One of the more misunderstood comic companies around, Top Cow continues to soldier on in a market affected by both bias and economic decline. By keeping the company lean and mean -- July 6 only saw two releases in the first issue of "Mysterious Ways" and the second trade collection of "Broken Trinity" -- President and Chief Operating Officer Matt Hawkins and company have made an effort to keep quality high and costs low while battling the misconception of being a company that produces books stuck in the 90s, filled with nothing but half-naked babes and grimness.
Originally created as an Image Comics imprint by Image co-founder Marc Silvestri, Top Cow eventually split from the publisher to briefly strike out on its own. A few years later, the two companies rejoined forces and now work very closely together. Hawkins himself came from the world of investment banking and joined the Top Cow team in 1998, working his way up through the company ranks to his current position. CBR News spoke with Hawkins about the state of Top Cow, how keeping their universe at a few monthly titles has helped them and how he and his team continue to convince people that Top Cow isn't just a broody bad girl holdover from 20 years ago.
CBR News: Comics aren't having the easiest time in the current financial climate, particularly monthly titles that fall anywhere outside the established "big two" superhero model, yet Top Cow has managed to keep its core franchises like Witchblade and Darkness moving while introducing new series' and characters along the way. What are the most important decisions you feel the company has made in order to stay afloat in such rocky waters?
Matt Hawkins: Survival is the name of the game and Top Cow has gone through many different incarnations over its near-20 year history. It is hard, really hard to get people to try new books today, but we have the advantage of history behind us. There are people who have been reading "Witchblade" and "The Darkness" for a number of years now, and our "universe" is coherent easily understandable and doesn't require a hundred hour tutorial to understand. Key decisions include getting long runs on titles by the same creative team. That isn't always easy but consistency is really important. Quality is important too, and although subjective, we've always tried to deliver a high-end story and art experience. The publishing of comic books is a very "nickel and dime" business now, and you either manage your costs or you perish.
On the whole, Top Cow tends to keep things pretty lean with only a few ongoing series running at a given time, with a controlled number of other projects. How do you feel about your current size and shape? Is there a chance Top Cow could grow in terms of product any time soon, or have you found what you feel is the most manageable level?
I am very happy with our publishing volume now. Our "goal" is to put out a title a week and one or two collections/trades a month. Doesn't always work out that way, but it's our goal and what we try to do. I don't see our output growing any time soon. Never say never, but flooding the market with titles seems exactly what we don't need.
On the other side of things, what do you feel about the size and shape of Top Cow's readership? Even anecdotally, who do you feel comes to check out your books: superhero fans with varied buying habits, horror and sci-fi readers, video gamers? In other words, who do you think makes the core of Top Cow's audience?
The core of Top Cow's readership are 16-49 year old men. We have a female readership but that is our primary demographic. We have properties that hit other demographics, but that is our core. In English, we have roughly 10,000 hardcore fans, another 25,000 casual fans and another 100,000 people that regularly read our books illegally through the torrents. We publish in 21 other languages in 55 countries around the world. I did the math at one point on the core titles and realized that all in, worldwide, there are roughly a million people reading each of the core issues.
That's a pretty high number of people illegally downloading your books. Do you see the new wave of digital comics as a way to get some of those people to actually pay for the material?
I doubt it. If so, maybe one percent, I would guess. People that steal movies, books, comics and music online are going to keep stealing it regardless as long as they can get away with it. There is a debate about how much of those would convert to real sales, but I don't believe it would be much. I have argued till I was blue in the face with 20-somethings about this being stealing and find their logic and reasoning on it to be "interesting" at best, but it is what it is. They think they are hurting the big corporations when who they are really hurting are small companies who can't afford the hit. On a practical reality level, I get it and understand how we work through it on with business solutions, but on a philosophical level, I see it as stealing. Netflix streaming is the first thing to take a bite out of movie torrent downloading. Maybe we as an industry need something like that.
Top Cow has what's been called an undeserved reputation as a company that makes books stuck in either the realm of cheesecake or the dark and broody veins of the 90s. Recently, you confronted that preconception with Robot 6's Graeme McMillan pretty effectively, but how do you work to fight that perception on a broader scale?
It is a hard perception to break, but companies evolve and change over time. Marvel and DC obviously have gone through a number of changes and perceptions over the decades. Look at Batman alone and look at the multiple versions there are of that character, from the absurd slapstick to the über-dark and brooding. The best way to counter perception is through word of mouth of people who like it. That happens through good content and building new fans. People who have a "negative" opinion of something are not likely to change, and I'd rather invest in trying to get a new pool or readership than trying to convert an old one. People who "like" "Witchblade" and read it regularly are more likely to "defend" it against people [who] make comments based on lack of knowledge. I think because Silvestri draws sexy women and all his proteges learned to draw sexy women from him, that people just assume that is what it's all about. We've tried a number of things to change perception. I think what people need to realize is that changing perceptions is damn hard and takes time. It is easier to convert a fan with no opinion than one with a preconceived notion.
On the other hand, Top Cow is also known for having suggestive and titillating variant covers. How do those releases play into the perception of the publisher versus how they seem to go over with your core readership?
I think I answered this above, but it is what it is. It's silly to make this claim about Top Cow when most publishers do it. There are more risque covers on Marvel/DC books than what we do today.
Creatively, Top Cow has always employed a lot of in-house talent, and in recent years you've signed guys like Ron Marz and Jeremy Haun to exclusive contracts. What's your main goal in terms of talent management as a company? Can there be drawbacks to "keeping things in the family?"
The goal of keeping consistent quality is a hard one, and getting people to commit to doing long runs on titles is the only real way to pull that off. There are certainly books that follow the Silvestri "house style," but look at the last year's worth of books and make that judgment for yourself. We have a wild variety of art styles we use. One of the things Top Cow has done is help created and build art talent. Dave Finch, Joe Benitez, Mike Turner, Mike Choi, Francis Manapul -- all from the Silvestri Top Cow school.
There seems to have been a big push over the last several years to further interconnect titles from the Top Cow Universe, from series like "Artifacts" to other intangibles in the regular books. How do you balance the continuation of the TCU with the need to keep things reader-friendly and the need to promote other books that are set in their own worlds?
The idea of the Top Cow Universe is to keep it small and containable. People can either read the individual books, and that's fine, or they can get a more immersive story by reading them all. We're talking about 2-3 books a month -- it's not a 25-wide line of titles. There are more Batman books than there are total Top Cow Universe books. The "idea" of it is to keep the whole Universe experience to $10 a month. The self contained books are just that; they're self contained and no one ever needs to read anything other than those to get the story from it. These are books like "Tracker" or the Pilot Season books. I think our books are very reader-friendly and we try to make points where it's easy for people to jump on.
What role does the Minotour imprint play in Top Cow's ongoing success? Has the imprint been doing well since being resurrected?
Minotaur was conceived to be a story driven, black and white indie brand, and it's working just fine for what it is. Branding is important and a book like "Echoes" could not be more different from "Artifacts," so we try to make that clear to people with the branding.
Over the past few years, we've seen a stronger connection between Top Cow and the video game community, from the "Darkness" games to talent like "Mysterious Ways'" Jason Rubin. What impact do you feel these relationships have on the line? How can Top Cow capitalize on awareness of your books amongst gamers?
We meet a lot of talented creative people from all walks of entertainment and if the ideas are good and we like them, we want to be involved. That may seem like a non-answer, but there is no calculated strategy to go get video game creators. 2K's "The Darkness" game has been a great boon for us on a number of fronts, and the ongoing creative and marketing efforts and synergies between the two companies will yield great benefits to both for years to come.
For the past few years you have been doing the Pilot Season series of books, launching a series of one-shots and letting fans vote on which ones to run with. How has this plan worked out for the company and what do you have planned for this year?
Pilot Season has been great. The idea of it came initially when my ex-wife asked me why no one did "American Idol" for comics. That seed stuck in my head for about a year, and the idea of Pilot Season came from that. The initial year was resurrecting old Top Cow universe characters and each subsequent year has been about original stuff. The full Fall 2011 line up will be announced at Comic-Con International. I think we just turned in the October solicitation for the first four. It's good stuff and a lot of fun. It is a blast working with so many different creators and seeing what crazy ideas we can all come up with. I believe this is year five for us on Pilot Season, and we have no plans to stop it. 2012 is already being laid out.
What is Top Cow's focus going to be at Comic-Con International in San Diego, and what other projects do you have on tap for the rest of 2011 into next year that fans should be on the lookout for?
"The Darkness" is our primary focus for San Diego. Half of our booth will be playable kiosks for the video game ["The Darkness II"] which ships October 4. We have a special Darkness panel on top of our regular Top Cow one. There will be an announcement about our plans for the Darkness feature film direction. The "Echoes" hardcover will be a big push. "Mysterious Ways," Pilot Season, all kinds of good stuff.
Finally, you've recently brought some organizational things closer to Image Central while still retaining a lot of your autonomy. Overall, what role do you see Top Cow playing in the comic book industry?
We are a boutique creative house. We create original ideas and concepts that we publish as comic books, and we maintain a small universe of titles like "Witchblade" and "The Darkness." We have no desire to be Marvel or DC. We're very happy with where we are and who we are. There are fans that like what we do and fans that don't. C'est la vie.