Publisher Filip Sablik was joined by writers Bryan Edward Hill, Phil Hester, Ron Marz and artist Nelson Blake II for the event, as they announced a 13-issue limited maxi-series called Artifacts. Showing a teaser with Sara Pezzini's daughter Hope surrounded by certain telltale mystic items, including the mask of Hope's father, the Darkness.
"It's pretty much the biggest, most terrifying thing I've ever done in publishing... It makes First Born and Broken Trinity and all the others look like a warm-up," Sablik said. The series, which is written by Ron Marz and will have its first four issues illustrated by Michael Broussard, is due out with Issue #0 on Free Comic Book Day on May 1. "If you've never read any Top Cow books...we're trying to introduce the concept of the Top Cow universe for new readers." To which Marz added, "and it's free!"
After showing a jam-piece cover with art from Michael Broussard, Nelson Blake II, Stjepan Sejic, Kenneth Rocafort, Sheldon Mitchell and Marc Silvestri for the first issue, Sablik handed the floor to Marz, asking him why people should read Artifacts. Marz said that the company had been laying down several seeds over the past three years, including Witchblade Sara Pezzini having a baby in First Born and the killing off of the previous host of the Angelus and replacing her with Danielle Baptiste in Broken Trinity.
With Marz having added in several other artifacts in the Top Cow universe -- 13 total, to be exact -- Artifacts looks as if things will come to a head. "This is the big one, this is the story we've been leading up to for a couple of years, seeding hints in different books about the artifacts and what might happen when all 13 artifacts come together," Marz said. "It's something bad. Something worse than tax day bad."
Noting that many superhero comics pursue "the illusion of change," Marz said that "when we say that nothing will ever be the same, and things will change permanently, we mean it because we don't have to sell bedsheets and lunchboxes and action figures and all that other ancillary stuff.
Because we have a smaller, tighter universe, we can actually afford... to change our characters and have some permanent things happen to them." He added that some characters -- some that have been around for awhile -- won't be coming back.
Sablik then said that not only would there be a matched set of 13 variant covers by John Tyler Christopher, but that with each issue, retailers would be able to qualify for a set of custom playing cards. For example, Issue #1 would have four aces, Issue #2 would have four twos, and by the end of the series, readers will have their own Artifacts deck. "One of the things we want to be clear about -- a lot of times people do incentives to force retailers to buy a lot of copies," Sablik said. "We're using this out of a sense of fun and excitement about the series."
Marz also noted that while the regular Witchblade and Darkness series would tie into the series, they would not be required reading for the main Artifacts storyline. "At no point you will feel you have missed something because you didn't read the Darkness or Witchblade... it's not the easiest thing to do," Marz said. "If you read the tie-in issues, you get a more complete picture, you get more of a sense of all the details... [but] we're going to give you 13 issues, one issue a month, and they're all going to matter. We just wanted to stay away from a crossover that eventually went into 36 books and cost you guys $150 a pop."
To keep the book running on time and at its peak performance, Sablik said that the series would change art teams with every four issues, with a "special guest artist" taking over for the final issue. "Every fourth issue will feel like a kick in the nuts... but in the best possible way," Sablik laughed.
Hester then began to discuss the Darkness #84, which will have a special variant cover featuring Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs and interior artwork by Whilce Portacio. "I think he brought a new way to it," Hester said. "It's a grittier style, it fits the Darkness perfectly." As the series progresses, Estacado will deal with a sort of "anti-Yoda" figure who may play a huge role in the Darkness's future: "He keeps telling Jackie he's on the edge -- he's either going to help him along or push him over."
Sheldon Mitchell will jump on board after Portacio, as Jackie takes on a Rasputin-like gangster who is cursed to inhabit certain carved statues. "Since he can't take physical pleasure he takes great pleasure out of tormenting people... [but] Jackie doesn't take that too well, so he's looking for all the bodies." Hester compared the idea to "an evil version of the Losers, revenge caper after revenge caper."
But don't think that the sun is setting on the Darkness just yet -- the panel then announced that in August there would be an upcoming limited series by David Hine and rising artist Jeff Wamester called The Darkness: Four Horsemen. "It's a really cool apocalypse story, an untold story before Jackie got out of the mafia lifestyle," Hester said, as Jackie gets blackmailed by a mafia boss into taking on four bikers who are not quite what they seem. Hester then praised Wamester's work, saying that "Jeff has a really stylized, almost cartoony style, which matches with the fact that David's script is really really really f---ed up."
At this point, Chicago Bears linebacker Lance Briggs entered the room, as the Top Cow crew then grilled the football player about what inspired his love for the character. Briggs said that what drew him into his first comic -- The Darkness/Superman -- was the cover. "I love crossovers, and I saw that cover and I said, 'I have to read it,'" Briggs recalled. "It was an entertaining story -- I wish it was a little bit longer."
When Sablik asked about what made the Darkness his favorite character, Briggs replied that "what I love about Jackie Estacado is that he has so many issues... he can be pretty cold and it gets gory but it's also kind of like, he feels bad for some of the things he does, and he can make up for it sometimes by doing something good." Sablik then announced that Lance would be doing his own good deed for his favorite comic book character, as he would write an introduction for the upcoming third volume of the Darkness Accursed. "Lance is really the real deal," Blake said, explaining how he talked with Briggs about geek touchstones like cartoons, G.I. Joe, Go-Bots and Transformers. "Lance is definitely an '80s kid who looked at all the stuff we looked at."
As Briggs then exited the panel, the Top Cow team focused on Bryan Edward Hill's Broken Trinity: Pandora's Box. Looking at the cover for the first issue by Tommy Lee Edwards, Hill said "it's like having Robert DeNiro in your first movie!" Described as a "globe-trotting hardcore action-adventure story," Pandora's Box features Michael Finnegan and Glorianna Silver, who wield the Artifacts known as Glacier Stone and the Ember Stone, and how they put aside an ancient war to stop Pandora's Box from being used again. The second issue of the series, which ties into the greater Artifacts storyline, will be due out on April 28, 2010.
"Filip's been really great about letting character moments get in the books that are really unexpected," Hill said. With one character a gun-runner and the other a power-hungry business mogul, "it's not going to be easy for you to pick a villain... we wanted to create characters that, depending on your viewpoint and who you relate to, either of these characters could be the villain." He said that in many ways, this was a common theme in much of Marz and Hester's work: "The real thing is, people, you are the choices that you make." Sablik agreed, saying that the script's twists made the story even more powerful. "If they could surprise me they sure as heck can surprise you guys... you literally flipped the script on me."
The panel then moved onto Top Cow's big release this week, Magdalena, by Marz and Blake. "This is a character I've literally wanted to write for five years -- it just took that long to get the art team and launch properly," Marz said, praising Blake's thorough research into how to make their heroine's world as real as it could get. "I told Nelson, 'this is your coming out party, this is where we show everybody you're the s---,'" Sablik said.
Blake said that in many ways, the in-depth details actually came naturally. "Ron calls it effort, but to me it was really effortless," he said. At times, he called up Hill at 2 a.m. to look at his copy of the Batman: Arkham Asylum game to see how the cape would flow, and even asked his friends "if you had a Magdalena video game, what do you think the controls would be like?" Additionally, Blake said that he had done research on everything ranging from the use of spears versus swords to secret societies to the use of actual cult symbols in his work. "Every little symbol means something," he said. "If it looks kind of weird, it probably is because it is pretty weird."
Sablik then showed some images which received some audible reactions from the crowd -- images from Marz's upcoming series Velocity. Showing a double-page spread by Kenneth Rocafort of the superspeedster strobing across the room -- with her looking at the reader at the bottom-right and winking -- Sablik said that "watching Kenneth draw Velocity is watching pure joy expressed onto panels." The series will also have a ticking clock at the end of each issue, with the entire story taking place over the span of an hour. The series tagline? "Like fast girls?" Sablik asked. "Then enjoy Velocity."