

There was a competition, and at one point Image became its own worst enemy. Which is also well reported, but even through all that, all that is what made Image work. Because we all had that same mentality; we all had those egos to feed; we all had our way of doing things, but as odd as it sounds, that how Image was designed, literally from day one.

The Darkness 2 video game!

CB: Seems a lot more stable these days. Do you think you guys are just mellowing with age? Seems to be our theme by the way, age today. It's actually my birthday today, so this is really on my mind.

Silvestri: Happy birthday.

CB: Thank you.

Silvestri: Mine's coming up, soon, but, happy birthday.

I guess you could say that, but I think it's more of maturity and experience. None of us where businessmen back then, none of us, and the fact that it did take off so quickly and the fact that, and that's well documented also, there was a lot of money coming in, which afforded us a lot of mistakes. Because like, "Oh, that costs a few hundred thousand dollars, well then.” And I remember we'd laugh. We canceled a book that sold 400,000 copies, I remember at one point; and because it was like 400,000 copies, "huh, to hell with that book, losers!" Yeah, I think we did that, I think it was 400,000 copies.

Sablik: Was it one of The Deathmate books?

Silvestri: No, no.

Sablik: But there was one of The Deathmate books that had to be re-solicited and came back.

Silvestri: And the re-solicit, we'd lost.

Sablik: It was a ton of sales but it was...

Silvestri: It was still outrageously hot.

CB: What was the infamous book that never came out and there was all this retailer money that was stuck in that book. Was that the one? The Image/Valiant crossover, is that what it was?

Silvestri: That’s Deathmate.

Sablik: Yeah, that's the one that was canceled and re-solicited.

Silvestri: Re-solicited and the sales dropped by a lot, but yeah you're right,  even then, even after they dropped, they were so high that by today's standards you wouldn't even see those kind of numbers anymore, even as they dropped. But that was then, today we've moved along, and we've helped shape this industry, and we've kind of realized that, and for us it's like God loved a partner, and God loved comics; and more power to you if you want to be with us, awesome. If you want security or the perceived security of a large cooperation more power to you. Just enjoy comics and love what you do.

CB: You're a slightly different group that the so called Image Central, you have the Top Cow line of books, you've got your half dozen or so books and you have kind of an editorial approach of it, for wanting a better term.

Silvestri: Well we have a universe.

CB: Yeah, you've got your universe.

Silvestri: We definitely have a universe which we're proud of; it's based on the supernatural. Not to put a blanket over it, but that's how we like it. And it's worked for us, obviously in things like The Darkness and Witchblade, we've been able to exploit those in other areas; which has been really good for us.

CB: I've been seeing The Darkness video game adds every time I turn on Hulu.

Silvestri: Nice, Nice. Are you a gamer at all?

CB: I'm not a gamer at all, no.

Silvestri: You'll still love this game.

CB: I wish I had the time, seriously. Tell me about the game.

Silvestri: It's awesome. The game is, this time done by Digital Extremes. Which is different. Starbreeze did the first game. This is Digital Extremes and this is, kind of, them putting their mark out there, their name out there, as a real contender for development. And I think they did a great job.

And 2K games, the publisher of both the first and this one, they're awesome because they put their neck out for something different. And for gamers out there who play The Darkness, they know The Darkness is different; which when games now cost tens of millions of dollars; we're talking Hollywood money for games now, that is not playing around. Triple A games are a hundred million dollars plus; and to take chances with that kind of money, because The Darkness 2, especially, is very different; they spent months and months and months developing this graphic from our style, which is a takeoff of cell-shading for gamers, they know what that is, but it's far more involved. It's not a program, you don't push a button and say, "Make it do this."

They literally want in there and hand painted every texture in the game; which has never been done before. And they made it look like a movie, graphic novel; and the effect is mesmerizing; and every reviewer out there today, they all agree that it's a beautiful game and they've never seen anything like it. We're getting great reviews so we're happy. All eights and nines and tens; we've gotten a couple of tens.

CB: That's fantastic, wow.

Silvestri: And it literally is a beautiful game.

Bridget Silvestri: Playboy magazine gave it four bunny heads.

Silvestri: And Playboy magazine gave it four bunny heads.

CB: Bunny heads is an interesting phrase.

Silvestri: So we're like thrilled we had the opportunity, because obviously this didn't exist years ago. Then we couldn't have been talking right now that there's a Darkness video game.

Silvestri:  A Wanted movie, a Witchblade TV series and we're developing a Darkness movie right now, which hoping will have some cool announcements coming up soon. But even to be able to discuss things like that is pretty trippy.

CB: So when you think about what you were thinking,  20 or 21 years ago when you were all sitting together, deciding to break free, is this the dream that you had?

Silvestri: Even more so, because a lot of we're able to do today, was theory back then. Obviously this was before the internet, this is before the digital age and this was before anyone knew what a superhero was that didn't have a bat on his chest or an S on his chest, or wasn't covered in webs; and that was pretty much it.  

I can speak for all of us and say, beyond our wildest dreams, it worked. As creasy as our dreams were back then, it was more, "Let's just put on a show and see what happens." And that's what we did, we just wanted to get the fuck out of here and be over here; which was our own destiny, we want to control our destiny; and it was a big roll of the dice and we're still at the table.

CB: I hear no regrets.

Silvestri: None, none.

CB: Perfect point to stop at.


Don't miss the rest of our series of interviews with the Image founders!

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