Top Cow Productions, having survived for two decades as a comics publisher, is mixing it up, experimenting with genres and crossover series, as well as rebranding. And of course, digital delivery is a big part of it.
Founded by cartoonist Mark Silvestri in 1992, Top Cow was launched as a founding studio in Image Comics, itself a remarkable publishing collective created the same year by a group of superstar cartoonists who left Marvel. Two decades later, Top Cow still works directly with Image on production, marketing, and retail support to augment the efforts of their staff of seven.
As part of its 20th anniversary, Top Cow will take part in the upcoming Image Expo—a first-time convention organized by Image Comics and focused on Image creators—and anniversary promotions at Emerald City Comicon as well as the San Diego, Baltimore, and New York comic conventions in the summer and fall. Silvestri will appear as one of the guests of honor at Image Expo.
Through Diamond Comics Distributors, every month Top Cow offers three to six periodical comics as well as two trade paperback collections. It also offers introductory full-color trade paperbacks for $4.99 and some 50-issue full color compendiums, as well as Pilot Season, an ongoing series that allows fans to vote on the future publication of various Pilot Season titles.
Although its roots are in traditional superhero comics, Top Cow’s comics publishing now focuses on genre fiction, particularly horror, with a huge interest in crime fiction, revved up with a healthy dose of fantasy and the supernatural. Its two most popular series—the supernatural police procedural Witchblade and the supernatural mob-oriented thriller The Darkness—set the house’s standard by mixing these genres.
“We’re trying to find our niche, rebrand and recreate, because the problem with staying the same—well, you can’t do that,” says company president Matt Hawkins. “Everyone around us is changing and in some cases changing in our direction. Everyone always wants to see what the new shiny thing is.”
Top Cow’s rebirth started with last year’s Artifacts, a high-profile crossover series that folds in characters from a variety of Top Cow titles for an epic adventure leading up to a new beginning for all current titles. Artifacts allowed Top Cow to invigorate its line by reconfiguring story lines and shaking up creative teams.
“The idea behind Artifacts and the idea to embark on a rebirth of the Top Cow universe is something that really grew organically out of conversations about the types of stories we wanted to tell,” says publisher Filip Sablik. “It happened to coincide really neatly with the 20th anniversary of the company. We felt the timing was really good to say, here’s a new jumping on point for everybody who’s curious as to why the Top Cow brand has stood the test of time.”
“A lot has changed in the types of books that Top Cow does, stuff that began 20 years ago” said Sablik. “While they’ve evolved, this is an opportunity not to reimagine them, but to reframe them with more modern sensibilities. Like any other publisher, we’re always looking for opportunities to invite new people to come in.”
Currently under scrutiny is Cyber Force, a team of cyber-enhanced mutant superheroes, an old-timer in the Top Cow universe. Their guest turn in Artifacts led to tentative plans to restart the series. “We’re trying to figure out a way to finally try to revive Cyber Force,” Hawkins said. “It was Top Cow’s first title and it still remains our best-selling overall title, even though we haven’t published it in almost 10 years."
2012 will also see the release of The Darkness 2 video game from 2K Games. The original came out in 2008 with great success and the company hopes to follow up on that. “The first game was renowned for its storytelling,” Hawkins said. “The second game, they tried to match that with higher end game play. I’ve played through the game—it’s very immersive, it’s fun, it’s everything you want in a next generation console game.”
Digital delivery is at the center of the company’s future, not only with games but also comics. Top Cow has seen huge growth in that market, tripling its digital sales from 2010 to 2011. Digital has been especially great for attracting new readers who are looking to catch up with past titles, now nearing about 500 issues offered through multiple digital partners, which include Comixology, Graphicly, iVerse, DriveThruComics, Diamond Digital, and Kobo.
The company expects to have 100 issues of the Darkness and 150 issues of Witchblade available for download by March. Depending on the vendor, titles are readable on Nook, Kindle Fire, and iPad. Top Cow features same-day print and digital release for new titles with a 30-day price parity on the cover price. Customers who download new issues within the first 30 days of release get a free bonus issue as a reward.
“We’ve tried over the last couple years to make a branded, cohesive universe that’s accessible,” Hawkins said, emphasizing that fans can buy two or three books a month and, “get the whole thing. They don’t have to buy 30 or 40 books a month. Our goal has always been a $10 monthly experience.”
Cut away the marketing strategies, though, and it’s still about making fun comics and telling good stories.
Hawkins said, “As these mediums shift into new distribution methodologies, if you just focus on making cool characters and telling cool stories about them, I think there’s always going to be an audience because people like escapist entertainment. I think that’s really where it’s at.”