In the first installment of CBR's WEEK OF TOP COW, we spoke with Top Cow Productions founder Marc Silvestri about the early days of the company, and we later followed up with Filip Sablik, the prodigious Publisher of Top Cow, about the company's current direction, experiments with online content, and what sets Top Cow apart from other outfits. We then spoke with Ron Marz and Phil Hester, the writers of "Witchblade" and "The Darkness," respectively, about working on Top Cow's flagship titles as well as what makes the Cow a creative oasis in the desert of corporate comics. After that, Vice President of Editorial Rob Levin sat down with us to talk about the creative direction of the Top Cow titles as well as the numerous Pilot Season projects -- one-shots featuring new or underused characters that readers can vote for via MySpace to determine which title will graduate to ongoing series.
For our fifth and final installment, Top Cow President Matt Hawkins speaks extremely candidly about the company's business history, about the many and varied changes the Cow has undergone in the ten years he's been there, as well as Top Cow's endeavors in film, video games and other ancillary media.
CBR: You first started out at Top Cow as VP of Publishing back in 1998. How did you find yourself there?
Matt Hawkins: I started out as VP Publishing and was brought in to take over the day-to-day business of Top Cow's comic book publishing business. I had been self-publishing "Lady Pendragon" and "Alley Cat" and doing decently well doing that, but David Wohl called me and asked if I would be interested in meeting about working at Top Cow. Stability being a somewhat good thing since I was getting married, I decided to take a look at it. We met over the course of a few weeks and I decided to take the job part time, providing that I could continue to self-publish my own books. That lasted about two weeks until I realized the magnitude of the problems the company had at the time and the amount of work that needed to be done. So I got sucked in and within a few months my self-pub stuff stopped as I got completely overwhelmed at Top Cow.
Tell us about the road to becoming President of the company.
Well, it was pretty bizarre. Within a few months of being at Top Cow, Brad Foxhoven (former President) left to go start a dot-com startup called Eruptor. David Wohl became President, but was more of a creative guy and didn't feel comfortable making financial, legal decisions, etc. So he asked me to be Co-President with him. That lasted about six months, I believe, and then I was sole President and have been ever since. So from the time I started working at Top Cow, I believe I was President within a year and have signed all the checks and managed all the legal work since then.
How has Top Cow changed in the ten years you've been at the company?
It's changed pretty dramatically. When I first arrived, Top Cow was full of artists who had this sense of entitlement that was nearly impossible to break, it was so ingrained. They had a pretty sweet deal with high page rates, a creative atmosphere and a lot of leeway in just about everything, but they all felt like they were being screwed over. I've talked to some of these guys since and many of them have realized that it was a sweet deal and that the grass is not always greener. It's difficult to convey that when this is the only place they've ever worked and you have some artists that are making six and seven-figure incomes and flaunting that.
I remember an early conflict with an artist when I made the comment that working in comics is a sweet deal, be thankful, you could be working at McDonalds. He took that to mean that I thought he would be working at McDonalds if he didn't have the Top Cow job, which was not what I said. Caused some problems, but I talked to these guys and tried to find out what they wanted. In many cases, we couldn't give it to them, and some of them left. Many of those we've since worked with again.
We had ten art interns working in a bullpen that none of the editors wanted to use for anything. I asked Marc [Silvestri] if he thought any of them had potential working with us and he said one, Ebas. So when I asked why we had those other guys there no one could answer me. So I got to be the dick by letting them all go. I remember doing it in one afternoon and they all filed in one after the other, then cleaned up their stuff and left. I was the "asshole," but I thought we were doing them more a disservice by having them sit in our office thinking they were going to get work when they never were -- some of them had been sitting in there for years.
The biggest change I would say from when I started to today is that there is not a single person working here now that worked here when I started, other than Silvestri. We've had many people here now for several years and I like our current staff quite a bit, but it's been an interesting journey. Creatively, we've shifted from an almost Zen-like, art-first culture to realizing that art and story are equally important, and in many cases story can be more important.
Some of the problems never go away, I think they are systemic to our business, in talking with other companies they have the same problems. The company has also evolved into more of a multi-media company with projects in video games, film, animation and a lot of exciting stuff like that going on.
Top Cow is a company that has weathered a lot of storms in its years. While things look great moving forward and Top Cow is stable financially today, that wasn't always the case. With those tough times behind you, what have you learned from those experiences that have helped shape Top Cow business operations today? Is Top Cow being affected by the current economic crisis?
Well, I've been through more shit than I care to remember, but it does make me feel battle-tested in a way. Before even Top Cow, being part of the implosion of Extreme Studios and Awesome Comics was very heartbreaking. That experience actually gave me the resolve on what I needed to do at Top Cow to get it through trying times. Fiscal prudence is of paramount importance. People frequently assume that when people lay people off or make cutbacks, that company is fucked. That may be the case, but with forward thinking people it's actually done to stave off a potential storm. One thing I realized early on is that the person responsible for the financial/legal aspects of a company is not trying to win a popularity contest. We have to make tough decisions, walk away from deals that we want to do for creative reasons and cut projects that don't make sense.
At Extreme/Awesome, I felt like we were all friends and that factored into how we ran the business. It can be detrimental. I'm a relatively friendly guy, but have always maintained a slight distance from all the people whose livelihoods are directly affected by what I do and who are affected by every decision I make. With a creative company, you really need a combination of a creative vision, marketing savvy and fiscal prudence. You need a real business plan on how you expect to make money in this business.
The industry is littered with bankrupt morons who thought that some movie was going to save them and make them rich. I love comic books and am proud of our industry and medium, but the people out there creating comic books solely in hopes of it becoming a film are going to be disappointed. Publishing is a very risk-intense business, especially now, and the nickels and dimes add up very quickly. A couple years ago we worked out a deal that was going to save us $300,000 a year in printing costs. Then the cost of oil went up and freight costs went up. Suddenly we had a zero sum gain. I was annoyed, but happy we had been proactive in trying to cut costs. If we had had to incur another $300,000 in costs, that year that would have sucked. We run profit and loss projections for everything we do. We calculate price points, page counts based on costs. I have budgets and run variance reports to look at what doesn't meet our projections. I have a cash flow report six months out to ensure we have cash to pay operating costs. Some of you might be saying, no shit, but you'd be surprised at how many independent comic book companies do none of these things.
What else have I learned? Quality is everything and price point does matter. You give people a good comic book, consistently and they'll come back for more. I've also learned it's very difficult to build an audience once you've lost it, but not impossible. Our philosophy has changed quite a bit over the years and I've changed my opinions on what matters and what works every year. This is a very "Johnny on the spot" business. If you don't have the right ammunition when you need it, you blew an opportunity.
Lastly, and I've said this before, survival is the primary goal. On the film/TV and video game front, it takes a lot of effort and luck to get these things made, but if you aren't in the game you can't get lucky.
What would you say sets Top Cow apart from other comic publishers?
We're more of a boutique operation focusing on fewer projects that hopefully benefit from more individual attention. If you look at most other publishers in our "perceived" space, they publish a lot more books than we do, in some cases almost 8-10 times the volume we do. We try to focus on fewer books and make them as good as possible. There are always some missteps, but overall I think our line is pretty damn good.
What are some of the standout projects you've been involved with since you've been with Top Cow?
The current run on "Witchblade," "Wanted," "Rising Stars," the current "The Darkness" volume and [Paul Jenkins' "The Darkness: Resurrection."] Some of my favorite projects we've got going are actually books we haven't published yet. I dig "Freshmen," but it's a hard comic book to sell, people don't seem to want funny in their funny books any more.
In your role as President, you oversee Top Cow's projects in other media. Let's talk a bit about some of those successes and what they've meant for the company. "Wanted," for example; prior to its opening weekend, were you confident it would exceed expectations like it did, or were you in wait- and-see mode?
I had seen the film prior to release and read the various drafts of the scripts as they came in, so I was pretty confident that the film would do well. I like genre action films and this hit everything that I liked, so I knew that the people like me would like it. I tend to be pretty hard on our stuff and we have high standards for the ancillary productions of our properties, so I knew I wasn't looking through rose colored glasses. So the short answer is that yes, I was very confident it would do well.
Now, having said that, it exceeded my expectations at both global box office and on pre-orders for both DVD and Blu-Ray. "Wanted 2" is a no-brainer at this point. [Mark] Millar and [J.G.] Jones created something here that's going to have some long legs.
What has "Wanted's" success meant for Top Cow's other media properties -- has it helped pave the way for upcoming film projects and move existing ones into over drive?
It has certainly helped, but most of what we currently have in development was already in development before "Wanted" came out. It's certainly raised our profile, but it's done more for Mark Millar than it has for Top Cow. And this is a good thing and something both Marc and I support. It's important that more creators get credit for what they do and have that translate into other media opportunities. I think that is a key difference between Top Cow and other companies.
"The Darkness" video game was also a big surprise, once again surpassing expectations. Has its success helped in future development of video games for Top Cow?
This is a big yes and besides a potential "Darkness" sequel (which developer 2K has asked me not to talk about yet), we have several other things that are being developed and once we have something real to announce we'll announce it. "Witchblade" is a no-brainer and will happen eventually.
Can you talk about the status of any upcoming films or video games? Where is "The Darkness" film at? "Witchblade?" "Magdalena?"
Unfortunately, it's my policy to not really talk about much until it's really real, but I know Michael Rymer has talked about "Witchblade" a few places and Gale Anne Hurd, Jenna Dewan and Luke Goss have been talking about "Magdalena" a lot in the press lately. "The Darkness" is very close to some insane announcements of which I'm very excited, but nothing is signed yet so I'm going to withhold that. Sorry to be a tease.
What's coming up for Top Cow?
I'm looking forward to "Impaler" a lot. I don't think it'll be a barnburner when it comes to sales, but it'll have a quiet surge behind it. Quality stuff works that way, it may not have the same sizzle as some other stuff, but we'll support it. The "Berserker" stuff with Milo Ventimiglia's company looks great. The continuing adventures of the Witchblade and The Darkness are evergreen for us at this point. We've got a few other things that I can't announce just yet, including a project that Marc Silvestri has been personally designing for almost ten years and it is wicked cool!