Filip Sablik works in a place to which Hollywood turns (besides The Exchange) when it’s looking for great ideas – he’s a comic book writer/publisher. As the Publisher at Top Cow Productions, he oversees some of the biggest non-Marvel/DC properties in the business including Witchblade, The Darkness, and Wanted. From concept, to inks, to distribution Filip’s there to hire the talent and oversee quality control. It’s a big job, and one that often leads to feature film development. As a writer, his books The Asset and Last Mortel have been critical and commercial hits. In the interview below we shine a light on a corner of the “film industry” many people never consider: comic books.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to want to make comics, and what led you to your current position at Top Cow Productions?
I discovered comics when I was a teenager in the early 1990s. I’d always been a fan of fantasy and science-fiction novels and movies and I loved to draw. I was in sixth grade after the first Tim Burton Batman film came out and had a prose anthology of Batman stories that had been released to coincide with the movie. John Mahoney, who eventually co-wrote the Last Mortal comic with me, saw me reading it and assumed I was a comic reader. He introduced me to Uncanny X-Men and I was hooked pretty much immediately. The two of us made our own comics all throughout middle and high school and eventually I went to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) to study illustration.
After I graduated from MICA, I applied for a customer service job at Diamond Comic Distributors, the primary distribution outlet for comic shops in North America. Initially I thought I’d use the job to build my network within the comic industry and eventually transition to drawing comics, but I found I really enjoyed and had some skill at the behind-the-scenes work like marketing and sales. I ended up in the Purchasing Department, serving as a liaison for numerous publishers, including Top Cow. When Matt Hawkins, the CEO of Top Cow, offered me a position as the VP of Marketing and Sales, I lept at the chance. A year and a half later, he was transitioning into more of a business development role and offered me a chance to head up the publishing side of the business and move to Los Angeles. It’s been the job of a lifetime so far!
What memory or experience stands out as a turning point early in your career?
When I got the offer to come to Top Cow. The job I had at Diamond was much more stable and regimented—publishing can be pretty volatile—but Top Cow offered me the opportunity to get into the more creative side of the business. As a result, I have interfaced with all facets of the business from publishing to licensing to creative development and the list goes on. At the time, I was really on a fast track to better leadership positions at Diamond, I was engaged to be married, and my fiancé and I had just bought a house; so it definitely felt like a gamble, but an incredible opportunity. Without it, I do not think I would have had the opportunity to grow into the type of role I have now or the opportunity to develop as a writer as I have.
Most people do not know how stories are developed. Can you tell us a little about the process? How does an idea get to publication? What is a publisher’s role in that process?
There are primarily two ways we develop ideas. The first is an outside creator (typically a writer) comes to us with a pitch for a project. Sometimes these are fairly fleshed out and detailed, other times the idea is only a paragraph high concept. Although Top Cow typically takes pitches from only creators we know—we don’t have an open submission policy for a variety of reasons—so in many ways we’ve vetted the idea before we ever hear it. The second way is we develop an idea internally, usually from Matt Hawkins, founder Marc Silvestri, or myself (or a combination of the three of us) and then either write it internally or hire a freelancer to write the actual script.
The typical development process goes from pitch to written outline to full script to pencils to inks to color to lettering and then finally pre-press before it sees print. Along the way, I act as the primary editor, giving feedback and notes to hopefully make it the best version of the creator’s vision for the project. If we have all the right partners in place, the note process can be really minimal and painless.
What role can science play in the development of a comic? How do you know when you need advice from a scientist?
It depends on the project. Right now Matt Hawkins is developing and writing a project called Think Tank, which centers around a scientist protagonist at odds with the military think tank he works for. In addition to doing his own research through scientific journals and online, I believe Matt consulted a couple of scientists he met through The Exchange and a former classmate from UCLA who works at a scientific think tank.
What are the advantages of working with a science consultant? How does having accurate information keep an audience engaged in a plot?
Were strong believers that the more grounded the world and characters are in reality, the more believable the supernatural or speculative elements are when we introduce them in a story. Oftentimes research will lead to new ideas for plot developments. The important thing is to introduce the information in a way that feels organic for the reader and enhances the story rather than dragging it down. The great thing about working with a consultant is that his/her specialized knowledge allows him/her to postulate where science or technology may go in a way that traditional research may not be able to give you.
What do you think you learned from the scientists you met that has made you a better comic creator and publisher?
Aside from the great reference and information? I suppose, that there is a wealth of story possibilities in current scientific research and where that research may lead during the next 5, 10, and 25 years and beyond. And that many of these scientists have great imaginations, but rather than channeling it toward making up stories, they focus on making our world a better place.
What can you tell us about your current project? Your next project?
In addition to my daily duties as publisher managing titles like Artifacts, The Darkness, and Witchblade; I’m developing a top secret project with Matt Hawkins and Marc Silvestri for release at the end of 2012. I’m also working with my co-writer John Mahoney on further Last Mortal stories and co-writing some spec pilot scripts.
Photo credit: Filip Sablik