WEEK OF TOP COW: Filip Sablik

In the first installment of CBR's WEEK OF TOP COW, we spoke with Top Cow founder Marc Silvestri about the early days of the company, the launch of Image Comics, its enormous success in the 1990s, the challenges it faces in today's much more competitive comic book industry, and the forthcoming film adaptations of Top Cow's Witchblade and Magdalena characters.

In this second part of WEEK OF TOP COW, we sit down with Filip Sablik, who famously rose from a Diamond Distributors staffer to Top Cow's Vice President of Sales & Marketing to Top Cow Publisher in just a few short years. Under Sablik's watch, Top Cow has initiated the very successful Pilot Season program, whereby the publisher releases a selection of one-shots featuring new or underused characters, and readers vote via MySpace to determine which title will graduate to ongoing series.

Sablik talks to CBR News about his role as Publisher, the current direction of the Cow, the company's experiments with online content, what sets Top Cow apart from other outfits, and and what fans can expect in the new year.

How did you go from being Assistant Manager of the Print/Comic Team at Diamond to being VP of Marketing and Sales at Top Cow in 2006?

Filip Sablik: It stemmed from my relationship with [Top Cow President] Matt Hawkins. As part of my job at Diamond, I was the liaison for Image Comics and in turn Top Cow. Over the years I was there, I had developed a pretty solid relationship with Matt. Matt made me a great offer and an opportunity to transition into the publishing side of the industry and I was happy to take it.

Tell us about your meteoric journey from marketing man to Publisher.

I was the VP of Marketing & Sales here for about a year and a half. In that time a number of high profile media projects Matt and Marc had been working on developing for years came to fruition. We had "The Darkness" video game and the "Witchblade" anime debut in the U.S. within six months of each other, and both were tremendously successful. The game went platinum worldwide and the anime debuted with the #1 first week sales for a new anime series and then went on to air on IFC and was made available on iTunes and X-Box Marketplace. The "Wanted" feature film was picking up buzz and Universal moved it from their first quarter to the summer, which was a great vote of confidence.

All of these things combined felt like we had some great momentum going our way and Matt saw it as an opportunity to grow the company even more. Matt has been in the business for about 15 years and for many of those years he's been juggling both the publishing side of Top Cow and the ancillary new business development like movies, video games, and animation. He rightly wanted to shift some of his attention to the new business development and have someone else handle the day-to-day oversight of the publishing side. I guess I did a pretty good job in my previous post and showed some initiative, so again Matt called me up and offered me the opportunity to move out to the Los Angeles home office to take the Publisher position.

Plus, I have some great blackmail photos of him.

What are your responsibilities as Publisher of Top Cow?

Well, my job is essentially to coordinate everybody else. So I deal with Mel [Caylo] in the Marketing department, I deal with Rob [Levin] in Editorial, and coordinate all of our efforts as far as publication, so that means working with Rob and the creators to make sure the books are where we want them to be in an editorial sense. [I also] make sure that Projection knows when we have to get certain things done. There's a lot of my job that's kind of on the boring side, which is scheduling and budgeting books and things like that, and then there's the more interesting part of the job, which is looking at the big picture of where the company's going, and working with all the guys to make sure that that vision comes through.

How has Top Cow changed since you've joined the company?

On the publishing side, I've seen us branch out and spread out wings even more. The projects we had in this year's Pilot Season promotion are a great example of that. I don't know where you'd find a more varied group of high quality comics. We've also reinforced our core titles of "Witchblade" and "The Darkness" with committed, exclusive creators like Ron Marz, Stjepan Sejic, Phil Hester, Michael Broussard and Jorge Lucas. We're seeing a lot of creators realizing that Top Cow is a place where you can have your cake and eat it too - we offer a chance to make a solid page rate but also treat our creators with respect and trust that they know what they are doing.

On the marketing side, we've branched out into some interesting viral marketing efforts like the previously mentioned Pilot Season, where in the first year we received over four million votes; regular video trailers for our new series; releasing full issues of comics online for free; and a $4.99 introductory price on a "Witchblade" trade paperback exclusive to comic shops. It's funny, I know we've done something right when I see other publishers following suit and making similar moves shortly afterwards.

And on the media side, we announced this summer that fans will see a "Witchblade" and a "Magdalena" movie coming down the pipeline soon. It's been a pretty exciting two years.

Tell us more about Top Cow's online comics initiatives.

I think we're definitely active as far as trying to get material and preview information out online. I think every comic company now is kind of looking at the internet as not a "if this is going to happen," but "when will it happen" and "how will it happen." And Marvel and DC have both kind of gone out there with their take on what they think the model should be. Marvel's got a subscription model, DC's got Zuda, with kind of a secondary line of original content that's exclusive to the web, at least initially. We've experimented a little bit; we did a deal with Direct Drive, which is a division of IGN, and did pay downloads. We did that at the beginning of 2007. And I don't think anybody's quite figured out the right model for it, so that's something we're definitely looking at going into 2009, what can we do to address the online thing will still maintaining our relationships with our direct marketers, you know, the retailers are very important to us.

Up until this point, we've basically stuck primarily to 5-6 page previews, and then on key issues, where we think it's a really good jumping on point, after the retailers have had a decent sell through period for those issues, we'll release the entire issue online. And just use it as an opportunity to show fans just what we're doing and here's a good example of what we think is going to be a great jumping on point for you, so that they can come back and either start with the current issue or go back and catch up. And I think, like many independent, non Marvel, non DC companies, we're in the position where we are I think trying to raise awareness with fans and say, "Here's something you may not be aware of, but that's really a worthwhile monthly read for you."

What would you say are the really standout projects that you've worked on during your tenure at Top Cow?

There have a quite a few, but I'll stick to the recent ones. "Genius" really stands out for me as a unique voice in comics right now. I don't think there are a lot of books out there featuring teenage African American women military proteges in urban dramas fighting the police. The work that Phil Hester and Michael Broussard have done on "The Darkness" really stands out for me too. They took a 10-year-old character everyone knows and really took Jackie outside the box. I think when the "Darkness: Accursed" Volume 1 trade comes out at the end of the year and fans have a chance to read the entire six-issue initial arc, they will be really surprised and impressed.

You mentioned "Genius," which was along with "Twilight Guardian" the winner of Pilot Season 2008. Let's do a post-game on the initiative.

Well, I think, from a creative/editorial standpoint, it was a great leap forward. I think any time you can introduce original concepts out into the world, it's great, it's really gratifying to kind of put forth there. I think the first one was a fun experiment, it was interesting; we kind of took the safer route with using established Top Cow properties. So with this new one offering up six really, really different concepts, and varied creative teams, something that we wanted to be a lot of fun, and people seemed to respond to.

And obviously, when you throw out that many different concepts and that many different genres, you're not going to please everybody. I think people went in and chose the ones that appealed to them and their sensibilities, and that led to some pretty good debate, once the voting started, as to what the best, most worthy titles really were. So for somebody who is more of a traditional superhero fan, I think "Twilight Guardian" was something that they gravitated towards. And I think for folks that were into a little bit more of indie concepts, "Genius" really spoke to them, which is why I think those two titles came out ahead.

I think it's still kind of an ever-evolving initiative for us, it's something that continues to kind of be an experiment as far as what the market reacts to. I think one misstep we made last year was raising the cover price to $3.99, which I think is something that didn't play out as well as we'd hoped, and I think we're going to go back to a $2.99 price point in 2009.

What do you think sets Top Cow apart from other publishers?

We are focused -- truly focused -- on quality. Look around the market these days and count how many titles other publishers are putting out. Marvel and DC are each putting out more than 50 titles a month. Even smaller publishers are putting out 10, 15, 20, 30 titles every month. And it's possible to do that, but I don't think you can get the best out of your creators that way. We intentionally keep our line down to five-to-six titles per month so we can keep the quality at the highest level possible. We hit that part of the market that isn't being serviced by the Big Two. Our titles are grounded in a bit more reality, in suspense, horror, action, fantasy. Our books tend to have a more mature, edgier quality as well.

And we still have an in-house studio, where artists actually come in every day and work. Right now, Michael Broussard is in the studio hunched over a drafting table working on a "The Darkness" cover. Marc Silvestri trains and grows artists and ultimately I think that may be his greatest legacy.

The order of the day at the Big Two seems to be cycling through creative teams, sometimes very quickly. What made Top Cow decide to stay more consistent with the creative teams?

Part of it -- to be honest -- is, in a way, counter programming. We did that with our big events as well. You know, Marvel and DC did big sprawling 70-part stories with 20 tie-ins. We kept ours, with "First Born" and "Broken Trinity," to three-part stories with just three tie-ins. Part of that was the story we wanted to tell, and part of it was counter programming. Same thing with the creative teams, bringing Ron Marz and Phil Hester to write the two flagship titles of "The Witchblade" and "The Darkness." Having Stjepan Sejic and Michael Broussard and Jorge Lucas kind of the consistent "The Darkness" team. Some of it's just sitting down, saying, "What are we hearing from the fans, what are we hearing from the retailers, and what would we, as fans of comic books, want to see?"

You know, we look back on comics that we read growing up. Thinking about Claremont and Byrne, or Claremont and Silvestri on "X-Men" or "Wolverine," looking at John Byrne's run on "Fantatsic Four" or Walt Simonson's run on "Thor," and those were great partially because it was one consistent vision over the course of several years. We kind of look at that and think, "Here's something we can offer that maybe the big two aren't either willing to offer or aren't looking at offering." I think competing with Marvel and DC in the same arena, using the same approach as they are, we're probably going to lose 99% of the time if we try to just mimic what they're doing.

When can we expect to see "Genius" and "Twilight Guardian" start back up as ongoing series?

The fall of 2009. Basically, that gives us enough time to make sure we develop the best series with the creators. It gives us an opportunity to try to lock in the original creative team. Also, when we launch those, we don't want to be competing with the next year's Pilot Season so the thing that seems to make the most sense is we'll launch Pilot Season in May, and then follow-up with the winners in the fall.

What does Top Cow have coming down the pike?

Coming up, I'm incredibly excited about what Hester and Marz have in store for "The Darkness" and "Witchblade." The "Berserker" project we have in the works with DiVide Pictures and Rick Loverd is going to really turn some heads. The new "Impaler" series might be some of the most breathtaking artwork and horrifying action I've seen in a long time. Even more horrifying will be what humans do to each other in "Black Vault" by B. Clay Moore and Nelson Blake II. All that being said, the stuff that is really getting me going these days are the projects we're not ready to announce yet. The ideas and creators involved in some of these projects are very exciting.

Do you have any of your own projects in development?

I do have a couple things I'm working on that I can't talk about yet that will be through Top Cow, or an imprint of Top Cow, it's something that I've been talking about with Matt Hawkins. It's pretty exciting, obviously, everybody who loves comics loves to create them, and I think everybody has at least one good idea. So I'm going to be continuing to kind of develop those and, I don't know if it'll be 2009, it might be 2009-2010, but we've got new projects, two really talented artists I'm working with. Most of the published work I've had has been as an artist, but I'm writing a couple things for two very cool guys, Tom Nachlik, who did "The Flying Friar" with Rich Johnston a while back, and then the second project is with Justin Copeland who's a really, really talented young guy. We met almost two years ago in Chicago. Him and his brother are both up-and-coming guys. I think once people see, folks are going to be all over them.

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