Comics & Games Retailer
By Oliver Chin
Aiming for the Top Shelf
For graphic novel publishers, title output indicates both productivity and market demand. On both counts, the barometer for Top Shelf Comix looks positive. With over 60 titles in print, and 30 more on tap for the next year, this company maximizes its full-time staff of only three people.
Business partners Brett Warnock and Chris Staros split both coasts and the duties of sales/marketing and editorial/production. Recently Staros told me where their company has come from, where it's headed, and how it is steadily trying to climb higher on both retailers and readers' bookshelves.
Top Shelf's origin is a curious tale in itself, exemplifying how the comics industry can unite kindred wandering spirits. True to the spirit of the 1980s, Staros admits he was "a rail-thin heavy metal lead guitarist in an all-original band named Lethal Promise...[and] also had a long-standing career in the software industry, where I was the manager of a large R&D operation." But as fate would have it, he "stumbled onto [comics] at the age of 28 waiting for my wife to get off of work one day. To kill some time I went into a comics shop and discovered Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. It was that one book that inspired me to jump into the medium with both feet."
Staros recounted that Warnock "actually founded the company in 1995 under the name Primal Groove Press, and started by publishing an anthology called Top Shelf. During this time, I was self-publishing the fanzine The Staros Report, and representing the interests of cartoonists like Eddie Campbell in the states. Brett and I first became friends on the convention circuit, and then at the Small Press Expo in 1997, decided to become publishing partners in the newly formed (and renamed) corporation, Top Shelf Productions, Inc."
After joining forces, the pair decided to go in a different direction altogether and focus on graphic novels. "Our goal [is] to publish material that helps revitalize interest in comics as a literary art form, and also material that helps unify the mainstream and alternative camps," summarized Warnock. The proof is in the pudding, and he is satisfied with the results. Fans have been too, flocking to its talented list of creators such as Craig Thompson (Blankets, Carnet de Voyage & Good-bye, Chunky Rice), Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell (From Hell), James Kochalka (American Elf & Monkey vs. Robot), Jeffrey Brown (Clumsy and Unlikely), Doug TenNapel (Creature Tech), Alex Robinson's Box Office Poison; Rich Koslowski (Three Fingers), and Scott Morse (The Barefoot Serpent).
The State of the Shelf
Unlike other outfits that license pre-existing properties, Staros stated that Top Shelf's mission is the opposite, "We prefer to seek out groundbreaking material and let the publications stand on their own merit. And if a film or merchandising license comes from that at some point, well, all the better."
The time is better now than ever, considering the increasing wave of corporate, media, and public interest in the industry. "In 1986, when the groundbreaking graphic novels Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns garnered an enormous amount of mainstream press, there just wasn't enough other quality graphic novel to ignite a revolution," reasoned Staros. But with the recent success of manga and alternative trade paperbacks supply is no longer the issue. Staros continued:
With Hollywood's major commitment to comic book-based movies; the library market's discovery that the current range and originality of graphic novels make them able to bring in new readers; the mainstream press' coverage of comics as an artistic medium on the level of film and literature; and the rise to prominence of comics-enthusiastic internet journalism; for the first time ever, the medium of comics has started to expand from a single sub-genre to a rich and diverse medium having mass appeal everywhere.
Therefore, like other publishers, Staros sees the current market challenge as ironically one of oversupply. Being selective is a virtue, but Staros estimated, "Ultimately, I think the future is bright for further expansion, as there's still a lot of headroom here before comics truly becomes 'the thing to do.'"
Spine Out, Facing Ahead
Fresh off the success of bagging three Eisner awards at the 2004 San Diego Comic Conventions (Best Writer/Artist and best original graphic novel for Thompson's Blankets, best comics periodical for Jon Cooke's Comic Book Artist, best talent deserving of wider recognition for Derek Kirk Kim's Same Difference & Other Stories), Top Shelf is still gunning their printing engine. In October 2004, the Small Press Expo bestowed on them three more Ignatz Awards (two more for Thompson, and Best Online Comic for James Kochalka's American Elf).
For the remainder of 2004, key releases are Andy Runton's Owly and Jeffrey Brown's Bighead. In 2005, Staros forecasted that Top Shelf line up for the first quarter will be "Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls; Alex Robinson's new graphic novel, Tricked; Rich Koslowski's Elvis fable, The King; James Kochalka's all-new superhero series -- with the greatest team name ever, Super F*ckers; our first foray into a mainstream miniseries, The Surrogates, by Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele; and an amazing debut by Aaron Renier, entitled Spiral-Bound."
Now actually in danger of becoming legitimate, Staros has lined up the dots in his life, and have concluded that they add up, "I surely had no idea that my fanzine would lead to running a publishing company and heading up the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, but there you go -- it seems that my background in entertainment, management, and corporate life all worked together to put me on the road to publishing."
Looking back on his comics existence, Staros reflected, "Life definitely takes you in strange directions, but I can tell you that I've never been happier -- despite the financial stress that this industry can put upon you -- and am extremely proud to be a member of this amazing community."