In 2007, Top Cow launched a unique experiment that proved quite successful for the publisher. Dubbed “Pilot Season,” the initiative saw Top Cow release five one-shot comics, all featuring different creative teams and different characters. When all five issues were finally completed and published, the readers got to vote on which two books they felt deserved to get their own ongoing series in 2008.
Last month, Top Cow announced the winners of the first Top Cow Pilot Season, as voted on by members of the social networking site MySpace. “Velocity” by writer Joe Casey — and an artist to be named later — and “Cyblade” by writer Johsua Hale Fialkov and artist Rick Mays were the 2007 winners, with new series set to launch this Fall.
Details of the second Pilot Season were announced today at Wizard World Los Angeles and there are some big differences this time around. With the first Pilot Season, comic creators tackled previously existing creators. Pilot Season 2008, with two exceptions, features an entirely new batch of creations and a bunch of creators we’ve never seen working for the Cow before.
CBR News spoke with Top Cow editor Rob Levin to see how Pilot Season 2008 differs from the first and to get a peak at this new line-up of one-shots.
Rob, thanks for joining me today. Before we get to the individual books, let’s talk about how this second Pilot Season will differ – if at all – from the first Pilot Season.
It’s a whole new ballgame. For one, people know what Pilot Season is all about now. Last year, I think many people didn’t know what the heck Pilot Season was. I think we did a great job in promoting it, and everyone was receptive to the idea, but there were many who just didn’t actually figure out, “What is Pilot Season?” The concept was fairly simple, and it didn’t take long to explain, I just think until the books were in-stores and even once voting had begun, there was some hesitance to wrap their brains around it.
But, the big difference is the books. Instead of dusting off some tried and true Top Cow characters for new solo adventures, this year the books are all new. And while two of the books have had life in other forms, trust me when I say that it’s all new.
Will you still handle the voting process through MySpace? Any changes in that regard?
Both Top Cow and MySpace were ecstatic about the response to Pilot Season last year. I don’t think anyone saw us getting 4 million votes. We’re going to keep some things close to the vest for now, but we’re very much interested in continuing our partnership with MySpace for Pilot Season and other avenues and I know we’re talking to them about plans. The goal, as always, is to knock socks right off.
Alright, we have six books to cover and we should get a little bit of information about each. Let’s start with the two May releases, “Lady Pendragon,” created years ago by Top Cow President Matt Hawkins, who’s back to handle the writing with artist Eru.
Man, I’m not sure I want to answer this question. One wrong word and this might be the last interview I ever give.
“Lady Pendragon” is about two different eras. In one, a structure reminiscent of Stonehenge is found on Mars along with scrolls and a sword embedded in an ancient stone. A novelist named Jennifer Drake is dragged into the whole ordeal when it turns out that the scrolls, once translated, exactly match passages in her novels. The other era is the Dark Ages, where Excalibur was taken up by Guinivere after King Arthur’s death to prevent a Saxon invasion and heal her land. Or at least that’s all I’m comfortable saying right now. The first five pages are going to change a whole lot of things.
“Lady Pendragon” sees Matt returning to a character he created 11 years ago, right?
Yeah, I think it was one of those concepts Matt always had kicking around in his brain, and the creation of Image allowed not only for him to get it out there, but for the book to be a success.
I’m guessing being President of the company it wasn’t hard for Matt to get his book green lit, but talk about that a bit — how did this end up in the queue?
We don’t play favorites here. And on that note, don’t forget to look for “The Darkness: Butcher,” written by Rob Levin, in-stores soon!
I’m guessing despite the fact he’s the President of Top Cow, Matt’s book still has to perform well in the final voting to be picked up, right?
We’ve actually joked about this quite a bit. He says he’s not concerned with winning, but for all I know this a clever ploy to lull us all into a false sense of security. Did I mention every issue of “Witchblade” and “The Darkness” will feature Lady Pendragon until Pilot Season voting is completed?
At the end of the day, there’s no Pilot Season without Matt being on board, and if he really wanted to rig it, I imagine we’d have seen another Matt Hawkins creation win last year’s Pilot Season. But “The Necromancer” (co-created with Joshua Ortega and Francis Manapul), didn’t pull out a victory, so I think it’s safe to say all books are on a level playing field.
How did artist Eru get involved with this?
Matt and I were talking about style and of course who would be available. We had an awesome time working with Sami Basri of Imaginary Friends Studios on Witchblade for a spell and I’d been itching to work with some of his crazy talented studio mates. A few guys did samples (one of which landed on another book) and Eru’s stuff just sang the right song. Schedules lined up, and he was hired.
The second May release is “Twilight Guardian” by Troy Hickman and artist Reza.
“Twilight Guardian” is actually the other book to have a previous life (along with “Lady Pendragon”). It was a mini-comic self-published by Troy Hickman, of “Common Grounds” fame, about a woman who patrols her neighborhood to keep it safe from evil. But she’s not a super hero, and her neighborhood is just the same as any other suburban neighborhood. She’s going through a tough time in her life and she’s read a lot of comics. She feels this is her purpose, so she’s keeping the streets safe. Or, safer, I suppose. And as mentioned, Reza is another guy from IFS that landed on this book. We needed someone that could toe a fine line between slice of life and the typical panache of super hero books, and he’s got the right vibe. One of his design sketches said everything we needed to know about the character in a single static image, and that’s not always easy to do.
Coming up in June you’ve got “Alibi” with Joshua Hale Fialkov and Jeremy Haun. Tell us about “Alibi.”
“Alibi” is essentially the story of an assassin who can’t be caught, because even when you catch him, the targets still end up dead. How does he do it? Well, I guess you’ll just have to read the book. Jeremy’s pages have started rolling in and man did we get it right on the art. If you thought he was good before, watch out.
Joshua is a holdover from the first pilot season — how did he get picked up for this second pilot season? Did he pitch you or did you ask him to come in?
Hey, hey, man. Josh isn’t just a holdover, he’s “The People’s Choice.” If you remember, we were quite fond of calling Witchblade artist Stjepan Sejic “Croatian Painting Sensation,” for a while. Well, ever since Pilot Season 2007 voting ended, I haven’t called Josh by his name even once. I just printed up his name placard for the con this weekend, and it says, “The People’s Choice.” We had been batting his name around for more projects, and we decided to add “Alibi” to the Pilot Season mix, we thought, hey, TPC (for short) could do it. He came in, gave the concept a few extra wrinkles to really flesh it out, and it was a done deal.
“Geinus” is also coming in June, by Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman and artist Afua Richardson. Give us some background on “Genius.”
Background is a good way to put it. I met Marc on (the now-defunct Warren Ellis forum) The Engine back in early 2006, and we had done a little correspondence. We met up in San Diego that year and he introduced me to his writing partner Adam and we talked about what Top Cow was looking for. They pitched me a concept I still really like, but for some reason we haven’t done it. Fast forward to last February, and the New York Comic Con, where they gave me a new pitch called “Genius.” My first thought was, “We must do this book.” My second thought was, “Are readers ready for this book?” The latter was the only thing that prevented this from being done sooner. I love new books, and I wish there were concepts and genres being tried out in American comics. There are exceptions, but we’re still very superhero heavy, especially in terms of what sells.
Does this concept sound like anything else out there?
Alexander, Hannibal, Napoleon, Patton. What if the greatest military minds of our generation were born in strife, surrounded by violence and combat since birth? When the gauntlet is dropped, the question isn’t “How did 17-year-old Destiny Ajaye unite the gangs of South Central into a killer army and declare war on the LAPD?” No, the question is, “Can anyone stop her?”
I think this is one of the best books you’re likely to read this year, but it’s not for those who just want to see people flying and punching and punching through continuity walls.
This was actually one of the harder books to find the right artist on, because we wanted realism, a street sensibility, and something unique. Afua brings all of that and more to the table.
We move in to July with “The Core” by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Kenneth Rocafort, one of Top Cow’s new exclusive artists. Talk about “The Core.”
“The Core” is the most dangerous place in the universe. How do you not know that?
“The Core” is the center of the known universe where, as the density of systems has resulted in a higher frequency of life, much older and well-established species have created empires, federations and cooperatives radiating out from the foundation’s edge. As all life originated from the center, the Core reflects today’s Middle East in that it is war torn, has been controlled by different cultures multiple times and is the origin of all shared belief systems. In the book, the political appointment of the first human to an extraterrestrial Special Forces unit makes the solider have to first earn the respect of his peers and then respect for his species.
Jonathan has some great ideas, and Kenneth is, let’s face it, phenomenal. He’s done some designs for the book, and they’re cooler than anything I’ve ever thought up in my head.
And we finish in July with “Urban Myths” by Jay Faerber and artist Jorge Molina. What is “Urban Myths?”
In New Athens, you have a modern-day world where people still worship Greek Gods and the Gods still meddle in our lives. It’s a neo-mythic book about a Private Investigator nicknamed Jack Medusa, who’s actually the son of Medusa. He’s been forced to wear a metal mask all his life since he inherited mom’s curse. It’s really about this guy looking for answers and looking for a way to connect with a world that can never truly see him. I believe Jay initially described the book as “Clash of the Titans” meets “Chinatown,” and that’s fairly fitting. The world is just starting to come alive through Jorge’s work, and it’s a place I can’t wait to see more of.
Talk a bit about the process of setting up Pilot Season 2008 — was there a specific tone you were looking to hit across all the books? Did you have a specific goal in mind when setting up these books?
I can talk until I’m blue in the face about what kind of books I personally want, or I can seek out things that could sit nestled comfortably between “Witchblade” and “The Darkness.” But the great thing about Pilot Season is that it allows us to break out of our comfort zone. A lot of people think they know what to expect from Top Cow, but my goal, especially with Pilot Season, is to make sure that the only thing they expect is quality. I’m going to throw out challenging books and nostalgic books and hybrids and reinventions. If it’s good, I want to do it. If the talent is good, regardless of name value, I want to work with them.
The only other caveat I had was, can we set up this world in 22 pages? There was one pitch I got that I really loved, but the writer and I couldn’t figure out how to make it work in the Pilot Season format. These books all work in terms of establishing themselves fully and leaving the door open for bigger and better stories to follow. Anyone who complains about decompression in today’s comics should run, not walk, to pick up each Pilot Season 2008 book.
Why these six books in particular? What was it about these six ideas that appealed to you?
It’s hard to say. It all starts with the story and the characters. I read a pitch and say, “Is this a book I want to read?” And that’s the first of many questions I ask myself before deciding if it’s something we want to consider doing or not. Each of these books had somethings, or a lot of somethings, that we can get behind. Again, Pilot Season isn’t rigged. It’s not, “Pick the good book and we’ll pretend we gave you a choice.” We’re busting our butts trying to get each book up to snuff, so that we’re putting out the best six original books betwixt May and July.
How many of these books were being considered for Pilot Season One, but just didn’t make it because they needed more time? Or are all these new?
It’s possible that “Lady Pendragon” was mentioned as part of Pilot Season last year, but essentially these are all new additions. We didn’t know, when the idea was hatched, if it was a one-time deal or not. As the concept expanded and we saw the possibilities, we wanted to do more. More, at least this year, meant different, and the launching of new properties.
The creative teams you have set-up here are a fascinating assortment of very talented creators with wildly different background. Talk a bit about assembling this creative crew. You have some who have a previous history with Top Cow, yet with others like Mark, Jonathan, I believe Adam and maybe even Jay, they’re new to Top Cow. How’d they all come to be involved?
I’ll just do a quick rundown of everyone and we’ll see:
- Matt Hawkins – I think he’s done some work with us in the past.
- Eru – I’ve been working with IFS for about a year now, and it’s been great.
- Troy Hickman – I think he was a [Former Top Cow EiC] Jim McLauchlin discovery, and the man can flat-out write character, as seen by his Eisner-nominated “Common Grounds” series (go buy the TPB already!)
- Reza – Did some samples for us, and really impressed. Another fine IFS talent.
- Marc Bernardin & Adam Freeman – Met on The Engine, and they’ve been growing their comic pedigree with books like “The Highwaymen” and “Monster Attack Network.” The stars aligned and we found a project that worked.
- Afua Richardson – She had actually sent something to our submissions editor and Marc Silvestri saw something in the work. I had been keeping an eye on projects for her, and it just happened to work out that she’s a perfect fit for “Genius.”
- Fialkov – TPC, need I say more
- Jeremy Haun – Jeremy and I have known each other for a few years now and I’ve been a fan of his work since “Paradigm.” Unless I saw something earlier, in which case I was a fan when I saw whatever that was. He’s damn good and I think in the next 6-12 months he’s going to be a superstar. I think he’s too nice to climb over anyone to get to the top, but his work is taking him there.
- Jonathan Hickman – One Hickman just wasn’t enough, so we found another. But seriously, he blew us all away with “The Nightly News” and I had read some advanced copies of “Pax Romana” and Red Mass.” He’s got a really unique voice, which many these days lack.
- Kenneth Rocafort – I wanted to work with the guy forever and ever. I suggest him for every book, even when it already has an artist.
- Jay Faerber – Jay actually wrote the “Strykeforce” relaunch for us back in 2004 when I started with the company. He’s been plugging along launching his creator-owned stuff and doing a damn fine job of it. He contacted me out of the blue when he heard about Pilot Season and asked if he could pitch. Then he won me over, as “Dodge’s Bullets,” another detective yarn from him, was a damn fun read.
- Jorge Molina – Another of those submissions success stories. He had been in touch with Phil Smith, our submissions editor, and had great, really stylized stuff. I immediately sparked to the uniqueness of his work and he worked on a sample script with our characters. We kept in touch, and I showed Jay some samples. He really won me over when designs on UM came in. It’s going to look like nothing else out there.
Pretty much everything came about by us reaching out to a writer, or vice versa, and then I worked with each of the writers to bring an artist that matched the book. Sounds simple enough, but it’s a really difficult, time-consuming process.
When we spoke about Pilot Season One, you spoke about how launching each separate book wasn’t exactly easy — in terms of the amount of work, it was more like launching six new series versus just six one-shots. Did you learn anything from the first Pilot Season that’s helped you this second time around?
Apparently not. In this case, it’s been even more work. Last year all the basic designs were done, so it was easy to get the ball rolling and get people in a groove. Here, it’s all coming from scratch. Even “Lady Pendragon” and “Twilight Guardian” are going to look and feel new, despite being previously established. I have a love-hate relationship with one-shots right now.
Any parting words for those readers interested in Pilot Season?
Take control. I’ve heard from both fans and creators who were either very happy or very upset by the results of Pilot Season 2007. Like any election, you have to get out there and vote or you’re not allowed to complain. If you vote and still want to complain, I can provide you with Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik’s home phone number and you can take it up with him.
Also, I really do hope people take a chance on these books. Like the X-Men have taught us, people often hate and fear what they don’t understand. These are going to be damn good books, but they don’t exactly fit into comfortable comic book niches. Do yourself a favor and venture out of your comfort zone. Somebody once said, “Regret not what you do, but what you don’t do.” Wise advice, so don’t miss out on Pilot Season this year.