Although the 1930s and 1940s have the moniker as the Golden Age of Comics, these recent years in comics have shown a new golden age with a multitude of titles, characters, creators and concepts bursting forth from all corners of the globe. There are more comics being released today than ever before, and with that abundance of competition it’s hard for a new concept to get footing – no matter how good it might be. Trying to decide what to publish has always been a hard decision, so comic publisher Top Cow has been giving the fans the decision with their yearly Pilot Season event.
Each year for the past three years, Top Cow has published several one-shots under the Pilot Season banner featuring new creations – with fans given the opportunity to vote on which of the group they’d like to see in its own series. Each year, two titles are chosen out of the group and promoted to a full-length series. Each year, creators in all shapes and sizes – from newcomers like Joshua Hale Fialkov to veterans like Joe Casey – put their ideas to the test to see what fans want to see. But now in Top Cow’s third iteration of the Pilot Season event, Top Cow has drafted a comics dream team.
For this year’s Pilot Season, writer Robert Kirkman and artist Marc Silvestri took the helm as the idea men. It was actually Kirkman’s idea to do it, and once he was on-board there was no stopping him.
“It feels pretty awesome,” said Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik, who had a hand in the creation of Pilot Season several years ago. “I think this is one of the more exciting and innovative events we do every year. The fact that Robert approached us is a pretty good indication that the idea has some merit!”
After years of separate creative teams on each of the Pilot Season entries, this year’s event has Kirkman writing all the books. Kirkman, who was recently inducted into the inner circle of Image Comics as a partner, had been following the previous years of Pilot Season as a fan before he decided to stick his toes in the water.
“Back in 2007 when they first started Pilot Season, I bought all the issues,” said Kirkman. “I thought it was a really cool way to let the readers be in charge of who gets a book. The second year was even cooler because it became a showcase not just for new creators on existing characters, but they were each bringing new characters and concepts to the line.
“Coming out of years at Marvel, I had a bunch of ideas that I hadn’t been able to do up until that point. I had more ideas than the time to do them, and Pilot Season seemed like a way to get those out there as a contest to let fans decide which ones got fleshed out more. Luckily, Top Cow seemed open to it and here we are.”
When asked why he decided to pitch his hat in for not just one title but all of them, Kirkman admitted a bit of brashness.
“Because I’m very foolish,” Kirkman said. “The whole idea was that I had an abundance of ideas that I wanted to get out into the marketplace, but I just didn’t have time to do it. I guess I could have just done one each year or so, but I thought it would be more fun to have my concepts competing against each other.
“I’m also extremely insecure,” said Kirkman. “Losing to others is upsetting, but losing to myself is okay. No matter who wins – I win.”
After the initial talks between Kirkman and Sablik, the possibility of it happening seemed promising – but then he asked for something special.
“When Robert approached us and said he wanted to write all of the books, I was immediately excited,” explained Marc Silvestri, who in addition to being an artist is the founder of Top Cow. “Then he told me he wanted me to co-create, design the characters and the covers, which is when my excitement took a nosedive,” Silvestri laughs.
“No, seriously, I've had such a blast working with Robert on Image United. His enthusiasm is so infectious I jumped at the chance to collaborate with him again.”
As the top dog at Top Cow, everything the enterprising publisher puts out goes across Silvestri’s desk, but the busy artist and businessman had yet to participate in the contest before.
“I've always loved the concept of Pilot Season,” said Silvestri. “I mean, how cool is it to see all of these new ideas, and then have the fans get involved? The first year was a ton of fun for me because three of the issues were about Cyberforce characters. It's always great to see different writers and artists do their take on your "babies." And then last year, I had a ton of fun reading the books as a fan. All of the concepts were incredible but I remember Alibi and Genius sticking out for me.”
With Kirkman locked in to write and Silvestri down to help develop and lend is artistic abilities, it now came to decide what the Pilot Season titles would be.
“I figured out I might as well go for broke,” explained the writer. “I told [Marc and Top Cow] the 5 concepts which were in pretty rough form; I hadn’t fleshed them out yet, but the initial nuggets and snippets were all there. I had all the tiles, but aside from that I like to keep all my concepts pretty loose so I can work with the artist to develop it further; in this case, Marc.
“It’s been pretty exciting to work with that guy, and we’re both Image partners so we know each other pretty well at this point,” said Kirkman.
This year’s Pilot Season will see five books released. Joining the previously released books Murderer, Demonic and Stealth are Stellar on March 31st and Hardcore at the end of April.
Kirkman’s ascension to Image partner joining the likes of Marc Silvestri and others seemed to provoke several new projects, such as Image United. Kirkman, the first partner with the sole discipline of writing was charged to write an epic crossover bringing in the characters of the six other Image partners, all primarily known as artists. They then took the script and illustrated it in a joint process, with each artist drawing his own characters – in Marc Silvestri’s case, Cyberforce and Witchblade. As it turns out, this project brought Kirkman and Silvestri closer together when it came to work on Pilot Season.
“Having Marc involved with this key Top Cow event was very significant,” explained Sablik. And it was key in Robert’s mind for this event to work. It couldn't just be about him taking over the event, it had to be bigger and part of the larger movement of the Image partners collaborating and building excitement for Image as a whole. It also made it a concretely Top Cow event with Marc's participation. “
Kirkman and Silvestri’s collaboration first developed over phone and email, but they convened at 2009’s Comic-Con International: San Diego to sit down and finalize these five titles.
“I would have a three or four sentence pitch for each, which he would ask questions about and I would answer,” said Kirkman of the meeting. “Sometimes I couldn’t answer, but regardless he was sketching the whole time. That’s basically how it went, and we went through the concepts and he gave me input on some stuff. It was a really great back and forth.”
Once the titles were fleshed out, then came the task of finding artists to draw the books. Although Silvestri was up for drawing the concept work, his busy schedule didn’t permit him to draw all the projects. So when it came time to find the artists, Silvestri worked with Kirkman and Top Cow staff to come up with the ideal illustrators for each book.
“Some artists I suggested, others were guys Robert wanted to work with, and other ideas came from Filip (Sablik) and Phil (Smith),” explained Silvestri. “I remember I immediately wanted to bring in Joe Benitez when Robert and I started talking about Demonic, but then again Joe's one of my favorite designers so I love involving him in a project whenever I can. I also can't wait to see what Brian Stelfreeze comes up with for Hardcore, that guy is hands down one of the best in the industry.”
Of the five artists chosen, most are well-known in Top Cow Circles. Joe Benitez worked on several Top Cow books including both Weapon Zero and The Darkness, while Nelson Blake II and Sheldon Mitchell are currently work out of the Top Cow studio. Brian Stelfreeze had worked with Top Cow on one previous occasion, and Bernard Chang is someone they’ve been trying to work with for years.
Each year Pilot Season has run, it’s always been a tight competition between the five titles vying at a chance for a full-length series. When asked if the sales of each book correlated to who won, Publisher Filip Sablik explained it isn’t always the case.
“Last year, one of the [winning] titles was won of the top selling issues and the other one was not,” explained Sablik. “The first year, neither of the winners were the best selling titles. In both years none of the winners were the lowest selling titles. How's that for a convoluted answer?”
Although there hasn’t been a clear correlation between the relative sales of the Pilot Season books and the winners, Sablik is careful to point out that his numbers aren’t the perfect measure.
“I should also point out that all of the pilot issues sell in the same basic range and the sales numbers I have only reflect retailer orders, not necessarily the sell through.”
The voting process for this year’s Pilot Season books will take place online as in past years, with polling stations set up at Topcow.com, the Pilot Season Myspace page and several other sites. Voting will begin after the release of the fifth and final book, Hardcore, and will last for two weeks.
Regardless of the figures, one thing’s for sure in this year’s competition: who’s in the winner’s circle.
“It's anyone's game. You didn’t hear this from me, but this Robert Kirkman kid has a pretty solid chance of winning,” Silvestri said with a smile.