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War Panels: Top Cow Productions' Matt Hawkins on Adapting Warframe to Comic Books

Warframe's universe continues to grow. As more players experience the world for the first time, interest in the game's lore grows in parallel. Ahead of TennoCon, the second annual Warframe fan convention, developer/publisher Digital Extremes has announced a partnership with indie label Top Cow Comics to produce a five-issue series as yet another avenue through which fans can experience Warframe's evolving story and characters.

I was given the chance to talk to Matt Hawkins, Top Cow's president and writer, to learn how the deal was brokered as well as how he's gone about adapting Warframe to a new medium.

How did you become interested in writing comic books?

I started working in comics in marketing in April 1993 while I was finishing my master’s degree at UCLA (in physics of all improbable things) and fell in love with the comic industry and this amazing art form. I worked as an Assistant Editor and Editor also and eventually wrote my first comic in 1996. I’ve been in the comic industry for 24 years now, so it’s been an amazing journey and not what I was expecting out of life. I never wanted to be a comic writer, but now that I am one, I can’t imagine being anything else.

For readers unfamiliar with Top Cow, could you talk about how the publishing house started and some distinguishing characteristics in your books? To put the question another way, what makes a Top Cow comic?

Top Cow was founded by Marc Silvestri in 1992 when he and five other artists all left Marvel Comics to start their own publishing company, Image Comics. Marc was best known for his long runs on X-Men and Wolverine in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Silvestri started Top Cow as his own imprint within the larger Image Comics umbrella. We’ve published closed to 2,000 books in our 25-year history with Cyber Force, Witchblade, The Darkness, Wanted and Aphrodite IX being the best known.

Those titles have all been published in 21 languages in 55 different countries around the world. Wanted was the graphic novel the Angelina Jolie/Morgan Freeman film was based on. Witchblade has had two television series, one on TNT and the other as a Japanese anime. The Darkness was turned into two next-generation video games. Top Cow is a boutique publisher; we only put out about 4-5 titles a month. Since the company was founded and run by an artist (Marc Silvestri) and a writer (me), we’re very concerned about the quality of the creative. Since comics is a visual medium and Marc is an artist, we tend to work with amazing artists.

We also like to differentiate ourselves from Marvel and DC. They own what I call the “spandex set” so we avoid super-heroes and focus on other types of stories. The modern computer coloring that’s ubiquitous in comics now was pioneered at Top Cow.

You're a writer at Top Cow Comics as well as its president and COO. How do you balance those three roles? Do you get to write as often as you'd like?

I write four hours every day, usually in the morning and do business in the afternoon. It’s a juggling act, which requires constant shifting, but that routine allows me to power through a lot. It’s more two roles, creative and business as the President/COO of a smaller company tend to blur together. Now that I’m in my third decade of publishing, I prefer the creative to the business, but I’m anal retentive about financial and legal matters so sometimes that’s difficult to relinquish control.

How did Top Comics and Digital Extremes find an opportunity to form a partnership and expand on Warframe's universe?

Digital Extremes was the developer that made The Darkness II video game for 2K, and I met Sheldon Carter (former producer on The Darkness II and current Digital Extremes Studio Manager) during that process. He emailed me a few times over the past year asking if we’d be interested in doing a Warframe comic. That prod got me to download the game and check it out. I’m a huge gamer, last two games I beat where Horizon: Zero Dawn and Prey (that game was hard). We met a few times to discuss how a comic could work and I started really diving into the mythology and lore of the game. I brought in Ryan Cady to work with me on the story since there was so much to learn!

You seem excited to work in Warframe's setting. What was your experience with the game prior to writing these comics?

I’ve been playing the game now for about a year. I picked Volt and have been having a lot of fun with it. Finding time to game is always challenging so I tend to do gaming spurts. I played for eight hours a couple Sundays ago.

The premise Warframe's five-issue arc sounds compelling. What was the process of putting the story outline together? Did Digital Extremes suggest it? If not, did they need to sign off on it, or have they given you a good amount of freedom with which to tell the story?

The sheer amount of story and mythology in the Warframe universe was somewhat daunting at first. Ryan and I spent a considerable amount of time bouncing ideas back and forth. I finally asked Steve Sinclair (Creative Director on Warframe) for some story direction and he sent us an outline of what he’d like to see. So the basic story structure was developed internally by Steve and Digital Extremes and they’ve been fantastic to work with.

We definitely have freedom to play around and add new things, but we do it with their consent and an eye for what the existing fans would like. The primary idea of this expanded comic story is to attract new people to play the game. It’s a balance of creating something that interests people unfamiliar with the story, but at the same time deliver something with enough Easter eggs and story that the existing gamers will love and be familiar with.

Could you describe your writing process as it pertains to the Warframe comics?

It started with days and weeks of research, we then wrote up an extended outline after receiving the initial one from Steve. Next was the first issue in a full script format and bounced that over to them for notes and feedback. I think there was just the second draft once we had their notes and then we sent it to the art team to get going. It was all smooth!

What are some of the differences between writing a story of your own creation, versus writing for a shared universe like Warframe?

It’s both easier and harder. It’s easier because there’s so much backstory and character development that we have a lot we can choose from to set our story. It’s harder because we have to make sure we stay within the bounds of their continuity and write something that the existing fans will appreciate, but people reading the comic as a first exposure to Warframe will think it’s cool enough to go download and play the game. Writing an original story with new characters is easier because I get to write pretty much whatever I want, with only the sales of the comic determining whether it worked or not. There are a lot of other factors involved in developing stories from established universes like this. I’ve done it before with Tomb Raider, Soul Reaver, Tales of Honor, Adr1ft, City of Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, so I’ve got a lot of experience working with other established universes and video game properties.

What have you found to be the most enjoyable part of the process so far?

Playing the game! I love to game and being able to play a video game and call that work is pretty f*cking cool.

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