Over the past 20 years, many comics publishers have come and gone, but Top Cow Productions has stuck around. Founded in 1992 by artist Marc Silvestri, Top Cow was one of the six original studios that established the publishing collective known as Image Comics. Since then the company has weathered every boom and bust of the comics publishing world with a handful of key properties and creators. Sticking with what works has enabled them to stay competitive in a rapidly changing comics business. But now the challenge is to keep their line fresh and find those elusive new readers. PWCW spoke with president Matt Hawkins and publisher Filip Sablik for some insights into where the company has been and where it is going.
For most casual readers, Top Cow is synonymous with two long-running properties: Witchblade and The Darkness, both co-created by Silvestri. Witchblade is the story of Sara Pezzini, a tough NYPD cop who gains the powers of an ancient artifact known as the Witchblade. The series has been adapted into a TV show, and a Japanese anime series. The Darkness concerns Jackie Estacado, a Mafia hitman who also gains the powers of a fantastic natural force called The Darkness; it was adapted into a successful video game in 2005.
These properties remain the mainstay of Top Cow's line, says Hawkins, who has been president for 12 years. "Between the two of them, they have some 32 collections, " he says, "and they remain cash cows for us. They're among the few characters created in the last 20 years that have shown real staying power." Both series have been collected in a variety of formats, from economical paperbacks to deluxe oversized editions, and huge 1000+ page books collecting 50 issues each, called Compendiums.
"We have a core audience that has been following since issue one," says Sablik. "But there is also a new cycle of fans. When a new fan discovers Witchblade, often within six months they’ve gone back and brought every Compendium and every single issue they can track down."
But keeping the franchises fresh is a still a challenge – both characters have aged a bit and bringing in new talent from time to time keeps the series developing. "There are different books for different eras," says Hawkins.
Both Witchblade and The Darkness are interconnected—they've had a child together who might hold the secret of the universe in her hands—as part of a larger Top Cow universe revolving around 13 mystical artifacts – a conceit which has allowed the line to gradually spin out new concepts. For instance, Magdalena is another artifact-wielding character, a mystical female figure tied to the Catholic Church who recently got her own ongoing comic book series and is in development as a feature film.
In 2010 all of this has been spun into Artifacts, a 13-issue epic bringing together all these characters and mystical objects. Written by Ron Marz, it's already a hit – the first issue is in its third printing and Hawkins and Sablik say it's a major success for them, and yet another way to rebrand these characters.
In fact, a big line-spanning crossover is a large undertaking for Top Cow, which has stayed lean in recent years—10 years ago they published more books but the current line is only eight to ten books a month. "We only develop and attach ourselves to projects we think we can actually do," says Hawkins. Because they are part of Image Comics, which gets the benefits of being a Diamond exclusive publisher, Top Cow doesn't have to worry about market share, whereas, he says "Other companies are worried about market share. Running your business for market share is what put Crossgen out of business."
Another key book in the Top Cow backlist is Wanted, a mini-series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones that was adapted into the movie starting Angelina Jolie. The Wanted collection has been a consistent seller for the publisher—although media tie-ins are a key to success for any publishing company, "we made more money on Wanted publishing than the Wanted movie," says Hawkins. "I wish we had been able to do an ongoing Wanted title—five or six more collections would be [very lucrative.]"
While staying focused on key properties has been successful, both Hawkins and Sablik recognize the necessity to branch out. The publisher recently announced the return of their Minotaur Press imprint, to publish more esoteric, creator-driven books. "Top Cow Productions books tend to be higher big concept books, like Wanted," says Sablik. "Occasionally we have books that are maybe a little Vertigo-esque." One such books is Echoes, a suspense thriller about a man who fears he's following in the footsteps of his serial killer father. "We would not want to do it as a big budget full color book but it works as a greyscale or B&W."
Like every other publisher, Top Cow is also in the digital space, although they embraced it a bit sooner than most—partnering with Direct2Drive to sell digital comics back in 2007. Hawkins isn't ready to call digital a revolution, but he thinks it's cool. "We'll see what happens over the long haul. Piracy is a problem—pirated comics are reaching hundreds of thousands of people but the paid ones are reaching fewer people. We've tried to clamp down but it's a game of whack-a-mole, so we've given up on it. Now we're on every platform—comiXology, iVerse, WOWIO, graphic.ly, Longbox, you name it. But it's still an emerging market. In 2010, digital revenue is less than 1/2 of 1% of our publishing revenue."
Popular material in the digital realm tends to be the same as in print. "A lot of it is sold overseas," Hawkins continued. "Our last two quarters from ComiXology were 60% Witchblade."
As with most other publishers, the biggest challenge moving forward for Top Cow is finding and keeping new readers. "People are not looking to try new things," says Sablik. "We’ve got to keep the readers we have and continue to grow the readership even though in this environment people are resistant to it."
"Honestly from a comic book point-of-view it’s just trying to do things on a business level so you can stay in business," says Hawkins. "The reality is these numbers are not the most phenomenal revenues on the planet. Incremental revenue is going to be important, from digital and other areas. The one thing that would revolutionize Top Cow is a massive media success. The Darkness video game was a tremendous success and brought in many fans. Wanted brought in many fans and PR from Hollywood, but it did more for Mark Millar than Top Cow. But he has parlayed that success and so have we."
It's a matter of pushing key franchises, he says. "Pushing properties in our core like Witchblade and Magdalena. We've had them in development for years on the film side and with Warner Bros animation. There's a second Darkness game in development for the next 10 years. All these things help cement these as franchises. If Magdalena or one of one of these things gets made into a film, you have another Hellboy."
Another key Top Cow publishing program is the Pilot Season series which allows them to develop ideas which can spin off into series. Launched in 2007, each season includes five books; readers vote on which they like the best. The fall edition, with books written by Williams Harms, Brad Inglesby, Jeff Katz, Rob Levin and Sablik himself, hits stores this month; in seasons past several books have gone on to longer series, and this edition promises the same.
Another innovation is aimed at for 2011: the publisher is developing other concepts into mini series, but building up an inventory before soliciting them. Sablik says this will give the books a chance to surprise retailers. "We want to be able to show retailers and reviewers the entire series so they can give it a fair shake. As much as this world is about hype, the audience is a little tired of things being hyped and not coming to fruition quickly enough."
"It is very difficult to make money on a new original six issue mini series," says Hawkins. "This gives retailers a chance to hand sell the entire series and gives us a complete story. It’s a win/win if you can afford to do it. The question remains if it will have any sales impact."
Sablik remains optimistic. "Readers should know that if the last time they looked at a Top Cow book was years ago, now is the time to give it a fresh look. I would take a bet that if people look at our books they will see the quality of writing and art is second to none. Top Cow has evolved."