From some guy in a line to COO of a 25-year-old publishing imprint, Matt Hawkins saw the glory days of Image, and stayed around for the aftermath.
There are plenty of interviews covering the Founding Fathers of Image’s early days as masters of their new domain. The twentieth anniversary interviews Jason Sacks carried out for ComicsBulletin, for example, are interesting accounts of hazy days, and Image’s own documentary, for the same anniversary, provides perspective straight from the mouths of the sweaty, galloping horses. But what was it like, and how does it look in hindsight, to those just along for the ride? All those guys Rob Liefeld hired on the spot to pay forward his own lucky entry to the business—what did they see, how did it feel, what did they learn? I’m interested. The easiest one of those guys to find is Matt Hawkins, hired at Extreme Studios in ’93, because he’s since become a mover and a shaker at Top Cow. Wondering how either of those relate to Image? Keen to hear about a really strange time from a wonderer-in? I got him on Skype and asked him everything I could think of. I promise it’s interesting. Okay, let’s go!
Napier: I’d really like to ask to start with … the beginning.
Hawkins: Okay, of my career? Or of Top Cow? Or what part?
Napier: Yeah both, really.
Hawkins: Oh okay! Well I started in comics actually in, uh, I think it was May or June, of 1993, and what had happened was that I was working on my Masters degree at UCLA and my nephew asked me to go to a signing with him at Image— at Comics down in Anaheim, Rob Liefeld was appearing to debut his new book Youngblood. And I had not ever been … I had never really read comic books, so it was kind of a foreign thing for me. So I took my nephew, we went down, we waited in line, and, for three hours I stood in line. And there was this guy in front of me who’s now an artist for DC, and he told me the history of comics and Image Comics, and what it all was, and how exciting it was, and I was working my way through school; I was working at the time at a bank, doing retail banking which is not a lot of fun—
Hawkins: It’s pretty horrendous actually. So I hated my job! And here were the— and I finally got to the front of this line, and the guy who was in front of me showed Rob Liefeld his artwork, and Rob liked him and hired him on the spot.
Napier: Oh! Oh boy.
Hawkins: And I was … I saw that, and then I looked at these ten guys, and a couple girls, and there was, there was Rob Liefeld, Eric Stephenson who is now the publisher of Image Comics, you know, there was Dan Fraga, Marat Michaels—there was all these people, and they were all wearing these Extreme Studios black leather jackets. And they had cute girls running around with them, and I, you know, here I was working full time, going to school full time, I was fuckin’ miserable, you know?
Hawkins: They looked like they were having the greatest time on the planet! And so I just, uh—there was just a weird moment, and it changed my life, because I was the next guy, I, I was looking Rob Liefeld in the face, he was twenty-three, twenty-four, I was I think twenty-one, and I just asked him! I said hey, I’m not an artist, but are you looking for anyone to do anything else? He was like “Yeah! We are.” And he was like, “Can you write press releases, can you edit like letters pages and stuff like that?” And I uh … I said … “Yeah! I can!” And he’s like “Great, why don’t you—” and he handed me a card, said “Give, uh give me a call, and come in, we’ll try to set up something where you come in.”
Napier: That easy?
Hawkins: I thought it would be some sort of interview. So I went to a bookstore, immediately following, bought a book on how to write a press release. And wrote a press release on that event, as if I were promoting that event for them in advance, faxed it over the next morning, and then, uh … yeah! I got a call from Eric Stephenson, I came in, and they hired me on the spot! It was really quite bizarre … I don’t, to this day, kind of know how it happened. Rob and I are still friends, we don’t work together any more really, but uh—he told me he just thought I had a lot of moxie. They needed some bodies, some marketing people, and I seemed aggressive … he always knew that if I didn’t work out he could just fire me! So I was like oh, oh.
Napier: What a pragmatist!
Hawkins: And that’s uh—that’s how I got into the comic book business!
Napier: What was your Masters degree in?
Hawkins: Oh I have a Masters in Applied Physics.
Napier: Quite a change then.
Hawkins: Yeah. No, it’s a complete change, and kind of bizarre. I mean it helps me now, because uh—it’s helped me my whole career actually, cos physics is really just math, and so I became very good at accounting, and finance, and was able to take care and do that, and your forecasting and budgeting, and all these sort of things is actually, for someone who’s doing complex mathematical equations and stuff like that, is actually quite simple. You know? So doing budgets and forecasts, and like basic accounting came to me pretty easily. So that’s kind of helped me stay in the business and keep Top Cow alive, and keep my books profitable, you know?
Napier: Uh huh. So did you go to work in the same place that—like was there a … HQ, or … how did it work?
Hawkins: Well Extreme was on the ninth floor of the Disney building—in Anaheim there were several buildings owned by Disney, and this was one of them. And Image Comics/Extreme Studios was on the same floor of that building, in fact we had the whole floor. It looked over a stadium too, we could actually watch the games, from the roof—
Hawkins: —and we would sometimes do that. But uh—Yeah. So that’s what it was in the early days, the studios, you know, there was no—Extreme was Rob’s company, Wildstorm was Jim Lee’s, Top Cow was Marc Silvestri’s, Todd McFarlane had TMP. There was Shadowlines with Jim Valentino and I don’t know if Erik Larsen ever named his company but uh—
Hawkins: But Whilce was always part of Jim Lee’s group, so he was part of Wildstorm until he split off. And then— You know I worked with Rob for six or seven years, during sort of the heyday of all that, saw some crazy stuff, I mean … the early days of Image were pretty insane. I mean, we were all young—
Napier: Yeah— I’ve been getting that impression. [laughs]
Hawkins: No, it was crazy! I mean, you would take two people who’ve never done a comic before, put’em together, put a book out, and it would sell a million copies. You know? And so it made a lot of very young millionaires, and I think what’s proven out, throughout, you know, everything, is you give a young guy a lotta money, and he’s always almost never very smart with it. You know?
Napier: [Laughing] Mm.
Hawkins: We all were sorta young and brash and thought this was gonna last forever, and … it didn’t. And so, the fall was kinda hard? And dealing with that, ’96, ’97—because Extreme Studios went out of business, and then Rob started another company with Jeph Loeb called Awesome Comics, and I was part of that, so was Eric Stephenson, and then a year later, ’97 I think it was, that company folded, and, uh, I had sort of a crisis at that point in my life, because I was twenty … seven I think? I knew I could still go back into science, go into research, you know get a job in the Military Industrial Complex or something like that, so I started looking around at that, and I realised I was seven years behind all my friends and all my colleagues who had gone into that. So I would in effect be working for most of the people that I went to school with. People like that. And I didn’t like the idea of that! It seemed—you know after being sort of treated so well as part of Image, stuff like that, going into sort of a, a secondary role to people that I knew personally seemed kind of anathema to me.
Napier: [Laughing] Yep.
Hawkins: So I decided to try my own hand at launching a comic book! And I launched a book called Lady Pendragon through Image Central, Larry Marder gave me the opportunity to do it, and uh so I did that in ’90 … late ’97, and published 18 issues through uh, mid-1998. And the book was very successful! I mean when the first issue sold 70,000 copies I knew I could sustain myself. I mean that’s, you know, now I’m happy when a book sells 10,000 copies. Because the business is so different.
Napier: Different times.
Hawkins: But 70,000 at that point was enough to keep me going. So in April of ’98, Top Cow offered me a job, and I took it. And I’ve been with Marc Silvestri ever since. Almost 19 years. And then from 2000 to 2009 … I didn’t actually write any comics. Not one.
Hawkins: The reason was because I was sorta sucked into the Top Cow business world. I went into Top Cow at a point where I thought they were at the top of their game, when actually they were at the—a point where they were so … starting to fall apart. You know what I mean?
Napier: [Laughing] Yeah.
Hawkins: And it was—Mike Turner wanted to leave, David Finch wanted to leave, Joe Benitez wanted to leave, all these guys wanted to leave and do their own things. And uh, so that was uh, not the greatest timing for me. I managed to keep them all there and together for a couple of years, and then the—they all started splitting off, and then …
Napier: So they wanted to do their own projects? Or they wanted to go and work elsewhere?
Hawkins: Yeah. Mike Turner started Aspen Comics, and sort of split off from Top Cow, and did his thing. So there was sort of a departure of some of the key artists and creative talent. And uh, that was kind of hard, you know? Because I took that job, under sorta the premise that I’d be working with those guys and then they all left.
Napier: What was that role, sorry?
Hawkins: Well I took the role that the premise was, at least for me, that I’d be working with all these top artists. And I liked the idea of that, you know. And so I wanted to work with those guys and then when they left I, I had another sort of weird point where I considered again leaving the industry and going doing my own thing. But I thought, you know what? A challenge is a challenge. There were still some good artists there. And we had just signed up J. Michael Straczynski at that point to do Rising Stars and Midnight Nation and so we did. We had some success with those, then we rolled into the Mark Millar Wanted books. So there was always at least one top-tier project we were able to latch on to during the 2000s. So that sort of kept me, kept me sustained. And part of that was—like I said, for that decade, like call it 2000 to 2010, um, I got married, had two kids, then I got a divorce, and then it was sort of the divorce actually that got me back to writing comics again. I needed some sort of creative outlet to work through some depression and some sort of issues, and that’s where I wrote that book Think Tank. And, uhm, it did well! You know? And it was critically received well. And for the first time in a comic, I did a book that used my scientific background.
Hawkins: And I was able to really leverage friends of mine, and get access to some advanced technologies, and things like this, and, uh— a lot of— I don’t have security clearance, so I don’t get, you know, too much access, but—
Napier: [Laughs] Yeah.
Hawkins: I’m able to sort of discern things, like I—It’s not that hard to take and look at what’s declassified and then extrapolate as to where they might be within five years. You know? So. That’s kind of how I figured out and worked with Think Tank. My advantage on a book like that is I can read science journals, and most people can’t. So I can sort of wade through the hundreds and hundreds of pages of godawful boring shit and find the two paragraphs that are awesome. You know?
Napier: And that’s the kind of stuff that goes into the end pages … like … the educational side of things?
Hawkins: Yeah! Like in the back of my books I always do that, and I, I pretty much ripped that off from Alan Moore, because he did that in From Hell and that was, that’s one of my favorite comics I’ve ever read. You know give the background that I explained to you, that I wasn’t a huge comics fan, I didn’t read comics. I didn’t grow up a Batman, Superman, or Fantastic Four fan. You know. So, when I got into comics, I was an adult, and truth is I thought superheroes were kinda silly. And I never really openly said that, but that’s kinda how I felt. So I always gravitated towards books like From Hell, or different things that had a little more substance to them. And were not superheroes. And uh, what I loved about Alan was that he put all his research in the back! You know? This was pre-internet! So I—I actually got on a plane, went to Whitechapel, did the whole Whitechapel tour.
Hawkins: You know, I bought books in England, and other places, and had them FedExed to me, because I wanted to read them—that he sourced in his book, that were not available in the United States. I just wanted to learn more, and it was such a fascinating, immersive experience, for me, that I wanted to replicate that for other people. So I’ve done it on everything I do. Every project that I do generally has backup matter that allows people to see where some of the story ideas came from. And I like that—it gets people talking. I like—I love to sort of clandestinely educate people while entertaining them.
Napier: I think that does stand out, in your books … There’s that advice that writers always give, um, especially in comics circles—“don’t only read comics,” because if you only read comics that’s all you’ll pull from, and then you’ll just create, sort of, internal fractals of nonsense. But you seem to be very widely read?
Hawkins: Yeah! You know I think that’s part of it … When you so immerse yourself in the sciences, I think—you know in college, I so didn’t wanna read that stuff. And when I finally got out of it, from ’93 to 2000, before I got back into science stuff at some point, I wasn’t really reading research material. I read a lot of historical books. I got obsessed with Arthurian legend, which you know, lent itself to Lady Pendragon.
Hawkins: I started studying religion, you know, and history, and sociology, and philosophy, and sort of, I got obsessed with all these various things, and there were all these things that—I took classes, elective classes in college that I wasn’t able to really pursue because they had a set agenda, you know? And I didn’t need another sixth class in organic chemistry I’d have loved to have taken, Rembrandt paintings or something like that. But that really wasn’t available to me, so, self-studying beyond, in my first—in my twenties and early thirties really kind of opened my mind. I was raised a conservative Christian Baptist.
Hawkins: And have since become sort of a liberal atheist, to the consternation of my parents. So it’s been an interesting 30-year ride, you know?
Napier: Mm. So is that why—I mean, you’ve written a lot of different titles. For Top Cow alone. Is that because you take so much in that you have too much … to keep in one book? Is it … looking for an outlet?
Hawkins: I think it’s—I think it’s both. More the latter than anything. And, and, uh—one of the recommendations I give to writers and burgeoning writers all the time is, you always hear this “write what you know.”
Hawkins: I hear that all the time, and I challenge that premise. My premise is, “write what you want to know.”
Hawkins: Because then the route is fun. Because the thing is, if you write something that you’re learning about, and you immerse yourself in that material, you learnt it recently, which gives you a better window on how to explain it to someone who doesn’t understand it. You know. If you’re a lifelong … fireman, you may not appropriately explain to people some of these techniques, and how they work and why they work. Because it’s sort of become second nature to you. Kind of a muscle memory kind of thing. And I see this where there are authors, particularly in prose fiction, that’s write stories that are scientists, and theses really smart, long-career people, and they don’t … translate well to the layman. You know. People can’t read them. And they, they find them too heavy, and they don’t do well, and then… I even have a friend of mine who wrote a book like that, and he actually said, “well people are just too stupid.”
Hawkins: I’m like, “… okay …” You know, no point in challenging it, I just kind of let it go.
Napier: Not a natural teacher, I suppose.
Hawkins: Well, you know, not everyone can do that!
Hawkins: Part of my—I get obsessed with things. You know. When I did Wildfire, which is one of my lesser-known titles, my [older]son, who’s 16 now, was doing a paper at school on genetically modified organisms. And he was asking me a bunch of questions because he knew I know a lot about science, and uh, I realised—I didn’t know that much about GMO! There wasn’t really much about GMO at the time when I went through school, cos I you know got my Masters in ’94. And GMO actually proliferated after, post-that. There were some things, like, I remember Flavr Savr tomatoes in the ’80s, and stuff like that, but—there wasn’t a lot that we talked about, especially in physics classes. So, I did a ton of research, just because I was curious at that point, and then I helped him with his paper, and then, you know, I started having all these ideas and thoughts, and it became Wildfire. Which was just a fun story to tell. It was one of the first projects I did with the Sejics.Napier: Mm. Okay. So you say you advise people to write what they want to know. Um … is that why … you write quite a lot of ladies?
Hawkins: Quite a lotta what?
Napier: Ladies …
Hawkins: [Laughs] Uh— [laughs]You know, I uh— Yeah, do I write more about women than men? I don’t know.
Napier: I don’t know about more, but—
Hawkins: When I write female characters—there are some new ones that I’m doing, that are—like I’m doing a slice of life erotic comedy book, and I’m co-writing that with my wife, and it’s being drawn by Linda Sejic, and I realised that when you have a female lead and you’re doing something that’s more a slice of life, sort of an emotional story, um, I think it’s better to have women involved in the creative process than not.
Hawkins: Ah, because the people that are reading those books are women. And they need to think that it’s got an air of authenticity about it. And there are things that I learned from working with my wife, working with Linda, that, uh, I otherwise wouldn’t have known. You know. And wouldn’t really have thought about. Nothing springs to mind in the immediate conversation, but—you know, when you write a book like Aphrodite IX, that’s—there’s not as much concern over something like that? It’s just it’s a female character, she’s the lead, she’s a demigod, she kicks ass. You know? And you kinda write that—I have female editors, and I always have people read stuff. My sister’s also an author, she’s a prose author, and she reads my stuff, and gives me feedback. So. The one thing I always tell people is you need to have editors. I could publish all my stuff without anyone editing it. But that would be pretty foolish.
Hawkins: And I believe in re-writing. I’m a firm believer that re-writing is absolutely essential to story success. So, um. I do drafts very quickly. And I’ll do multiple drafts. And then—cos it allows me to see the flow of where the story is going. Then I can realise, okay this doesn’t connect, or this character beat doesn’t resonate, or … but yeah. I like writing female characters! I like writing male characters. Think Tank’s David Loren is the lead, and I like writing him because he’s … kind of this manchild?
Napier: Yeah, yeah, he is, yeah.
Hawkins: And in The Tithe it was two male main characters and one female. So … But for me, writing female characters in Think Tank—there’s more female characters than I think there are male characters in that story, and one of the things we’ve dealt with, and Rahsan [Ehkedal] is a big component of this, is the agency of these female characters needs to be important. You know, they need to have a role and a purpose, and not just be some sort of a fixture, some sort of a reactionary thing for the man to save. It’s important to us that we do that. And a classic point, specifically I can give you an example, in the first three arcs of Think Tank there’s a character, ah, General Diana Clarkson.
Hawkins: And uh, she is this sort of hardass, she comes across as this older, kind of stern woman, doing her job, and the way we played that character ultimately is that she is the same character as David Loren. The reasons she’s morphed into this hardass that is is, is because the military—she was in the military at a time when it wasn’t cool for a woman to be in the military. And so she had to fight all her male counterparts, and scrape, through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, to get to where she is now. And there’s an air of truth to that, you know? It is always interesting to me that a man who is aggressive can be called assertive or aggressive but a woman who does the same thing is called a bitch.
Hawkins: And so things like that always, I find fascinating, and perspective is sort of everything. And one of the things I do, is I try to take villains and make them multi-layered. One of my least favourite thing in stories—and this is a thing I hate about so many movies—is the villains are so, ah, one-note. You know. With the exception of the Joker, I can’t think of a single character who probably thinks he’s the villain. You know what I mean? In real life, people who are criminals, they don’t think they’re the villains. They don’t. They’re victims of circumstance, they’re doing what they gotta do. You know. There’s so few people that truly think of themselves as evil or the villain, and so many comic book characters that are villains are played that way, that it kind of drives me insane.
Napier: We’ve established that you read around like factual information, and reporting, and stuff, but do you like, perspective reading, like do you read biographies or autobiographies, or … like, gender anthropology, or … things like that?
Hawkins: Not so much anthropology but I do read a lot of biographies. I read biographies of people I—Sometimes I’ll pick up and read a biography of someone I’ve never heard of, because uh—I’m always curious to see why they warranted a biography. You know what I mean?
Hawkins: And I like documentaries, I watch a lot of those while I’m exercising. Really anything that feeds the brain, um, and—perspective is everything. I mean I’m a 47-year-old white dude, and it’s only been in the last 10 years that—and I had this conversation with my sister the other day—it’s only since my, probably mid-thirties, that I could finally acknowledge to myself, the privilege that I’d had in my life. You know?
Hawkins: And it’s hard when you grow up with something, you’ve always had it? To identify it as something that is special. Or it’s privileged, or it’s something that is not accorded to everyone else. Especially when you’re told by society, like I was in the ’70s and early ’80s, that you deserve this and these other people may not deserve this. Um. And I grew up in a, like I said, in a conservative sort of Christian household, and my grandfather was just an avowed racist. You know? And I, uh … And he just really did not like black people at all. And so I grew up hearing some of that stuff, and it was really weird; I could never quite, uh, understand it. And uh—and I know it’s a generational thing, you know, and it was always weird to me that here’s this guy that went to church three times a week and seemed like a nice man, but the second the topic of black people came up he, he had a whole different attitude.
Hawkins: You know? So I think people are complex, people are subjects of their time—I don’t excuse his behaviour, and he did some things and said some things to me as a child that profoundly stuck with me. You know, I, uh, I recalled, and I will never forget this, you know, my sister and I, and I was probably six, and she was nine or 10, we were upstairs at his house in Wichita Kansas, watching basketball on TV, and he comes stompin’ into the room and turns the channel, and says “Hey! We don’t watch n-ball—” and he used the n-word, I don’t, I don’t wanna say it out!
Hawkins: But he— “We don’t watch that in this house!” And I’m like, wait … what?
Hawkins: And when you hear something like that as a kid—and then I had to talk to my dad, my mom, trying to explain to me—my parents … you know and I think, to my parents’ credit, they sort of fought that off, and in spite of raising me as a conservative Christian kid, uh, they taught me how to think for myself. That—That, I think, is the greatest gift you can give a child. To teach them how to think for themselves, how to take care of themselves, and how to take accountability and responsibility for their own actions. This victim-blaming culture we have, where everyone blames everything on everyone else, I find so self-destructive. It, it scares me.
Napier: Do you feel that you have … maybe, like, well your choice of words—responsibility, or power or ability, to um … I mean, you said your grandfather was a product of his time; do you feel that you, as the producer—the writer, the creator, of culture, do you feel that you have a responsibility, or an opportunity, to contradict some of that, to like make the times now, that are shaping … the people of the future?
Napier: Like are you thinking of that when you, when you write?
Hawkins: Uh, the answer to that is unequivocally yes. Because I think people read, and shape opinions, and a lot of things are done, sort of subconsciously, and … people are a product of what they put in their mind. And I, I, I can make myself like almost anything.
Hawkins: No seriously! Whether it’s food, drink, or some sort of a topic. If I just immerse myself in it long enough, I can make myself genuinely like it. There are things that I used to hate, that I now kinda like, and uh—this is a dumb one, but beef tartare, steak tartare,
Hawkins: The idea or like eating it, or do it it was so like—I’m gonna get Trichomoniasis, or you know—
Napier: But it’s so nice!
Hawkins: I know! And my wife really digs it, and I’d tried it a few times—I actually genuinely kinda like it now! And I had to overcome some mental hurdles, and actually had to try something—I think that, that really is a key—trying something. You know? And for me, in terms of imparting any sort of social justice message, or anything like that, I don’t think I’m that overt. I think it’s interesting with a book like Think Tank, where if you read it, I write it with a very liberal mindset. But a lot of conservatives like the book. You know, I go to red state, blue state conventions all the time—And uh, Texas is a show, is a state that I do very well in, and I’ll go down there and have conversations with them—I was in Seattle this weekend at Emerald City Comic Con, and you could not have two more different worlds than Houston and Dallas, Texas, and Seattle, Washington. It blows my mind that they are in the same country.
Napier: How? Because, being English I don’t really know; I don’t really have any context for either of those. What’s the difference there?
Hawkins: Uh, well—with Texas, you’ll actually see people walking around with actual sidearms?
Hawkins: You know, people are armed. People dress differently, they talk differently, people in Texas are Trump supporters, people in Seattle hate Trump, you know, I mean … there’s this weird split in this country now that is perhaps more pronounced that I think it’s been in a really long time. And a lot of that’s social media. But uh … that gives loudmouths at least a partial platform to sound off their hatred. But uh, people are polarised now more than ever, and one of the things I really try to do through my own social media and through my books, is show different perspectives. And a lot of times the way I’ll do that—if you look at a book like The Tithe, which I don’t know if you’ve read that or not—
Napier: I didn’t, no, not yet.
Hawkins: I have two FBI characters in there. One is a conservative Christian guy, he’s an older black man named Dwayne Johnson—
Napier: Dwayne Johnson?
Napier: Like the Rock?
Hawkins: Uhhhhhh no I’m sorry! His name’s Dwayne Campbell.
Hawkins: Yeah you’re right, that’s the Rock! He’s Dwayne Campbell.
Napier: [Laughs a lot]
Hawkins: And he is, yeah he’s a conservative Christian and I write him from a perspective of … where he’s a likable guy, and he has a point of view, and he’s not necessarily intractable but when you listen to him, and hear him talk, you understand his perspective.
You know today, people surround themselves with people of like minds, and refuse to be friends or socialise, or have anything from an alternative perspective that contradicts their worldview. And I think that’s a tragedy that is gonna have profound consequences over the next few decades.
Now his partner is this young guy named Jimmy Miller, a white guy, he’s an atheist, he’s a brash, kind of a young guy, and he has a perspective as well, and one of the fun things for me to do in a story like that is actually show different perspectives by having the two of them get into little minor arguments.
And that, I find—there’s something in that argument and in what they do that we have lost in our society today. Those two will have conversations, and yet they’ll still be friends. They can have a differing of opinion, and yet they’ll still go have a beer, and have a burger together. You know today, people surround themselves with people of like minds, and refuse to be friends or socialise, or have anything from an alternative perspective that contradicts their worldview. And I think that’s a tragedy that is gonna have profound consequences over the next few decades. Um, as this country—I—you know, as a writer I just see… Man, are we headed to some sort of civil war? Is California really gonna split off? I live in California, you know? And uh—there’s all kinds of weird scenarios, because uh… people are really unhappy. Especially, I mean—it’s amazing< how unhappy people are right now, and there’s an insane amount of fear, and uh, everyone talks about it. It’s a constant state of conversation, so… I think it’s important to show perspective, yes. And I think… I realise that, and this comes with, I think, being educated—is the more you learn, the more you realise how much you don’t know.
Hawkins: You know? And uh–And I think when, like, I meet with scientists and I’ll ask them what scares them. That’s my favourite topic, for getting new stories ideas for me. And about five years ago, I met with a guy, and he said “You know? Epigenetics kinda scares me.” And I’m like, I’ve never even heard that word before. What is epigenetics? And he kind of explained to me, it’s like what they’re doing now with genetic gene splicing and alteration, and, like Gattaca kind of stuff. But you’re doing it to an existing, living creature, so you can actually genetically modify a creature that’s already alive. So we could—epigenetics would be taking and doing something to you that would alter your genetic structure.
Hawkins: And so, it gets into these things where it’s not necessarily test tube babies, or growing something out of a lab, or this CRISPR stuff that so many people are doing now. It’s actually going in and altering someone’s DNA that already exists. Now that’s frightening!
Hawkins: Ah uh, it is fairly common. And the plus sides, the plus side of it is the ability to cure things like cancer, using immunotherapy, topics and stuff like that, and there’s all kinds of benefits that could be done, but the uh, the dark side of it is horrifying. You know? And as we’ve known, with every new technology, uh, they always go to the dark side. Hah. You know?
Napier: [Laughing] Yes!
Hawkins: I don’t know if I answered the question, I kinda rambled off there for a while.
Napier: I don’t mind at all! I often find that rambling produces the most interesting points. So … what is your … current role. Like what on a day-to-day basis, do you do at, or with, Top Cow?
Hawkins: Well I’m still, technically, I think my title is the President and Chief Operating Officer of the company [COO].
Napier: That’s grand.
Hawkins: And I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company. I have recently promoted Elena Salcedo, who’s now my Vice President of Operations, who handles a lot more of that now for me, which is, which is nice. And so, I get up, four or five in the morning, and I’ll go work out, then I’ll start writing, take my kids to school, I’ll come back, usually write some more, and usually mid-morning, sometimes by lunch, I’ll go into the office, and in the afternoon I’ll do business work. You know, we’ll have lunch meetings, and do stuff. I still primarily handle, with Circle of Confusion, our agency, the uh, film and television; I work with the legal aspects and the financial, I sort of manage all of that. I just break my day in half. First half of my day is creative, second half is business.
And you know I do a lot of conventions, probably, 20 a year.
Napier: Cripes. Um. So, do you have anything to do with … teaming artists with writers, on books?
Hawkins: Yeah! Yeah. No in fact, I look at all the pitches—we don’t do a lot of outside books any more? Which sort of—you know we used to do, probably, in the mid-2000s about 10 books a month. Now we’re down to about four. And uh, it’s much more manageable, and containable. We have a list of artists that wanna work with us, we have a list of artists and writers we wanna work with. And part of the magic of our industry is you get to go to these conventions, and I had conversations with several artists over the weekend that wanted to do projects with us, so—it’s all networking. And having our track record, and the ability to publish through Image, certainly gives us an advantage. But uh—yes, you know, for better or worse, I do a lot of the marrying of artists and writers on projects, and decide what’s going to be published.
[Here we discussed Witchblade and Sunstone for some time—look out for this section, on the maturation of sexuality in Top Cow publications, coming soon.]
Napier: You’ve said a couple of times that you really value editors. That’s something that’s been really interesting me. Cos I’ve been reading, you know, the very first Image comics, on account of the 25th anniversary and all. And interviews, with the founding fathers, as it were. And there seems to have been a real … dislike of editors. Especially from Silvestri, who obviously, is quite important at Top Cow. Is that—like did you … notice that at the time? Was there an anti-editorial sense in the early days? Because it seems to have been, because they all, I think, came directly from Marvel where there was a lot of, ah … bossing, I suppose, but—
Hawkins: Editorial interference.
Napier: Yeah. But the early books have a lot of typos, and a lot of, like, quite obvious problems, that you would expect to be fixed by editorial. So it seems like there’s—I mean those two things seem to correlate. You’ve got guys who don’t like editors; you’ve got editorial problems. Have you … did you notice that and have you seen it change within the company as like house editorial was able to be built, or … is that, am I imagining things, or, or what?
Hawkins: No, you’re correct. I, I think … As we were forced to actually make the books better,
Napier: [Laughs big]
Hawkins: You gotta keep in mind—any little thing we put out in the early ’90s would sell. You know and it was very difficult to tell someone … or give them feedback, when they’re doing so well financially—
Napier: Drunk on power?
Hawkins: And their books are selling so well, ah, it’s hard to take criticism and feedback. Because the response is, “Fuck you, I just sold a million copies!” You know. And ah, part of that I think is age? You know? I think, I think in some cases I wish we could take boys, and just sort of morph them from 15 to 25. There’s a lot of change that happens in that time frame, especially now that—you know I have two sons, my elder boy is 16, my younger boy turns 15 next week—I can just sort of see this brash arrogance that’s brimming in them—
Napier: Good luck!
Hawkins: It’s kind of funny to watch, but uh–no editors I think are vital. And yes, for a very long period of time at Image, I think the editors were more traffickers, you know? There were editors that were hired, some of them tried to have creative influence, but—Christ, I was hired as an editor on the Maximum Press line in ’95 I think it was, and I’d never edited shit! I don’t have an English degree, or any background. Um, I was just there. And uh, worked with Liefeld and those guys, and Stephenson was the editor on the sort of, Youngblood and those books, and I’m, I became the editor of this alternative line—
Napier: So what did you actually do as an editor there? What did that demand from you?
Hawkins: Well it uh—I, I didn’t know what to do! Because I was working with Robert Napton and we would have conversations about what the stories were, and I tried to get involved, and I would give feedback, and—but the editorial at Image has always been much more supportive, collaborative, and by design that way. I think the problem with some of the Big Two editorial is it becomes adversarial? You feel like your editor is your adversary, and they’re working against what you wanna do. It’s hard to work with someone like that. And because you have no power, you just gotta take it. Which creates further sort of anger, and you know, and bad feelings, and, the stuff which sort of dwells over time. And the thing is—see this is actually, I have the inverse problem now. I pay the people that edit me. And I’m their boss. So I’ve had to fight through multiple people, to find the people that will actually give me advice. You know what I mean? That’s actually like, legitimate.
Napier: Yes. Yes.
Hawkins: Which is why I love Brian Hill so much. He gives me great notes, and I respect his feedback. But see, he and I even have this understanding, because ah—I think this is with any creative person. Because when you get feedback on your work, especially something you put a lot of effort into, your reaction, no matter how correct the notes may be, your reaction to that feedback is immediately fuck you.
Napier: Oh yeah yeah, definitely.
Hawkins: Yeah. Every time my reaction is that way. Even though I know it’s probably right, my reaction is fuck off. And you have to give it … 24 hours, or go to the gym, or stick it in the drawer and come back and look at it the next day … So what I do, when I get feedback, I read it very quickly, I sorta let that reaction go, and then I talk to the person the next day.
Hawkins: So. Just gotta learn what works. But — I think you did identify something that’s interesting, I mean I don’t think editors were real editors at early Image. They were more just trafficking pages back and forth. I think Eric Stephenson tried. I’d say, of the people I worked with, over time, I think he really did try.
Hawkins: I think more than most.
Napier: I mean … I sound a little incredulous there maybe, but it’s just his name has come up a number of times when I’ve been really paying attention to these things—it’s quite often that you see Eric Stephenson credited for script and as editor, and I just can’t imagine how that could possibly work, you—you can’t edit yourself!
Hawkins: Yeah you can’t. I can’t. But that was, ah, it was a different time. And I think, in a weird way, Eric was, call it type-editing? But it was Rob Liefeld that was really editing. You know—
Hawkins: He was the one who’d sort of dictate what was being done, and why.
Hawkins: You know? So, unless it was a book like the Nu-Men, which was sorta Eric’s little baby. But yeah—I, I definitely recommend to people that they do not edit their own work. That is a— that is a fool’s journey.
Napier: Yeah, I was just like—mindblown.
Hawkins: Well, and again, keep in mind we were all really young guys. None of us had trained by Marvel and DC. We had all—I mean, except for the artists, the image founders and those guys that came, none of us had worked, had previous publishing experience. We were all sort of brought in. And I think, in many ways I think that’s been shown to be a long-term positive, because it’s infused the industry with some new blood, with some different perspectives, but uh … in many ways we didn’t have sort of classical training where we knew … the basics! You know? So the basics had to be learned through trial and error.
Napier: Are there a lot of those guys, who were there with you then, are they still in the industry?
Hawkins: Uhm … Most of ’em yeah. I, I think so.
Napier: That’s impressive.
Hawkins: You know, there are some that are absent, and some that have moved on to other career fields, um, but even a guy like Andy Park, who I worked with at Extreme, and then did Tomb Raider for Top Cow, he now is the senior concept artist for Marvel films. And so when you see all those drawings on posters, and stuff like that for any of these Marvel films that’s his work, and that makes me happy, because I feel like I helped that guy in his career. To me he’s still in the industry although he’s kinda not, you know? And there’s a lot—most of the people that were creative have gone on to other things. I know one guy, who was an artist for Top Cow that I—we sort of parted ways, he now owns a tattoo shop in Boston, you know? So it always, like, people stay, at least tangentially, in some sort of creative field, you know?
Napier: Yeah. Well that’s really nice.
Hawkins: And most of them are— you know, I think I’ve softened, as I’ve gotten older? And I’ve sort of mended fences with the majority of people that I brushed, ah, had, ah, problems with, over time. So there’s, ah, it’s nice. I go to conventions and you know, only, maybe one or two people I don’t like.
Napier: [Laughing] Yeah, that’s not bad.