It’s that time of year again — time for the premiere of the year’s most highly anticipated pilots. And no, we’re not talking about the eve of fall-season TV premieres, but rather time to get excited about Top Cow Productions’ annual comic book popularity contest, Pilot Season. Originally started in 2007 with a lineup of one-shots by various creators putting their own spin on established Top Cow characters, the contest where fans vote for their favorite book has evolved into a showcase for new, original content.
This year, eight books will be released — four of which have been teased in Image Comics’ recently released October solicits, the other half of which will likely be revealed at Saturday’s “We Create…Excitement” panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego — and fans will weigh in on which one they want to see get the ongoing treatment. Comic Book Resources spoke with Top Cow’s president, Matt Hawkins, and publisher, Filip Sablik, about the contest’s history, what fans can expect from this year’s crop and why the Pilot Season results are often surprising.
CBR News: How will this year’s titles be rolled out, and what will the voting be like?
Filip Sablik: We’ll be launching eight titles, starting with four in October and four in November. The voting will begin in December, and for the first two weeks fans will be able to vote as often as they like for those two weeks. After two weeks, we’ll take the top four vote-getters and fans will vote for one week, but will be limited one vote per fan per day. [Once we’re] down to the top two vote-getters, again voting [will be limited to] one vote per fan per day until we have the ultimate winner.
Matt, you mentioned in our previous conversation that Pilot Season came out of your wife wondering why there wasn’t an “American Idol” for comics. How long did it take to go from that idea to actually making Pilot Season comics a reality?
Matt Hawkins: Two years and an “ex-wife” please, heh. It took a while for me to develop a strategy to make it work, then after that we had to identify which books we’d be doing and who was doing them. The first year and original intent was to give older Top Cow characters a fresh take and potential new life.
You’re announcing this year’s slate of Pilot Season comics at Comic-Con International. What can fans expect from the next crop, and can you mention any of the creators involved?
Sablik: The one thing that has been consistent with Pilot Season is that fans can expect diversity! Diverse creators, diverse concepts and characters, and diverse genres will be represented. We’ve got another great batch of creators involved this year, including Top Cow creators like Joshua Hale Fialkov, Rahsan Ekedal and Phil Hester, other comic creators like Shannon Eric Denton, Dennis Calero and Chris DiBari that we’ve been wanting to work with, as well as screenwriters like Morgan David Foehl, Alan McElroy and Dan Casey. I think the biggest surprise is a certain Chicago Bears linebacker that loves “The Darkness.”
Hawkins: We go out of our way to try to ensure that we have a broad variety of content from a broad net of creators, as well.
Was it always part of the plan to start the first year with existing Top Cow characters and then move on to original projects?
Hawkins: The intent of it originally was to do older Top Cow characters and repurpose them with new takes, whatever. When it worked as well as it did and we saw how many people voted, etc., we realized that doing “old” Top Cow characters would only last so long, so we decided to tweak it and make it an annual event with new characters.
Sablik: The concept for Pilot Season was unprecedented in comics; using established characters the first year was a great way to test the concept with proven properties, so it felt a bit safer. Once we saw how retailers and fans reacted and supported the concept, we immediately started talking about bringing in new properties.
Hawkins: By the time we published the first year, we already knew at that point that if it worked we would be doing original stuff following.
What do you guys look for in a potential Pilot Season issue?
Hawkins: Something with a central, identifiable, cool character with a twist in an interesting and unique world environment. With only a single issue to get it set, you need to focus on who the main character is, why they matter, why we should give a shit and what the primary conflict is…all in a unique and badass world setting.
Sablik: A really smart high concept and something we haven’t seen before. Whenever I talk to a creator about pitching for Pilot Season, I stress that it’s not the right format for their epic saga that needs multiple issues to set up. Pilot Season is built for ideas that are easy and grab you immediately. We’re also always looking for a good mix of concepts every year; we don’t want to end up with four zombie books, for example.
What’s the overall process like for choosing the contenders? Do you talk to creators, have them pitch and then pick from the results, or do you start off asking people and integrating their ideas?
Sablik: The former. We get pitched ideas pretty consistently now throughout the year because Pilot Season is well established as a venue for launching new projects. It’s by invitation only, so we’re looking at creators that have either caught our attention through their other work or might be creators we’ve wanted to work with for some time but haven’t found the right project to collaborate on. Then Matt, Marc Silvestri and I sit down and sift through the pitches to see which ones we respond to and think will work the best in the Pilot Season format.
Has there been a Pilot Season book you guys were sure was going to be the frontrunner that wound up not winning?
Hawkins: Yes. Every year I am surprised by what wins. Although I routinely ask people not to vote for mine.
Sablik: It’s happened a number of times where a title comes on strong, but then for whatever reason can’t hold on to their lead. Probably one of the most notable examples is in 2008 when it looked like “Urban Myths” was going to be one of the winners, and then in the 11th hour “Genius” surged ahead in the voting to take the lead.
Have you ever had a situation where one of the Pilot Season books is so good that you take it out of the running and just make it an ongoing?
Hawkins: No, but not because they aren’t good enough, but just because the pitches and the development are very specific for this, and we have to narrowband what we do because we get hundreds of pitches.
Sablik: Part of the fun of Pilot Season is putting that decision in the hands of the fans!
The first round of Pilot Season books will be available in October from Top Cow, with the second following in November.