Top Cow: Then and Now 2: Publisher Filip Sablik

Top Cow Then and Now: Filip Sablik

In recent years, Top Cow has seen revitalized growth with the reinvigorating of key titles Witchblade and Darkness, the 2007 crossover First Born, creative partnerships with Marvel Comics, and a new yearly initiative titled Pilot Season which showcases one-shot "pilot" issues of titles for fans to vote on to become ongoing series. As these continue to grow, Top Cow is producing a crossover for this summer, Broken Trinity, as well as the second slate of Pilot Season titles.

Yesterday we spoke with former Publisher and current President Matt Hawkins, and now we turn to newly minted Editor-In-Chief Filip Sablik. He joined the company in August 2006 as VP of Marketing & Sales, and in January of this year he was promoted to Publisher. Before that, Sablik was a five-year veteran of Diamond Distributors – the primary distributor for comics to comic book stores.

As Sablik has settled into the Publisher's chair, we talk to him now about Top Cow's past, present and future goals.

Newsarama: You're coming into a 16 year old comic company. As Publisher, how would you survey the comics publishing arm of Top Cow at this unique moment?

Filip Sablik: Honestly, I think we're in a better place now than any other time in the company's history (except possibly the launch of Image). Our properties are well established with rich publishing histories, but we're not completely bogged down in continuity issues. Our editorial department under the guiding hand of Rob Levin, and previously Renae Geerlings and Jim McLauchlin, is churning out some of the best material we've done to date. We're working with top notch talent like Ron Marz, Phil Hester, and Paul Dini as well as new and exciting guys like Michael Broussard, Stjepan Sejic, and Kenneth Rocafort. We have a solid backlist library that's consistently in print and available for new fans. We're incorporating innovative publishing initiatives like the Compendium line, Pilot Season, and a variety of retailer partnership programs.

So the advantage for me is I'm coming into the Publisher position as the company is on an upswing and now it's my job to continue that growth and hopefully accelerate it. The alternative is for me to bullocks the whole thing!

NRAMA: What's the first thing you did officially as the new publisher of Top Cow?

FS: Took an all expense paid trip to Disney World.

NRAMA: Wow.

FS: Just kidding, I think it was something much less exciting like tackling how we were going to achieve our goal of timely shipping in 2008. That or updating my signature block to read "Publisher".

NRAMA: While graphic novels are a growing segment, the single issues are still the bread and butter for Top Cow. Darkness has just been relaunched, Witchblade is revitalized, Madame Mirage is picking up steam and you have the winners of 2007's Pilot Season on their way. What do you see in this future?

FS: In 2008 you'll definitely see a focus on our core titles – Witchblade and The Darkness. We have consistent creative teams with a real clear vision on both books now and into the foreseeable future. We'll continue to do several series in "seasons" like Madame Mirage and Hunter-Killer, as we get story arcs in. We have some more Marvel crossovers slated, a new slate of Pilot Season books, the two winning Pilot Season series, a crossover with Virgin Comics, and Broken Trinity, which launched on Free Comic Book Day.

NRAMA: And long term, what are you aiming for Top Cow to be at in five, ten years?

FS: I'd love to shake up the lock down Marvel and DC have on that damn top 100 comic chart. I'd put Witchblade or The Darkness or Madame Mirage up against anything those companies are putting out and I think our sales should reflect that.

I'm eager to continue growing our book market business which has been fantastic this year. I'd love to get a new long term, ongoing series up and running.

NRAMA: From your point of view, what would you say Top Cow's business model is?

FS: Top Cow's model is focused on generating new lasting properties that we own and control, while growing our current properties like Witchblade and The Darkness with the goal of building those properties out into other media. We've had two incredibly successful mainstream adaptations with The Darkness video game and the Witchblade Anime with a third, the Wanted feature film on the way. With Matt Hawkins being able to focus more of his time on new business development, hopefully the next few years will see more projects like those come to fruition. At the core of our business model however is self-sustaining ongoing comic publishing supported by an aggressive trade program. We're in it for the long haul and we try to plan that way. We have publishing plans now that go well into 2009. So we're established enough to think long term and plan accordingly, but small enough to where we can adjust course quickly to meet the demands of the market.

NRAMA: How would you describe Top Cow comics as a brand?

FS: We give you what you can't get from the Big Two. That means horror, suspense, supernatural, fantasy, or sci-fi. We really focus on tackling genres that are successful in the mainstream in a way that's familiar and comfortable for comic fans. I describe as Witchblade as X-Files meets Homocide, but there's a connection to superhero mythology that's familiar to longtime comic fans. We're edgy, hip, smart and innovative with a certain amount of sex appeal.

NRAMA: In the past you've described Top Cow as a 'boutique publisher'. How would you describe that?

FS: We're not looking to put out 20 titles. Could we? Probably, but the quality would suffer. We endeavor to put out 4-5 titles a month with the highest level of quality across the board - writing, art, design, production, etc. We're not demanding more of ourselves, just better.

NRAMA: Last year's Pilot Season promotion seemed to be an success, so much that you've already got Pilot Season 2 underway. What did you learn from the first one?

FS: I think the biggest thing we learned is that a promotion like this can be done and the fans react to it. Whether it was positive or negative, the fans online definitely responded to what we were doing and how we did it. The most telling thing for me was there was a percentage of the fans who felt like the voting was rigged or somehow influenced by either us or some other outside influence. It just wasn't true. And believe me, I'm a cynical guy so I had MySpace's technical team verify we weren't getting hit by bots or script kiddies or other automated voting devices.

Some things I observed that we'll be looking to adjust in 2008's Pilot Season - we're going to brand the books as Pilot Season first and the title of the series second. I can't tell you how many stores I went into and the store owner had Angelus at one end of his new releases rack and Velocity at the other end. We definitely want to start providing content and promotion for Pilot Season earlier. We had a pretty steep learning curve in creating the Pilot Season page with MySpace, neither of us were used to working with the other and it took a while to get up and running. Nobody's fault, just part of the learning process.

NRAMA:. You've been said to be the spearhead for Pilot Season, back when you were VP of Marketing. Is this a bit of a precursor to what people can expect of you as a publisher?

FS: I think so, but I can't take sole credit for Pilot Season. The idea of doing a series of one shots for some of our established characters actually originated with Matt Hawkins and Rob Levin. I definitely pushed for the marketing/audience participation elements of the promotion and the MySpace partnership was something I spearheaded.

You will definitely see us continuing to push the boundaries of what a comic publisher does and what venues we get our comics out through. "This is the way it's always been done" doesn't hold a whole lot of weight in my office.

NRAMA: What are your plans and goals for Top Cow in the near term – 2008?

FS: Timely shipping. A renewed effort to strengthen our relationship with direct market retailers while continuing to look outward in what ways we can make our product available to more potential fans. Put out the best damn books we're capable of.

NRAMA: The movie version of Wanted is due in theatres this month. What is Top Cow doing to capitalize on this?

FS: We're working with Universal to cross promote the movie and the graphic novel. We're also working with them to get movie related events tied into the 2008 convention season. We released a "Director's Cut" hard cover earlier this year and we're continuing to keep the soft cover edition in print and readily available. We're also working with direct market retailers who want to set up a promotion with a local movie theater for the movie's release to give out free comic books.

NRAMA: Can you talk to us about Top Cow's efforts on the bookstore front? You've recently re-branded the Witchblade trade-dress. What is in store for the line as a whole?

FS: We've definitely given the book market a lot more attention in the last couple of years. It's an area of growth for us and a great way to hook in new or lapsed readers. The Witchblade trade re-branding was done with both the direct market and book market in mind. We actually gave the direct market a slight leg up on the first volume with an exclusive $4.99 price point (the book market edition is $9.99 - still a good deal for 6 full color issues). It's hard to get fans, old or new, to jump on with volume 10 of a trade series even if that's the logical, modern jumping on point. It's also unfair and unnecessary to ask fans to catch up on 100+ issues of continuity to start a series. So focusing the line on the Ron Marz era, which is what I would call the "modern" Witchblade, makes sense. Three trades and you're pretty much caught up. We'll continue this line until it makes sense to go with a new branding and a new jumping on point for fans.

We also put out a couple of things specifically targeted towards the book market this year. The Darkness Ultimate Collection is a great example, it's a "best of" trade that was done specifically to tie into the video game. It sold well in the direct market, but the sales in the book market have been fantastic. Conversely the Compendiums were done with the direct market in mind because they have such a high price point, but the book market really embraced the value of the format and helped push them into a third printing.

NRAMA: Top Cow has worked with a variety of publishers – most notably Image, publishing under it's banner for the 16 year history. Can you describe for us the Image / Top Cow relationship?

FS: Top Cow is part of Image Comics and Marc is one of the founders of Image. The relationship between Image and Top Cow is great right now. I worked with Eric Stephenson, Erik Larsen, Joe Keatinge, and the other guys at Image Central for years at Diamond and consider them good friends. I think Image is putting out some of the best material it has in years and I have great admiration for their line both as a fan and as a publisher. For the most part we do our thing and Image does their thing on the publishing side, but we do our best to coordinate with Image on our larger initiatives. We're also working on doing more public appearances together and cross-branding, so you'll see Image and Top Cow sharing space at a few conventions this year. We're proud of the Top Cow brand we've established, but also proud to be a part of Image and its legacy.

NRAMA: Top Cow also has a strong relationship with Marvel Comics, as a creative shop providing artwork. Can you tell us more about this relationship and how it works?

FS: It's been great. Marvel has had access to some of our top talent like Tyler Kirkham, Mike Choi, and Marc Silvestri. For guys like Tyler and Mike it means a chance to play with some of their favorite characters from their childhood, work with exclusive writers, and get exposed to a whole new audience which they hopefully bring back to some of their Top Cow projects. For Top Cow as a company it means access to some of Marvel's top properties to do crossovers with.

Rob Levin works very closely with Marvel's editorial department and coordinates the art production with them, but in many ways it's managed internally just like one of our books.

NRAMA: You worked for Top Cow as the VP of Marketing & Sales from September 2006 to just recently. Can you tell us what the high points and low points of that were?

FS: I think I mentioned it another interview, but the high point was probably finishing reading First Born #3 and realizing we had actually done a comic event the right way. It was epic, concise, and gave a great satisfying ending. I got done reading that and thought, "Hot damn, we did it right!"

The low point was having Ron Marz hand me my ass playing pool at the Baltimore Comicon. He never lets you forget...

NRAMA: For this job you have moved from Baltimore to Los Angeles, working in your own office to working in the Top Cow Headquarters. What's the move been like?

FS: It's been pretty crazy thus far, but an exciting crazy. Trying to coordinate all the move related issues while getting up to speed on the new job while bringing Mel Caylo, our new VP of Marketing & Sales, up to speed on the old job has been quite the juggling act.

NRAMA: And how would you describe the office environment of Top Cow?

FS: Pants optional.

NRAMA: Woah. Forget that request for the office tour, Filip.

FS: Seriously though it's great. The entire Top Cow crew is incredibly hard working and laid back. I love all of them and hopefully they'll still like me once they have to see my ugly mug every day.

NRAMA: Can you tell us exactly what your role as publisher encompasses?

FS: It's largely an overseeing role, which means working with Mel Caylo on Marketing and Sales initiatives, Rob Levin on Editorial issues, and our Production department in getting the books designed and out the door. There'll continue to be relationship building aspects of the job with creators, retailers, and fans. Being the public face of Top Cow (you'd think they would picked a pretty girl) and working on the big picture goals of our Publishing division. But we are a small company so pretty much pitching in where you're needed is part of any job description at the Cow. You'll probably still find me helping set up our booth at shows on the Thursday before the show kicks off.

NRAMA: Shipping hiccups have been a concern for Top Cow and comics retailers in recent years, highlighted by some lateness with the recent First Born miniseries last year. What's your take on this?

FS: It's a definite concern and probably the top priority for me coming in as Publisher. Matt Hawkins made a generous donation announcement for the Hero Initiative and a promise that we'd make timely shipping a reality in 2008. Now it's time to roll up the sleeves and make it happen.

Will we have exceptions? Sure, things happen that you cannot predict even with the best systems in place. But we're going to endeavor to make this the exception to the rule.

NRAMA: As comic industry followers can attest, crossovers are back in the comics consciousness and Top Cow had it's own with First Born back in 2007. How did that work out, and does Top Cow plan any others in the near future?

FS: First Born was our top selling book of 2007, so I guess it worked out pretty well. The fan and reviewer response to it was overwhelmingly positive and I think it put Stjepan Sejic on the verge of being a superstar artist (something which is regular gig on Witchblade is sure to do). We set out to tell an epic, meaningful story in three concise issues and give the fans an event that was satisfying and not drawn out or require a huge monetary commitment. I think we nailed it.

We're planning an event for 2008 called Broken Trinity which will be structure similarly and be a natural continuation of some of the themes from First Born.

NRAMA: Before we go – any other goals for 2008?

FS: Besides what I said previously? Oh, I'll add - make Rock Band replace Halo as the official Top Cow video game.

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