The Top Shelf Productions panel at Comic-Con International got off to a rocky start, thanks to some technical difficulties. Leigh Walton, the company's marketing coordinator, started the panel by trying to show the trailer for the Bruce Willis-starring "The Surrogates," based on the Top Shelf title; but like the comic book's cybernetic avatars that unexpectedly break down on their masters, so too did the trailer fail to play.
Walton and the rest of the panelists – which included Top Shelf co-publisher Chris Staros, "Surrogates" creators Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele, "Far Arden" creator Kevin Cannon and Eisner-nominated writer-artist Nate Powell of "Swallow Me Whole" – opted to proceed with the panel and check in on the trailer's load time later.
Staros took to the podium and showed a slideshow detailing the history of Top Shelf for those in the audience that were unfamiliar. He described how he and Brett Warnock founded the company in 1997 after the two of them had created their own fanzines, with Staros' called "The Staros Report." The name Top Shelf came from an anthology published by Warnock, which he decided was the right name for the company.
Staros pointed out some of Top Shelf's earlier work, including their first publication "Hey, Mister: After School Special" and "A Complete Lowlife" by Ed Brubaker. He said those works and others helped define the term "graphic novel" in the comic book industry. "Works like Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's 'From Hell' and Craig Thompson's 'Blankets' helped turn the tide for awareness of comics in the mainstream market," Staros said. "Not that we were solely responsible for that, but that was our one small contribution to the great wave that the whole comics industry put together."
He continued by saying that Top Shelf recognized the importance of the all-ages audience, hence their kid-friendly line of books that include "Owly," "Spinal Bound," "Johnny Boo" and "Monkey vs. Robot."
After running through various titles that they've published in their 12-year tenure – including Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," Liz Prince's "Will You Still Love Me If I Wet The Bed," Nate Powell's Eisner-nominated "Swallow Me Whole" and more – Staros briefly highlighted some comics that Top Shelf has on the horizon, including "Moving Pictures" by Kathryn and Stewart Immonen, Kagan McLeod's "Infinite Kung Fu," and a 400-page collection of underground manga titled "AX Volume 1: A Collection of Alternative Manga."
After the slideshow ended, Walton attempted to play the "Surrogates" trailer, but once again, the video would not comply.
Moving forward from the technical difficulties, the panelists took questions from the audience. One fan asked Venditti why the "Surrogates" film was set in Boston when the comic book took place in Atlanta. Venditti said it was a matter of money. "For whatever reason, Massachusetts has a lot of tax incentives for the film industry, so movies are a lot cheaper to film there," he said. "'Paul Blart: Mall Cop' was filmed there, 'The Proposal' was filmed there and 'Shutter Island' is being filmed there. There's just a whole bunch of movies all of a sudden going to Boston due to these tax incentives."
The creators on hand were then asked to introduce their most notable works. Cannon started: "'Far Arden' is sort of a rollicking fun adventure story," he said. "We open with our main character Army Shanks. He's an ex-Navy, sort of salty seadog who believes he's found a map to this legendary tropical island that people think is situated in barren wastelands. As people discover that he has this map, friends and enemies start coming out of the woodwork to find the map and ultimately get to the island."
Powell described "Swallow Me Whole" as about two stepsiblings in the American south and their terminally ill grandmother. "The stepsiblings start to exhibit different symptoms of mental disorders and behavioral disorders to varying degrees," he said. "The book is sort of about the factors and forces from the cultural climate and the family, their peer group and from each other as they're trying to make sense of the changes going on inside them and come to terms with the fact that they're moving in different directions in life – then it gets really trippy."Venditti discussed "Surrogates" briefly, summing it up as a "sci-fi story set in a future where everybody lives through these idealized [robot] versions of themselves … it's kind of a look at online cultures as people take these personas for themselves through gaming and chat rooms."
The creators were asked how each of them got involved with Top Shelf. Cannon said that he published chapters of "Far Arden" online at first, and then was brought into the Top Shelf community when he sent samples to Staros and Warnock.
Powell claimed that he'd self-published comic books since 1992 but eventually made a list of publishers that he liked. "Chris and Brett were two of the only people who would consistently correspond on a personal level and actually critique my stuff," he said, which led to an eventual partnership.
Venditti said that he started out in the Top Shelf mailroom trying to find a way into the comics writing profession. When he started showing scripts to Staros, he was skeptical about "Surrogates" fitting the Top Shelf mold – but as the movie trailer (that was still not shown) could attest, things eventually worked out in his favor.
"The one thing that ties all these guys together is the fact that they're unique, they [have] compelling art styles, their stories are compelling from a page-turning point of view because you want to see what's next," commented Staros. "But above all, they have a lot of subtext and a lot of heart, which are the two key ingredients of what Brett and I look for in the Top Shelf line – things that will resonate with the reader."
Walton paid Staros a compliment for his editing skills, calling that out as one of the reasons the Top Shelf line is so reputable. Staros agreed that editing is important. "Part of the indie publisher vibe is that, 'It's my work, and you can't touch it and I can do whatever I want and that's what makes it independent,'" he said. "That may be true, but a good editor's job is to be the silent person whose not your drunk friend telling you that you rock, but to take a serious look at it and behind closed doors talk to you about the issues of the story and where it's weak."
He also added marketing as a big factor in what makes Top Shelf comics successful. "You really got to be a good marketer yourself," he said of prospective creators. "A lot of the guys that we publish are ones that had been on the circuits and self-published, gone out to conventions and helped sell stuff. They'll hit the road with you and market their books with you. We're only four guys [at Top Shelf], eight arms and eight legs – if our artists help out, we're ten arms and ten legs and we can do a lot more work to get the book out."
Back on the subject of editing, Staros was asked if it's more difficult to edit Top Shelf cartoonists who both write and illustrate their own work. "Sometimes they write in scripts first, a lot of them do thumbnail kind of drawings – light penciled versions of the pages," he said. "We can start talking about the story before they ink it. In some cases, some people send the stuff already inked. I've had this conversation with people where I'm like, 'This look is great, but it'll be seen as a formative work rather than a definitive one because it has such structural and story issues to it. If you're willing to do some work on it, and it's going to take some work because you'll have to toss some pages and rethink some of these things.' Almost all of our cartoonists are willing to do that."
One fan asked if the creators knew from the outset of their artistic careers whether they wanted to draw superheroes or less mainstream comics. Cannon said he came into comic books "too late in the game" to get into superheroes – the Ninja Turtles were the closest to that genre for him – and that authors like Stephen King are more inspirational to him.
Another audience member asked if Top Shelf would ever consider reprinting comics that were no longer in circulation. Staros said there needs to be a demand for such books and that print-on-demand services aren't customizable enough for some of the sizes of some of their comics. "Some of the stuff might end up online at Top Shelf 2.0, our online comic section which Leigh has edited religiously," he added.
Next, Powell was asked what the process of being nominated for an Eisner was like. "I have no idea!" Powell exclaimed to laughter. Staros praised the cartoonist for his work on "Swallow Me Whole," which earned three Eisner nods for Best Lettering, Best Graphic Novel (New), and Best Writer/Artist. The audience applauded his efforts.
Powell went into some detail on the influences for "Swallow Me Whole." He said that despite having worked in the mental health industry and having an older brother with autism, neither of those experiences was directly injected into the book, though that unique viewpoint may have played a role. The most direct influence from his life was his grandmother, who inspired the grandmother character in the book. "She was diagnosed with cancer and they basically gave her a year to live. She lived for another 24 years," he said. "In the last six months of her life, her cancer returned for a fifth time and the treatment she was taking had made some neurochemical changes in her brain and she started having these very real delusions. So, much of grandma's dialogue in the book is basically lifted straight out of my grandmother's last couple months of life."
As the panel drew closer to its end point, the status of the "Surrogates" trailer was investigated once more – and to the joy of many, the video was finally loaded. Although the preview lacked new footage, the crowd was nonetheless pleased with the promising trailer. Following the glimpse of the "Surrogates" film, Staros invited the audience to come by the Top Shelf booth to meet the creators and editors.
"That's what we're here for all weekend," he said.