INTERVIEW: Matt Hawkins Talks Top Cow, The Darkness & Witchblade

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Just another year at Dragon Con, with some incredible things that happened. I’d also lost my hat after a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic panel and my friend couldn’t remember which of the twenty underground garages in Atlanta he’d left his car in, so we spent an hour doing that. I also searched to find the Top Cow booth, confused as to why there seemed to be no location for booth 848, only to be told that was because they were located at B-48. Needless to say, I was running off of very little sleep, but with a Surge in one hand and my notebook in the other, I was excited to interview Matt Hawkins.

Hawkins is the President and COO of Top Cow, with multiple decades in the industry under his belt, meaning he’s always got something interesting to tell me. Since I know he hits the con circuit heavily, my first question was to ask how he was enjoying my personal favorite event of the year. Hawkins had made a joke about not coming back for another twenty years (as his last Dragon Con was 1998) at the panel, but said the con felt unique and almost still small enough to enjoy, and that he’d be trying to make it back in the next couple of years. Hawkins had spent a ton of money on D&D books, which I was immediately interested in when he told me about the ongoing game with the other industry guys he was running.

I concluded our idle chit chat by talking about some of the recent things I had seen on his Twitter feed, asking how it was going, living the life of a rockstar comics creator.

“I need to slow down the partying a little bit, because I’m hitting fifty next year.” He says this, just after mentioning how much he has to travel. “Most of our vacations are tied to a convention.”

How does someone juggle all of that travel, a family, and still manage to keep writing new books every month though?

“I have a good staff. I have five people that work under me. A lot of times when I’m co-writing with other writers, they will help. I have a good support team. A lot of this is time management. I learned a long time ago that twenty percent of your effort generates eighty percent of your result, so if you can figure out what the other eighty percent is, just don’t bother with it.” He doesn’t watch a lot of TV or other things that don’t help with work or family. “I’m not a good multi-tasker, but I’m very schedule driven. In the mornings I write, in the afternoon I do business. That’s how I break my day. I learned that from Stephen King, his book On Writing, just write four hours a day, five days a week, and you’ll have books galore.”

This was something I had heard him say before, so pushing a bit more into it, I found out Hawkins skips weekends unless there are deadlines, but those don’t bother Top Cow as often now since they don’t solicit books until they are near completion. All of that consistent work has to be monotonous, though.

“I try to work on a different book each week. I try not to work on Swing, Darkness, and Think Tank in the same week, and I’ll schedule stuff in advance.” It’s a way to keep focus — as well as sanity — which Hawkins has a lot of.

I wanted to know how important social media was to him.

“It’s vitally important. If you want to be a comic book creator today, you have to have a social media presence. It’s expected. There are very few people who are going to break in and build an audience without some sort of social media presence.”

Hawkins is personable on Twitter, and it’s easy for people to get to know him through his tweets.

“It is weird though, if people read and follow you long enough, they almost feel like they’re your friend, even though I’ve never met them before, and that is a little weird sometimes.” He continued on about how he presents himself there. “I tend to free think. I watch what I say, but I stir the pot sometimes. I always tell people: if you’re going to pick a side, like a liberal/conservative side, pick it and stick with it, because there are people who will spend money if you do that. But, my recommendation is to avoid it entirely.”

“If you’re a creator and you have something interesting to say, create a voice for yourself,” and something I struggle to remember, “I learned this from Olivia Munn: every time you do a post, marking or sales related, you need to have a personal anecdote or something like that every other one, or people will get tired of it.”

And of course how not to abuse it: “don’t burn bridges. Don’t post stuff that is bad about other companies and other creators. Stay positive, which is like streaming upstream on the internet.”

At the end of the day though, I think he feels like the rest of us do about it, feeling more connected and less at the same time, knowing what is going on in everyone’s lives and seeing too many thoughts from people known long ago.

“I love social media, I love it and I hate it. I love the ‘mute’ button on Twitter.” We also both don’t get Instagram.

I asked Matt about the video games he plays, and he’s mostly waiting on Red Dead Redemption 2, which I got to give him some information about.

“I love Rockstar and I love Blizzard.”

The Darkness

I was glad to hear it, but really wanted to know when the next Darkness game was coming.

“2K has the rights, they paid for them years ago, and that is really a question for them.” I’m guessing he gets asked this a lot by how quick that response came. “I don’t understand it, they sold six million copies of the second one, so you’d think they’d want to make a third one,” and he only had one theory, “I wonder if they’re waiting to see if we can get a Darkness film made, but I don’t know.”

Since Jackie Estacado got two games, I had to ask if Witchblade would get one also.

“No, we had a—there is a prototype that was done for a Witchblade game that never actually got made. We’ve had that option for development by video game studios multiple times, it just never came out.”

That’s crazy. Something I hadn’t heard about. This was using a Buffy game as a model, according to Hawkins, who he may still have it. There was also an attempt at an Aphrodite game, but that also got scrapped and ended up becoming the third-person shooter, Wet.

We talked about a couple of the movies for their properties as well, but it was Wanted that I learned something about, specifically, why the film wasn’t based off of the comic as much as I would have liked.

“We sold the film rights after he [Mark Millar] had barely written the first issue. So if you look at the first twenty minutes of the film and the first issue of the comic, they’re almost identical.” Furthermore, “they didn’t want to do super villains, they wanted to do super assassins, and that was something they told us upfront, so we just agreed to it.”

It was all incredible news to me, but I had to steer it back to comics though, and one of the big things he said in the panel was that he didn’t like superheroes, so I asked him why.

“I don’t really know, I’ve just never liked them. I always thought their origins were hokey and they just seemed so uh—I mean, why does Superman give a shit? You have a character that is so powerful, it just seems kind of silly to me. I’m not bagging on Superman, and his longevity or the importance of that franchise, but they keep rehashing. Every superhero story that is being told today, has been told already. There really are no new superhero stories. Every time I pick up a Marvel or DC arc I’m like, oh this reminds me of this other run from the 80s, or this, that, or the other thing, and I just feel like it’s all kind of derivative of itself. It feels like the dog chasing its tail a little bit.” That’s an overall feeling, but obviously there are exceptions. “Every once in a while you will have something that is new and its fun.”

Even if the response was a little surprising, I thought it may show some reason why Top Cow is putting out romance comics now. He told me a funny aside about how he used to say, “know your audience,” and pitching Top Cow a caveman romance story would be out of place, yet here we are.

“Sunstone is why we have the romance genre. Stjepan Sejic had put it out as a free web comic, but once there was enough of it, he asked if I’d put it into print. Initially, I was like, eh, I don’t know, you’re giving it away for free. It’s got sex in it. It’s got nudity in it. I don’t know.” Hawkins did finally agree though, and in his own words, it sold like ‘gang busters,” but why? “Because it appeals to non-comic book readers. It appeals to women. There is a massive market of prose readers that do not read comics. We’re a small subculture in this much larger literary world, and I think a book like Think Tank and like Sunstone may appeal to people who aren’t interested in comics.” Many of their books have begun taking this approach. “Think Tank is like a Michael Crichton story. Sunstone has a universal appeal. Everybody likes sex.”

I asked if he felt like part of the appeal was that it showed off the LGBT community a bit more as well, if it was because there aren’t enough stories for that group as well, “Not enough quality ones.” But there’s more than just appealing to a niche audience: “Diversity in and of itself is not a good strategy. You still need to have a plan—story.”

We talked about Swing and his research, interviewing almost a thousand different couples. I was amazed when he told me how many swingers clubs there were in the US, and even more surprised that many of them in LA now carry that graphic novel.

A lot of the S&M culture people didn’t like when Fifty Shades of Grey came out, because it was a tad rapey, and like most material aimed at that subculture, they got it wrong. Sunstone got it right and was a positive story about it. “People in these controversial subcultures don’t want to feel ashamed.”

His research has made him far less judgmental about these cultures and comics research in general has changed who he is in general.

The sugar baby culture and research is interesting as well: “They don’t look at it as prostitution, it’s an arrangement.”

People wanted more than just Sunstone, and reading Sugar helped me to understand why. It felt so different but still natural.

“They’re all in the same universe, which I call the Sejic-verse.”

I asked what it was like working with his wife on the book Sugar.

https://twitter.com/topcowmatt/status/1044253953687343106

“She’s been very helpful in determining what a woman would say, what a woman would do, and having that influence is a positive one, because most of the readers of these books are women. The more women involved in these things, the more likely that women will try it.” He also added, “Range of emotion is so important in these slice of life books.”

Listening to how many times his wife told him he’s gotten something absolutely wrong about a woman is quite funny.

I had to wonder if any of this material was real events bleeding over from his real life relationships.

“All of it, yeah. Well I mean, I’m not a sugar daddy, but,” he told me about exact parts from Swing that happened to him or his wife, Jenni.

For those that like them, there are plenty of these books to come, since they are some of their best selling stuff. Swing is actually getting a card game that hasn’t been announced yet, but it should be out by Valentine’s Day.

When I last interviewed Hawkins, he had mentioned that Top Cow was moving away from T&A on their covers, changing their image, but now these books are hard R and racy, with two-page blowjob spreads.

“Which is why I was hesitant to put out Sunstone in the first place, but women read it and women really liked it. It’s really about the agency and are they in control of their own sexuality. When you just arbitrarily publish some girl on the cover and have her scantily clad, when we had Witchblade running around in a bikini, some people didn’t take it as well. One is more about subjugation and power over the woman, and that sort of male machismo power play over women doesn’t go over as well. You look at all three of those books, the women are in control of what they do, and dictating what is going on, and it’s still pretty sexy.”

Hawkins wants the books to promote sex positivity.

“Women are just as dirty as guys, they’re just more subtle about it.” That has to be considered when making the stories feel more natural. “Is the sex a story or is it just an add-on? When it is something gratuitous that is just tagged on to show some titties, that’s when it doesn’t work.”

I wanted to bring up some more light-hearted stuff towards the end, and I had to ask him about writing for Power Rangers again, because he’s done many things I’ve always wanted to do, and each of them seems to be without previous experience, just luck. A friend of his was the showrunner. He never watched Power Rangers before then, never read comics before getting into the industry. It’s maddening to know that and see how well he’s done.

We ended up discussing time travel in science fiction and his background in science, which led to a conversation where he sold me on his book Golgatha, just from the premise alone. Some of his ideas about the future of science are great to listen to. This was also an assurance that Top Cow was still putting out a lot of different material and has a lot of big plans for a new Darkness series and of course Witchblade.

The company is doing very well, and most of their unfinished books are left that way by the creators, but sales are good and they are much more picky now about what they choose to put out, and it looks like these choices are paying off. It’s always great to talk to Matt Hawkins and I can’t wait to see where he and the company are a few years from now.