Top Cow’s President and Chief Operating Officer Matt Hawkins likes to break the history of the Image Comics partner studio into four specific periods. You’ve got the first era which involved the launch of the company with “Cyber Force,” followed by the second which saw the debut of flagship characters Witchblade and the Darkness. After that, he notes the era when the Cow focused efforts on third party projects like J. Michael Straczynski’s “Rising Stars” and “Midnight Nation” as well as Mark Millar’s “Wanted.” The fourth and current phase of the company shines the light back on Witchblade and the Darkness along with the other Artifact-based heroes and villains who have been brought to the forefront over the course of the last several years.
When last we left Hawkins and Top Cow Chief Executive Officer Marc Silvestri, the duo had just taken CBR through the beginning of that second era, recounting the creation of their hallmark characters. It only made sense, then, to focus the second half of the interview on the latter two portions of Top Cow’s existence and evolution. CBR News spoke with Silvestri and Hawkins about everything from working on Tomb Raider comics and launching the “Witchblade” TV series on TNT to losing some of their highest profile creators to other companies. But first, we start with a question that should have been asked immediately upon the start of our massive conversation…
CBR News: Before we go any further, I have a question that I really should have asked earlier: why the name “Top Cow?”
Matt Hawkins: This is a Marc question, but legend has it that Marc was pretty drunk one night and blurted it out.
Marc Silvestri: Basically the story goes like this: Kids, don’t get yourselves hammered and decide to name your brand new business! An ex-girlfriend liked cows, we got drunk and the rest is history. At one point we were about to change the company name to Ballistic Studios when this really cool logo came in — from someone I don’t remember — with the earth sporting udders and a lightning bolt. Who could turn that down?
Speaking of offers that couldn’t be refused, Jim Lee sold WildStorm to DC in 1998. It sounds like you and Jim were pretty close when working together at Homage Studios, so what was it like when he sold the company? Was that an avenue you ever thought about taking Top Cow down?
Silvestri: Yeah, Jim and I became good friends. The environment at Homage Studios was pretty surreal with guys like Whilce Portacio, Scott Williams, J. Scott Campbell, Dave Finch, etc. doing amazing stuff, literally 24/7. I loved watching Jim work and was always in awe of how effortless he made it seem. The guy had no artistic fear whatsoever. He was, though, a crappy pingpong player. The beauty of Image was that each partner could pursue whatever dream he wanted with his company. I think for Jim it was the right move. He seems really content, so I’m happy for him. As for me, I’m just not cut out for the corporate structure, so they would have fired my ass within the first week. Plus, I kinda like doing my own thing.
We talked briefly about licensed comics not being for you guys, but in 1999, “Tomb Raider” became a pretty big part of Top Cow’s output for a while. What led to that change of practice?
Silvestri: Licensing was never something that we considered a core business, and it’s not something we really do anymore. But we had made a pretty extensive deal with Eidos Games, and “Tomb Raider” was without question the biggest gun in the holster at that time, so it was a natural chain of events. Now we’re focused on our own stuff, and frankly, there are other companies that like being in that business, so they’re welcome to it.
Hawkins: “Tomb Raider” was based on an investment deal and wasn’t a licensed comic book. We don’t really do pure licensed comics. We’ve had companies come to us and pay us to do comic book content for them and we’ll only do that on a case by case basis.
In addition to the “Tomb Raider” books, you were also doing a lot of third party printing at this time for guys like JMS and Mark Millar. How important was that period to the company’s progress and growth? Do you see yourselves fitting that model into your current business plan?
Hawkins: I think those books were good for us as a company, but now, with Image Central functioning the way it is, we no longer do many of those as they are done there. We still get pitched a lot of projects like that, but we have, internally, a lot of projects we want to do and there’s only so many publishing windows that we allow ourselves. We could publish more books; we just don’t want to.
Given that kind of family environment we talked about last time with the bullpen and your close relationships with artists who came up through your ranks, was it difficult when some of those guys like David Finch or Mike Turner branched off and did their own thing?
Silvestri: Yeah. You form friendships. It wasn’t like a faceless corporation; you were a family. We all worked together. This was something that formed a bond. You live with these people, you hang out with them, you go to the movies with them, you eat with them, they become more of your family than your family. Because of the nature of comics and the fact that it’s a 24 hour business, all of us were in the trenches together.
It was hard when they wanted to do other things, but you get used to it. That’s just the way things are. But it didn’t hurt any less because there’s a certain point where this person’s over there working for that person and it’s going to be harder on me without them. I’m happy that people found success and I’m happy that people are doing what they want to do.
Without getting into the legal aspect of the split, Michael Turner was obviously a big part of Top Cow’s early success with “Witchblade.” How difficult was it seeing him move on and form his own company?
Silvestri: It was very difficult. For a long time I considered Mike to be not only one of my best friends but also the younger brother that I never had. We hung out and did many things together, both creatively as well as just guys doing stupid guy stuff. Those were great times that I’ll never forget. I’ll also never forget the day at San Diego Comic-Con when he told Brad Foxhoven, David Wohl and me that he was sick. We, like everyone else that knew Mike, were shocked and heartbroken.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Mike not only as a talent but as a person as well. I never begrudged him his desire to do his own thing. It really just boiled down to how it all went down. Mike and I had some very candid conversations afterward, and only he and I know what was really said. When the dust settled though, we came to understand each other’s perspective and were fine. Ultimately, I was happy for him and it was always good to see him at the cons. When Joe Benitez told me he had died, I can’t remember ever having felt that sad.
Hawkins: Marc knew him longer than I did, but it was not a lot of fun for anyone. This is a small business and we were all close friends, which is a problem sometimes when you also do business together. I think that Aspen is still around years after Mike’s death is a testament to his legacy. We’re very proud of the work he did for Top Cow and I’m glad to have known him.
“Witchblade” was turned into a TV series on TNT for a season in 2001. What was that experience like and what did you learn from it for other potential live-action projects?
Hawkins: “Witchblade” the live-action TV series was years ahead of its time. I re-watched that series recently, and it holds up well. Marc was more involved in the day to day on the show, so I’ll let him answer that, but from a creative level, I think the message learned is that you always need to make sure you partner with the right people.
Silvestri: It’s always nice to learn and have a good time doing it, so yeah, I learned a lot (most of it good). I was very proud of that show and how well it did. Even today, I can look at it and eleven years later, it still looks contemporary. The way it was shot and cut was kind of ahead of its time for TV. When you consider that the show was based off of a comic that wasn’t Marvel or DC as well as having a female lead, its pretty cool that it even got made let alone made well and was a hit. Without going into detail, we still have the dubious distinction of being one of the highest rated (cable) shows ever to get canceled. I’m still surprised we weren’t able to convince TNT to continue on with it. Oh, well.
Speaking of live-action adaptations, how’s the “Darkness” movie coming along?
Silvestri: We can’t say much about that right now, but let’s just say I’m very pleased with where we’re at. There’s really nothing that’s out there quite like what we’ve got planned. If we deliver what I believe we can, the fans will be very pleased as well!
Hawkins: It is moving along. We have a screenwriter who is writing, which is a good sign. We’ve been down this road before though, so we’re very hopeful to have some good news going into the summer season. Roundabout way of saying stay tuned.
Speaking of Witchblade and Darkness, both characters had legacy aspects to them right from the beginning. Was that something you wanted to include to fill out the growing Top Cow Universe?
Hawkins: Yes, that’s always been part of the design of the Artifact-based universe is that they’re generational heroes and attach to a destined wielder or are wielded by the wrong person which causes interesting story elements of its own.
Ron Marz has been steering the ship creatively for a while now, tackling your flagship books and making good use of those generational aspects. What was it about his work that made you go after him to write “Witchblade” in 2004?
Hawkins: We looked at a lot of different writers, and we’d been talking with Ron after Crossgen imploded. I really liked the work he did over there, and I like the way he tells character-driven stories. We knew we needed to get better stories and better writers to do what we wanted to do, and Ron was a great fit to start that off.
Silvestri: Ron is in the very top percentage of creators that can not only write but also knows comics front to back, and back again. I’d trust him with any Top Cow character, and in fact did. Ron is also great at pulling a reader through a story by making the characters fully believable. When he put Sara in jeopardy, you really worried for her. You can’t ask for more than that.
Earlier this year, Top Cow announced a talent search for writers and artists, how has that been working out so far?
Hawkins: Great! Huge responses online and we have about 300 writers participating. My plan was to review all of those the first two weeks of January so even though we’ve received about 20 completed writing submissions, I haven’t looked at any of them yet.
Marc, you kicked things off with “Cyber Force” 20 years ago. How does it feel returning to that property the same year you’re celebrating the company’s 20th birthday?
Silvestri: I’ve been telling people a lot lately that I’m more excited today than I’ve been in my thirty-plus years in the business, and that’s the absolute truth. Bringing back “Cyber Force” and re-imagining it the way that we have just feel so right for not only me and Top Cow, but for the times we live in. What better way is there to celebrate 20 years of Top Cow fun?
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the industry in Top Cow’s 20 years and some of the biggest challenges you see for the industry in the coming years?
Hawkins: The biggest change I’ve seen in 20 years in the industry is that 19, 20 years ago it was a very artist-driven ship and it is almost completely flipped to a very writer-driven ship. If you look today, the same superstar artists of yesterday are the same as today, it’s Marc Silvestri and Jim Lee and these guys, but the superstar writers are guys like Robert Kirkman, Matt Fraction, Mark Millar. In the last five or ten years all the new superstars are all writers, that’s pretty interesting to me. It’s a pretty profound shift in the industry and one I welcome because I love reading these things and the better they are the better it is for everyone.
The industry right now is going through a pretty radical change. Digital is there, not quite enough to support without the print. We’ve done some experiments like that original “Manifest” graphic novel and I look at our numbers all the time on digital, so there’s not a way currently to support these books on digital, but over the last two years we’ve seen growth quarter after quarter. It’s not seemingly slowing down. We’ve seen massive growth there, we’ve seen stagnation in the comic stores for us and we’ve seen drops in the book market given the drop in number of vendors who are available.
It’s a really interesting time, the one thing and it’s the same for film and a lot of other mediums, the barrier to entry right now is the lowest it’s ever been because of the ability of people to print low runs of comics, print web comics up and do things through Facebook and social media. The key thing for a lot of entertainment mediums, comics included, is having the lowest possible barrier to entry possible. That is very confusing to readers because you get bombarded with a lot of crap. The problem with YouTube is there’s a preponderance of shitty content that you have to sort of fight your way through to find what is good and what is quality. It’s a really interesting trend.
For us, social media is very important. The one thing I can tell you is, where do you advertise today? You look at comic book companies 15 years ago, our main advertising was in “Previews” and “Wizard.” Where is advertising today? When we launch a new book I go to your website and I say, “Let’s do a CBR skin when we launch and link it in to some sort of free preview and we’ll push it that way.” That’s pretty god damned different than it was 10, 15 years ago. The instantaneous nature of these Bit Torrent sites that put up the content almost immediately, it’s a really interesting time. If I knew the answer to where everything would by five to ten years from now, I certainly wouldn’t tell you, but I didn’t know the answer.
Here’s the thing that I think everyone needs to realize, the medium and the ways of distribution for putting out these stories will always change, whether it’s an iPad or your television, whatever version it is. But if you can tell cool stories about compelling characters with good art and design [you’ll survive]. People have been drawing comic book stick figures on caves for tens of thousands of years. People like this kind of story. There’s going to be storytelling in some form forever because people like to be entertained. If you can tell and build great characters and stories and tug at the heart strings and hit emotional highs and lows that will effect people with the storytelling, I think you’re going to survive and shift in medium as long as you don’t do anything catastrophic.
Silvestri: You nailed it right there, the ultimate fact, the old adage that content is king. That just won’t go away because it’s true. You look at the recent history of music and how many hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of songs you’ve heard. Then again, put together your top ten favorite list and there’s going to be certain names that keep popping up throughout history and it’s because they did the best stuff, they always found a way, no matter what the delivery system. A great song is a great song and I think the same rings true for any form of entertainment, movies and comics books. The point of entry for talent is low because it’s relatively cheap to put out an idea on a piece of paper or digital instead of a movie and see if it works. Comics is a great way to find and develop content. Us being lean and mean is the way for us personally to stay focused. Successful businessmen will always tell you to concentrate on the thing you do well and do it even better, concentrate on that one thing and the rest will follow. For us it’s creating new ideas within the genre of comics and taking those into other areas. We’re going to continue to do that. What Matt said about writers is completely true. Back in the day with Image it was harder for a writer to get in because a lot of editors were writing comic books back in the day. Today you’ve got these writers who have been able to arrive with more freedom and come up with these characters and create a storyline. We encourage that. It’s unknown territory, but we’re welcoming it and we’re going to embrace it. It boils down to making cool stuff.