While comics are best known for stories where brightly costumed superheroes triumph over evil, some of the best stories deal with the subtler darker elements of the supernatural hiding in the shadows of the modern world. Such is the case with the classic stories in the Top Cow Universe. Back in the 90s when superhero comics had stagnated and the Big Two were struggling to come up with new ideas, Top Cow produced two visually stunning dark fantasy titles that tapped into the zeitgeist of the period. I’m talking (of course) about Witchblade and The Darkness.
In The Beginning…
To understand what made Top Cow such a success, we have to understand the origins of the company. Thus, we go back to the 90s, a dark time in comics history when everything had spikes, body armour and mullets were standard superhero attire, and genuine narrative had been replaced by angsty brooding and melodramatic screams. The world of comics was suffering growing pains. For the first time, mature audiences were taking comics seriously, thanks in no small part to the success of titles like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ The Watchmen or Frank Miller’s work on The Dark Knight Returns.
Artists were also seeing a rise in popularity for their distinct visual styles, while a wave of writers from the UK had brought a breath of freshness to storytelling. However, as is often the case in comics history, many of the big name artists felt underappreciated by the companies they worked for. So it was that six artists left Marvel and banded together to form the independent publisher Image Comics.
Top Cow is an imprint of Image Comics founded by Marc Silvestri. Stories juxtaposed urban crime with supernatural horror, creating tales reminiscent in theme and tone to Image’s hit series Spawn and titles like Hellblazer and The Sandman being produced by DC’s Vertigo imprint at the time. However, another aspect of what defined the popularity of Top Cow was its unique visual style.
American comics have always been a collaborative medium. Writing and art are equally important. However, at different times, society has chosen to laud praise on one over the other. Marc Silvestri is an example of one such artist whose fame was perhaps less acknowledged than that of his collaborator, writer Chris Claremont. That said, Silvestri had definitely gained attention throughout the 80s for his stunning illustrations. There is a texture to his art that pops off the page, adding a raw physicality to his characters. In his work on several titles related to Marvel’s X-Men, Silvestri penciled characters with full-bodied hair, deep-lined faces, and shapely bodies. Unfortunately, like many others, he felt underappreciated by his bosses at Marvel, and rather than have his hard work shredded like one of Wolverine’s victims, he set off to create his own characters at Top Cow.
The first series Silvestri made was Cyberforce, a title exploring the titular sci-fi superhero team whose first issue was released in October of 1992. However, what really captured the attention of fans in a lasting way was his next series which kicked off a huge part of a shared universe. That’s right, we’re talking about Witchblade.
Forging the Witchblade
When the first issue of Witchblade was released back in 1995, it introduced Sara Pezzini as the series protagonist—a tough-as-gunmetal NYPD homicide detective who is both streetwise and compassionate. She infiltrates a private event hosted by members of the criminal underworld in which a stunning metal gauntlet is on display—the magical Witchblade for which the series is named. One person attempts to put the gauntlet on, only to lose a hand. Moments later, her partner is discovered outside the venue and Sara is gunned down trying to save him from execution. Bleeding out, the gauntlet responds to her, enveloping her arm and then the rest of her body as it revitalises her. This magical object—and its relationship to Sara—is the foundation of the series.
Honestly, the opening can be seen as a bit cliché. A character being killed or nearly killed and then getting powers is a bit of a classic superhero origin, and in the 90s, characters like Ghost Rider and Spawn had already established this in the cultural mindset. But several other elements of what made Witchblade a great series were all introduced in that opening issue.
For one thing, the series didn’t begin by introducing Sara. Rather, it opened up with its first villain, Kenneth Irons, a corporate king and kingpin of crime, his broad chest and imposing shoulder span practically bursting from his designer suit. He is a man who appreciates neither human life nor the vast material wealth he has accumulated, but rather we see him obsessing over rare artifacts and centuries-old art depicting the Witchblade and various women who’ve wielded it through the centuries.
The sadistic cruelty of the world’s villains was at once grounded in the realities of New York while having a mythology of its own steeped in the occult details of a secret history. There was a supernatural element of horror, equally horrific violence, and the filth of urban crime injected into each story with the dangerous rush of a used needle. On top of all that, the art was absolutely stunning, every page bursting with intricate linework. And speaking of beauty, well, Top Cow had a tendency to feature characters—both men and women—who were drop dead gorgeous, however exaggerated their poses or anatomy were at times.
In the initial story, Sara is only saved from death by the power of the Witchblade, a weapon which shapes itself to her body and seems capable of adapting to do anything. But while it might change its shape to meet her needs, the Witchblade makes Sara a target too. Kenneth Irons is obsessed with the gauntlet, and sends his assassin, Ian Nottingham, to hunt her down. All the while, Sara is trying to care for the daughter of her now-deceased best friend, a teenager who has caught the wrong kinds of attention from a predatory modeling agency, even as Sara is assigned to a case trying to stop a serial killer racking up even more bodies than the mobsters chasing her.
Eventually, Sara defeats both Ken Irons and Ian Nottingham. But even as she begins to get a grasp of how to use the Witchblade, new threats begin targeting her, including a mob hitman bearing an ancient power of his own.
Hello Darkness, my old friend
Jackie Estacado started out with all the character depth of a puddle of blood. A mob hitman for the Franchetti crime family, he was more or less motivated by flashy sports cars, flashy suits, and the women he could get to flash him on the way up to his penthouse suite. He first appeared in the pages of Witchblade, performing a hit on the Yakuza, and then trying—and failing—to whack Sara Pezzini.
On his 21st birthday, everything changed when he manifested the power of the Darkness, an ancient sentient curse which enables him to create whatever dark horrors his mind can conjure. The power manifests in an agonising screaming fit while he is alone at his apartment. Even before the power has fully materialised, a squad of gun-toting cultists in body armour kick down his door. Then, winged yellow-mouthed terrors burst through his window. As both forces tear into each other, Jackie summons the power of the Darkness from within, impaling both groups with fanged tendrils of liquid night as goblins burst into being around him to do his bidding. Before he’s slain them all, a third assailant comes: a mob assassin sent in retaliation for Jackie’s most recent hit.
While that might seem chaotic, the elements of the story are all juxtaposed clearly by writer Garth Ennis (perhaps best known as the creator of Preacher and The Boys), while Silvestri’s artwork gives each group a visually distinct look to make it easy to follow the events unfolding.
These three aspects would be a constant in the stories of Jackie Estacado. As a mob hitman, the politics and infighting of organised crime were central to his personal narrative. The cultists in this opening arc were from the Brotherhood of Darkness, an ancient order established by Jackie’s ancestor, even as the Darkness was passed down the line of his ancestors from one generation to the next. This group explains to Jackie that if he ever impregnates someone, the Darkness will kill Jackie and enter his child as the next host, coming into power on their twenty-first birthday. The winged assailants were servants of another supernatural entity, the Angelus, an immortal character wielding the creative powers of Light and Order, yet obsessed with destroying the Darkness (who is its opposite). Of course, there is a big difference between “light” and “good,” as this fascistic angel makes clear.
Jackie takes on the cops and rival criminals in some parts of his story, while in others he’s confronting supernatural foes like the Angelus, the Brotherhood of Darkness, or assassins sent by the Catholic Church. Generally, the series is at its best when the occult combines with the real-world drama, such as when Jackie uses his powers to perform particularly sadistic gangland assassinations, or when he creates a drug from the Darkness to become king of his own narco-empire.
Both the Darkness and Witchblade are awesome characters with visually stunning powers. But this is where the final part of the Top Cow universe comes into play: the in-universe mythology.
Artifacts of their Time
From the very beginning of both stories, the Witchblade and the Darkness were revealed to be artifacts with a history that stretched far back into the distant past. However, each was also rooted deeply in the modern world. Sara Pezzini’s forensics techniques and the cruel bureaucracy of the NYPD were as crucial to her stories as any supernatural elements. Jackie Estacado would not be the man he is if not for his life of Armani suits and Upper Eastside pretentions. The stories are firmly rooted in the time in which they’re written.
Despite this, the things hiding in the shadows—or the glare of bright city lights—hid supernatural elements from a wider pantheon of characters whose powers and stories fleshed out the world.
One character of note is the Magdalene, a champion of the Catholic Church who wields the Spear of Destiny—and who is descended from a union between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (in a story predating Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code by years). Another character of note, previously-mentioned assassin Ian Nottingham, returns to gain possession of an enchanted katana, the Blood Sword. Other bearers of the Witchblade come into the story, including one named Danielle Baptiste who eventually becomes the next Angelus.
Ultimately, it is revealed that these are among thirteen magical Artifacts in the Top Cow Universe. If all thirteen Artifacts come together at once, the universe will end.
Beyond the Comics
It is somewhat tragic more people don’t know about Top Cow these days. Witchblade was turned into a TV show, a made-for-TV movie, and an anime. The Darkness was made into two hit videogames. Both series—as well as the Magdalene—supposedly have movies in development (though it looks like the Witchblade film may have been lost to “development hell”). But these are characters that already leap off the page, making them perfect for adaptations.
Unfortunately, it seems readership has dwindled. In 2015, the Witchblade comic was cancelled after running for twenty years. However, late in 2017, it got a reboot with writer Caitlin Kittirdge scripting the series.
The Future of Top Cow
Top Cow has moved in a few new directions in recent years. Their romance comics Sunstone and Swing may very well be the greatest romance titles on the shelves, exploring themes of BDSM and non-monogamy (with breathtaking heart-stopping ties-your-soul-up-in-shibari-it’s-so-good art by Stjepan and Linda Sejic). Top Cow’s President Matt Hawkins has also been writing idea-rich stories like Think Tank and the crime caper The Tithe, which respectively look at the military industrial complex’s monopoly on cutting edge tech and the nature of megachurches influencing the political and economic landscape of the United States.
Another series, set in the distant future of the Top Cow Universe, is Aphrodite IX, which is followed by the sequel series IXth Generation. These occur so far into the future, they can be enjoyed without readers being familiar with the original continuity for Witchblade and The Darkness, just as those books can be read without delving into the far future of Top Cow. However, each setting complements the other.
Every year, Top Cow has its Annual Talent Hunt, where they recruit new writers and artists based on the quality of work submitted to the company. Three of the past four Talent Hunts have been connected to Witchblade and The Darkness in some way, including this year’s Talent Hunt, which focuses specifically on stories about The Darkness. For creators looking to break into the industry, this is a way to prove their mettle. In other words, the future of Top Cow comics can be determined by fans, allowing readers to delve into their favourite stories and expand upon them.
Later this year, a reboot of The Darkness comic is scheduled for release. Back in 1997, issue 11 of The Darkness was the best-selling comic of that month, selling an estimated 357,006 copies. Let’s hope the relaunch also gets the attention it deserves.
Theo Kogod is a writer, educator, activist, and full-time geek. While teaching English in Yokohama, Japan, he helped found the photography magazine 3 Feet Left as its Resident Writer. His fiction can be found in numerous places, including the forthcoming anthology Stories of The Nature of Cities 2099. You can follow his blog at https://themodernskald.wordpress.com or find him on Twitter under @TKogod.