Top Cow's PILOT SEASON Sees Fierce Competition

It's that time again. Just like the last few autumns, Top Cow is launching an all-new Pilot Season, putting readers in control of their publishing future.

Taking a cue from television, Top Cow will publish several single-issue comic book "pilot" issues. Unlike TV, however, it won't be a bunch of suits behind-the-scenes deciding which gets picked up for a series. Instead, fans will vote on which book they like the most, and the winner will get a mini-series.

For more on Pilot Season, how it came to be, what's coming this year, and why fans should give it a chance, we talked with Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik. 


: Filip, why don't you start by telling us a bit about the origins of the Pilot Season concept at Top Cow.

Filip Sablik: Absolutely! Pilot Season started about six years ago, when Matt Hawkins and his then wife were watching American Idol and she asked why no one had ever done something like that for comics. The idea really stuck with Matt and he brought it to me and then VP of Editorial, Rob Levin. I was the VP of Marketing and Sales at the time. Matt really liked the idea of fans voting to determine what a project a publisher took on next. The three of us developed the program until we had something that was a combination of that American Idol style competition show and television pilot season. Each year, different creative teams come in an debut a number of new properties in the single "pilot" issues, which are like the comic equivalents of television pilot episodes. They each tell a complete story, but also leave with a cliffhanger or some sort of dangling thread that could lead to a larger story. The fans take control at that point and vote to tell Top Cow which series they'd like to see continue the most. The specifics of the competition have evolved from year to year, but the core concept has remained consistent.

The first year (2007), we picked five dormant Top Cow properties (Ripclaw, Velocity, Cyblade, Necromancer, and Angelus) and had five different creative teams come in and offer up fresh takes on each one. From the first time out we had a mix of up-and-coming and veteran creators. We partnered up with MySpace Comics that first year and brought in over four million votes. We were floored. The second year, we made our biggest change to the program, which was having each one of the concepts be new properties rather than reimagining existing properties.

Nrama: You've done this a few years now; do you see a significant sales boost each year? 


: You know, the sales have been pretty solid from year to year. There've been some fluctuations based on who the creative team was on a particular title or if a property looked particularly strong, but across the board it's been steady. We've also used Pilot Season to experiment with  digital initiatives and seen some great results with that. We did the math a while back and realized that between the print editions and digital reads we're closing in on a million copies of Pilot Season books being enjoyed by fans, which is something we're incredibly proud of. Plus over twenty new properties introduced through the program! Name another publisher initiative that's focused that heavily on the NEW.

Nrama: What level of participation do you have in the event as a whole; based on sales about what percentage do you think is picking up all eight titles?

Sablik: The voting is always brisk and heavily contested. It's hard to say how many people are picking up all the Pilot Season titles each year versus just picking up the ones that appeal to them, because we only ever see what the retailers order overall, not who buys the books at the store level. I suspect there is a good percentage that are picking them all up so they can make an educated vote, but the competition is set up so that there are varying genres, styles, and tones represented. Not everything is going to appeal to everyone. in fact, year after year, I'm surprised by what fans respond to. Something I may have liked personally, gets a more lukewarm response while another project that isn't my personal cup of tea gets a groundswell of support.  


: There are some pretty big, well-established names on some of these books; does it ever feel like a "waste" if only one of these gets picked when there are so many talented folks wanting to write and draw for Top Cow?

Sablik: It's kind of the hazard and the price of the program. We know it going in, as do the creators that participate. And we never say never, but the fact is, the fans are the best judge of what they want to see more of. They vote online and they vote with their wallets every week. That being said, I won't deny I had a drink or two when I realized I could have had a long form Ripclaw series from Jason Aaron before Marvel signed him to work on Wolverine. His magnificent beard haunts my dreams.

Nrama: Likewise, is there any worry that this will simply be a popularity contest, instead of a judgement of quality? That people will vote for City of Refuge because they're Dennis Calero fans or that Lance Briggs will post a link for Seraph on or such? 


: On some level, sure. But isn't everything a popularity contest? Spider-Man and Batman will always sell more than Witchblade simply virtue of being more widely recognized brands and popularity, regardless of how good Witchblade is and how fall the other two titles fall from grace in terms of creative quality. We like to think that the attention a guy like Lance Briggs is going to bring to comics, Top Cow, and Pilot Season ultimately benefits the initiative more than it hurts it. Lance pitched us a great concept and that's why he's in Pilot Season this year, not because he puts on a Bears uniform every weekend.

Conversely, we were really pleasantly surprised by the amazing support that Genius received in 2008. It was a concept we loved, but it's a series with a young female African-American lead declaring war on the LAPD. It should not have had a snowball's chance in hell of winning by conventional wisdom and yet it ended being one of the winners that year. Pilot Season has a way of surprising even us!

Nrama: We've seen the solicitations for October and November; but can you give us a quick rundown of each title with just one encompassing sentence for each? 


: Wow, tall order. Let me see if I can do this justice:

A dozen people are selected to repopulate the world inside an enclosed neighborhood environment after a post apocalyptic event in The Test.

The Beauty is a sexually transmitted disease, which seemingly only makes the infected more beautiful and perfect... until the first person mysteriously dies.

In a post apocalyptic City of Refuge where everyone is implanted with a chip that removes the human capacity for violence and only the internal security forces can take Freestone, a drug that removes the chip's effects; someone has released Freestone onto the streets...

Brett tried to save a woman and was killed for his trouble, but at his grave, the woman invokes dark magic and raises him as a teeming mass of worms dubbed Fleshdigger to seek revenge on the ones who hurt both of them.

Scientist Charles Witten is recruited by a government task force to hunt down a group of dimension hopping thieves, using technology that Witten conceived, but was never able to get to work in Theory of Everything.

Vince Martinez is an ex-con, ex-NASCAR driver who is tricked into driving a getaway vehicle during a bank robbery, but he'll soon realize he's part of something MUCH larger in Misdirection.

Anonymous is about a Special Forces operative who fakes his own death and tries to atone for his deeds by traveling the world and as an anonymous do-gooder using his old, lethal skill set.

Seraph is recruited by Heaven to be its soldier on Earth; imbued with great power, the soldier must live by the letter of God’s Law to maintain his blessings, but sometimes his missions make it impossible for him to do so.

Nrama: For the titles that don't win the new mini-series, do the rights go back to the creators so they can potentially pursue the story elsewhere? 


: The creators agree to work with Top Cow long term on these particular properties. And we've always said, we're not precluding doing a future series with properties that don't win, we're just saying that the winner gets top priority. Again, it's something that everyone goes into with both eyes wide open and if the creators don't like the deal, they're certainly welcome to take it elsewhere.

Nrama: You're involved directly once again as a writer here; what stops you from, when it's all said and done, saying "Eh, I'm publisher, Misdirection moves forward anyway suckas!" even if you lose?

Sablik: The votes are always the fans' votes and the competition has always been and will always be about letting the fans "take control." Last year, I had a project in the competition, Asset, as did Marc Silvestri with Crosshair, and Matt Hawkins with Forever. None of those properties won - 39 Minutes did and 7 Days from Hell came in a close second. The competition and initiative only works if it's run cleanly and honestly and that matters much more to me as a publisher than writing a few more issues of a single comic. I try to approach these projects, and encourage the other writers to do the same, that if this is all that you ever do on this property make sure you are happy with it.

That being said, every vote for Misdirection helps feed an orphan and every vote for those other books kills a kitten. 

Nrama: These all take place in individual universes, right? None of these are in the "Top Cow Universe?" Is there any desire to include the TCU again in future versions, like Velocity was in the past?

Sablik: Correct. Each book is its own property, its own world and none of them take place in the Top Cow Universe. We have kicked around the idea of at some point bringing some of these characters into the Top Cow Universe. And if the situation is right, you might see that happen at some point down the line. But the competition has definitely become about creating and introducing new ideas into the marketplace, so I don't think you'll see older Top Cow properties making appearances in Pilot Season in the future. 


: With a lot of other #1s on the shelves this fall and winter, why should comic readers invest in eight #1s that might not have #2s?

Sablik: You heard what I said about the orphans, right? Who doesn't want to feed orphans?

I would say that the reason to invest in Pilot Season is the same reason we go and see movies that may never have sequels. Each one is a complete story, which hopefully provides you with some great entertainment. If it wins you get more of a good thing, if not, you still have the pilot issue. The series not continuing doesn't diminish that enjoyment in my mind.

And again, Pilot Season is about the "new" - introducing new properties, worlds, concepts, characters and in many cases new creators to the world of comics. It's a concentrated blast of new, out-of-the-box ideas instead of  the same fifty-year-old concepts being dusted off and recycled for the tenth time. Not every one is going to hit on all marks and not all of these will be for every reader, but the concept of new ideas is definitely worth supporting.


: Anything else you'd like to leave our readers who are curious about Pilot Season with?

Sablik: This year the voting is going to be an elimination style system - with the first two weeks in December being unlimited voting, then we'll go down to the top four contestants; the next week will be one vote per person per day until we get down to the top two contestants; and finally, one week of one vote per person per day until we crown our winner at the end of the year.

Support the concepts and creators you like, they're putting a ton of work and love into each one of these projects. Also, you know, help feed some orphans.

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