As many of you probably already know, London Super Comic Convention 2013 happened last weekend, February 23rd-24th, and Word of the Nerd regulars (and the only two British people!) Jay Martinand Jack Chambers were there to bring you coverage from the weekend’s panels (all written by Jay) and some exclusive interviews with some of the biggest names in comics today. (all transcribed by me, Jack)
On day 1, we managed to secure a few minutes to talk with Top Cow Productions‘ President and Chief Operating Officer, Matt Hawkins. Matt turned out to be such an interesting and insightful gentleman that those few minutes swiftly turned into half an hour. Thankfully, my trusty new sound recorder managed to capture every second of our first ever interview.
Below is our exclusive sit down interview we did with one of the most influential people in the comics industry today.
Jack Chambers: Hi Matt, thanks very much for taking the time. How are you finding London so far?
Matt Hawkins: It’s going well. It’s been pretty solid and busy. Very cold though. I just came from a convention in India, 2 weekends ago, and it was 27 degrees and entirely outside. I’m from Los Angeles so I’m used to 21 degrees, but here it’s minus figures! It barely rains in LA and never drops below around 20.
Jay Martin: I think we could do with some of that around here!
Jack: Yeah, definitely. So, first thing’s first, I’m a big fan of Think Tank. I did a review for Word of the Nerd of Issue #4 and, considering I have a Physics degree, I was instantly sucked in by the science. What’s your background in Physics?
Matt: I have a BS in Physics from UCLA and an MS from CalTech, but it’s been so long, that was back in 1994. I’ve been in the comics business for more than 18 years now and hadn’t really used my knowledge at all. I was already working at Image in 1992, and in the early days of the company, everyone was making so much money, I thought “Why would I want to do this science thing?” But in 1997-98, the industry kind of collapsed. I did Lady Pendragon for a couple of years and shortly came to Top Cow and started running the business there. It was only a couple of years ago, after Michael Crichton died, that I realized, “Who’s going to take up the mantle of doing science-thrillers?” There’s a lot of sci-fi out there, but Crichton had a unique way of making it accessible.
Jack: By making interesting characters and stories the focus, you can have the science and physics as a thing that holds it all together.
Jay: Sneakily teaching people things in comics!
Matt: Yeah, exactly. So many people are stark about it, you know? “I’m not going to dumb it down for anybody!” There are some novelists that are science guys, and most people can’t even read it. They don’t sell in good numbers, so that’s definitely not what I’m interested in doing!
Jack: I think you’ve found a really good balance between the story driven thriller elements and
the science side of things. If a reader doesn’t care about the physics, they can skip it and still enjoy the characters, but if they’re a science nerd, like me, they can dig deep into all the Science Classes, dossiers etc.
Matt: All that back material is actually inspired by me reading From Hell. I love Alan Moore’s annotations and footnotes. I kept finding myself going out of my way to read the books he references, and I kind of got obsessed with the whole Jack The Ripper thing for a year.
So when I did Lady Pendragon, I did that. I referenced places I’d been, pictures I’d taken, stuff like that, but that was more for fun really. When I sat down to do Think Tank I really wanted to do a science-thriller and not a science fiction book.
Jack: The thriller side of the book is just as interesting and rooted in the real world as the science. Think tanks, espionage and government conspiracies are all real things.
Matt: Totally! They do some seriously crazy shit! In the US, we have the Freedom of Information Act, so every 7 years, they have to release everything. Well, I’m sure they don’t release everything, but they’re supposed to. They just dump all the files onto websites. Most of them are 500-page manuals, and to find the interesting you pretty much have to skim through all of it. For example, if you want download the Department of Defense‘s budget, it’s a 7GB file. No pictures, just giant words, somehow. It took me 8 hours to download it on my wifi and, after downsizing it so I could actually read it, I discovered that Homeland Security actually has a larger budget for drones than the military! The part I put at the end of Think Tank #4 came from that. I looked at the spreadsheets and thought “Why does Homeland Security have such a big budget for drones? That makes no sense!” Well it means they have a bigger fleet cruising the skies of the US than in Iraq.
Jack: Using them to spy on US citizens?!
Matt: I guess so. If you look at YouTube, you can just type ‘drone over US skies’ and there are a bunch of people taping them, they’re visible!
Jay: With Think Tank set in a completely different universe from the rest of the Top Cow books, is there still the possibility of some crazy crossover?
Matt: Setting it aside from the rest was actually part of the reason for bringing back Minotaur Press. There are certain things we do that are not connected, obviously The Darkness, Artifacts, Cyberforce, Aphrodite IX are all in the same universe. But that universe has two sides to it, what I call the cybernetic side, Cyberforce & Aphrodite IX, and the magic side with Artifacts & The Darkness.
Jack: You’ve just mentioned Aphrodite IX, which you’re bringing back in big way soon, can you tell us a bit more about that?
Matt: The return of Aphrodite IX came about because Stjepan Sejic wanted to do something with it. He wanted to do it, talked to me, and I thought I’d give it a shot. Part of it is a challenge I’m giving to myself because a lot of scientists I know don’t think that science fiction right now is very good. In the 50s, 60s and 70s, we had the Silver Age, authors like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov, and a lot of people grew up reading these books. Now we have the Star Trek communicators in our lives, cell phones, we have geosynchronous satellites and all these other things that people read and thought about as children. That’s all already doable. We can do so much with particle accelerators, then someone comes out with a flying car, well whoop-de-fucking-doo. It’s no longer science fiction if we can do it. We built the railgun for god’s sake! That thing they used in Transformers 2 and haven’t used again since. It has so much recoil that it almost tips the battleship completely over!
Jay: We’re just coming off the Talent Hunt, something you really took charge of. How did it go?
Matt: Yeah… *rolls eyes* It was a little brutal. The funny thing is, the writer part of it was a complete add-on. We initially thought “Let’s go look for some more artists,” and I thought, “There’s no real way for a writer to get into this business,” and I’m always being asked the “How do I break in to the business?” questions so thought, hey, why not add a writer option too?
I’ve been in this business for 20 years now and I don’t know a single writer who has ever been hired from a blind submission. Not one.
Jack: Is it the classic case of “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”?
Matt: Correct. It’s that and the other way which is self publishing, what I call ‘buying your way in’. Most people who self publish lose money, at least at first. Take Brian Michael Bendis with Jinx, Torso and AKA Goldfish, he lost money for years with all the touring of conventions and stuff. He paid his dues and now he’s the man. I think that’s the best way of doing it but getting into business in any way you can, through who you know, is still a good idea. I got in to the business side first and eventually switched over to being creative.
With the Talent Hunt, we had 800 writers and a total of 1200 entries and I read ALL OF THEM. It took months, literally. With that many scripts I could only allow myself 10-15 minutes per entry, with most of them being around 8-10 pages. That’s already hundreds of hours and having to do that and keep up with the usual stuff as well. Yeah, it was pretty rough.
Fortunately, there were a lot of good ones. Around of 100 of them were potentially really good writers. That’s a huge number, when compared to the 400 entries we had for artists, only around 5 of them were at the level we were looking for. I really wanted there to be more female submissions. We need some new people in the industry, especially true when it comes to women. So if a female writer was on par I would actually give her the edge and that ended up with 3 winners instead of 2 because I wasn’t able to narrow it down.
We’re definitely going to do it again next year, although it’s not necessarily going to be an annual thing. I think I’ve learned from my mistakes. A couple of people to help me read through and pick winners might be a good idea. We’re actually looking to do 4 winners instead of 2, all one-shot comics and have things like a message board where everyone can talk about it on our website.
However, I did find it interesting that a lot of writers were posting their submissions online even before the winners were chosen. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that necessarily. I prefer that you not do it obviously. I honestly don’t care, but you are just giving your competitors ideas though, so it probably isn’t the best tactic to take.
Jack: There’s a big movement happening at the moment in DC and Marvel where it seems like a lot of writers are moving on to doing their own creator-owned things. With ‘the old guard’ perhaps standing in the way of many of the young and innovative writers, was the Talent Hunt a direct answer to that sort of thing? It seems like the kind of thing that’s key to keeping the whole industry from stagnating.
Matt: You definitely need new blood. You need different visions and outlooks than what you’ve seen before. The worst thing that could happen for comics is having the same 20 guys writing everything over and over.
Jay: That does seem like a subject that’s very close to you. You seem to be actively looking for ways to get new people involved in the industry.
Matt: It can get very frustrating, you know? I read a lot of comics and most of them are crap. The reason I do the things I do is because, to me, reading comics is an experience. I don’t want to read a comic and then 5 minutes later, I’ve forgotten about it. At least half the comics on the stands these days are exactly that, in my opinion.
Jack: That’s a great point. I found the exact opposite with Think Tank. I would follow the links to the NSA documents you’d referenced and I would learn and get so much involved and invested in the book.
Matt: That’s fun! I’ve actually saved you a lot of time doing that. I had to go out and find those things. I can assure you, they’re not always easy to find. I use the Google shorten tools for the URLs because some of them are literally about 10 lines long. Fortunately, I know a few guys who can link me to those sorts of things.
Jay: So do you think you might be being investigated by the government yet?
Jack: Have you had the secret service knock at your door?
Matt: Haha, well I’m sure I’ve made their radar. Nobody’s contacted me. I doubt I will, but if they do some research, my father was in the military, my sister was in the military; I’ve never been arrested. They’ll learn very quickly through my Facebook statuses that I’m a loyal American.
Jay: With the recent huge world-ending/resetting event in your universe, Rebirth, was that planned out well ahead of time or did that come about organically through the stories themselves?
Matt: The funny thing about Rebirth is that it was originally an idea to reboot all the books back to #1. We had been talking about it for years and when you do a book for a long period of time, these natural highs and lows happen. Go back and read the 100+ issues of The Darkness and there’s amazing shit and some horrible shit, you know? It can be pretty embarrassing as a publisher to look back and think “How did that get made?!” but you quickly remember how and why it got made. We have our fan base and we were trying to build more fans. We had no idea about DC’s New 52 and, even though we’d been talking about it for years, they beat us to the punch. So we decided not to renumber everything back #1, which I think actually turned out to be a mistake. We would have had more success if we had renumbered.
Jack: I think the idea of taking books back to #1, even if some/all of the continuity remains true, is that they automatically serve as a jumping on point for new readers. For example, The Darkness #101 was a good issue for new readers but that number can be daunting. When you read the number 101, you tend to feel the pressure to read the previous 100 issues.
Matt: Yeah, that’s definitely true. Everyone’s OK with reading a #1!
Jay: I think that’s what’s so good about the Artifacts series, which has only been running for 25 issues so far, it serves as a good jumping on point because it’s not as high a number as The Darkness or Witchblade.
Matt: Right, of course. Well the new story we’re starting in Artifacts #25 is called “Progeny” and, without giving too much away, there’s a point where people will think we’ll be reverting to the numbering of the old universe but we don’t.
Jay: I really love the Rebirth idea because it could simply happen at any time. If all the artifacts happen to be on a plane together – boom! – it’s the end of the world.
Matt: Haha, I could lie to you and say that it was all planned when Witchblade came along. When I joined in 1998, I wrote all these documents about the possible inter-relationships in the Top Cow universe and I came to the number 13. We like the idea and the numerology of 3 (the 3 main comic series) and 13 (13 magical artifacts in that world) and then Paul Jenkins came in and we began to truly develop the bigger universe.
We are going to keep it small in terms of books though, it’s a 3 book experience. If you pick up The Darkness, Witchblade and Artifacts, you will get the whole universe. We keep it to 3 books, a total of $10 per month, we think that makes sense. Artifacts and Witchblade are actually selling very well at the moment but The Darkness, which is my favourite of the 3 (Jay & Jack: Mine too!) is actually our lowest seller.
Jack: That’s weird! I actually got into The Darkness via the first video game and, with the release and critical acclaim of The Darkness II around a year ago, you would think that The Darkness would be the most popular book.
Matt: Yeah, it’s very frustrating!
Jay: Are there any plans to expand the universe beyond comics in to more video games, TV shows, movies and things like that?
Matt: Well there’s always plans! We have, at any given point, multiple TV and movie projects in development. People are so eager to announce their movie deals these days, but only 1 out of 20 of them even go anywhere close to getting made. Part of its luck, but you can’t get lucky if you don’t play the game.
Going back to the move into creator-owned comics, I think that all started with Mark Millar and Robert Kirkman. With their success, within the comics worlds and in TV and movies, it has inspired a lot of people to get involved. Eventually though, I think we’ll see that snap back. After so many people say “When’s my movie going to get made?”, they might just give up. I’m interested to see if something like Saga, which is a great comic book, can ever be made in to a movie or a TV show.
Jack: Yeah, I think Saga might be too surreal and high concept. The budget would have to be -
All three: Astronomical!
Matt: Haha, jinx! I really do think we’re going to see a lot of people flood through soon but the pendulum swings both ways and they’ll go back to Marvel and DC after a while. They can make $10,000-15,000 per issue at either of those two publishers so it’s like Todd Macfarlane said “The only reason people followed me and read Spawn is because that was the only way to get my work.” The problem with writers is that a lot of them will simultaneously write 2-3 Marvel/DC books while also doing their creator-owned stuff. This means that readers can get their work in those Marvel/DC books and they start to think “Why would I read that other series when I can get my fix for this writer in these books?”
Jack: That’s really interesting and makes sense. So you think doing it in a staggered way; writing for DC/Marvel and building a fan base and then moving over to Image once you’re established is the best way to work?
Matt: Yeah, that’s it. That’s exactly what Mark Millar and Robert Kirkman did, that’s the secret!
Jack: I couldn’t have put it better! Well thank you so much for the interview Matt, I appreciate you taking the time to speak with us.
Jay: It was very nice to meet you, thank you
Matt: Oh thank you guys, it was a lot of fun. It was nice to meet you both.
There we have it, folks. My first ever interview with Jay was a damn good one, if we do say so ourselves. Of course, that is entirely down to our wonderful guest, Matt Hawkins, who we would like to thank once again for being so generous with his time.