SDCC '12: PILOT SEASON Returns on Mark Waid's THRILLBENT

Announced Saturday at the “Top Cow: We Create... Innovation” panel at Comic-Con International: San Diego, the California-based publisher is taking that “innovation” literally. Not only is the relaunch of Cyber Force scheduled to be free for readers and use Kickstarter, but the publisher’s annual comics competition Pilot Season is joining the digital revolution by partnering with Mark Waid and John Rogers’ digital comics portal

Scheduled to begin later this year, Top Cow’s 2012 Pilot Season titles will be freely available at for people to read, comment and vote. In this year’s outing, five titles will vie for the chance to become a full-length mini-series. These five titles will compete in a primary of sorts, with people voting their favorite out of the five books. The top two titles will then enter a final round where they’ll release a second “chapter” of each of their stories and people will return to pick the ultimate winner. The titles will be announced in August, with the titles to launch later in the year.

Newsarama spoke with Top Cow President Matt Hawkins and’s Mark Waid earlier this week about this exciting announcement, and the possibilities of the digital format and this year’s contestants.

Newsarama: How did this partnership between Top Cow and Thrillbent come about?

Mark Waid: I’ve always had a good relationship with Top Cow, and we’ve been talking for years now about how to make digital comics work, so a partnership seemed a natural fit.

Matt Hawkins: I read about Thrillbent from Mark’s press releases and interviews online. I knew he was onto something and when he started getting crap about it I wanted to somehow get involved. The direct market is very important to us, but since retailers have told us repeatedly that supporting something like Pilot Season is difficult for print publishing this seemed a logical move. The issue for comic stores is that it’s difficult and they feel wasteful to promote new series that may never conclude. We reached out to Mark, we met and here we are.

Waid: When we all sat down face-to-face, they discussed how they envisioned this year’s annual Pilot Season project to be something that could really benefit from digital-only distribution. They’ve got the content, we’ve got the means, so I didn’t hesitate to agree to work together on this.

Nrama: Having this go all-digital is a big step, as is doing it for free. You talked about it somewhat Matt, but can you explain more how you came to the realization that digital was the best bet?

Hawkins: Echoing a bit my previous answer but the primary reason is that we want as many people to view these as possible. In years past we would sell 3-5k of each of these in print in comic book stores, which are terribly low numbers for us, but when we put them online for a week or two for free we’d get 100K or so downloads in a short period of time and millions of votes from these same 100k. In talking to comic storeowners the feedback they received was that the program did not work for them. So going online as a free reader model seemed the logical way to go.

Nrama: Not to harp, but will any of these Pilot Season titles see a print edition at all?

Hawkins: Anything is possible and the winner will receive a mini-series that will eventually be collected into a printed graphic novel. This the retailers can support as it becomes an OGN in a way and something they can monetize.

Nrama: With this partnership, people are probably assuming (and hoping) that Mark and his Thrillbent partner John Rogers will be creating and writing all of these. Would that be correct?

Waid: In what? My copious spare time? No, if only I (or we) could... but while we have the option of participating, and we may, my main creative contribution will be to walk the artists and writers through formatting for digital--explaining what we’ve learned that works, what doesn’t work, and what sorts of things have to be kept in mind for this format--how to stay light with the amount text, how to let the art breathe, how to best use some of the layering tools that digital allows us, that sort of thing. Helping creators new with digital understand what “feels” like the right amount of content per installment, how to end a story beat.

Nrama: Are you able to disclose any of the titles vying in this year’s Pilot Season at all?

Hawkins: We are still working out which projects will participate. Since Mark agreed to host the contest this year on his site we offered him a slot for a project so he’ll have one if he wants it. Silvestri will have one. The others are not 100% locked in yet. Last year we had over 100 pitches to sort through. I’m combing through all of them now. We should be able to announce the final line up in early August.

Nrama: Mark, this dovetails into your recent launch of How do you think your online comics publishing will work with the unique contest nature of Pilot Season?

Waid: It’s tailor-made for it. I love the American Idol-style of week-to-week voting, where only the strongest and most well-regarded series continue from week to week until we winnow it down to a “winner.” Creators have a new chance each week to win the audience over, and I’m eager to see how that alone affects the mechanics of storytelling!

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