Murderers’ Row: Marc Silvestri

With deepest gratitude to Claire Napier, without whose friendship this essay could not exist.

* * *

As I wandered along this distant beachhead of life on a discontented eve of sorrow, I was struck by a conviction which has come to dictate a not insubstantial portion of my thoughts. That the most interesting artist of the seven original Image founders was Marc Silvestri.

Oh, that guy, you say, scratching your chin. Good old Marc. He’s great. Didn’t he just do a Batman comic?

Yes, indeed. Which we’ll get to by the by.

So, most interesting artist of the Image founders. What does that and a nickel get you, at the end of the day? We’ve advanced to discussing that period in the forensic terms of the art historian. The initial wave of Image was a movement, a genuine populist uprising in a traditionally hidebound industry. Certainly, the product on display at the time of the company’s formation found no purchase in these pages. Todd McFarlane gave one of the best interviews in the history of the print Journal, no doubt, but also one of the most adversarial. Up there with the Kevin Eastman interview a couple dozen issues later, in terms of significance. People still read those interviews... or at least, those rarified few wont to leaf through old issues of magazines about comic books in their spare time.

People still read those interviews because that period of time is generally judged to be a significant one. The matters at hand in those heady years of Batman, boom and bust are still at front and center of our industry’s discourse. Employment standards at Marvel have gotten worse, not better. Do not doubt: the men who formed Image had, by and large, made a fair bit of money just off royalties paid by Marvel. The issue wasn’t that they didn’t have enough, but they knew they were directly responsible for making a lot more. A lot of people were making a lot more money off Todd’s Spider-Man than Todd was ever going to see. He was never wrong about that. His Marvel stuff is almost never out of print—a rare honor at a company whose idea of “rarely out of print” generally includes the understanding that "Born Again" and "The Dark Phoenix Saga" go out of print for long stretches of time—and he still makes a few dollars every time they reprint those comics, as well he should. But he doesn’t get anything for the t-shirts, I don’t think.

Of course, it can be very difficult to make a living drawing monthly comics. The royalty system doesn’t work like it used to, when books were selling enough that even midlist fare like The Avengers or Web of Spider-Man could easily meet that threshold. Straight up - modern conditions aren’t encouraging in terms of attracting the best up-and-coming artists to pursue regular monthly work on interiors. It had to be the guys who made more money from that system than anyone else to realize they deserved more. I mean, Eastman & Laird were standing right there. Two regular fellas who stumbled upon a dinky little idea they thought might just sell a few thousand copies in black & white - turned out that dinky little idea had more legs than the creators themselves ever imagined. And as they didn’t accidentally sell their billion dollar idea to Marvel Comics. The bounty was theirs.

The important thing to remember is that Marc Silvestri arrived on this scene at the last possible moment. Literally walked into a room where the gang was sitting and got the hard sell from Todd himself. Silvestri was at that moment in the middle (soon to be the end) of his run on Wolverine. Suddenly, and without really expending any effort on his part, he was thrust into the center of the industry’s biggest storyline.

The ringleaders of the Image exodus were large personalities. Are large personalities, I should say. Todd has somehow managed to come back to near-ubiquity. He saw there was an opening for America’s Beloved Comics Pap-Pap. Still doesn’t want to draw much more than the odd cover or promo piece. Jim Lee has been ensconced at the heart of DC Comics for decades. An unlikely ending, considering he’s the only one of his peers who graduated to an editorial or executive position at a mainstream publisher, which is a thing that used to happen a lot more before they stopped letting most editors freelance. Erik Larsen is still around, though more people could always stand to pick up Savage Dragon. He’s the only one of them who never let up on a regular schedule for himself. Inarguably, because of that rigor he’s evolved more than any of the other founders. That’s simply a fact - you develop more as an artist the more you draw.

But drawing comics is back-breaking work over the long term, so it shouldn’t come as any surprise that many artists, when faced with success sufficient to remove themselves from the demands of a regular schedule, will generally prefer to do so. Rob Liefeld still draws a fair amount. I saw him on social media a while back claiming that he tries to do 100 pages of comics a year, which is actually pretty hardcore for someone who’s been doing it as long as he has, and who—if we’re frank—never actually needs to draw anything again for so long as he lives. Jim Valentino has been in semi-retirement for years, after a long career on the publishing side, where he was instrumental in making sure that the company was always a haven for some left-of-center fare in addition to... well, the stuff they led with. Drew rarely in the new century.

And then there’s Marc Silvestri. Hasn’t published that much in the last couple decades either; not relative to his first ten years. When he shows up on the racks now, it's an event.

He certainly was acquainted with all the gentlemen suddenly together in one room in 1992, but he was not privy to the earliest confabs between Todd and Rob, or Rob’s entreaties to Malibu with Larsen and Valentino. Wasn’t an active participant in the discourse. Whatever Jim Lee’s private grudges against the company, Silvestri didn’t seem to share them. He was, by his own admission, riding a professional high before Image existed. He got to draw Chris Claremont’s The Uncanny X-Men for a good long time, earning membership in a rare brotherhood indeed. After that, he was drawing Wolverine - not perhaps making adjectiveless X-Men money, but nothing to sneeze at. Coming up in the ranks, he had significant stretches on King Conan and Web of Spider-Man. On the eve of Image, he had already experienced what many would consider a "full" career. And then, by happenstance, he wandered into the orbit of six other men with whom he would remain from thenceforth linked professionally, for better or for worse, until the day he dies.

* * *

Marc Silvestri is neither the oldest of the Image founders, nor was he the first published. In both cases that was Jim Valentino, who came up during the interregnum between the final death of the underground press at the tail end of the '70s and the black & white boom of the mid '80s - his first appearance was in handmade minicomics around 1978, then a few undergrounds. (In ‘81 he even managed to get a strip in an issue of Kitchen Sink’s Dope Comix, alongside the likes of Greg Irons and Aline Kominsky-Crumb, so you can’t say his bona fides weren’t in good order.) Silvestri was second to print, in 1981, with his first published story in the pages of DC's House of Mystery #292. Larsen first appeared in 1982, placing a Dragon story in the black & white anthology Graphic Fantasy, which he co-published. After that, McFarlane debuted in issue #11 of Steve Englehart’s Coyote in 1985 (unless you count his letters page illustration in The Comics Journal #84 in 1983). Lee and Liefeld followed in short order, Lee in the pages of the Solson Christmas Special Featuring Samurai Santa in 1986, and Liefeld in issue #8 of Gary Carlson’s extraordinarily influential Megaton anthology in 1987 (though Liefeld had some pinups out before that in various Carlson titles).

The seventh man of Image, Whilce Portacio—who bowed out at the genesis, due I believe to a family illness that postponed the first issue of Wetworks until 1994—is interesting in this conversation, in that he’s the only one of the Image founders to begin as an inker, in 1985 on Epic’s Alien Legion. Within short order, he advanced to inks on Marvel's Longshot limited series - Art Adams’ big breakthrough after about a year of odd jobs for the company. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of Art Adams’ early work to the artists who would go on to form Image, and Portacio was a tangible link to that history.

In any event, all that still lay in the future. Back in the early '80s, the comics industry was still a sturdy place. You had the mainstream publishers, the Big Two of Marvel and DC, with a few other familiar names vying for control of the 7/11 spinner racks. There were a handful of magazines, color and black & white. And after that, you had the small press - the mostly black & white books beginning to pick up steam. Pacific Comics was just then hitting its stride, paving the way for a gradual arms race of improved printing technology and distribution mechanisms aimed at the burgeoning Direct Market.

From “…and Spoil the Child!” in House of Mystery #292 (May 1981); art by Silvestri & Tony DeZuniga, colored by Bob LeRose, lettered by Milt Snapinn, written by Joey Cavalieri. 'Restored' colors on vintage comics throughout by special arrangement with the Cyberdata corporation.

Silvestri, however, broke into comics the old-fashioned way: a small assignment for a sleepy book at the Big Two. House of Mystery #292 was fairly representative of the company’s horror offerings at the time - an anthology book filled with stories of variable quality but given to an overall decent batting average. All under a Joe Kubert cover. In that issue Silvestri was rubbing shoulders with the likes of Dan Spiegle, Romeo Tanghal and Ric Estrada. His contribution, “... and Spoil the Child,” written by future editor Joey Cavalieri with art co-credited to Tony DeZuniga, isn’t a bad piece of work: a domestic drama about traumatized children and parents with a SF twist that looks every bit like someone’s very first publication spruced up by an old pro. Stiff and over-rendered, yes, but also clearly careful work intended to impress. It apparently worked, because he had another job published in September of that year, in Ghosts #104. Inked by DeZuniga, “The First Ghost” is notable only for the novelty of a young Marc Silvestri drawing a Robert Kanigher story.

Now, as if to prove that history makes fools of us all, there’s another fact to mention before we move on from these parts. House of Mystery #292 is notable for one other thing, which is discussed directly on the first page, in the manner of these books, by horror host Cain. The editor’s chair would have a new occupant in that issue, over from the great Len Wein. In fact, it was the first comic book to ever be edited by a woman named Karen Berger, a key force in what would eventually be dubbed DC's British Invasion. She first appears on panel bearing several bags of cookies. Now, imagine we’re chilling back in 1981, I grab a copy of House of Mystery #292 off the racks, point to it and say, “This comic will change the course of the industry for decades to come in two completely different directions.” You’d probably wonder if I should go to the hospital.

After a third horror short, notable only for it appearing in the last issue, #222, of DC’s venerable anthology The Unexpected, and a story for Weird War Tales #113, Silvestri decamped for Marvel, and stayed for a solid decade. His first Marvel story was Conan the Barbarian #135, written by the venerable Steven Grant, with a knockout cover by Walt Simonson, Conan fighting a bird. One of Simonson's personal favorite pieces, I am led to understand. Not the last professional association between Simonson and Silvestri. From that issue of Conan, Silvestri made the lateral move to King Conan, working with Doug Moench on issue #13. There’s another job with Moench in Master of Kung-Fu #119. That's the issue right before Gene Day’s last issue, and two issues before #121, David Mazzucchelli’s first published comics work. How remarkable to see these ships passing one another in the night.

From Conan the King #23 (July 1984); inked by Geof Isherwood, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker, written by Alan Zelenetz.

Silvestri stayed on King Conan from November of 1982 through July of 1985, issues #13-16 and #19-29, by which time it had been retitled Conan the King (as of issue #20) - bimonthly and double-sized, a format that seemed to work for that book and the original run of What If...? He drew an issue of that book as well, a Sub-Mariner tale in issue #41 that was also a collaboration with the new writer of King Conan, Alan Zelenetz, who'd later write those stories in Alien Legion that Whilce Portacio inked. During that gap between stints on King Conan, Silvestri also drew a Moon Knight back-up for Zelenetz. The writer seems to have recognized significant talent when he saw it, because he stuck with Silvestri for two years. That run of King Conan is notable for the being the book that taught Marc Silvestri how to draw.

He knew the basics when he got through the door, of course. But there’s no way to learn how to draw a monthly comic book other than sitting down and drawing a monthly comic book. Even if the release schedule was bimonthly, it was a big book, lots of pages. Every page needs to look good, on the clock. When he sat down to start his first issue of King Conan, Silvestri had barely finished one regular issue of Conan - but, "barely" isn’t "not." When he moved on from King Conan, he was getting regular work from the Spider-Man and X-Men offices, just a few months away from taking the big chair on The Uncanny X-Men itself.

From Conan the King #28 (May 1985); inked by Geof Isherwood, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker, written by Alan Zelenetz. Click to enlarge.

If you’ve heard me opine about comic books over the last two years, you’ve probably heard me talking about Marc Silvestri’s run on this series with Alan Zelenetz (though Silvestri sticks around for one issue after Zelenetz leaves, with writer Don Kraar). Zelenetz is a bit of a forgotten figure, but worth going back for. Thoughtful, with an eye towards character-driven drama. He wrote several issues in the last stretch of that first volume of What If...?, probably the best that book has ever been, consistently.

What got me in the door with King Conan recently, after a very long disinvestment from comics, was just happening to see Michael Wm. Kaluta’s covers for that run, beginning with #19. Absolutely gorgeous pieces, and symbolic of the book turning over a new leaf. The first couple years of King Conan were sleepy, all told. Lot of John Buscema, because of course you want Big John drawing the big guy. But he can’t draw every book. For many years the de facto position within the Conan office appeared to be that every comic book not directly drawn by John Buscema should be treated as a fill-in for John Buscema. And if that made for a consistent line, it didn’t always make for interesting comics.

The Conan books looked as consistent as possible because they were among the company’s most consistent sellers. Conan thrived on the newsstand - he’s rarely been a top seller in the Direct Market, and certainly was not during the formative years of the Direct Market. These weren’t titles for artistic mavericks, they were for craftsmen who didn’t mind drawing fantasy comics to something sort of resembling a template. And there were lots of ways of excelling within that template, but it was also fairly static from roughly 1973 through the early '90s. Not perhaps the most amenable environment for some artists, but a consistent one, and consistently demanding. You had to be able to draw a whole world with Conan. Adventure stories with frequent eruptions of violence across all manner of exotic climates. Horses, castles, fair maidens in elaborate gowns - all things that take time to draw, and need to be drawn right. Hordes of warriors at every turn in King Conan, a series partially about armies.

Beginning with issue #21 and running through #26—a full year of the bimonthly book—the series was split in half between the adventures of Conan and those of his son, Conn. The main stories, when penciled by Silvestri (he sometimes only draws the second) were usually inked by Geof Isherwood, and it was a strong partnership. Isherwood is somewhere south of Ernie Chan and Alfredo Alcala as an ink stylist, but within that school. The second feature, however, was inked by Silvestri himself.

Silvestri pencils and inks the backup story in Conan the King #23 (July 1984); colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker, written by Alan Zelenetz.

It is here we see the first stirrings of Silvestri’s great theme - and the reason why his work remains to me far more interesting in hindsight than any of his fellows. With Marc Silvestri we find a surprisingly frank engagement with attraction and lust, rare subject matter for mainstream comics. In the Conn stories especially, Silvestri comes alive as the book incorporates more attractive women to its cast. You can tell: if there’s a woman on any page of King Conan, her attire will be the most meticulously rendered detail in that issue.

Among the Image founders there is a fair amount of “sexy,” with some of the group being better at it than others. Despite the august reputation of his Mary Jane, I’ve often found staring too close at McFarlane’s women to be a disquieting experience. Jim Lee draws attractive women in the same we he draws an attractive airplane: precisely and dynamically, if slightly tangentially. Only with Silvestri do we find such a consistent treatment of eros as the defining motivator of action storytelling.

Silvestri pencils and inks the backup story in Conan the King #22 (May 1984); colored by George Roussos, lettered by Rick Parker, written by Alan Zelenetz.

By the end of Silvestri’s King Conan / Conan the King, he’s evolved tremendously. There’s a bit of Hal Foster in this strip, in addition to that heaping helping of Buscema. Lots of wide-open splash pages filled with multiple figures struggling over well-defined environments. Grand battles across landscapes marked by picturesque ruins. He is learning to tell a lot of story in a single image, one of the most elemental lessons in all cartooning. You get better from trial and error on the page - how exactly does that work? Sometimes it seems opaque, how artists develop. But he’s really laid it all out for us here, end to end. You get better by sticking with it.

From Conan the King #29 (July 1985); inked by Art Nichols, colored by George Roussos, lettered by Janice Chiang, written by Don Kraar.

Silvestri had no shortage of jobs waiting on the other side. During his last year on King Conan he pencils Revenge of the Living Monolith (Marvel Graphic Novel #17), again with Isherwood among a score of additional inkers, before moving on to Spider-Man. He drew issues #16-20 and 22 of Web of Spider-Man, an eventful run in many ways. Over the course of those six issues he’s inked by Bob McLeod (#19-20), Kyle Baker (#16, #18), Vince Colletta (#17) and Art Nichols (#22). Issue #18 is technically the first appearance of Venom, if off-panel. Oh, yeah, the issue where Spider-Man fights the IRA (#20) got bomb threats.

You can see how Silvestri might have appreciated a bit of stability. Well, it didn’t get more stable than the X-Men. After drawing a few issues of the early run of X-Factor, he moves onto The X-Men vs. the Avengers. A four-issue miniseries written by Roger Stern, it’s a story that probably had to be told at some point, even if Chris Claremont didn’t want to do it: the Avengers catching up with the fact that Magneto was hanging out with the X-Men. Considering that, you know, he also tried to kill the Avengers a few times over the years. Inked by Joe Rubinstein, not always my favorite, but not bad for Silvestri.

He must have passed the audition. Before the miniseries even finishes he’s been taken off the title and tapped to draw The Uncanny X-Men, beginning with issue #218, in June of 1987. He didn’t draw every issue between that and #261, in May of 1990 - it double-shipped regularly through that period, so there are fill-in runs by the likes of Rick Leonardi and Jim Lee, among others. When he wraps his run on Uncanny it’s just a couple months before he starts drawing Wolverine for writer Larry Hama. He’s on that for another two years, before everything changes.

On both Uncanny and Wolverine, Silvestri is accompanied by Dan Green, who passed away on August 19 of this year. I think Green is probably Silvestri’s best inker, all told. They understood each other quite well, to a degree I think Silvestri has often struggled to replicate in the years since.

Life's a beach in The Uncanny X-Men #222 (Oct. 1987); inked by Dan Green, colored by Glynis Oliver, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, written by Chris Claremont.

If you’ve read anything of Silvestri’s Marvel work, you’ve probably read something he did with the X-Men. On Uncanny he’s the transition between John Romita Jr. and Jim Lee. He seemed to enjoy drawing it, and Claremont seemed to enjoy writing it. They hit a good rapport early on. Silvestri loved drawing beautiful women, Chris Claremont loved writing about beautiful women. You and I should be so lucky as to find such copacetic collaborators in our own lives and work.

In all seriousness, sex had always been part of the X-Men, at least since Claremont had anything to say about it. Silvestri’s tenure was the closest that long-standing subtext came to surfacing. Those were the Australia years. Some of the horniest superhero comics ever published, featuring characters motivated by love and acting out of lust. If any part of Claremont’s genre-defining run on X-Men is under-read and underrated, it's those Australian sequences with Marc Silvestri. Very emotionally raw comics, in certain ways, which strikes me as a weird thing to say about what was the most popular comic book of its time. But there you have it.

Hot stuff coming through in The Uncanny X-Men #241 (Feb. 1989); inked by Dan Green, colored by Glynis Oliver, lettered by Tom Orzechowski, written by Chris Claremont.

After the highs of Claremont, Silvestri found a very comfortable parachute in the form of Larry Hama. Hama was the Wolverine title’s first real regular writer after years of constantly changing personnel. Responsible with G.I. Joe for Claremont’s only real competition at that time in terms of influence and sustained success at Marvel, pairing Hama with the guy who’d just spent years learning how to draw Wolverine was a sign from the company that they didn’t want to have to worry about staffing the character's solo title anymore.

Those two years on Wolverine appear, from many angles, to be among the most satisfying of Silvestri’s career. Hama knows how to write taut, character-driven action with a lot of travel and changes of scenery - and guess what Silvestri likes to draw? And just so we’re sure, does Hama’s Wolverine spend a lot of time hanging around beautiful women? Friend, I believe you already know the answer.

Early travels in Wolverine #32 (Oct. 1990); inked by Dan Green, colored by Glynis Oliver, lettered by Pat Brosseau, written by Larry Hama.

You can cut Silvestri’s time on Wolverine in two halves, with the roughly the first half Silvestri and Hama dealing with Wolverine on his own, fighting the Yakuza in Japan, hunting in Canada, traveling in time back to Guernica - no, really, he travels back to Guernica with Ernest Hemingway. Hama’s clearly having fun.

Somewhere around the halfway point, the run changes a bit. The book turns to a more consistent engagement with the rest of the X-Men franchise, pulling it into the orbit of Uncanny and Jim Lee’s adjectiveless relaunch. Silvestri's art starts talking more to what the artists are doing on the rest of the line, which certainly makes sense considering that Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld were both selling a lot of comics. He clearly spent some time trying to figure out what was working for his younger colleagues. In the first stretch of Wolverine, him and Dan Green look like they are trying to reverse engineer Mike Mignola, focusing on movement and minimizing detail for spotted blacks. But then the book starts looking more like Scott Williams is inking it. Green starts incorporating that very artificial, inorganic hatching texture of which Liefeld was so fond. Figures are placed front and center in the composition; readability isn’t necessarily sacrificed, but a degree of compositional intricacy is. It doesn’t look quite so strange as when Herb Trimpe went for it, but there’s a similar vibe of good artists trying to draw more like people who don’t know how to draw as well as they do, because that’s what the readers are responding to.

There’s a bit of an anomaly in those years, however, in the form of Barry Windsor-Smith. The months immediately leading into the Image exodus also saw the release of Windsor-Smith’s "Weapon X" serial in Marvel Comics Presents. That was, for all its artistic virtues, also a very popular story. It was immediately clear that the people doing the Wolverine solo book needed to respond to it, and the people on the horn that day were Hama and Silvestri. So, there’s also a few issues of Wolverine where the creeping influence of Lee and Liefeld is warring with the overt influence of Windsor-Smith.

Silvestri contends with Barry Windsor-Smith's "Weapon X" and the popular stylings of his soon-to-be Image colleagues in Wolverine #49 (Dec. 1991); inked by Hilary Barta & Dan Green, colored by Steve Buccellato, lettered by Pat Brosseau, written by Larry Hama.

It doesn’t necessarily play to Silvestri's strengths, but it does handily foreshadow the next years of his life and career.

* * *

All things being equal, Silvestri seemed to enjoy working for Marvel. It clearly wasn't a copacetic environment for everyone, but he got along rather well. That’s judging from his own words at various parts of his career, and the testimonials of those who have found him an enthusiastic collaborator. He worked with good writers who knew how to challenge him. His two main inkers were Geof Isherwood on King Conan, and Dan Green on Uncanny and Wolverine, and those were both strong partnerships. He learned a lot from both men.

That is, more than anything, the overriding theme of Silvestri’s career as an artist. Constantly learning. Paying attention to what was happening around him and figuring out how to make it work for him. As I’ve said, it’s a wonderful thing that his earliest real formative experience in comics was going nose to the grindstone with a title and character held at a conservative distance from the rest of the industry. He learned how to draw the John Buscema way, and in case you didn’t know, that guy wrote the book on the Marvel Way. Claremont knew just what to do with Silvestri when he got him - yeah, yeah, models sitting around the outback pouting in swimwear, that’s all well and good, but that run is also absolutely sick with some of the best fight scenes in the series’ history. A triumph of meat & potatoes amidst the veritable garden of earthly delight. Elaborate engagements taking multiple issues, and requiring an advanced understanding of staging and choreography to be able to pull off correctly. Action-adventure storytelling at its finest.

That’s why he and Hama worked so well together too. More than just about any other person walking around this planet today, Larry Hama, scion of Wally Wood and Neal Adams both, knows how to make a readable comic book. Both creators recognized immediately that Wolverine on his own is a guy who moves around a lot. Constantly moving, in every sense of the word. Perfect for any number of manly adventure scenarios of the kind Silvestri loves to draw. Let’s go fight the Japanese mob, or drop in to the Spanish civil war, or hunt a serial killer at the Central Park Zoo.

At the moment of Image’s formation, Silvestri describes himself as satisfied with his accomplishments. There’s never any rancor about this period in his interviews. If Image had never existed, there’s better than even odds he would have been drawing Batman by ‘94 or ‘95, after concluding a strong run with Hama. That what tended to happen when popular artists got bored at Marvel, back in the day. Still happens, for that matter. But that wasn’t what the universe had in mind.

Silvestri pencils and inks from Cyberforce #1 (Oct. 1992); colored by Joe Chiodo & Olyoptics, lettered by Mike Heisler, written by Eric Silvestri.

Silvestri’s career pre- and post-Marvel reads a bit differently than the other Image founders. Whereas much of the rest of the group, to a degree, can be described as having champed at the bit in the months and years leading up to the exodus, Silvestri wasn’t sitting around thinking that the logical next step after Wolverine would be starting a small business - and yet that’s exactly what happened.

Some of the Image founders were more ready for that challenge than not. Todd chafed at every imposition on the part of Marvel, sometimes to his immediate detriment. He earned the right to do whatever he wanted, and part of what he wanted to do was construct an org chart and go to business meetings. Egads! That never seemed to be something Silvestri was all that invested in, for the simple reason that he really seems to value working with other people.

You see it in the comics he makes in the very early years of Image. It’s not worth the trouble to drag Cyberforce through the streets. Silvestri was handed a winning lottery ticket on the condition he start making his own comic books; it was genuinely immaterial that they be good. Silvestri has said an early version of the team began as a pitch at an X-Men creative summit, and that definitely tracks. The rest of the Image gang was ready to jump partly because a few of them had been developing their own characters for years - decades, in the case of Larsen. Silvestri wasn’t walking around with anything in his pockets.

Descending into the unknown via Silvestri pencils and inks from Cyberforce #2 (Mar. 1993); colored by Joe Chiodo & Olyoptics, lettered by Mike Heisler, written by Eric Silvestri.

As a consequence of the rocky circumstances of the Image exodus, there was a brief but intense period of bad feelings between the departing founders and the rest of the mainstream comics industry. In practical terms, that meant if someone at Image needed an inker or a scripter for their new title, they were going to have to find one on their own in the earliest days of the company’s history. No one else was coming over, not immediately. That suited most of them fine, even if they all came to rue such overconfidence.

Of course, that early era of ill will did not last long - it had already begun to dissipate by the time Todd announced that he’d asked four of the industry’s biggest writers to contribute to four issues of Spawn in 1993. If writing very large checks to Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim and Frank Miller accomplished anything in that moment, it was announcing to the rest of the industry that there was money to be made at Image so long as you remembered whose name was above the door. Soon enough, the second wave of Image titles were staffed by folks like Keith Giffen and Mike Grell, pros who hadn’t fallen out at Marvel or DC but suddenly realized there was nothing stopping them from participating in the gold rush. Chris Claremont wandered over as well, not with his own book—as was originally teased—but contributing to both Lee’s and Silvestri’s new series after the first year of both.

However, it was during that initial period that the first comics to bear the company’s name were actually released, and some of the those comics weren’t very good. In fairness, they essentially had to start from scratch doing everything themselves, while being shot out of a canon, without being able to call for help. Silvestri himself inked the first Cyberforce series, and it’s not an incompetent job. On the contrary, in places the inking is the best thing about those first issues; Silvestri knew his way around a brush, as King Conan demonstrated. But Cyberforce itself is such that you really need to spend a lot of time looking at the inking to feel you got your money’s worth.

Silvestri writes and draws a short story from the 1993 coupon giveaway special Image #0; colored by Joe Chiodo & In-Color, lettered by Mike Heisler.

Silvestri was a bit of a sponge, as I’ve said. All the Image guys were, to some extent. (As are most artists, period, ever.) The generation that came of age in the '80s generally held to many of the same touchstones - Michael Golden, practically above all. Frank Miller, clearly, but early Miller. Up to Ronin; that book in particular seems like a huge deal for a couple of those guys. Walt Simonson’s Thor and Rick Leonardi’s Cloak and Dagger, universal influences. There’s a little bit of manga, smuggled judicially by Lee and Larsen especially. Art Adams was a crucial piece, and you can see his X-Men Annuals reflected in the work of almost everyone we’re talking about. But Silvestri himself feels like an influence. He was actually drawing The Uncanny X-Men when Lee and Liefeld were still trying to break in to the industry. Just as you see much of Lee in later Silvestri, you see a lot of Silvestri in the early Lee.

Of these influences, Silvestri was closest to Simonson, and we know this because the moment the Image folks start getting to work with people other than their immediate family members, Simonson is the first person Silvestri calls. Cyberforce #0 is a fascinating document, inasmuch as Silvestri clearly asked Simonson to draw an Image comic, and in doing so Simonson drew a Walt Simonson comic. Try to spot the difference! You can trace the descent of the Image aesthetic all the way back to those "Manhunter" strips from Detective Comics, the ones Simonson did with Archie Goodwin. Trying to figure out how to squeeze the most exciting reading experience out of a relatively small amount of real estate.

A similar surgical scene as just above, but essayed by artist Walt Simonson in Cyberforce #0 (Sept. 1993); colored by Joe Chiodo & Olyoptics, lettered by John Workman, written by Marc & Eric Silvestri and Walt Simonson.

But drawing Cyberforce seemed an enervating experience for Silvestri. He draws the first four issues in 1992 and 1993, and the first year and a half of the regular ongoing from late '93 through mid '95. Chris Claremont shows up for a few issues, #9-11, and they’re the best of the run by far. But then Silvestri became much less prolific. What we know today as Top Cow Productions is starting to come into focus with its own identity in '95, after the chaotic scrum of the early Image years. Witchblade was already on the drawing board - the defining hit for Silvestri’s company, even though he didn’t draw it. That was the late Michael Turner.

What he did to was assemble a team of people he was comfortable working with, and started making comics based around that principle of teamwork. Witchblade succeeded so well that Top Cow immediately set in motions plans for a follow-up, a book in the same universe, to be drawn by Silvestri himself, working with whomever he wanted to work with. Garth Ennis came on board, although he wasn't the first writer consulted. Silvestri had worked with Jim Lee and Scott Williams at the outset of the second volume of Cyberforce, but by this time he's put together a solid working relationship with his own guys, primarily the inkers Matt “Batt” Banning and Victor Llamas. That’s who he brings along for The Darkness, of which he penciled 12 issues.

Silvestri launches one of the quintessential Top Cow franchises with The Darkness #1 (Dec. 1996); inked by Matt "Batt" Banning, colored by Steve Firchow, lettered by Dennis Heisler, written by Garth Ennis.

The Darkness is a significantly better comic book than Cyberforce. The protagonist, Jackie Estacado, has real motivations, with lust front and center. There wasn’t a lot of cheesecake in Cyberforce, at least not the early run - its sexy ladies were but marionettes dangled along hypertrophied plotlines, armies of indistinguishable characters running up against each other. The Darkness has room to breathe. It owes a lot to Spawn, as did Witchblade - both titles reside snug in the dark urban fantasy niche McFarlane pioneered for mainstream comics, an aesthetic to feed a demographic Silvestri astutely perceived to be very loyal. Spawn has a flowing cape and magic chains to keep those pages interesting, and so Jackie and his full body leathers have a horde of little demon dudes squirming around everywhere.

Silvestri seems so much more comfortable drawing this character, you forgive the fact that Ennis never quite gels with the material. He is clearly less comfortable with sex as a topic than Silvestri, a judgment borne out in both of their respective careers. But it’s better than Cyberforce. Silvestri learned his lesson about what happens when you devote years of your life to drawing something you’re not really invested in, and there’s a lesson in that for any artist.

* * *

Within just a few years of founding Image, Lee and Liefeld had already returned to Marvel for 1996’s infamous "Heroes Reborn" initiative. Silvestri wasn’t a part of that, though it’s easy to imagine he could have cut a similar deal if he’d asked. What he preferred to do, apparently, was return briefly to the X-Men in December of that year, illustrating the first crossover between Marvel’s merry mutants and... the crew of the USS Enterprise. Yes, Silvestri was one of four pencillers on call to draw Kirk fighting Wolverine in the one-shot Star Trek / X-Men. My dude has priorities, and I respect them immensely.

Days of the future pissed in New X-Men #154 (May 2004); inked by Joe Weems, colored by Steve Firchow (with Beth Sotelo, John Starr & Brian Buccellato), lettered by Rus Wooton, written by Grant Morrison.

From that point he returns to Marvel regularly. He pencils the final arc of Grant Morrison’s New X-Men in 2004, which is a pretty cool thing to have on your resume. He does a fair amount of X-Men after the turn of the century, actually. Not just covers (although there are many covers), but the occasional event book, such as the first issue of 2007’s X-Men: Messiah Complex crossover, as well as 2009’s Dark Avengers / Uncanny X-Men: Utopia. Nice-looking books; he clearly had fun drawing them, even if they maybe don’t hold a lot of significance outside the context of those stories. There’s a run on The Incredible Hulk with Jason Aaron at the end of 2011 that falls apart almost the moment it tries to get off the ground. It happens! The Hulk went through a rough patch between Greg Pak and Al Ewing, as I believe I spent some time describing recently. Nothing was sticking from anyone.

It’s also around that time when Silvestri’s interior page output went from a trickle to a drip. Top Cow projects like 2005’s Hunter-Killer with Mark Waid came and went, alongside supervising various Cyberforce revivals. After so many quiet years, you could have been forgiven for thinking the man retired - but he was waiting for the proper inducement to come back to the table.

All remaining art in this article from Batman & the Joker: The Deadly Duo (2023); written & drawn by Marc Silvestri, colored by Arif Prianto, lettered by Troy Peteri.

After all these years, that inducement turned out to be Batman & the Joker: The Deadly Duo, a 2023 miniseries Silvestri had been working since 2015. Not his first at-bat on the Dark Knight, either - that would be 1999’s The Darkness / Batman, on which Silvestri was one of three pencillers. (There’s also a single pinup in 1996’s first volume of Batman: Black & White, for the sticklers.) But Deadly Duo is his first time doing it without a net, so to speak. There’s no co-writer, nor even an inker; Silvestri does everything but the colors and the letters - Arif Prianto and Troy Peteri, respectively. Prianto’s colors work well, muted tones designed not to take attention away from the linework - this is Silvestri's comic, for better or for worse.

Gosh, but it’s a pretty comic book! Strange, too, in places. I have to admit, looking over the woof and warp of Silvestri’s career there are several surprises, and one of them is that as he’s travelled further and further away from his work with Dan Green he’s fully embraced the industry trend towards smaller and more meticulous hatching. Perhaps the most influential inker still working is Danny Miki, and Silvestri's work here resembles that: fine, almost technical detail used to instill a scratchy, labored texture. A few steps beyond the Scott Williams line everyone was trying to use in the mid '90s - more sketched, even though it’s on the same evolutionary chart. Silvestri seems like he’s paid attention to those developments.

If you’d asked me back in the day, before he’d left Uncanny, I might have predicted Silvestri would have gone more in the direction of a clean line, maybe something more like Cam Smith or Paul Neary. Wasn’t to be.

TOP: Silvestri's uncolored inks from issue #1 of The Deadly Duo, as presented in a special Local Comic Shop Day edition. BOTTOM: The same page with Arif Prianto's colors.

There’s a lot of meticulous, worried detail in Deadly Duo. There are some downright stiff passages, that maybe look as if Silvestri was still shaking some of the cobwebs loose after years of drawing only covers. But it’s interesting, all the detail. Almost McFarlane-esque.

So who is Silvestri’s Batman, anyway? Every Batman is different, they all got their own deal. What’s this guy’s deal?

In the first place, I think Silvestri is old enough that there’s an element of camp still nestled at the heart of his version of the character that's not present in the work of younger creators. It’s not that Tim Burton didn’t direct a campy Batman, after all - it’s that he knew how to update the camp to something more contemporary, brooding and gothic. Silvestri’s Batman is very much the Batman we expect to find in a Batman comic, almost to a fault. Classic Batman: grey long johns and dark blue cape, Commissioner Gordon and Dick Grayson waiting in the wings. An older approach to a Batman story, I think, one which—like the 90s films, and many of the more interesting comics stories from that period—takes as a given who Batman is and what he does. What we’re paying attention to is what is revealed to us through the art direction and action sequences, while Bruce Wayne goes through the motions of solving a fantastical crime by using his detective skills - which now very much resemble the work of forensic scientists on popular television shows, solving crimes over a computer screen and microscope. There are multiple elaborate deathtraps studded throughout, always the kind of thing you want to see in a Batman comic.

We’re so used to years and years of quote-unquote “piercing psychological insight” in our Batman stories that we’ve forgotten what it means to actually be subversive with it. To try and freak out the squares. Because, of course, this is Silvestri’s Batman, and the main currents in these waters are erotic.

It’s a gag, yeah? Batman and the Joker really are made for each other. When they’re in a story together, neither of them can pay attention to anything else. That’s not really subtext so much as just a description of almost every Batman / Joker story. They are the biggest planets orbiting in each other’s skies. It’s weird and slightly uncomfortable, way too literal and also right there on the surface of so many of these narratives. What does it actually mean, to write a story about two people who are canonically obsessed with each other, albeit in a very unsexy way? Well, let’s bring that subtext to the fore.

It’s sure to make a good percentage of the audience uncomfortable, even if they can’t quite place their fingers on why.

The default here appears to be Scott Snyder’s and Greg Capullo’s version of the character, which premiered with the advent of the New 52 and ran continuously from 2011 to 2016. Morrison may have gotten the attention for their run just before, but Snyder & Capullo did more to influence the character than any other other team from the last decade and change. You can see it in this past February's Batman / Spawn redux, written by McFarlane for his friend Capullo to draw, and a veritable love letter to Snyder’s work on the book. Silvestri’s Batman is a hunk in the mold of similar Silvestri hunks, stolid and handsome, but not without charm. Not that far from the version Capullo drew, when you get down to it. Similarly, the Joker here also seems to be taken from Capullo’s version, an all-around distressing little creep with a wiry energy.

Deadly Duo gives us that old saw, Batman and the Joker teaming up to take down a greater foe. The Joker’s in trouble, so he seeks out Batman’s help. In order to do this he’s got a hostage, as Jim Gordon is tied to a bed somewhere having pieces of his body cut off. So far, so Fincher - gotta love that Nine Inch Nails music video aesthetic. Stay true to your school, man. Anyway, there’s an additional problem in the form of various feral Joker clones clogging the streets. Nobody but nobody wants that.

There’s a lot of plot here. Too much, I’d even be tempted to say, and I’m a fan of plot. Now, I can’t say the plot doesn’t pull together. There’s a whole lot in the first 2/3 of the book that seems kind of random but does eventually click when the true villain is revealed. I won’t spoil the actual identity of the arch-foe, because it’s a clever twist, and it won’t mean anything out of context anyway. But it’s a new villain who hates both Batman and the Joker for what are, on balance, fairly rational reasons. Even if their attempt to turn the whole of Gotham City into a wasteland of feral Joker clones isn’t a particularly rational one, it’s at least premised in a legible motivation, given the context of a Batman story.

But the whole point of Deadly Duo isn’t the plot, really, and it’s not the new villain. It’s not the purple prose or Batman’s endless and oft-redundant internal monologue, which feels a relic of another era in the character’s history. No, the point of the series is showing what happens when Batman finally gets his hands on the Joker, even if just for a few minutes.

First thing he does is tie the Joker up, obviously. Then he straps him to a chair. He’s got a special chair in the Batmobile that automatically restrains the passenger. The Joker makes a point of saying he pissed his pants while he was strapped to the seat. There’s more piss later, don’t worry. Then when they get to the Batcave, Batman chains the Joker to another chair and puts a sensory deprivation mask on him - you know, one of those gimp masks with the zippers on it. He’s also wearing headphones blaring ABBA. Then, when it’s time to go out, Batman puts the Joker on a leash and they have their adventure.

This book makes good use of the larger cast of Bat-characters, who pop in and at out of the story at various points, more or less to observe that Batman isn’t paying attention to anyone else. He calls Nightwing to make sure the Joker doesn’t escape when he’s strapped in at the cave. Batgirl swings by to berate Batman for not telling her the Joker is holding her dad hostage - sorry, he’s working a case, can’t be helped. Catwoman pops in for a few pages, as if to say “Don’t you wish Marc was drawing more Catwoman?” before ultimately bowing, because there’s simply no room for her in this story. We will not see Bruce and Selina sharing heterosexual feelings here. No room for anyone else in Batman’s story but the Joker.

And then, on the other side of the equation, there’s Harley Quinn. It’s an older version of the character, the rarely-seen unreconstructed Harley, sans Ivy, still infatuated with a man who clearly views her as the person he fucks around with when not playing with Batman - and who tells her as much! As if to prove this point, Harley spends most of the story trapped at the bottom of a hole. She’s being held captive by the aforementioned mystery villain, surplus to the needs of the story up to the end. That’s about when I started to get hep to the vibe of Deadly Duo: every single other person in the orbit of either of these two men is chopped liver, without exception. When it’s time to go get tied up by Batman and wear the gimp mask while smelling of piss the Joker thinks nothing of leaving Harley Quinn stuck in a pit waiting for him to return. Whistling when he does, I’m sure. There’s a theme of disrupted weddings - not one but two weddings are interrupted at various points in the story by Joker / Batman hijinks. Get that heteronormative lovey-dovey crap out of here.

That strikes me as rather novel, if only because so many takes on the Batman character come reeking with the heady scent not of urine but of “no homo.” Now, if you recall Arkham Asylum, Morrison had the Joker lovingly smacking Batman’s ass all the way back when. Silvestri’s great advancement in the eternal arms race of weird Batman stories is to step back a minute and ask, finally, “Ok, no homo, but what if… just a little homo?”

Batman is surrounded by the most beautiful women in the world, but only has eyes for the most disgusting little freak imaginable. I guess that means there’s hope for everyone?

The whole Batman / Joker thing - frankly, I’m almost never not sick of the Joker these days. But Deadly Duo? That gives me something new, the sensation of decades of chortled homophobic subtext made palpably real, if only for a single story. Eventually the plot comes down to a secret held in a bank deposit box. That’s what the Joker wants. Batman gets the key to the box, then ties the key to a string around his neck. Hanging right over his bat-symbol. “Is this what you want?” he asks the Joker. “Come and get it.” And then they try to kill each other some more, because some subtext must always remain sub.

Sometimes a key is just a key, and sometimes it isn’t.

For all that people have danced around the intimations of BDSM themes in Batman for decades, it took an Image founder to step up to the plate and actually think through the consequences of just what it might look like. It’s kind of unsettling, actually. Which is the point! Kevin O’Neill saw that potential decades ago with Marshal Law. On a deep level it represents a refusal to take the actual characters seriously. They are aware to a degree that they’re role-playing. Batman’s labored, at times almost parodic internal monologue, makes more sense like that. Just a bit camp, just a bit arch. Because at root, Silvestri’s characters are more concerned with preening than punching. Fighting is just what they do when they’re not doing, you know. Something else.

It's sure to instill a teensy little bit of a queasy tummy for anyone invested in the character as an avatar of hypertrophied heterosexual masculinity, and that I must respect. At the story’s end, over a Zoom call, the Joker lays it out with as much explicitness as possible: “What I’m trying to say, old chum, is that you make life worth living! You’re the peanut butter to my chocolate. With no you, there’s no me... and where’s the fun in that? Somebody crossed the line and tried to take you from me, Bats... and like I told you at the beginning... nobody takes what’s mine.”

Do you need more Batman & Joker stories in your life? Maybe not. But this one, at least, is interesting. Kind of ugly in places, but lavishly done for all that. It knows what it’s about and swings for the fences. Marc Silvestri is about my favorite artist now, so of course I wish he drew more -so there'd be more in the way of recent material with which to compare it. Deadly Duo shows, even if he still isn’t his own best writer, he still has ideas. He’s still invested, when he wants to be. Let’s hope it’s not the last work we see from him.