It was October 21st, 2015, a date we now all know as Back to the Future Day, the infamous date that Marty McFly visited the future in his iconic DeLorean in the movie Back to the Future II. I spent the better part of that day thinking about the movie, mostly because my New York Mets were set to face the Chicago Cubs in-game four of the NLCS, a team that was predicted to win the World Series in Back to the Future II. However, as I pondered past my subconscious fear of sports jinxes and began to deconstruct the movie, I could not help but notice that so many of the technology that I marveled at back in 1989 when the movie first released, are now technologies that are almost outdated. Handheld tablets, video conferencing, wall mounted television sets, voice command technology, flying drones, all of these things have become commonplace. Sure the Cubs didn’t make the World Series (thank God) and double ties are still frowned upon in the office no matter how many times you wear them (trust me on this one) but overall, society has caught up to the future as it was envisioned in this classic story. So where do we go from here? Who is going to tell the tale that sets the next level of standards for humanity to achieve?
Enter Matt Hawkins. A veteran of the comic book industry, dating back to the days of the Image Revolution, Matt Hawkins is the President and COO of TOP COW PRODUCTIONS, the Image Studio known for its transmedia properties WITCHBLADE and THE DARKNESS. It is no easy task for a publishing company to survive in comics for twenty-three years, and the longevity of Top Cow is a testament to the leadership and innovation of founder Marc Silvestri and Matt Hawkins. Initiatives like the Top Cow Pilot Season have brought some amazing stories to comic book store shelves (do yourself a favor and read GENIUS) and the Top Cow Talent Hunt has helped creators, both artists and writers, “break in” to comics. Matt Hawkins is more than just a brilliant publishing executive. He is also one of the BEST science-fiction writers in comics today.
I first became aware of Matt Hawkins on his book THINK TANK along with artist RAHSAN EKEDAL. THINK TANK is a fascinating story about a genius named Doctor David Loren, who was taken in by the government as a teenager and forced to create weapons in a black site think tank laboratory. David is a total slacker and sort of millennial asshole, but he is not devoid of a conscience and has conflicting emotions from years of building weapons designed to bring death and destruction. Fed up with being used by the government that enslaved him, David stages an elaborate escape from the facility using all the high-tech gear he had designed. The story is quick paced, incredible smart, and unlike many stories set around a similar theme, everything David does seems completely plausible. Perhaps even more fascinating is the back matter, where Matt breaks down where the technology in the story comes from, how it works, and how close we are to it actually existing. It’s a wild ride of action and adventure capped off with a science lesson that will keep you awake at night knowing that the government is infinitely more powerful that we could possible imagine.
As a comic creator myself, I have a fascination with first issues. It’s a difficult thing to master, the equivalent of asking a batter to smack a home run on the first pitch of the ball game, and when you see it happen you can’t help but marvel at the accomplishment. With SYMMETRY, the new ongoing series from Top Cow, Matt Hawkins and RAFFAELE IENCO not only deliver a home run; they parked one into McCovey Cove. Set in the future, we follow Matthew, a citizen of a utopian society where humanity is genetically modified to all look the same, where there is no sickness, no violence, no pain. It is a blissful world, where nothing bad seems to happen, will ever happen, until it does. An unexpected crisis peels back the curtain on the illusion of harmony in this all to perfect world, and sets in motion a series of events that are guaranteed to thrill the reader. The world building in SYMMETRY is top-notch and Matt manages to weave together futuristic themes such as artificial intelligence, genetic modification, and robotics in such a way that it never steps on the story’s toes, yet burns into the reader’s mind, filling it with unanswered questions. Brought to life in amazing detail by the talented Raffaele Ienco, one can not help but wonder if we are seeing that next wave of science fiction imagination that, decades from now, will be part of our reality.
Talking with Matt Hawkins was like talking to Reed Richards, except everything Matt was saying made sense, and Matt has an uncanny ability to educate an audience on futurist concepts with such a casual tone that the conversation feel as if it is between two friends chatting over a beer. It was a candid conversation about what it takes to make comic books, breaking into the industry, as well as an education on craft for all writers.
FM: LET‘S START AT THE BEGINNING, WHEN DID YOU DECIDE YOU WANTED TO MAKE COMICS AND HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY?
MH: I was studying for my master’s degree at UCLA in Physics and working at a bank to pay my way through school. This was late 1992 early 1993 and I didn’t collect comics. I might have seen a few Mad Libs type stuff you would see at a 7-Eleven, but I never really read comic books. I was about twenty-two and my nephew, who is about fifteen years younger than me, wanted me to take him to the opening of the Mile High Comics store in Anaheim because Rob Liefeld was going to be there. I didn’t know who Rob Liefeld was. I didn’t know anything about comics.
So, I’m waiting in line for my nephew to get his book signed and then it was just a weird sequence of events. Jonathon Sibal, who is now an inker for DC comics, was standing in front of me the entire time. He was very excited to show Rob Liefeld his portfolio and at the time he was trying to break in as a penciler. He showed me his work and told me all about Image comics because I had nothing to do while I waited on-line for about three hours and he was just a really nice guy. When we finally get to the front of the line, there’s Rob and Eric Stephenson and all the guys from the early Extreme Studios, wearing these black Extreme Studios branded leather jackets and they just looked young and cool.
I was working at a bank doing work that I hated and studying sixty hours a week, so my life was pretty shitty, and at the time these guys looked like they are having so much fun. Jonathon Sibal asked Rob to look at his portfolio and I’ll never forget it, Rob said, “Dude, your stuff is awesome. You’re with us now. Hop behind the table. You’re hired.” This guy, nineteen, twenty, whatever he was at the time, just jumps over the table and is all excited and meeting all these people and that all happened right in front of me. I was just caught up in the moment so I said to Rob, “You know, I can’t draw but are you looking for someone to do anything else?” and Rob said, “Yeah, we need someone to do letter pages and press releases. That something you can do?” so I said, “YEAH! I’m your man!” I had no idea how to do any of that shit. Rob and I joke about it now because we’ve gotten to be good friends. I went to a bookstore and bought a book on ‘How to Write Press Releases’ wrote it up and faxed it over and they hired me.
I worked with Rob for six to seven years through Extreme Studios, Awesome Entertainment, Maximum Press, and all these various iterations of Rob’s companies. I got bit by the comics bug and in 1996, while I was at Extreme, I self-published a book called LADY PENDRAGON and when Awesome and Extreme went out of business, I decided to try to publish it at Image central. They accepted it and I published eighteen issues over two years. I did a couple of other series and then Marc Silvestri hired me and I’ve been working with him at Top Cow since 1998, so that’s been eighteen years now. It’s been a long time.
FM: YOU’VE RODE THE MERRY-GO-ROUND FROM THE BOOM OF THE NINETIES, THROUGH THE CRASH, AND BACK TO THE BOOM OF TODAY, RIGHT?
MH: You know, I didn’t write comics much in the 2000’s. From 2000 till 2009 I was more doing business and other stuff involved in the film, animation and video games side of things, but in 2010 I decided I wanted to write THINK TANK just for fun. That was the first comic I had written in about a decade and it was more of a passion project. I liked Rahsan Ekedal and we decided to do the book. I had done the math and me being an executive in charge of finance at Top Cow, I went and looked at it and said to myself, “I have X number of years just to break even, let’s do this as a small black and white book,” because Rahsan really wasn’t a name at the time, I wasn’t really known for writing comics five years ago, and it was all sort of foreign subject matter to what seemed to sell.
So, I did the calculations and said, “Well, I don’t need to get paid to write because I’m salary, so I can pay Ekedal and if we do this black and white we can do this very cheaply.” Then the book did well and it was kind of weird. I sold five times more than I expected to sell and got some critical buzz and from there I started doing some other stuff. Six years later now, I can’t imagine not writing comics. Almost everyday I wake up and I write comics for four to five hours, then I do business, and then I come home.
FM: CAN YOU WALK ME THROUGH YOUR PROCESS? DO YOU WRITE FULL SCRIPT OR DO YOU PREFER MARVEL STYLE?
MH: I tend to write Marvel style. I usually work with artists that I know. If I’m working with a foreign artist or an artist that doesn’t speak English, I will write a full script, but I prefer a more collaborative approach and working with artists that like working off plots. I start with a one to two page outline of the big points, another page or two breaking down who the characters are and why they matter, and then I’ll break down plots and kind of go from there. I do a ton of research and when I send plots. They are fairly intense with photographic reference, a lot of links, and lots of other stuff. Something like THINK TANK, which is all based off real world technology, then the plots are sort of meticulous, but I always leave room for the artist to have fun. When I get to something in the story and I know there’s going to be a four-page fight scene I might just say that. Hey, there’s a four page fight scene just make sure this guys wins. Then they go and have some fun and I’ll script it when it comes in.
FM: IS THERE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN OFFER TO SOMEONE WHO IS A COMIC BOOK CREATOR (BOTH WRITER AND ARTIST) LOOKING TO BREAK INTO TODAY’S COMIC BOOK MARKET?
MH: It is vastly easier for an artist to break in, because it is so easy to quickly tell if you want to work with them. I can tell in seconds if I want to work with an artist. It might take me years to tell if I want to work with a writer. For artists, I would say keep posting stuff online, that’s really the name of the game. It is Facebook and social media, deviantART, and you build up a following. If you want to be in comics make sure you do sequential, panel-to-panel stuff, and not just pin ups. I get emails all the time from people who are “cover artists” that I never heard their name before and I try to explain to them that the only cover artist I’m going to hire, is a cover artist that has a pre-existing fan base that is going to help me sell more books. That I think is a colossal mistake, when unknown artists try to become cover artists. I can’t think of very many that have pulled it off. Even Adam Hughes and Alex Ross did a shit ton of interior work before they went and became cover artists.
It seems to me the best path today is different from what it used to be. It’s all about online and web comics and free shit, put it up online and build a following, maybe do a crowdfunding exercise. I pay attention to Kickstarter and IndieGOGO and I see on these things successful campaigns from people I have never heard of before. Almost every time I go and research the person, and over the last couple of years there have been about twenty of these, I go and look and I realize that this is that guy, or this is that girl, that has been putting up material online now for several years, they built a following by putting things out there for free, and now they’ve been able to monetize it, slightly, by doing a Kickstarter and being able to put it into print. That’s gotten my attention a couple of times with different artists and writers as well, because people are always looking for successful things. Nothing is better at getting publishing work than being published.
I get a lot of submissions, and this is where it is hard for writers, because it takes me a while to read something and I don’t have a lot of free time. I am writing three to four books a month, I have two teenage sons, I have a wife, I have a family, I have a lot of shit going on, so for me to read something I have to dedicate some time to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve actually done it and tried to give someone feedback and they don’t really want feedback, they want adulation’s, they want to be told that they’re hired, that they’re ready to go right now. So, I kind of stopped giving feedback for the most part unless it is part of our talent hunt because people just don’t really know how to handle it. It becomes irritating to me when I’m trying to help someone and they get angry. If I’m going to go through the trouble to give someone feedback, that’s hours of my time, to read it, to think about it, to type up some notes that I can give back. I don’t want to do that if it isn’t appreciated at a minimum. Most people won’t even do that if they aren’t paid.
It’s harder to get in as a pure writer. Here’s the shitty part, dude, I don’t know of a single writer, and I’m sure that there are some out there, but I know a lot of comic book people and I don’t know of one person who got hired on a cold submission. Sending in some random thing for some random thing. I mean, I’m a fairly well established guy, and I have pitched to other companies a few times. I’ve been talking to DC about doing a book for them and I talked to Dan DiDio and I asked him, “What are you looking for? What do you want pitched?” Because, I don’t want to waste my time on some sort of random pitch, put in that time and energy for something they aren’t even looking for. That sort of thing happens at Top Cow all the time because we are developing our stories six months to a year in advance. Someone will read and issue of something and then get an idea, but it completely contradicts with what we’re doing. It’s really hard to pitch. I think self-publishing is the way to go because that’s the way you get noticed. That’s the way so many people have gotten into the business. The other thing to do is to get a job in comics doing anything. Mark Waid and Kurt Busiek both started in comics working in the marketing department of Marvel in the mid 1980’s. They were marketing people who became world-famous writers.
FM: THAT HELPS YOU BUILD UP YOUR NETWORK AS WELL?
MH: Yes. Here’s the thing, let’s say you got a random job at Dark Horse. You’re wandering around the aisles and you see someone stressed out because someone didn’t deliver on something, and you say, “Hey, give me a shot. I’ll go home and bang something out overnight.” You go home and work your ass off and you turn something in. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t, but that’s a shot you had, that someone else might not get, just because you happened to be there. If you go work at places and you’re nice and you’re friendly and people like you, they’re inclined to want to help you. I published many people at Top Cow, interns and various people who have worked there over the years, because I liked them.
FM: THAT SEEMS TO BE A UNIVERSAL TRAIT NO MATTER WHAT INDUSTRY YOU WORK IN. PEOPLE ARE MORE INCLINED TO HELP OUT PEOPLE THEY LIKE.
MH: Yeah and here’s the thing that drives me nuts. I’m on Facebook and social media a lot and I get this guy who’s complaining to me that he’s just not well-connected enough to get hired as an artist in comics. So, I go and actually look at his work and it’s not very good. Not only is it not very good, he doesn’t have any panel-to-panel stuff and he doesn’t have it very well presented. So, I told him, “Well, you’re not getting work not because you’re not well-connected. You’re not getting work because your work isn’t up to snuff,” I said that in those words. Then he goes and he gets all hot and I’m like, “You know what, if you don’t want the truth, then why are you bothering? Are you really going to sit back and blame the fact that you’re not well-connected when essentially you’re just not good enough?”
That’s the thing I never quite understand. People, all the time, will bring art to me, that to me looks sub par, and say, “This is as good as anything you guys publish,” and I will look at them and just want to say, “Are you fucking high?” I’m always very nice about it, but people seem a bit delusional about their quality level. Here’s the thing, good artists… they get hired. Artists that are able to tell good sequential stories, can do it in a timely manner, and are good at anatomy and storytelling, they’re working. There’s not a lot of the ones that are really, really good, that aren’t working.
For writers trying to break in, I really think that finding an artist, putting a book out, paying them, sharing the creative credits and all that kind of stuff, is really the best way to do it. I get a lot of people I see at cons and I try to talk to them and encourage them, but people bitch about that and I’m always like, “Well, what do you want?” Ultimately the majority of people who go to comic book stores are there to buy Marvel and DC and a handful of other titles. Comic book stores, they want to make money, and they would have to spend a lot of time and energy and effort to sell your thing, or they can just sell the eighteenth Batman book for that month. That’s just sort of the reality of how it goes. There are some very talented writers that I’ve seen publish comics that aren’t very successful, but I love their work and they have gone on to do other things and have not stayed in the industry. That’s kind of frustrating for me, but it happens. Sometimes things don’t click, they don’t click at the right time, and in comics especially, trying to build your name, you got to put out a consistent, ongoing volume of work. I publish three books a month that I write. Three books a month. So, every week on Facebook and Twitter I’m talking about my books that I have coming out and I get this sort of ground swell and every time I do a convention I have this backlog of material I can sell to people who are just finding out about it. Someone reads one of my newer books and likes it, like my new book SYMMETRY, maybe they’ll try THINK TANK, which there are three volumes of. It’s committing to the craft, being prepared to do it over a long period of time, and realizing that you might not make money for five years. Yeah, you can do it for five years before you actually make any money, so are you willing to do that?
FM: I READ SYMMETRY AND I THOUGHT IT WAS AWESOME. I AM A BIG SCIENCE FICTION GEEK. WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO CREATE THAT WORLD?
MH: Thanks, man. It was a combination of being tired of HUNGER GAMES and all these really bleak dystopian futures. People can argue that I’m sort of doing a dystopian thing by doing a Utopian thing and then fucking with it, but at the same time I’m still playing with the idea that there is a socialist utopia that could work. It started honestly as a premise. Would a utopia work? I started doing a lot of research on Utopian societies and attempts at utopias. I read that Sir Thomas Moore book that crowned the name and god, what a boring piece of shit book that was.
For me, I get an idea and then I start doing research. I’ll do a few weeks worth of research and then I’ll type up a one pager and I’ll send it out to Marc Silvestri, Brian Hill, Ryan Cady, Betsy Gonia, and to my managers and agents and I’ll say, “What’s everyone think of this? This worthy or not?” About one in four of those come to a general consensus that it’s pretty good and at that point I’ll start flushing it out further. The process for me developing an IP is about six months, depending on the level of research. I just keep playing with outlines and characters and various things like that as it sort of moves me and my schedule. When I finish books I’ll sometimes pick up new books or develop new stuff.
SYMMETRY was very much based on a philosophical discussion and an interest in learning about some of that stuff. I think that’s where a lot of my work comes from, in that I want to learn more about a certain thing. People always say write what you know, but writing what you know can be boring after a while, so I say write what you want to know because the research itself can be fun, you can be engaged and excited by what you are doing, and you can learn something at the same time. I think that passion and that enthusiasm for the work and the material can carry through when it’s genuine versus someone who is, say a firefighter for forty odd years, writing a book about being a firefighter. It would probably be very accurate, but it might not be very passionate. To me there’s a subtle difference.
FM: IS THERE A CHARACTER IN SYMMETRY THAT’S YOUR FAVORITE CHARACTER TO WRITE?
MH: It’s not in the first issue, but there are these three elders. Society is set up where everything is based on age. There’s no ambition, there’s no political aspirations, it’s basically the three oldest living people in that group are the human elder council that works with the A.I. to run things. So, once one of those three die off then the next eldest human comes in. It’s something everyone does in the course of their life and it’s considered an obligation and a service. Those characters are interesting because they know the truth about everything and they realize they are in effect lying to everyone that’s younger in order to maintain the appearance of this perfect world. That’s really fascinating to me, the idea that these people can sort of hoodwink an entire society and it works.
I really spent a lot of time trying to figure out what could make that work and I looked at Scientology and some of these things where it’s like, how easy is it to force people to believe stupid shit? As long as you have some sort of raison d’être (reason for being) and you sort of follow it up and you make it into propaganda and the whole thing, it becomes reality… even if it’s horse shit. When you really get into Scientology, I mean when you really get into what they believe, it’s kind of absurd, but there are tens of thousands of people who follow it religiously.
FM: ONE OF THE MORE INTRIGUING ELEMENTS OF SYMMETRY WAS THAT THE CHARACTERS ARE BORN SEXLESS AND GET TO CHOOSE THEIR OWN GENDER AT AGE THIRTEEN. WHERE DID YOU COME UP WITH THE IDEA TO INCORPORATE THAT ELEMENT INTO THIS WORLD?
MH: I know a couple of transgender people, I know some gay people, I’m a white, straight, male, so I’m pretty bland, but I do know a lot of people from all different persuasions. I tried to look at gender identity and how these things work, and from the way I sort of researched it, it seemed to me that most of this sort of develops in the first thirteen years and then was played out over the balance of their lives and so, in my world, if in the first thirteen years you decided you wanted to be a man or a woman, you just got to make that choice. The thing is, we’re maybe twenty or thirty years from being able to change sex in humans with the use of certain drugs and steroids. There are plenty of animals that do it, there are fish that do it, it’s something in genetics and what we are doing in research today with science we’ll be able to do that.
The idea again is what divides us and I always look at social media. There are certainly gender issues, people that do not like gays, right-wing, left-wing, red state, blue state, what are these differences and what causes people to get angry. So, I looked at all that stuff and then I thought, how do we get rid of all of that? Well, you completely segregate everyone and they don’t intermix. Not only do they not intermix, but also for the first fifty years of their existence they are sort of blissfully unaware of each other.
It’s not impossible. If you have an A.I. and a site that is completely self-contained, no one really travels because they are walking around or using public transports and there are no personal vehicles. They have no jobs. They lead these long lives of pleasure and leisure and don’t really understand the value of time. These are just fun things to play with. How do you develop and create something like that and that’s the challenge for me. How do you set that up? Then, once you set that up, what’s the story? If you have a completely homogeneous society that completely gets along then you need to create a division.
The way I did that was to use Mother Nature with a solar flare and a coronal mass ejection from the sun, which caused a massive electromagnetic pulse. It is a real thing that happens every fifty thousand years on Earth, and that causes a massive amount of area to be shut out from their RAINA, which is a personal A.I. in their head that they are born with. What I did with the artificial intelligence is I actually took it three levels past where we are today. We’re about to the point where we’ll be able to insist chips into people’s brains and access Google, so it can play on the back of our eyelids. We’re ten years away from being able to actively do it and about twenty years before it is filtered down to society. The next phase after that, which is like forty to fifty years down the line, is what they are calling a brain cap, where they make some sort of incision and insert this thing that will lay on the top of your brain, kind of like an epidermal layer of your brain and interfaces with it on an electro-chemical basis. That’s phase two. I looked at that and I then took it a step further and said, “well what if they generated some sort of liquid A.I. with a technological helix that can attach to your DNA in the brain and then people can grow with it?” That’s what we do in SYMMETRY. So, that’s why this creates a complete segregation in society. You have these people who are all connected by these things, that can talk to anyone at anytime in the perfectly homogenous society and now you have a section of them, maybe twenty percent of them, that no longer has access to their RAINA. It’s impossible to recreate something you had with you since you were born. They will always be separated from society and the story becomes what do you do with these people then.
FM: I REALLY LOVE THINK TANK AND TO BE HONEST WITH YOU, SOMETIMES I’M A LITTLE SCARED THAT THE THINGS HAPPENING IN THAT STORY ARE BASED OFF TECHNOLOGY THAT ACTUALLY EXISTS. IN THE STORY THE MAIN CHARACTER, DAVID, OFTEN STRUGGLES WITH THE IDEA THAT JUST BECAUSE HE CAN BUILD SOMETHING, DOESN’T NECESSARILY MEAN HE SHOULD BUILD IT. HOW CLOSE IS DAVID’S PERSPECTIVE TO YOUR OWN OPINION WHEN IT COMES TO TECHNOLOGY?
MH: Oh, one hundred percent. People never ask if they should do something, they just want to see if they can. The moral implications are always dealt with after these things are developed. You look at the Manhattan Project and all these various things and people get caught up in the process of just trying to get it done for a reason. Sometimes it’s a patriotic reason like to win a war. Who doesn’t want to do that?
For me, technology has always been fascinating and I’m always amazed how far behind retail technologies are to reality. The stuff we are getting in Best Buy right now is stuff that is fifteen to twenty years old. If you go to Raytheon in El Segundo out here, or any one of the think tanks across the country, you see what the future is like and it is available now.
That’s another reason why I wrote SYMMETRY. I started to question the profit motives a little bit in the liberalizing of myself in my elder years. Everyone sort of uses these money monetary cycles to monetize technology, and drugs, and all these various things. This maximizes the profit motive, but it does not maximize the moral utility of society in general. We have all these drugs and medications right now that can save so many millions of people in the world, but we don’t do it because they can’t pay for it. That’s just sad to me. Right now, we are developing technologies to cure cancer that are so forward thinking. They’re based on going in and pulling out some cancer cells, analyzing it, then taking some of your own red blood cells and amp up the immune system to fight it specifically because you look at what markers it’s affecting. In essence, it is creating a targeted antigen to go in and kill this thing, which is such a better way of doing things than just pumping the body full of poison and hope it kills the cancer before it kills the rest of the body, which is what chemotherapy is. These things are available right now but you know what the problem is? These sort of specific, individualized cancer treatments cost about a million dollars and they’re not covered by insurance.
FM: RAFFAELE IENCO WAS AMAZING ON SYMMETRY. I REALLY ENJOYED HIS ART. HOW DID THE TWO OF YOU PAIR UP TO WORK ON THIS PROJECT TOGETHER?
MH: He did a book for Top Cow called MANIFESTATIONS a couple of years ago. It was an original graphic novel we did as a digital only book for ComiXology and it did okay, not fantastic but it did okay, and I liked Raffaele and I liked his work. Not a lot of people are familiar with that book, but I think that after SYMMETRY hits we’ll sell more copies of MANIFESTATIONS than we ever had because it’s getting a lot of really good buzz on it and everyone’s been noticing Raffaele’s work on SYMMETRY, because it’s so fantastic. He did another book called MECHANISM that is a five-issue arch he wrote and drew and it’s fucking unbelievable. That was supposed to come out from Heavy Metal, but didn’t come out ever, and he got the rights back. At some point, hopefully, we’re able to put that out through Top Cow. He did a little bit of work for Marvel and did a book through Image called EPIC KILL, so he’s been around. That happens with a lot of artists, everyone is asking me where I found Raffaelle because he’s awesome and I’m like, “Well, he’s been drawing comics for almost a decade.”
FM: THAT’S THE THING WITH COMICS. THERE ARE SO MANY OUT THERE THAT IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO CATCH THEM ALL AND THERE ARE ALWAYS FANTASTIC ARTISTS AND WRITERS YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED.
MH: Yeah, Raffaele’s work is amazing and I think he’s really stepped it up and he’s interested in finally getting his due. He’s doing great stuff and I’m a big fan. I’m glad to be working with him on this and this is intended as an ongoing series, so hopefully we’ll be doing this for a few years. I’m looking forward to doing other work with him as well.
FM: I WANTED TO ASK YOU ABOUT THE TOP COW TALENT HUNT. IN THE INDIE COMIC COMMUNITY AND AMONGST THE PEOPLE I KNOW THAT ARE MAKING THEIR OWN COMICS AND SELF-PUBLISHING, THE TALENT HUNT HAS BECOME A BIG EVENT FOR A LOT OF PEOPLE LOOKING TO BREAK INTO THE INDUSTRY. CAN YOU EXPLAIN TO OUR READERS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT?
MH: Well, it’s good timing because I think this is the last one we’ll be doing for the next couple of years. I don’t think it’ll be the last one we ever do. This is the fourth year in a row we’ve done it and we get a couple thousand people who submit. We’re not a huge company and I got people who help me, but the amount of time it takes to go through a couple thousand entries, and read them all, it’s just a massive time sink. We fell behind and got to where last year’s winner was announced at about the same time as we were set to launch this year’s contest. The idea of it is to give an unpublished writer or artist a voice. The ability to put a project out and get published and then possibly use that to get other work. By unpublished I mean not published by a top ten publisher and in the rules there’s a list of publishers that will disqualify you.
I know there are a number of people that have won our contest over the last four years that are doing regularly work for companies right now and that makes me feel good. In fact Isaac Goodhart, who is the artist on the book POSTAL right now, and is doing really well for us, was a talent hunt winner three years ago.
FM: IT SEEMS LIKE THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE OUT THERE MAKING COMICS, ESPECIALLY WITH THE EASE OF SELF-PUBLISHING ON THE COMIXOLOGY SUBMIT PLATFORM, HOW MANY APPLICANTS DID YOU RECEIVE LAST YEAR AND HOW MANY ARE YOU EXPECTING FOR THIS YEAR’S CONTEST?
MH: We had about sixteen hundred last year, broken down between writers and artists evenly, and I am expecting we’ll have a little more than that this year, especially since people are giving away that it could be the last one that we do for a while. Is there stiff competition? Yeah, but you know… nothing ventured, nothing gained. You can’t win if you’re not playing the game.
FM: WITH DIGITAL COMICS AND TECHNOLOGY ADVANCEMENTS WE HAVE SEEN AN EXPLOSION IN COMIC BOOK CREATION AND NEW IDEAS ON HOW COMICS ARE NOW BEING DELIVERED TO READERS. AS A FORWARD THINKING MIND, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE COMIC BOOK INDUSTRY AND WHAT KIND OF RADICAL CHANGES DO YOU ANTICIPATE WE’LL SEE IN THE FUTURE?
MH: Right now, what we are looking at for the most part in digital comics is a pan and scan PDF version of the print copy and in digital there are a few massive differences versus print. In digital comics, a double page spread completely loses its impact because they’ll make that the same size as a panel. When you are flipping through a comic and you are building up to a big moment, it really has an impact when you turn that page and there is a really big shot. The reader knows that this matters and will take their time and really look at it.
I don’t think we’ve seen what I would call a “next generation” digital comic. I know there is some twelve-year-old kid out there who is going to figure this out and make tons of money. There needs to be something involving the user experience that makes it more interactive. Most motion comics I find to be tedious and uninteresting. Every time I see a motion comic, I just think it’s lame animation. There are some exceptions. The problem with motion comics is they are not cheap to make and then they need to charge a lot for people to view them. No one wants to pay it. I don’t want to pay ten bucks to see a Spider-Man animated comic. I can watch the animated TV show for free.
The nice thing about digital is that it really opened up the audience. There has always been a bit of a stereotype about comic book stores, and I know it isn’t all comic book stores, but there still exists a bit of a stigma. Your average non-comic book reader probably isn’t going to walk into a comic book store, but they might download an app and try a WALKING DEAD comic because they like the TV show. I think the possibility of reaching a larger audience is huge.
Here’s the thing, when we are talking about new artists and writers, things have changed so radically, that the barrier to entry right now is the lowest it’s ever been. It’s not hard to make a comic and get something published digitally. You just sort of pay for it and do it. Anyone can do it these days. That barrier has been eradicated. However, the barrier to profitability is higher than it used to be and that is a big distinguish. It is very difficult to make money in this business. You need to be dedicated and willing to do it for a long period of time. It’s not going to come quick.
I’ve been in this business for twenty-three years and have been writing comics regularly for almost seven years. I’ve written some stuff that has sold pretty well, but I still hustle. I go to between ten and fifteen conventions a year and I often go to conventions I never been to before, because I want to appeal to readers that might not be familiar with my work. I stand there for eight hours a day and talk to people and give quick pitches on what my work’s about. People don’t realize that being a comic book artist or writer is more than just sitting in your room and doing the work. You have to market yourself because you need people to read it.
One thing I would say to creators is, have something to say. Have a voice and try to be distinctive. In a sea of comic book writers and artists, what’s going to make you stand out? What’s going to make people notice you? I’ve been building up a reputation as a hard science writer, which attracts a certain kind of fan. That’s a good thing. Building up that audience and getting some of that credibility, and then asking those fans to help you get more fans, is the best way to build an audience.
FM: SORT OF A GRASSROOTS MOVEMENT, RIGHT?
MH: Yeah. That’s the only way to do it. Here’s the thing, you can spend a lot of money and get absolutely nowhere. I’ve seen so many companies do it.
FM: ESPECIALLY WITH COMICS BEING WHAT THEY ARE IN TERMS OF PROFITABILITY, I GUESS IT’S THE IP THAT THESE COMPANIES ARE TRYING TO FUND? EVERYONE WANTS THE NEXT WALKING DEAD OR THAT NEXT BIG FRANCHISE.
MH: That’s where the business is littered with the corpses of dead companies that came in with the idea that they were going to make money on film and TV. That takes a long time and is a lot harder to do than people realize. It’s also not an easy thing to follow-up on. Everyone thinks that if you get a movie out and it does well, then of course you’re going to make four other movies. Well, we had WANTED come out in 2009, and that did very well, and we have not been able to replicate it. Boom had 2 GUNS come out four years ago now and they haven’t been able to replicate it. If you look at Dark Horse, there have been several gaps, four, five, six years between movie releases. It’s just hard.
FM: YOU’RE STRANDED ON A DESERT ISLAND. YOU CAN HAVE ONE MUSIC ALBUM, ONE MOVIE OR TV SHOW, AND ONE NOVEL. WHAT WOULD THEY BE?
MH: Okay, let’s see, what music album would I want if I were stranded on a desert island? What would I not hate if I had to listen to it over and over again? It is probably a RUSH compilation. I’ve been a big fan of RUSH for thirty years now. For the film, I have to go EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. I can watch that movie a million times. For the novel I would say FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov.
FM: I NEVER HEARD OF FOUNDATION. WHAT’S THAT ABOUT?
MH: You probably seen the Will Smith movie I, ROBOT. That was the first story of the FOUNDATION books. I actually enjoyed the film, but it was not even remotely what the book was.
Here’s the reason I love science fiction from the 1930’s till the 1970’s, not only did these writers predict the future, they inspired an entire generation of scientists that wanted to build this stuff. You look at Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK and the cell phone is patterned completely off of their communicators. There are so many things. We’re almost at the point where we have something similar to a tricorder now. I, ROBOT was the first time anybody talked seriously about artificial intelligence in a robot and set up a system where these robots had laws that they couldn’t hurt humans and so on and so forth. TERMINATOR I think is fun and when I turn my mind off, I can enjoy it, but it’s not very realistic. I know how computers work and I know how A.I. works and that’s just not very probable. The movie that Joaquin Phoenix did, HER, that artificial intelligence is actually more likely. Where the A.I. is like, I don’t need you anymore. You’re just a useless human. Them wiping us out make no sense whatsoever.
That’s a lot of what I did in SYMMETRY. One of the things in SYMMETRY you learn very quickly is that the artificial intelligence of the robots is very benign. They’re just trying to help. It’s the humans that fuck everything up.
I never got to meet Isaac Asimov. He died a little bit before I got into the industry. But, I got to meet Arthur C. Clarke before he died. I made the trip to a convention in Japan so I can meet him and he was just fascinating. Arthur C. Clarke was aware of his impact on society. He invented geosynchronous orbit. He invented satellites. If you look at all his novels, he invented all these things decades before they existed. That’s the frustration I have with science fiction today. If you go and pick out any random science fiction story, with the exception of certain FTL technologies, they use a lot of technology as sort of futurity that is available now and that always drives me nuts.
There’s some good science fiction out there. Greg Rucka’s LAZARUS is fucking fantastic. He’s just a smart guy. THE MARTIAN by Andy Weir was really good. There’s a book I just read from Neil Stephenson called SEVENEVES which was really good. Another one I just read by P.W. Stinger, who is a think tank guy actually and I met and talked to, he wrote a book called GHOST FLEET which is a scary and fascinating story about war between China and the U.S.
FM: ARE THERE ANY UPCOMING CONVENTIONS OR EVENTS THAT YOU’LL BE ATTENDING THAT YOU WOULD WANT OUR READERSHIP TO BE AWARE OF?