Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #25 by Drew Barth
A little over a decade ago, Top Cow Productions created a comic competition known as Pilot Season. Pilot Season began with a simple premise: get six creative teams to each produce the first issue of a longer-running series and pitch that story not to the editors, but to the readers. Each of the first issues were produced, sold as physical comics in stores, and from there readers would go to Top Cow’s MySpace page to vote on which series they loved the most.
I remember logging onto MySpace daily to vote for my favorite, Twilight Guardian, during the second installment of Pilot Season. The competition got me incredibly invested in comics—not just as a fan, but as someone watching how fans and industry interact. There were online screaming matches as to which series should have won or how certain creators shouldn’t have been in the competition since they were already established. I wish I kept screenshots of the MySpace comment threads.
Although Pilot Season hasn’t run since 2011, another publisher, Ahoy Comics, has stepped into the vacuum with their own series: Steel Cage.
Steel Cage excites me: one issue, three short features, three new characters, three new worlds. Each story gets twelve pages, and we as readers vote. As a single issue, Steel Cage reminds me more of some recent anthology comics like Island or Amazing Forest in that each featured story feels like a piece of a larger whole.
As an introduction to three different series and three different creative teams, Steel Cage excels. At no point does a single page from any of the three stories feel wasted or cluttered. And each story constitutes its own genre and graphical form: formalist superhero story, genius-as-jerk thriller, and adorable sci-fi adventure. There’s a story in this issue for almost every kind of reader.
And that’s what makes Steel Cage so promising and frustrating. As a reader and someone who follows comics, I want each of these three stories to excel. Each of these stories, to me, deserves at least a four issue mini series to see how much further the creators can push their worlds. Yet I know that can’t happen.
But I want it to.
This tension is fantastic for readers and the publisher. An audience comes in invested and wanting more, so the publisher can know what kinds of stories to move forward with in a broader sense, in a similar way to reader polls in many manga. Building a relationship with readers this early in a publisher’s career is crucial to their survival—and fun.
Monthly comics need series like Steel Cage. When there are three strong stories presented and only one of them can survive to a full series, our minds start working a bit more on what makes each story strong. Was it the plot? The characters? Did a particular colorist make the art pop more? These are some of the same questions that came up during the heyday of Pilot Season and the yelling on MySpace. Comics need a light-hearted, fun gimmick that isn’t asking which characters are going to die or else live through some horrendous trauma. Ahoy wants to have fun showing their audience what kinds of stories they want to produce and giving that audience a chance to choose. Why not have fun with it?
Get excited. Let them fight.
Drew Barth (Episode 331) is a writer residing in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida. Right now, he’s worrying about his cat.