It's the most wonderful time of the year -- and what a year indeed for the folks at Top Cow. With four issues of the publisher's critically acclaimed "Artifacts" series sitting on shelves alongside other equally well-reviewed titles such as "Witchblade," "Magdalena" and "Velocity," there's little doubt that Top Cow enjoyed a successful 2010. It only makes sense, then, that the company ended the year with a bang, which is exactly what they did with the "Top Cow Holiday Special" graphic novel released just three days before Christmas.

"To my knowledge, Top Cow had never done a true holiday special," Top Cow managing editor Phil Smith told CBR News in an exclusive interview. "There was an issue of 'Witchblade' by Francis Manapul that took place near the holidays, but it did not really tie in directly to the spirit of the season. We did a holiday postcard once, and that I believe was it -- at least in the last ten years."

To that end, Smith himself took on the writing duties for the "Holiday Special," describing the story as taking place "in late December during the holiday season. A teenage Russian mother gives up her baby at a local fire station in New York City. Shortly after, the city begins to experience violent earthquakes that seem to be connected to the child. In a panic, the lone firefighter responsible for taking care of the child calls for help -- which is how the Top Cow Universe characters start to get drawn in."

Indeed, a vast array of characters from the Top Cow Universe found their way into the "Holiday Special," including regular faces like Sara Pezzini as well as more obscure ones such as Tilly Grimes.

"One thing I wanted to do was earn the title 'Top Cow Holiday Special,' not just 'Cyberforce' or 'Witchblade' Holiday Special. That meant finding a way, in under 22 pages, to bring the TCU together without messing with the timeline we have in our mega crossover 'Artifacts,'" said Smith. "From the get go I knew I had to have at least a member of each team, as well as each member of the trinity, and as many of the revealed Artifacts bearers as were known before 'Artifacts' #0, but after 'Witchblade' #137. Around the office, it's no secret who my favorite TCU character of all time is, so I wanted to use her for sure; Tilly Grimes was the clairvoyant Paul Jenkins had as Tom Judge's sidekick in 'Universe.' I always felt she had a larger role to play in the TCU and in the 'Holiday Special' I get to give her a bit of time on the stage, which made me very happy."

In crafting a holiday-themed story, Smith aimed to deliver on three goals. "One was the idea of how the holidays have a way of bringing people together to do good for each other, something that happens less frequently at other times of the year. I did this by connecting the TCU characters and teams in subtle ways that wouldn't mess up their first meetings in 'Artifacts,' which was quite a pickle to navigate," he said. "The second was giving of yourself or, in this case, self-sacrifice. Through the course of the story, you realize that the mother was giving her baby up to keep it safe. Third was to keep close to your heart those that you love. I was in the Navy for four years and there can be a feeling of isolation even though you're surrounded by your shipmates. At the end of the story, my favorite character in the TCU reaches out, with much difficulty, to the most remote character (at that time) in the TCU. Those three things are the underlying themes that make this a holiday special."

At the same time, Smith approached the "Holiday Special" as an anti-holiday special, explaining: "[It had to be] something that spoke to what makes the Top Cow Universe separate and distinct from other universes. Specifically, what makes the TCU different is that it's darker and more 'immediate' than other universes. Our characters live in a darker place; there is no 'heaven' in the Top Cow Universe, the only solace or comfort for these characters is in each other which is part of what I was getting across. The backdrop isn't the happy-go-lucky mishaps of trying to get a present to someone, or plan a surprise holiday dinner. The stakes of this holiday special are life or death, freedom or slavery."

Joining Smith on the "Holiday Special" is Alina Urusov, an artist Smith describes as "a chameleon. You ask for dark and gritty and she delivers. You ask for elegant and tasteful, you got it. You ask for an uplifting-but-gritty tale for the holidays, she's who you call. She really has a gift for the more nuanced expressions; towards the end of the story there was an emotional moment where I thought, 'Okay, the characters will say this and this.' When Alina turned in the page, I tore up the dialogue and ran the panels silent. She did all the work."

Smith and Urusov weren't alone in the "Holiday Special," which included a special "Jingle Belle" tale from writer Paul Dini. "From what I can see, it's something very near and dear to Paul Dini's heart," described Smith. "The title has been published across multiple imprints and this year we think we nailed one of the best 'Jingle Belle' stories ever. Stephanie Gladden and Felix Serrano both brought their best game and it shows in the work. At a certain point it made sense on our end to bring the two books together into one product, and to set the book apart, we made it a flip book. I tend not to like the abruptness in a flip book where the two books meet, so in this one, I tried to do something clever; but like a dolt, I let a typo get through! But the spirit of the joke still comes across. To see how we handled 'the flip,' see inside the book where the two books meet -- I have never seen the flip addressed this way before, so I hope someone gets a chuckle out of it."

In featuring a vast portion of the Top Cow Universe's most memorable characters as well as an entirely separate world of players in "Jingle Belle," the publisher's "Holiday Special" stands out as a particularly fitting conclusion for 2010. "It was a year of many firsts," Smith said when asked to reflect on Top Cow's 2010. "We had some really great launches including 'Magdalena,' 'Velocity' and 'Artifacts.' We got to work with amazing talent like David Hine and Jeff Wamester on 'The Darkness: Four Horsemen' and we experimented with new formats, including limited edition hardcovers, a $5.00 'First Look' trade paperback that, rather than reprinting series issue ones, was a genuine preview of new series. As we speak, I'm sending the first ever 'Top Cow/ Artifacts' retailer incentive playing cards to press, featuring the art of John Tyler Christopher."

But where the "Holiday Special" brought 2010 to an appropriate close, it serves as an even greater transition the new year. "In 2011, we'll be going full steam with the Minotaur press imprint, which is a black-and-white imprint," said Smith. "The first offering from that line is Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal on 'Echoes,' with issue #1 [currently on sale] followed in 2011 by Filip Sablik and Thomas Nachlik on 'Last Mortal' #1. We've already started on gathering the next crop of titles for Pilot Season 2011, plus we have three titles launching with the crew at Heroes and Villains Entertainment: 'Son of Merlin,' 'Epoch' and 'Netherworld.'"

"2011 has already started publishing-wise," he continued, "and of course, the big event of the year will be the 13th issue of 'Artifacts,' which will have a lasting impact on the entire Top Cow Universe."

The "Top Cow Holiday Special" OGN, featuring stories from Phil Smith and Paul Dini, is currently on sale with a cover price of $12.99. Stay tuned to CBR News in the coming weeks and months as Top Cow's plans for 2011 continue to unfold!

Tags: image comics, top cow, paul dini, phil smith, artifacts, hoiday special, jingle belle

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