Metal Life Magazine Exclusive Interview With Matt Hawkins (Top Cow Productions)
The other day Eva from Metal Life Magazine sat down with Matt Hawkins, President/COO of Top Cow Productions, Co-Creator/Writer of Think Tank to discuss a variety of Top Cow projects.
I recently had the pleasure of having lunch with Matt Hawkins, this time we enjoyed Rush Street in Culver City. Before getting down to business we took the time to relax and catch up a little since it had been a few months since we had last talked. Once we were both done with our lunch (which by the way I can highly recommend this restaurant as the food was delicious and service was spot on) it was time to get down to the business of discussing things that you, our reader, should enjoy hearing about.
First thing you need to know, Matt obviously enjoys talking about the things he cares about or is passionate about. It shows in his responses to the questions I posed and as a result I’ve opted to break the interview into two parts. What you will read now is part one, where we discussed the Talent Hunt submissions, Pilot Season, writing and a book that obviously is one Matt loves to write, Think Tank.
1. Metal Life Magazine: I thought we would start with something we talked a bit about last time we met just as it all began; the Talent Hunt. I know you are in the midst of reviewing the submissions, what is the quality looking like?
Matt: It’s all over the map really. There’s some really good ones. I’ve read about 200 hundred of the written ones [as of the date we met Matt has gone through all the submissions and will be announcing winners in a couple of days] I’ve haven’t looked at any of the art ones yet, after reading couple hundred of the written ones, I’ve read probably ten of them that I though were really good, fifty of them that were ok and another hundred or so that were awful.
There is a definite American Idol effect of things that interests me. Most of the submissions are professional, but if you can’t even run a cursory spell check of your cover letter, that’s a problem.
Certain people are sending me stuff and making comments, my favorite is when I read in the email in advance, I have to be honest I’ve read this a few times, “This isn’t my best work but…” I don’t read these as thoroughly because I have to burn through a lot of these. And when people prejudge these, I don’t know why people do that. If you are submitting to a contest where there are a lot of entries why would you ever do that? I didn’t not read any of them, I’ve read every one of them. In fact one of the points of it, and this is going to be much more troublesome than I anticipated, is that I told people that I would respond to everyone individually and give them feedback. At the point when I did that I didn’t realize there were that many entries.
I’ve seen episodes of American Idol where I have to wonder, did that guy or girl that sings horribly, did they REALLY think they’re good? I’ve seen this with tons of artists over the years. I haven’t seen this as much with writers, but I have seen artists that are awful and they think they’re good. What it is, is their mom or grandma, say you have a great skill. They can recognize this as being a human or they recognize this as a car and just because something is recognizable as something does not mean it’s good. I can draw a recognizable car but I don’t think I would ever attempt to be a comic book artist.
Comics is harder than people think. And the other this is the people that don’t follow the rules at all. Some of the stuff was in the instructions. When I do it next year I am going to change it around. I will be more explicit. I will have a Frequently Asked Questions. I am going to be much more in depth. I learned from this first time of doing it of how we could do do it better. But there are people, certain things they did, that I can tell they just didn’t get it. They tried but they just didn’t understand. I’m much more forgiving of that. But people that blatantly don’t follow the rules. I was very clear, don’t use Jackie or Sara in the story and they are submitting a story that’s got Jackie and Sara and the third artifact bearer. That is very clearly a violation of the rules I set up. There’s no question. There’s been about twenty of those. That’s 10% of the ones I’ve read!
Some of the questions you get you are like “Did you read the document?” I learned very quickly what was nebulous. Ok this is nebulous so I will keep this, I’ll answer these questions. What would happen is people would jump on my twitter feed, even though I had answered it a hundred times, they would add me or jump on my feed, they don’t know or bother to scroll through it. They just ask the question, and I don’t mind answering the same question over and over again.
2. Metal Life Magazine: It seems it is easier for people these days to ask to have you hand them the answer than look for it themselves.
Matt: What I would do is answer, that the answer is in the document, just go read it. I said that multiple times. I never got a response, I don’t know if I pissed people off. I tried to be nice about it. I actually tried to be nice about it. Then again if I were a pure like Marvel or DC editor I would take a harder stance, if you are an editor and this is all you are doing. Then again I am trying to build a fan base. I am trying to do these various things. It puts me in this uniquely bad position in that I have to be super nice to people that are being stupid and assholes. I’ve broken on a few of these, I’ve told a couple people to bug off. I don’t know.
We were talking about Adam Krowler earlier. One of the reasons I enjoy him, is that he knows he’s got x amount of fan base and he even said there was this woman that was in her 70s that came up to him after one of his shows and was giving him shit about something and he told her to fuck off. She’s like, “excuse me?” He just like “fuck off!” She was like “What?” He explained it on his podcast, she is out of my demographic of people that listen to me and follow me. She clearly had heard something one place and took issue with it. Decided I was going to be here and she could come see me and face to face me here. Came to see my entire show, waited around afterwards so she could track me down and get in my face.
3. Metal Life Magazine: At one point during the Talent Hunt you had made a comment that because of some of the idiots you were hearing from you were hoping there would be some outstanding entries from women as they were responding much more politely or asking much more politely when they were reaching out for information. Were there a lot of women that submitted?
Matt: Of the first 200 hundred I haven’t come across any from women. I know there are women that submitted and that there are a lot of them, I just haven’t come across them yet. I’m reading them in order, the first ones received forward.
4. Metal Life Magazine: So they may have taken more time to get them correct.
Matt: I’m actually wondered if that’s true. I said there were no points for turning it in early. And about 2/3 of them were turned in the last two days. So most people did listen to it. I’m curious if that’s true but I haven’t gotten to those yet. The first two hundred of the first 1/3 got me through December 27th. It started at 9/1 the first one turned in was 9/5. I remember the date, I don’t remember the story.
5. Metal Life Magazine: Moving on from the Talent Hunt, I know we will be hearing more as you get through all the submissions.
Last time we talked you mentioned that Pilot Season would most likely take place around the January timeframe. As we are in the middle of January and we haven’t been hearing anything, what is the plan for Pilot Season?
Matt: We have two of I think the five done. I know the one Marc is working on, he’s working on Cyber Force pretty much around the clock, and he has a project called “Clean” and there is another project we are waiting on. At this point we are not going to rush it. It’s digital online free thing, so our thought was “let’s do it right rather than rushing it”. Unfortunately, it’s a victim of what I would call priorities. We know we can get it done, pop it up online at any point and then start promoting it. Unfortunately it’s moved down the priorities. Mine’s done. I have one it’s already drawn. I’m happy with it. And Mark Waid I know has done one. We’re waiting for the other creators to find the time to bang it out and then we’ll do it. I don’t think it will drag out to much longer but I think we are looking at maybe late February/March. Again, at some point if it drags out to much longer we might just go without them. There is no X number we have to have, or have to do this many projects.
Ideally, originally, Pilot Season was a Fall thing. We’ve done it every Fall for five years, and now it’s been pushed to the first quarter of this year so effectively in 2012 there was no Pilot Season.
6. Metal Life Magazine: But in 2012 you guys were focused on the Kickstarter campaign, getting Cyber Force out the door. And you were busy with Think Tank which grew to more than you had originally expected.
Matt: The thing about Top Cow that I don’t think most people realize is there are only five people. I mean there are only five full time employees and thirty/forty writers and artists that work remotely but if you go to our offices, and Marc works from home mostly, there are only four people there. They are managing all these various things, it’s tough. When we get done here, I am going back to the office and have about four hours of accounting work to still get done. It’s not what I want to do, but it is what I have to do. When you are the jack of all trades you are the master of none. I know my books would be better if I didn’t have to do these other books, literally bookkeeping. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
It’s just a balance. For me it’s just trying to block off time. It’s hard sometimes to focus on prioritization. A lot of times they say it’s the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Unfortunately the problem with that is many times the people that are ne ne ne ne aren’t really what you need to be working on. A lot of email I get, people that are persistent, is stuff that is irrelevant or is stuff that I shouldn’t be focusing at all. I think a lot of times we get bogged down in working on things that aren’t really your role. So for me it’s a daily struggle of what do I need to get done. What do I need to work on. And I will tune things out.
I actually have a new time management strategy I’ve enacted in the past month. It’s actually working very effectively for me particularly for writing. I write in ninety minute blocks. I set my phone to a ninety minute alert, I flip it over so I can’t see it. I turn it to airport mode. I turn off the internet and I just write. At the end of ninety minutes the alarm goes off, I stop. I turn everything back on. I check my email. I check my texts. Ninety minutes is as long as I can really focus. In reading Stephen King’s On Writing, he does it for like four hours. I can’t do it that long. But I’ll do it for ninety minutes, then I’ll stop. I’ll check all my emails. I’ll go for a couple block walk. I’ll sit down and talk to Bryan, Elena and Betsy. See what’s going on. Deal with that. I’ll answer some email. Make some phone calls. Then I’m all set to do another ninety minute block. Then, again the same thing, I will turn everything off. The distractions are the hardest thing. I think the only way to do it is to shut them out. I shut my office door, I sit down, I write. I think if you do it for sixty to ninety minutes. I used to write with my gmail up, my Facebook up and my twitter up and then I would have Word up too. I used to justify it because I would constantly need reference for links, I use a lot of reference. What I figured out is when I do those ninety minute blocks, at the end of the ninety minutes I will go look up a bunch of shit I need for reference. Like in the sixth issue that I just gave to Rahsan [Ekedal] in the last couple days I have a bunch of references to things like DNA testing laboratory equipment and various things. I found this online, but I didn’t need it that second. I wrote it and then inserted the references later. I just needed to find what it looked like.
7. Metal Life Magazine: Last time we talked I think it was right around issue two of Think Tank. At the time you seemed a bit surprised at the response. How are you feeling about the response to the book now?
Matt: It’s definitely leveled off. I think the first trade sold well. I think we have almost sold out of the first printing of the trade, so that’s nice. The digital continues to sell. Talking to ComiXology we continue to sell books. In many cases you’ll sell books for the first 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours and then sales are like dead. You have that initial window. I think with Think Tank, I’m constantly out there pushing it. And doing various things that it continues to maintain some interest. Then we did the first free issue thing. Everyday I have somebody tweeting me, responding or emailing me to tell me “hey I just read your first free issue, I love it” I’m like, “there’s five more issues, buy them.” I don’t know if they buy them or not, I hope they do.
It’s interesting because, Think Tank I think has become one of those critical accolade books that is going to peak at some certain sales level and I know that. That’s why I think Aphrodite IX will sell better. Think Tank is a black and white book, there is a definite prejudice against black and white books. For whatever reason, Walking Dead has managed to skip that prejudice, I don’t know why. I have had many people tell me they haven’t read the book because it is black and white. I’m like, “Really? Do you read Walking Dead?” To get their reply of “Yeah”
8. Metal Life Magazine: Think Thank: Military Dossier, the story at the beginning… a lot of fun
Matt: It actually falls between issue four and five, people didn’t understand that. They wanted to know if this is in canon and not having seen issue five yet they didn’t realize he is back at the lab. That is to me between those two, after he came back. It was meant to be funny.
9. Metal Life Magazine: It was, I definitely had a laugh reading that.
I’ve had other writers tell me that when they are building their stories/novels a lot of times they will sit there and write up basically character backstories for each of the main characters at least and lighter backstories for the supporting characters. With doing, Think Tank, how much of that did you do ahead of time and how much came about with just doing the Dossier.
SPOILER WARNING: Skip to the END SPOILER if you do not want to read Military Dossier spoilers]
Matt: [laughing] A lot of the details came with doing the Dossier. I realized when I started working on the Dossier, I didn’t know who David’s parents were. That was the first thing that I realized. Oh shit, I never really thought about that. And I would like to say that I had this massively planned out, but some of the stuff, particularly their families I don’t think I had any of that planned out.
The characters I kind of knew in general. I can tell you that the character I knew the best as far as the back story was the General Diana Clarkson character. I kind of knew her, I don’t know why, she was the one I had the most backstory for in my head. So I knew her whole story. But even the details of what medals she’d won, what year she got what rank, those were details that were the most annoying. I had to go and look and figure this stuff out. What is the next rank, what do they do. What I ended up doing, is looking at a bunch of real people’s profiles and figured this person is a Vice-Admiral, this person is this, this person is that, they did this. I kind of figured out who would be the closest to this. So a lot of these are based on real profiles.
The character I really had the least advance awareness of was the Mirra Sway character. I had NO concept of what her backstory was. So that one I had to sit and think about a lot. I knew she was from New Orleans and that her mother was murdered, all this stuff wasn’t really relevant to the first arc anyway so it didn’t matter but once I sat down and fleshed that out. You saw some of it in the fifth issue.
And I left some interesting things I can investigate, like David’s mom died in a car wreck, then there’s his dad who’s a teacher at a high school that’s interesting. There’s a lot of interesting things in there, like they’re from the Redlands, I went to High School in Redlands. So I know that town. It’s ninety miles east of Los Angeles.
The thing is, we originally thought we were only doing four issues. So I kind of had it set as he didn’t like what he was doing, he’s going to escape and go off into the sunset. We’d have a nice graphic novel, and we would be done with it. But then when it succeeded we decided to do more. Then I had to actually sit down and think about it.
Colonel Harrison I didn’t have that fleshed out either, in the first arc he was just a by the book character and then we realized we were going to continue the book I had to figure him out. Then I thought, I kind of like the Colonel Harrison character. He’s a by the book character, but he’s a good guy. You see him as a bad guy. The true bad guy of the piece is General Clarkson it’s essentially because she is David thirty years earlier with being raised in that patriarchal society so she’s made a lot of interesting choices in her life that have taken her slowly down that dark side. So she’s his intellectual equivalent so they have this super high end check game going. It’s pretty fun. But Colonel Harrison is just this ‘dumb’, he’s not really ‘dumb’, he is a Colonel after all. He’s this by the book typical military guy. When I started thinking about his character in the second arc, I’m setting up that there is something disconnecting him and the General. That’s obvious, I’m not trying to hide it. So there is some kind of disconnect there. I wasn’t trying to be coy about it, it’s blatant. In doing that, once I was doing the Dossier I decided, let’s figure this guy out. Why would he oppose this genetics thing? What would be the personal chord that it would strike? He has a family, he’s got an Arab wife and half-Arab kids.
What always hits me the most is, when the Sandy Hook kids died, they are not that much younger than my kids. That was hard for me to watch. If I didn’t have kids I would still look at is and think, that is horrible. I absolutely believe that 9/11 was horrible, but being from LA within a year I wasn’t really thinking about 9/11 much. But if you are from New York you think about every day. That is all relative to your world. I think of 9/11 as a horrible tragedy but there is no personal connection for me versus Sandy Hook I look at, these are little kids. I have two sons that are a little older than that. I remember them when they were that age. How could somebody do this? It’s horrible! It sticks in my head. I doubt I will be thinking about it a year from now, but it’s something that affected me more than the other one.
Which is why I sort of look, you have this guy that is this by the book military guy, what would cause him to be affected, not necessarily to defy orders, but to just raise his opinion. That’s really the level I am doing this at. He’s raising his opinion, “is this, really?” He has different orders. The Senate and Congress signed the ratification of the Genocide Treaty, so what are we doing. I think that is an interesting voice. You see he is just a guy in the machine. He is sort of the true villain of the first arc, it’s interesting to me that he becomes, not a hero, but he’s not the villain any longer and the real villain emerges.
We’ll see. I don’t know whether she will be the villain of the third arc. I’m still figuring some of it out. That’s why it’s fun, it’s kind of organic. In some cases, I know the big beats, I know what I’m doing. But I don’t necessarily know the journey. And that’s the fun part, figuring that out. Writing it all out. I know where the book’s going to end. I know what’s going to happen. I just need to figure out all the scenes in between. I’m having fun doing that.
10. Metal Life Magazine: You’ve said you have a plan for he 2nd arc and the 3rd arc. Do you foresee it going beyond that?
Matt: I honestly don’t know. If we start selling more books and if the movie gets going, of course we’ll do more. A lot of that will also depend on Rahsan. There are a couple factors there first is sales, is the book making money and secondly, will Rahsan do it after first twelve. I don’t know the answer to that. It’s different for a writer, a writer can work on multiple projects. I’m working on Think Tank, Aphrodite IX, was working on Cyber Force, I’m working on another project called Control, so there are multiple things I am working on creatively, I’ve got a lot of things I’m doing. All Rahsan is doing is Think Tank. As an artist you can only really work on one book at a time. So if he wants to continue doing that, thats up to him. I know there’s artists who’ve drawn 100 plus issues in a row, there are guys like that. But they are actually rare. The question is, will he do it beyond twelve? I don’t know the answer to that and I’m not going to worry about it now because there’s a lot that can happen between now and the next seven to eight months. At some point we’ll have that conversation and if he doesn’t want to continue I have to sit down and make that choice, if the book is selling and continuing to make money and worth continuing, do I want to work with a different artist. And I don’t know the answer to that yet. It’s not one I am prepared to answer now because I honestly don’t know.
There’s plenty of stories I could tell. There’s plenty of direction I could go. Every time I get a new Wired Magazine, a new Nature Magazine or I look at ScienceDaily.com there’s a new story that pops into my head. Oh shit, I could do this! Every day. The great thing about the scientific journals is most people don’t know how to read them. Because I can read them I can pilfer stories from that shit and most people can’t. Most people get their story ideas from what? Watching other TV shows, watching movies. “Oh, what if I did the Matrix but it’s actually on a boat?” I know that’s a stupid example but that shit happens.
SPOILER WARNING: Skip to the END SPOILER if you do not want spoilers for Issue #5
11. Metal Life Magazine: Issue five was definitely a bit of a curve ball, one that I loved.
Matt: The wanted response is “wow what the hell is going on here?” There is enough there that it’s not confusing. There is more going on. I was pretty on the nose. Has David gone over to the dark side? Read more! By the end of issue six is where he will reveal it to Manish because he hasn’t even told Manish exactly what he’s doing. Manish is confused right now because he doesn’t understand what is going on. You’re doing what I wanted you to do but… Not only that but you are doing stuff that’s not even on the list. What are you doing?
As I write this stuff about a third of the story actually changes. I’ve noticed that as I write each issue about two thirds of it stays intact, the over arch stays the same but a lot of the intermediate changes. About a third of it changes radically. I either do the research and find things that are different or like in the sixth issue I’m giving David a dog.
[Interviewer’s Note: Rather than share to many spoilers for issue six I will leave you wondering why there is now going to be a dog, so the rest of that comment has been cut. If you really want to know what Matt had to say you can ask me and perhaps I will share it.]
If we end at issue twelve there will be no open plot threads. I hate that! They do that in movies all the time but I hate dangling plot threads when there’s not really a guarantee that something will continue.
12. Metal Life Magazine: As a reader, I appreciate that. I also appreciate that you end each issue with me dying to read the next issue. “Wait, what? I need to know what happens next!” So thank you for that. I have read comics where the writer definitely did not know how you hook a reader on a series because they didn’t get you to care about the characters and they definitely didn’t have a hook at the end that made you go “I need to read what happens next!”
Matt: To many writers write comics, especially graphic novels, as though they were six issue movies. Although I’m doing that, I am also at the same time writing as though it were a television series. And when you write a television series it’s episodic, each episode is it’s own story. That actually is a hard thing to do. I learned how to do this from Mark Waid by reading his stuff and I’ve studied how he does these things. He is one of the better people at it and Robert Kirkman actually. I just love Kirkman’s cliff hangers. Cliff hangers I think are great, I loved them in the X-Files, I love them in Walking Dead. I want a cliff hanger in every issue. In some cases that is the first scene I know. Ok this is the cliff hanger ending how do I build to that.
13. Metal Life Magazine: You definitely managed the cliff hanger at the end of issue four, I won’t say what it was because there are still some people that haven’t read it, but you had your readers with jaws dropped going “WHAT!?!”
Matt: Part of that was I didn’t want people thinking he got away that easily. If you really read it, he had meticulously planned it for years but he still got away kind of easily if you really think about it. I love the idea that he thinks he got away with it. Because he is a bit of a misogynist he never really thought that the general was as smart as he is.
14. Metal Life Magazine: Thank you Matt for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me.
And for you our reader, be watching for Part two of our exclusive interview with Matt Hawkins where we talk about the upcoming Aphrodite IX, Son of Merlin, Top Cow in general and so much more. Yes there is more to talk about.