Top Cow: The Future Is Now

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Top Cow comics has been releasing one beautiful comic after another, enjoying immense successes, and achieving a 100th issue of a comic book. BF sat down with Matt Hawkins, President and Chief Operating Officer of Top Cow Entertainment to discuss what lies in the company’s future.

One of the most vital projects Top Cow is currently working on is high quality downloadable digital comics. “The goal is to make the Top Cow line available to a wider audience,” Hawkins says. “There are maybe 2500 stores in 10000 small cities, and so people have been forced to buy their comics through other outlets – such as Amazon – or stop reading them at all. Meanwhile, five times more people are subscribed to Top Cow’s monthly newsletter (The Moosletter) than there are buying Top Cow’s comics.” Plus, within a day of publication, the issues have been scanned into someone’s computer and made available for free on the Internet.

While the project is still in the early stages, the company is taking a huge step to combat these setbacks.

The intention is to follow the iTunes model and allow for downloads of comics for a nominal fee. To help convince the consumer to spend this amount (right now estimated at about $1 per issue), Top Cow intends to attach DVD-style extras. So now, not only will you be getting a copy of the comic, but you’ll also get a copy of the script. And, in the instances where it is possible to gather the proper resources, you’ll also be able to decompose the issues, seeing just the pencils, then adding the inks, then the colors, and so on. “It will be a great benefit for people looking to get into the business, to be able to see how each section adds up to the whole.”

The first thing that comes to mind when evaluating/analyzing this move is the failed attempt at digital comics by CrossGen, several years ago. Judging by the history of this ill-fated service, many will be quick to write-off Top Cow’s venture before it even begins.

However, there is one huge difference.

CrossGen’s service was subscription based, while Top Cow’s will be of the more common (and successful) micro-payment variety. CrossGen asked for a per-month commitment from its readers, while Top Cow just wants you to pay for what you want. So, much like iTunes allows listeners to pick and choose individual songs from an album, Top Cow’s service will allow for readers to pick and choose individual comics from their various titles.

One advantage of the proposed service is that it makes it easier for casual readers to try out the comics without such a big investment. We all face the weekly decision on what comics to spend our limited budgets on and this may help us get more value out of our money. “I read somewhere that the average comic fan spends $20 a week on comics,” Hawkins says. “Of that comics, $16 is already allocated before they ever get to the comic shop.” If the costs manage to stay down, the average buyer will be able to get several comics for his or her remaining $4.

Another interesting side effect this service may have would be on the back-issue market. If more people were exposed to – say – Witchblade #1, more people may want to get their hands on an actual copy of the original, and with that particular issue already capped at the total in circulation, the demand could increase, driving the values of print copies higher. This could be a double-edged sword, however, as it would also allow people easy access to copies of the back-stories.

To help prevent any adverse effect on the back issue market, the plan is to start with older titles, such as Witchblade#1 and Darkness #1, and roll them out slowly. “I love comic shops,” Hawkins points out. “What they do is hard. We would in no way want to hurt that business.” Still, one wonders if a consumer would buy the first 90 issues of Witchblade, in high quality with extras what would encourage them to change their collection to print for future issues? Just as those of us with an extensive print collection may not want to switch to digital copies, the inverse may hold true as well.

Another benefit of Top Cow’s digital comics program would be the chance to reach a larger audience, potentially the entire world. “We hope to make a little niche by being the first ones out there. Top Cow has always been cutting edge. In my opinion, we really set the current style of coloring.” Another way it will help with making a larger audience, besides wide availability, would be by costing less, and thereby easing the buyer’s decisions.

One of the biggest deterrents, though, is trying to get people to read comics on their computers – or whatever various devices Top Cow’s software will work with. If the price remains that low, and the quality is as high as promised, it would seem to be an easy sell. However, sitting down and staring at a glowing screen versus holding the actual paper in hand while reading comics is an immense change, and one that will, in most cases, take a sheer force of will to adapt. One or two comics at a time is fine, but trying to read a complete series could be, literally, a headache; for this generation of comic book readers, at least. In Matt’s own words: “I personally don’t like to read things digitally. If I stare at something too long, I end up with a headache.”

The reason the project is still in its early stages is that Top Cow has recently approached IGN.com to host the service. “By teaming up with IGN, it would help ease the costs” as the project got underway. Plus, IGN’s larger fan base would be beneficial in making the service a success.

The hope is that the download service will be available this fall, with the ability to view them on PDAs and other personal electronic devices.

After discussing the plans for their download service, the discussion moved on to other upcoming projects at Top Cow. First up was the Witchblade animated series.

“The animation is going really well. Overall, the story has been reconfigured for the Japanese audience by Gonzo Studios, who have been nothing less than amazing.” Currently, the animation is about halfway through the series, and the process has been more than a bit interesting. “The amazing thing about how they work on these things over there is they work right up until the episode is supposed to air, usually finishing the day before showtime. I remember talking to one man and he had to cut the conversation short as he had to finish the episode he was working on – it was three hours before it was supposed to air!”

Hopefully, we’ll be seeing the episodes stateside soon. “Funimation owns the rights, and right now they are looking around for television and video distribution.” Witchblade and Anime addicts can hope to see it as early as springtime.

So, with the success of the animated series, is the Asian market Top Cow’s next target? “We’d love to be in the Asian market, but they’re very ethno-centric over there. Top Cow is well known in North America, South America, and Europe, but over there it’s completely different. The funny thing is, over there, Top Cow stands on about equal footing with Marvel and DC.”

Matt confirmed the rumor going around that Top Cow would be reviving the Weapon Zero series, as well as some of the other older series. “We definitely will be bringing Weapon Zero back, but don’t have a creative team behind it right now.” He added that he hoped some creators might read this and contact Top Cow about taking a role in the series. “That’s basically why Pat Lee is doing Cyberforce… because he grew up reading Cyberforce and was a huge fan of [the property].” Hawkins also adds that The Darkness will be relaunched to coincide with the release of the Darkness video game.

And just how is the Darkness video game coming along? “Starbreeze is developing, and they have done a great job. The reviews from the early demos have been very impressive.” The hope is that the game will increase interest in the comics. “I’m getting emails from video game fans asking about the comics.” Matt is quick to add that, though they are branching out into animation and videogames, the company is “still first and foremost a comics company. I’m still a comics guy. My first hope is that people will go out and buy comics and visit comic book stores.”

Another enhancement that Top Cow is looking to implement is what Hawkins called ‘the character blog’. The goal is to have some of the writers create blogs written from the viewpoint of the characters in the comics, like, for example, having Ron Marz write a blog from the mind of Sara Pezzini. “The blogs will not be required reading, but something to give the fans who read both a little extra. They’ll be directly related to the activities happening in the books. And of course, they’ll be free.”

With all that is going on with Top Cow, is there any chance Matt would get back into writing (he wrote the comics Alley Cat and Lady Pendragon, as well as episodes of the TV show the Power Rangers)? “Between my two kids and my job, I really don’t have the time to write. I still do freelance work for the Power Rangers, writing about an episode a year. The one thing people don’t realize is that I’m still involved in the creation process. I came up with the concept for Necromancer, wrote the treatment, then brought Joshua Ortega and Francis Manapul to flesh the idea out and really bring it alive.”

Finally, when asked if there were any other upcoming projects Matt would like to mention, he brought up two exciting ones: the second series of  The Freshmen (which will most likely be re-titled) will be arriving in November with new artist Will Conrad on board, and secondly, in November or December two powerhouses collide as Top Cow and Marvel team up to release a Cyberforce/X-Men crossover written by Ron Marz and penciled by Pat Lee.

Only time will tell just how close Top Cow will come to succeeding in their plans for world domination. Stay tuned to www.topcow.com and Broken Frontier for all the latest and up-to-date information.

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