IMAGE EXPO: Top Cow: We Create...

"I'm gonna see if I can drink all four of these at the panel," Top Cow President Matt Hawkins declared as he placed four sugar-free Red Bulls on the panel table at the Image Expo in Oakland, California.

"So, what can we talk about today?" asked Marc Silvestri, the founder of Top Cow and one of the founding partners of Image Comics.

"Top Cow," the last member of the panel, Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik, quickly replied before showing off a limited "The Darkness" statue to be raffled off at the end of the panel. The statue, made for "The Darkness 2" video game, was not available for sale.

Sablik warned the crowd they would be using foul language during the next hour, encouraging any children in attendance to leave. "Kids don't read comics anymore," quipped Silvestri as the panel officially began.

Hawkins started by talking about the new video game "The Darkness 2" by 2K Games. He revealed that if you go down a certain alleyway in the game, the developers spray painted "fuck Matt Hawkins" on the wall. "I was a big fan of that," he said before showing off a video clip of the game.

After the clip, Hawkins said that they purposefully left a cliffhanger at the end of the second game, which "bodes well for a third game."

"[Hawkins is] on his third Red Bull, by the way," Sablik joked before shifting the discussion to Top Cow's comics, which just finished the universe re-defining crossover epic "Artifacts" by Ron Marz, the origins of which has roots in a 2004 series called "Universe" by Paul Jenkins. "Artifacts" revolved around the thirteen mystical artifacts in the Top Cow universe that grant their owners special powers but that would destroy the world if ever brought together. They were and they did at the end of Marz's storyline, leading into Top Cow's "Rebirth" branding.

Even though "Artifacts" the event has ended, "Artifacts" the series will continue as an ongoing by Marz and artist Stjepan Sejic. Hawkins said new issues would focus on the character Tom Judge, who is the bearer for the Rapture artifact.

"The Darkness" will also feature a creative team change with the addition of writer David Hine to the book on issue 101. He replaces long-running writer Phil Hester. "He's got this great sensibility that is perfect for 'The Darkness,'" Silvestri said. "What David has in line for Jackie is really critical to what we're doing with the new universe. Our core universe, Witchblade and the Darkness and all that stuff, is based in the supernatural, so we can have some bigger fun than just some guy from a planet that landed in Kansas."

Silvestri and Hawkins both stressed that the new universe seen at the end of "Artifacts" issue 13 was not a trick and is the new status quo. The first character to get a sense that is a new world will be Tom Judge in the on-going "Artifacts".

"Jackie changed one or two things for him, very selfishly [at the end of 'Artifacts']. 85% of the world is very similar but that 15% is very different," Sablik said. "[Jackie] builds the world in his perfect vision, which is far from perfect," Silvestri agreed.

"We resisted the temptation to release a new 'The Darkness' #1 and a new 'Witchblade' #1," Hawkins added.

"We're proud of the fact that these books have been around," Sablik said. "'Witchblade' has 154 issues, 'The Darkness' #100 is in stores next week. It's a big deal."

The panel is then interrupted by Hawkins to announce he has finished all four cans or Red Bull only 20 minutes in to the presentation. "Now the fun starts -- just watch him for the next 40 minutes," Sablik laughed. "We do not recommend this for normal human beings."

Returning to "Artifacts", Silvestri stressed that the first goal was to make the story fun and not to alienate existing readers -- finding new readers is a secondary goal. It's very important to Silvestri to "reward" old readers and get them to say, "That's just a cool thing to do with my favorite character," instead of making it feel forced.

The first post-event "Artifacts" story will be five parts and feature Tom Judge on his mission. It will also guest star the Darkness, Witchblade and Angelus.

"This is our big universe book," Sablik said. "Three books a month ['The Darkness,''Witchblade,''Artifacts'] that's it. You get our entire shared universe, guaranteed. It's gonna be more jam-packed with story than the 50 books you buy from our competitors."

Sablik also pointed out that, since their books have remained at $2.99 since 2000, Top Cow books have actually been priced below inflation. "So basically, we're making no cash!" joked Silvestri.

"There's some pretty crazy stuff going on 'The Darkness' on the media front, by the way," Hawkins told the audience. "I mean, we can't really make any formal announcements here and now, but you're gonna hear some pretty bad-ass shit happen in the next, say, I think it's probably the next six months there's gonna be some pretty amazing announcements regarding other media stuff on 'The Darkness.'" Silvestri added cryptically a few minutes later, "I really wish we could make some of those announcements of other media. That movie stuff sounds cool."

Hawkins then announced that Top Cow is working with legendary gunmaker Colt to produce a limited edition "The Darkness" handgun. The gun will be limited to 100 units, retail for $1000 and should be available in August. "You'd have to be a crazy fan to own one."

Top Cow is making the "Doughnuts and Top Cow" fan podcast the official podcast of Top Cow. The podcast will be hosted on the Top Cow website from now on, as well as iTunes, and the first official episode will be up this week. It features Ron Marz as a special guest.

Hawkins briefly discussed his new comic book, "Think Tank," a four-issue limited series about someone whose "a lot smarter" than the writer. Hawkins, who comes from a science background, wanted to do a book about the think tanks that come up with the ideas we'll use in 20 years and what happens if someone tries to take one of their ideas back.

Opening the panel to audience questions, the first answer was actually a non-answer with the panel responding to inquiries about a Darkness animated project with a "No comment" before offering that they have a few things in the works.

Hawkins stated that it is one of Top Cow's goals to develop a shared universe in different media, similar to how Marvel has created a shared movie universe. "It's something we've tried very hard to do. Marvel was able to do it because they raised half a billion dollars themselves," Hawkins said., pointing out Top Cow projects in other media -- the "Witchblade" show and anime, the "Wanted" movie and "The Darkness" video games -- and that "none of it sucked."

Silvestri added, "We're proud of that stuff. Even though we can't discuss anything about 'The Darkness' beyond that because they won't let us, rest assured that 'that,' whatever 'that' is, will not get made unless it kicks ass. It's that simple."

Silvestri told the audience that he gets final say in all media projects according to contracts, which is extremely rare in adaptations. He said he "couldn't count" how many "Witchblade" scripts he's seen and turned down because he thought they weren't good enough. "Dozens" of scripts have been rejected.

"A 'Darkness' movie could have come out ten years ago, but it would have sucked ass and there wouldn't have been a second one," Silvestri said. "We have no interest in doing that. Not just in not doing a suck ass thing, but doing it so we couldn't make any more of them."

Silvestri said that he loved the "quad wielding" in "The Darkness 2" videogame that allowed you to control four weapons at once, including the Darkness itself, stating that it set the game apart from other first person shooters. Silvestri revealed he is about a quarter of the way through the game and loves it. The script, by Paul Jenkins, he feels shows that 2K games understands the property well.

Pointing to Ron Marz's promise to stay for a lengthy run on "Witchblade," a promise he fulfilled, a fan asked if the writer planned a similarly lengthy run on "Artifacts". "We're committed to these creative teams and they're committed to the books," Sablik answered. "It's important that you guys get a consistent vision with these books. We empower creators to feel like these are their characters."

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