Top Cow's Pilot Season with Rob Levin and Jason Aaron

Top Cow Productions has a wealth of underutilized characters, but starting this August, six we haven't seen in a while will be thrust back into the limelight in the coampany's Pilot Season project. One-shots starring Ripclaw, Velocity, Cyblade, The Angelus, The Necromancer, and Aphrodite IX will be released, two a month, from August through November. After all six issues have hit the stands, fans will have the opportunity to vote for their favorites, and the two winners will get their own series in 2008. CBR News sat down with Top Cow's VP of Editorial Rob Levin to get the scoop on Pilot Season, and talked to "Scalped" and "The Other Side" writer Jason Aaron about his installment of the series, "Ripclaw: Pilot Season" #1, which ships next week from Image Comics.

Levin said the reality of a monthly publishing schedule precludes ongoing titles for all of the Top Cow characters at once, and that Pilot Season grew out of the desire to keep some of those largely unseen characters in the public eye until it is once again their time to shine. "We wanted to make sure it wasn't years between appearances for characters we believed in, and felt that doing one-shots more often would give them a chance to have some screen time while still sticking to our core publishing strategy of quality over quantity," Levin told CBR News.

"As far as how Pilot Season as an initiative came about, it was really just a matter of timing and a few ideas being tossed around," Levin continued. "We knew we wanted to have a new Ripclaw book out in August to coincide with the Legendary Heroes line of figures from ToyBiz, and, looking at the schedule, it just made sense to group the books we were already queuing up into a bloc.Rather than having promotion for six individual books throughout the year, we could really make an event of it and get the fans involved. At the end of the day, we're making books that we hope the fans will gravitate toward. This allows them to not only put their money where their mouths are, but to directly influence our plans."

Levin doesn't see putting so much power in the hands of fans as a risk. "In many ways, the fans are always determining our future," Levin explained. "If they stop buying a book, it becomes harder and harder to justify keeping it on the shelf. Likewise, if they boost the sales on a low-selling title, we're more likely to keep it going. Putting the power directly in their hands hopefully gives us a more accurate account of what they really want. We're not asking the fans to choose the lesser of six evils. We're putting quality books out there and saying, 'Let us know what you're into. There's more where that came from.'"

Levin believes that comics is both a creative and a collectible medium, and that often the latter wins out and readers wind up continuing to buy a title through force of habit alone. "If fans are fervent enough to tip the scales toward their favorite characters, that's great," Levin said. "If we can get someone excited about something, especially to the point where they would actively campaign, we've done our jobs."

In the past year, fans have mounted massive campaigns to save their favorite TV series from cancellation. In the case of the CBS drama "Jericho," fans mailed over 40,000 pounds of nuts to the network and earned the series a 7-episode reprieve. Levin is hoping pilot season will invoke the same level of fan response. "Personally, I'm hoping that one of the books that does not win Pilot Season will inspire a 'Jericho'/'Veronica Mars'-like fan campaign where people end up sending food en masse to the studio," Levin said. "I've worked with each writer to come up with a food tie-in for each book, that way there aren't any surprises."

What happens in the event of a tie? "A battle to the death between everyone who voted for those books,"Levin quipped. In all seriousness, Levin said they'd cross that bridge if they came to it. "I think sending food is still a good option."

That said, the two-series limit is not a hard-and-fast rule. "Fans always determine what we publish," Levin said. "If they really want something, we want to help them get it. If they want more Top Cow books, that's not a problem." If three or more of the Pilot Season characters receive a groundswell of support, Levin said they'll simply publish all of them with "Because you demanded it!" on every cover.

Jason Aaron first became involved with Pilot Season when Levin approached the writer about doing a one-shot for Top Cow. "I think Ripclaw was the first name I threw out," Aaron told CBR News. "I can't say I had a deep affection for any of the characters, but Ripclaw was the one I felt I could do the best job with. He's basically a Native American Wolverine. And I can work with that."

Aaron did his research, digging up old issues of "Cyberforce" and "Ripclaw" solo books. "But you really don't need to know anything about the character to enjoy this one-shot," Aaron said. Currently writing Vertigo's Native American crime drama, "Scalped," Jason Aaron said Ripclaw's ancestry was definitely part of the draw of the project. "His Native American heritage is kind of a mess, in that he's never been grouped into one tribe or culture, but has just been spread out among countless different tribes. I think that's always made him a rather bland, generic Indian. But still, I felt there was something there I could work with. Hopefully readers will like the results."

Aaron says the Ripclaw Pilot issue is a stand-alone story, but that it teases other storylines. "Ripclaw is basically a drifter now," Aaron said. "A drifter who's haunted by different spirits and must travel around the world, setting things right for them. As you might expect, that usually involves him having to kill lots and lots of people."

Artist Jorge Lucas is penciling "Ripclaw: Pilot Season" #1. Lucas was brought onto the project by Rob Levin, and Aaron had nothing but praise for his collaborator. "Jorge's been a blast to work with," Aaron said. "His enthusiasm has been there from day-one, and he's poured it all into these pages. They're really alive with detail. I was already a fan of his Marvel work, but Jorge still blew me away on this."

Rob Levin emphasized that Pilot Season is far from a marketing gimmick. "This is a serious effort to tell good stories, with good teams, and shine the spotlight on that," Levin said. "We've created a number of great titles and characters. Plenty of people have never tried any of the books that have previously featured any of the characters. This is a chance to start from the ground up, and for the fans to let us know what they like."

"Ripclaw: Pilot Season" #1 hits stands next week, and look for the other six one-shots to be published in the coming months.

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