REFLECTIONS: Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik, Part I

Between a major summer crossover, the reinvention of a classic Top Cow character, a second Pilot Season (by which readers are able to vote for several one-shots they would like to see go to ongoing series), the "Freshmen Summer Special" and more, Top Cow publisher Filip Sablik is one busy guy. Indeed, there is so much going on at Top Cow that he wants to talk about that it cannot be contained in a single REFLECTIONS interview.

This week, Sablik talks about "Witchblade," Top Cow's summer crossover "Broken Trinity," and his dream team of writer Ron Marz and painter Stjepan Sejic, who make up the creative force on both projects. It was recently announced that both would remain the on "Witchblade" through issue #150 (they are on #118 now), and would be producing it monthly. That means the year 2010 for those not counting at home.

Then, of course, there is "The Darkness" and its upcoming reinvention by writer Phil Hester. The re-launch of the title is already controversial because of hints that huge upsets and deaths in the world of "The Darkness" are imminent.

Also discussed this week is the upcoming "Freshmen Summer Special," the little-comic-that-could that became a huge sleeper hit after the first trade paperback was released. Created by Seth Green and Hugh SterbakovThe story of a bunch of college freshmen who were suddenly imbued with superpowers hit a chord with readers, and writer Hugh Sterbakov is back to provide them with more college binging.

Top Cow Publisher Filip Sablik speaks to REFLECTIONS about all that and more.

CBR: What illegal drugs are you feeding Stjepan Sejic to make him able to paint "Witchblade" every month and paint your upcoming crossover "Broken Trinity?"

Filip Sabik: Copious amounts of Starbucks. [laughs] What is really funny and what people are not going to believe is that he told me he gets about eight hours of sleep a night and he gets to hang out with his wife and play videogames with her! According to him, he's just one of those guys who has developed techniques and shortcuts. He paints digitally, and a lot of what he has done is create custom brushes that help to speed his process up. If he makes a mistake, he can just hit the "undo" button instead of having to wait for it to dry.

He's a traditionally trained painter, whereas a lot of the guys who have painted comics in the past are the type of artists who learn to draw and then to paint. As opposed to drawing everything out and then painting on top of it, he starts with shapes and forms like a portrait painter would, and slowly builds layer upon layer. All that contributes to him working faster than the average painter. If I could clone him, I would.

He's currently working with his wife, who is also an artist, and bringing her up to speed on everything. So hopefully soon we will have a husband/wife team working for us.

Is he going to be doing "Witchblade" and "Broken Trinity" concurrently or will there will a break to let him do the crossover?

Both. He is doing six books in three months. I wouldn't believe it myself except I just saw him turn the entire issue of "Witchblade" #119 around in two weeks. The one thing we did for "Broken Trinity" to ease the process is that we brought in Phil Hester to do layouts. Even though his style is much different than what Stjepan does, he is taking a lot of the storytelling efforts out of it, because often for the artist the breaking down of the story is the hardest part.

It puts the crunch on Ron Marz, who has to turn around "Broken Trinity" faster than he expected in order to give Phil time to lay it out. It's a careful balancing act, but right now we are pretty confident we can get everything out on time.

And to top all that off, we've also got Ron writing two of the three "Broken Trinity" tie-ins, which are "Broken Trinity: Darkness," "Broken Trinity: Angelus" and "Broken Trinity: Witchblade." The Darkness one is the only one Ron isn't writing, and that one is being written by Phil Hester. Stjepan isn't doing those interiors, because even a machine like him has his limits. [laughs]

How much stress are you and Top Cow under to top last year's successful "First Born" crossover, in which it was revealed the original Witchblade, Sara Pezzini, gave birth to the Darkness' child?

I think a fair amount. "First Born" was not just a financial success for us, but also our bestselling book of 2007. The reviews were really good too. We've seen a lot of interest when we put out the trade paperback.

We started talking with Ron about doing a follow-up to it, and he had a couple of ideas. It started developing fairly organically, and then we pulled back and asked ourselves what we could do to top "First Born," and instead of having a baby, we are going to kill someone off. That's pretty much a surefire way to grab people's attention in comics, right?

There will also be some other new things thrown in. We are introducing another Artifact-bearer into the Top Cow universe. For anybody familiar with our world, they know there are 13 key artifacts that influence and are the centers of power for the universe. I believe seven of them have been revealed previously, and we are revealing one that has not been shown yet. And there will be a new bearer as well.

It's all part of our plan to give our readers an idea of a unified plan and mythos to the universe. We are also trying to make it so that people can pick up both "Witchblade" and "The Darkness" and enjoy it, but also pick up one or the other and still enjoy it. We are not trying to force anybody to buy things they don't need. But we still want the people who buy everything and support us to know that there is a larger plan in play.

Is there any truth to the rumors that "Broken Trinity" is, in fact, the second part of a larger trilogy of crossovers?

Thematically, at least, we are going to take a break from big events with "Witchblade" and "The Darkness." We do have something planned for 2009, but it is not a Witchblade/Darkness crossover.

That being said, both "First Born" and "Broken Trinity" have had major impact on "Witchblade's" world and the themes and events will play out over there.

Yeah, I guess you could call it a trilogy.

Why is three issues the right amount for your summer crossover?

There are a couple reasons. One of the biggest is that we are fans first and we, as fans, don't want to drop fifty or a hundred bucks on a story. We also wanted it short enough that a new fan might hear about the book and pick it up to get a complete story that is something epic and really takes you through some significant drama and action. It should feel like an event.

Three issues feels like a good fit, and from a publishing standpoint, it lets us do three tie-in issues that, in turn, allows us to do a nice-sized trade collection at the end of the day while still keeping it affordable for fans.

Let's talk "Witchblade." Issue #116 was meant to act as a natural jumping-on point for new readers, and you have released it free on various places on the Internet. Did sales spike accordingly?

Yes.We definitely saw a jump in sales of around 25% for #116. There has been a bit of a slope down on the subsequent issues, but overall it is still an increase. We are seeing a lot of buzz as more issues come out. We just wrapped up the first story arc that Ron and Stjepan did, and the reviews were really positive.

I think a lot of people were really skeptical when we said this creative team was coming onboard until 2010 and this guy who paints is going to put out a monthly book. I could hear the people in panels going "Yeah, right." But so far they are hitting on all cylinders and have a couple of smaller vignette stories coming up. More than anything, it is to allow Ron and Stjepan to get their groove on the book. Then, after "Broken Trinity" ends, it's going to dovetail nicely into a pretty big six-issue story Ron has had planned for a while. It's going to be big for "Witchblade." The folks that have been reading it know that Sara and Dani each have half of the Witchblade, and know that the Witchblade has been known to alter the way its bearer acts sometimes. Astute readers will pick up on the subtle things the characters are acting, and that is going to come to a head.

The buzz has been pretty constant on the book since issue #80. Why do you think the title has remained so popular with readers for so long?

I think it comes down to that it is a good comic. We hire good people, and Ron might not be the guy who does "Civil War" and "Secret Invasion" every month, but he tells a kick-ass story every single month. So the secret is to hire a damn good writer and get out of his way.

When [former Top Cow editor] Jim McLauchlin brought Ron on, Ron had a couple of requests. First was that he did not just want to write a book that was an excuse for the main character's clothes to come off. That is something [editor] Renae Geerlings carried on, and now [editor] Rob Levin is carrying that on today. We try to give him good suggestions when appropriate, but otherwise, we just stand out of his way and let him do his thing.

I don't think anybody has gotten Sara's voice like Ron has. He has fleshed her out into somebody that is a strong female character. It's just the sign of a good writer.

We also try to pair him up with the strongest artists we can. Look at Mike Choi, who is now doing "X-Men" for Marvel, and Adriana Melo is doing "Miss Marvel" for Marvel now. We try to pair him with young artists, who are amazing and just get better every issue.

The cool thing about Stjepan is that he is a massive Top Cow fan. If you asked the guy what one book he wanted to draw, he would say "Witchblade." It's the same for Michael Broussard, who we have on "Darkness" right now.

How did you manage to pull off signing up both Ron and Stjepan to remain the consistent creative team on "Witchblade" through 2010?

In Ron's case, he had enough stories to commit for that long. Right now, we have plans going up through #140. Ron is thinking that far in advance, and between him and Stjepan, I think we have enough kernels to last through #200. It also provides the creators a nice sense of stability until they tell us they don't want to do it anymore.

Let's move on to "The Darkness" and how you got Phil Hester involved in the re-launch.

Phil is a guy that a lot of people knew as an artist. But he is a writer through his creator-owned projects through Oni and Image. When we were looking at a new "The Darkness" series, we solicited a bunch of pitches from half a dozen writers. The reason we went with Phil was that the other pitches we got were basically a continuation of volume two, which Paul Jenkins wrote. Those are good, and we did 24 issues of it, but Paul is a damn good writer and has written that part of Jackie's life as well as it will be written.

When we read Phil's pitch we saw a different take. When Rob and I talked about it, both of us were skeptical as to whether [Top Cow heads] Matt Hawkins or Marc Silvestri would go for it, since it was such a big departure, but if we were going to do something new, let's do something new. I know a lot of the die-hard fans will be resistant because it is no longer in a mold, but it's refreshing. I don't think it's interesting for any creator to just keep telling the same story over and over again.

We aren't DC, saying you can do whatever story you like as long as Superman is alive and married to Lois and Jimmy and Perry are there at the end of it. To a certain extent, they have to deal with the fact that their properties are icons, but we don't. We can change things. We can kill off supporting casts or main characters if we need to.

Alright, let's talk "Freshmen." How successful, both creatively and from a sales standpoint, was the second miniseries?

It was a little bit of a mixed ride. "Freshmen" tends to do decently in single issue form, but the trades do really well. It's one of those stories people would rather read in a single sitting. It pulls in a lot of Seth Green fans and fans that aren't necessarily in the shop every week. The individual issues didn't rock any sales records, but the trades have done very well, both in comic stores and in the book market.

Creatively, we had a couple of problems with the second series. We started with Will Conrad as the artist, and he got sick for the later issues. We had to go to another artist to finish out the series. Anytime you have those types of delays, it causes problems with sales momentum.

But the Summer Special is going to be awesome. I saw the last page today. If you love X-Men meeting "Revenge of the Nerds," this will be right up your alley.

Will there be a lot of fallout from the death in the final issue of the second volume?

It's a little more self-contained. They hint at the death when "Wannabe" is enters the story, but we don't go too deeply into it, because we want it to be a one-shot people can check out in the comic shop. This story focuses on Green Thumb, who is a vegan but can talk to plants. He gets to the crux of his co-dependent relationship with his beloved fern Susie.

Didn't Susie almost get him to commit suicide?

Well, she certainly pushed him to the edge. She turns into a giant, 50-foot plant woman in the Summer Vacation Special. It evokes that feeling of an over-the-top summer blockbuster. This is more on the fun side but like the other Freshmen stories has a sad, poignant underside.

What's up with the third series?

We don't have it scheduled yet, but are talking about it with Seth and Hugh. Because the trades are doing better, we are looking into what we can do to make the third part successful. Every time we do a convention, there is a very devoted fan base for it, but on a single-issue front, we have trouble finding support in comic shops.

Next week in REFLECTIONS: More on Top Cow's upcoming releases, including the line-up of the second Pilot Season and a post-game on the first.

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Tags: top cow, filip sablik, witchblade, the darkness, reflections

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