Writer Robert Kirkman isn't a hostage taker, but that's not stopping him from taking over "Pilot Season," Top Cow Productions' unique competition that asks readers to select one of several pilot issues to continue on as a miniseries. Past incarnations of the competition have seen a diverse roster of creators working on the "Pilot Season" titles, but this year's contest only has two masterminds: the aforementioned Kirkman, who is writing each of the five titles, and Top Cow founder Marc Silvestri, who is responsible for each book's visual design. Five illustrators - Nelson Blake II, Joe Benitez, Sheldon Mitchell, Bernard Chang and Brian Stelfreeze - will join Kirkman and Silvestri as the interior artists for each of the different issues.
"While I was at Marvel, I only had a limited number of creator-owned projects I was allowed to do. When I left Marvel, I sat down to prioritize things and try and decide which concepts I wanted to pursue first. I started to realize two things: one, I have more ideas for creator-owned comics than I could ever hope to do in a lifetime, and two, I'm having trouble picking just one to do. So I decided, why not do five," Kirkman told CBR News regarding his reasons for joining the Top Cow competition. "[The 'Pilot Season' books] are the five projects that really stood out to me that I really wanted to do. I know Top Cow had been doing their 'Pilot Season' books and I thought that was a really cool thing. So instead of just stealing their model and doing it on my own, I contacted [Top Cow President] Matt Hawkins and [Publisher] Filip Sablik about the crazy idea of me doing all of their 'Pilot Season' books for a year, and that way I get to collaborate with Marc Silvestri on all these projects - and that makes this thing that much more special."
Kirkman came up with the initial five "Pilot Season" story ideas, but his collaboration with Silvestri brought each idea from concept to full-fledged comic. "In all cases, I came in with a title and a basic idea, and Marc helped me flesh them out and provided the visual designs for all the characters," said the writer. "Like I said, these are all concepts that I came up with during my time under contract at Marvel and have been itching to do. There was one idea that Marc suggested we do but we couldn't get that ironed out in time, so maybe Marc and I will just have to do that as a separate thing. It's pretty cool."
"Marc has such a distinct visual style," he continued. "He's really pushing me to think more visually than I already do, and I pride myself for being a visual thinker in my writing, so that's been a lot of fun. Being able to collaborate with Marc Silvestri and Todd McFarlane [on 'Haunt'] and all the Image guys as a whole on 'Image United' is really forcing me to grow as a writer and adapt to an artist's strengths more than ever before. It's like Todd says: 'You don't fence in a bucking bronco, you let them roam free.' I'm really learning to let go and allow an artist to stretch their wings."
Silvestri provides input on the story direction and lays down the visual groundwork for the "Pilot Season" titles, but each of the five titles sports a different interior artist. "Marc is providing designs for all the concepts and overseeing the art production on the books and offering pointers along the way," said Kirkman. "Thankfully, we're lucky enough to have some extremely talented artists involved with this, so any input from Marc on the actual story pages will need to be at a minimum. These books are coming together nicely."
The first "Pilot Season" installment, titled "Murder," debuts December 2, featuring art from Nelson Blake II, the artist for Top Cow's upcoming "Magdalena" series with Ron Marz. "'Murderer' is about a man tortured with psychic abilities he can't control," Kirkman said of the first book's premise. "He can't help but hear the thoughts of everyone around him at all times. He eventually learns that if he kills someone while reading their mind, it shorts out his ability for a short time and gives him a moment of peace. So he sets out to use his abilities to find people in danger and he saves them by, you know, murdering people!"
"Demonic," the second "Pilot Season" offering, debuts in December. "'Demonic' is about a man possessed by a demon that urges him to do very bad things like murder his wife and daughter," said Kirkman. "It's kind of dark. To appease the demon, he has to gather souls of others instead of killing his family, so he becomes a kind of vigilante. This has amazing art by everyone's favorite Joe Benitez."
The third "Pilot Season" title, "Stealth," boasts a less bloody premise than the first two books. "'Stealth' doesn't involve anyone killing anyone else at all," the writer said of the January-releasing book. "It's a simple story about a middle-aged man with his own set of problems. [He] suddenly has to deal with his elderly father who is [afflicted] with Alzheimer's disease - and is also a superhero. We've got another Top Cow soon-to-be great on this one, Sheldon Mitchell."
Following "Stealth" is February's "Stellar," which takes the "Pilot Season" concept from Earth's surface to the stars above. "It's a science fiction story about a woman, part of a group of super-humans, who must defend humanity from the rest of her kind," said Kirkman. "It's going to be cool science fiction space action, with all kinds of monsters and spaceships and stuff. On art, we have Bernard Chang, which I am thrilled about. I've been a fan of his since way back in the 'Second Life of Dr. Mirage' Valiant days."
March sees the release of the final "Pilot Season" title, which brings Kirkman's story stable full circle with another violent premise. "Last but still awesome is 'Hardcore,' which is an action-adventure story about a team of assassins who 'drive' other people's bodies by attaching a 'hardcore' to the base of their brainstem," he said. "If you can't get to a mad dictator in order to murder him, maybe you can get to his chef or his gardener. It's just a cool action story, so it's great that we got Brian Stelfreeze [on art]. Action is one of his many areas of expertise; it's such a thrill to get to work with Brian."
While readers will surely have their favorites, the nature of "Pilot Season" - where only one book advances past the pilot - is sure to leave some voters disappointed. Still, Kirkman won't rule out the possibility of working on all five of the concepts at some point in his career. "We're doing five books and one winner; I want to be able to write the winning miniseries myself, so we're limiting it to one for now. But I'm digging all these concepts, so I'm not ruling out the possibility that I may eventually do a miniseries of some of the other books," he said. "I'm fully invested in each and every one of these concepts. If I want to do more with them, I just will. I'll do the winner first, but if I'm itching to dive into these concepts later, I'll do it."
Despite Kirkman's obvious enthusiasm, "Pilot Season" hasn't been without its share of fan criticism. Some readers have complained that certain "Pilot Season" winning books, such as "Velocity" and "Twilight Guardian," have disappeared, been delayed or discontinued. From Kirkman's perspective, however, turning any first issue into a full-fledged series - whether it's a "Pilot Season" book or not - is a challenge for creators and publishers alike. "Launching any new series is difficult, and having them attached to 'Pilot Season' doesn't necessarily make it any easier," he said. "There are scheduling difficulties that oftentimes get in the way of launching a book in a reasonable amount of time. It took Todd McFarlane and I three years to get 'Haunt' going. Jason Howard and I worked on 'The Astounding Wolf-Man' for over a year before the first issue came out. These things take time, and I know that each and every winner of the past 'Pilot Seasons' will eventually come out."
The task of creating five unique issues is even more challenging for Kirkman, given his status as the sole writer behind each potential miniseries. "It's a fun challenge for sure," he said. "These [stories] have been kicking around inside my head for a while, so it's really just a matter of compiling my notes and writing a good introductory script. I'm basically writing five first issues, which is, you know, the hardest thing to write. And at the same time, I have to keep them self-contained enough that they're a satisfying read on their own but also leave enough open that hopefully people will want to see more of each and every concept. So that's a lot of fun, but also very challenging."
It's hard to imagine fans of Kirkman and Silvestri's work complaining about the duo's takeover of this year's "Pilot Season," but some readers might miss the range of multiple and diverse voices in the competition. According to Kirkman, that's another aspect of "Pilot Season" that fans shouldn't worry about. "I'm sure it'll revert to its regular format for the next round of 'Pilot Season' books," he said. "This is just a fun interlude. I think my body of work proves that while I'm writing all these books, that doesn't mean they're all going to be similar. And as I understand it, 'Pilot Season' has been about mainly showcasing new concepts, which we're still doing."
Ultimately, Kirkman believes that "Pilot Season" poses more upsides than downsides to both creators and readers. "I can say with an absolute straight face that there are no turn-offs of any kind involved with 'Pilot Season' for neither creator nor reader - it's a flawless concept," he said. "For me, it's a great opportunity to showcase a number of concepts and let readers decide which one they want to see more of. That's a really cool thing, to give the power to the people and let them show which concept they most want to support."
"It's a really cool way to try out new ideas in comics," he added. "I think it's great to see people trying new things. We need more of that in this industry. I think the success of books like 'Haunt' and 'Chew' - as well as non-Image books like 'The Boys,' 'Irredeemable,' 'Kick-Ass' and 'Incognito' - show that people are looking for something new. I hope that's a trend that continues to pick up steam."
Top Cow's "Pilot Season: Murderer," co-created by Robert Kirkman and Marc Silvestri and illustrated by Nelson Blake II, hits stores December 2. The second "Pilot Season" offering, "Demonic" - also by Kirkman and Silvestri with art from Joe Benitez - is available on December 16, 2009.