Writer and Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman welcomed Baltimore Comic-Con attendees to the "Robert Kirkman Panel," but those in the room immediately sensed that something was awry--after all, this was supposed to be the Top Cow Panel! Kirkman handled the proceedings on his own for a few short minutes, making idle chitchat with a New Zealand-born fan about beards, baby faces, overeating and other such topics.
The rest of the Top Cow gang--publisher Filip Sablik, Top Cow founder Marc Silvestri, and "Witchblade" writer Ron Marz--joined Kirkman shortly thereafter, launching straight into the topic of "Pilot Season." Sablik described their annual contest as "American Idol" for comic books--essentially, fans are presented with several different pilot issues from several different creators. The readers then vote for the issue they'd most like to see continue on past the pilot, which results in a miniseries for that particular title.
This year's "Pilot Season" will be handled differently, however, as Kirkman and Silvestri co-created each of the five concepts. Their first "Pilot Season" offering is "Demonic," which Joe Benitez will illustrate.
"It's about a guy who may or may not be possessed by a demon," Kirkman explained of "Demonic's" concept. "The demon is constantly trying to make him murder his wife and daughter, so in order to appease the demon, he suits up into this whacky costume and kills bad people to provide the demon with fresh souls."
The second concept, "Murderer," also focuses on a protagonist with a proclivity for killing, though his motivations are decidedly different from "Demonic's."
"This is about a guy who has psychic abilities, but he can't control them," Kirkman said. "He's constantly bombarded by the thoughts of everyone around him--all the mundane thoughts, he's hearing those from everyone and it kind of wrecks his life."
But the protagonist eventually learns that he can ease his mind's suffering by breaking the all-important "thou shall not kill" rule. "If he kills somebody while he's reading their mind, when their mind shuts down it cancels out his power for a limited time," Kirkman said. "The only way he can get this break is to murder people, so he uses his power to find people who deserve to be murdered--and he murders them!"
Sablik then showed the cover of "Pilot Season: Murderer," which is illustrated by Nelson Blake II. In the image, the protagonist shows off his jacket filled with torture devices and an eerie message written on his shirt: "If you are reading this, it means you are a bad person and are about to die."
The third concept that Kirkman and Silvestri co-created is "Pilot Season: Stealth," a book they joked was so stealthy that it's already in stores with an invisible, "special clear variant" cover.
"This is about a middle-aged man going through a divorce," Kirkman said of the issue, which is drawn by Sheldon Mitchell. "His life is crumbling around him. His father, who has Alzheimer's disease, is a bit of a wreck and can't live on his own, so he moves in with his middle-aged son. Over the course of them living together, he discovers that his elderly Alzheimer's-ridden father has been this extremely buff superhero named Stealth for a number of years and he had no clue. Now that his father has this ailment, he's basically running around doing all this crazy stuff and not realizing what he's doing. On top of all the things his son is going through, he now has to chase his father around and make sure that he doesn't hurt innocent people or himself."
Sablik joked that we shouldn't read too much into Kirkman's psyche given the dark premises of these three books. "I've had a bad year," Kirkman joked about his state of mind. "I figure I might as well get paid for therapy, right?"
Kirkman and Silvestri announced that "Pilot Season: Stellar" and "Pilot Season: Hardcore" were the titles for the two other issues. Aside from describing them as a science fiction story and an action-adventure story respectively, they wouldn't divulge more details, but Sablik did reveal that one of those book's artists was attending Baltimore Comic-Con.
The spotlight shifted to Ron Marz, who described his work on "Witchblade" as "happy-go-lucky" compared to Kirkman's dark storylines. The audience gave Marz a sound applause after being reminded that he has served as the writer on "Witchblade" for 50 issues in a row, and there's no sign of slowing down--not only have Marz and artist Stjepan Sejic committed to "Witchblade" through issue #150, they also have "two more years of stories" past that issue.
Following the events of "War of the Witchblades," Sara Pezzini is once again the sole Witchblade-bearer, but that won't undo some of the shameful acts she committed under the influence of the Balance's dark portion. "We'll still be going back to procedural police aspects, but we don't want to take Sara back to her normal life--that's no fun," Marz said. "When you're a writer, you want to torture your characters. I mean, I haven't cut anybody's hand off--"
"--you're not as depressed as I am!" Kirkman shouted back, defending his decision to sever a character's hand in "The Walking Dead."
Marz also revealed that Aphrodite IX will appear in "Witchblade" #134, which Sablik described as yet another instance of Top Cow bolstering its own character universe. "Rather than do huge overblown crossovers, sometimes Aphrodite will pop up in 'Witchblade' and it's kind of cool," he said. "We don't make a big deal out of it. We tell a cool story and hopefully you, the fans, get something out of it."
"We want the universe to be cohesive and make sense, but we don't want it to be a barrier for people who are not reading the books," Marz added. "Everything we do, we try to make a ground-floor read. In 'Witchblade,' you'll get what you need to know right up front."
In addition to "Witchblade," Marz is working on an "Angelus" miniseries along with Sejic. He'll also pen a "Magdalena" ongoing series with Ryan Sook on covers and Nelson Blake II on interiors. Blake's involvement is a new announcement, and Marz said that there was no better choice for the book's artist.
Other Top Cow books on the horizon include Randy Queen's "Darkness/Darkchylde" one-shot and Phil Hester's continued work on "The Darkness." Silvestri was teased for his resemblance to Jackie Estacado, a fact that was further cemented when the acclaimed artist brandished a pair of sunglasses that looked identical to Estacado's.
Sablik also highlighted "Cyberforce/Hunter-Killer," the Mark Waid-written and Kenneth Rocafort-illustrated miniseries that has had "a little bit of a lag, but anybody that picks up the book will see why--the art is absolutely phenomenal," according to the publisher. Sablik discussed the interesting technological implications of the miniseries, specifically the plot's use of a multi-faceted cell phone that Cyberdata is using to attain information on every single person on the planet.
When the panel turned over to the audience for questions, a fan asked how close the votes were at the end of previous "Pilot Seasons." Sablik said it's always a very tight finish, which is part of why the process is so exciting. "We want to make this a fun competition for the voters," Sablik said. "When we get to the voting part, I'm sure Robert will egg you on and play with your emotions."
Kirkman was asked to elaborate on how he'll proceed with the winning "Pilot Season" issue. "It'll be at least a miniseries and I'll write the whole thing myself," he said. "I would hope that the artist will continue on the miniseries. They'll definitely be offered the job, but it's hard to get them to commit to a possible miniseries now, so it could be drawn by someone else."
A fan asked the panelists what their favorite "Pilot Season" books were. "The one that breaks my heart is Jason Aaron's take on Ripclaw," Sablik admitted. "I had the guy that was going to write Wolverine locked-and-loaded for Ripclaw, and you all screwed it up for me!"
Kirkman and Silvestri said that they enjoyed "Urban Myths" and "Genius" as well.
While the panelists couldn't officially confirm nor deny development on a sequel to the recent "The Darkness" video game, their words were nonetheless encouraging. "I think what we can safely say is that there have definitely been talks--very positive talks--and we can't officially say anything more than that," Sablik said.
"Draw your own conclusions," Silvestri teased. "It did really well, so why would we do another one if it did really well?"
Another fan asked if Top Cow would produce any further animated projects like the "Witchblade" anime, which Silvestri applauded for its massive success in Japan. He said that Top Cow is "definitely in talks to do a sequel to the 'Witchblade' anime."
Silvestri also offered an update on the "Witchblade" movie. "It's getting real close," he said. "In fact, we're going to pick our third and final writer this next week. That person will start writing the script for the film and hopefully we'll be in pre-production by Christmas."