Ten years ago, Chris Staros and Brett Warnock created a publishing company called Top Shelf, from an anthology of the same name. Today, business is booming for the indie publisher, which is home to, among other things, Alan Moore's "From Hell" and "Lost Girls," but this was not always the case. There was a period a few years ago when the prospect of celebrating the company's 10 th anniversary seemed grim indeed. But Staros and his company weathered the storm, and Staros sat down with CBR News to talk about the company's origins, its triumphs and setbacks, and where it's going to go from here.
Surprisingly enough, Staros (who is now known for signing his correspondence "Your friend thru comics") did not develop his appreciation for the comics medium during his formative years, but rather when he first picked up a comic book in 1990 as an adult. But it didn't take long for Staros (who describes himself as "obsessive" by nature) to immerse himself in world of comics. "After reading Alan Moore's 'V for Vendetta' in 1990, it inspired me to dive into comics as well," Staros said. "From '90 to '94 all I did was read comics. Mostly independents, historicals, etc., but I read hundreds (if not thousands) of comics and graphic novels in those four years, and really developed a deep love and appreciation for this medium. And then in '94, I dove into the biz headfirst with my first 'zine, 'The Staros Report' #1 which I think maybe 30 people saw."
|"The Staros Report"|
Continued contact on the convention circuit made the two comics aficionados realize that they could be more successful together than apart, leading Staros to suggest a partnership at the 1997 Small Press Expo. "After a ten-second deliberation, we shook on it and never looked back. It's hard to believe that was ten years and 160 books ago!" Staros said.
The first book to bear the Top Shelf logo was the first issue of Josué Menjivar's "Broken Fender," published in 1997, followed shortly thereafter by issue #6 of the "Top Shelf" anthology and Pete Sickman-Garner's "Hey, Mister After School Special." The latter performed so well that the partners expected the rest of their venture to be smooth sailing, but keeping the burgeoning publishing company afloat was anything but easy.
In the fall of 1999, Top Shelf published what was to be the company's first hot property, Craig Thompson's "Good-bye, Chunky Rice." "If I remember correctly, Craig Thompson had introduced himself to Brett in Portland, as they lived near each other," Staros said. "I think that Craig had initially shown Brett a small three-page strip about a little turtle ('Chunky Rice'), and Brett loved it and thought it could be developed into something more. Craig decided he'd expand on the idea and ended up creating the graphic novel that made him the cartoonist to watch out for."
"Good-bye, Chunky Rice" and "From Hell" were big sellers, and helped cement Top Shelf's reputation as an independent publisher. But rocky waters were ahead. In 2002, a distribution company based out of Connecticut called LPC became one of the first distributors of graphic novels to book stores, and took on Top Shelf as a client. "They were actually doing a reasonably good job with things, but unbeknownst to all the publishers involved, they were in some financial trouble, and surprised all of us by declaring bankruptcy just when things were really taking off," Staros said. "Everyone suffered a great deal, but we got hit particularly hard, as they had just written us a bad check for $20,000.00, which we deposited and wrote checks against. Those all bounced. And beyond that, they owed us another $80,000.00 from the sale of several of our new titles, including a large shipment of 'From Hells' that we had shipped to bookstores in support of the movie release. The $100K loss was way too much for a tiny company like ours to absorb, and it effectively killed us that day."
|"Good-bye, Chunky Rice"|
One of people who went above and beyond the call of duty in Top Shelf's time of need was writer Robert Venditti, whom Staros had met on the convention circuit. "When the crisis happened, [Venditti] received our email and was one of the fans that placed an order," Staros said. On top of that, Venditti volunteered to help the publisher pack the 1,000 orders that had to ship post haste. "I told him it wasn't going to be fun, but with his experience in pack'n'ship at Borders, I could tell he knew what he was getting in to. It ended up being a win-win situation for both of us. He was an aspiring writer who wanted an in to the biz and he knew I could provide that. And I was a publisher who was staring at 1,000 orders and wasn't quite sure how I was going to get them done in a timely fashion. The very next day Rob had the first 150 out the door, while I was manning the phones. I immediately hired him to work for us part time and then eventually he transition to our now, one and only, full-time employee."
It was Staros' relationship with Eddie Campbell that paved the way to the publisher's first meeting with comics legend Alan Moore, which in turn resulted in Top Shelf's acquisition of "The Lost Girls." "When Alan originally struck out on his own with Mad Love Publishing, he started three amazing projects, 'From Hell,' 'Lost Girls,' and 'Big Numbers,'" Staros said. "And the early chapters of all three just blew me away. So, after 'From Hell' was finally collected as a graphic novel, I just thought it would be a natural move to see if Alan and Melinda would be interested in completing 'Lost Girls,' and get that one out to the world next.
"I flew over to England in April of 2000 for my first ever face-to-face meeting with Alan and Melinda," Staros continued. "It was one of the greatest days of my life. Not only were they more gracious than I could ever have imagined, by the end of the day, this little ol' fanboy had his first Alan Moore (and Melinda Gebbie) autograph, and it was on the contract to publish 'Lost Girls.'"
"We collectively spent the next six years completing, designing, and planning the roll-out for one of the most expensive and controversial graphic novels ever published," Staros said of "Lost Girls'" road to publication. Staros fully expects further controversies down the road, but to date, their biggest hurdles have been the "Peter Pan" copyright and Canadian import laws.
"Peter Pan" is public domain in the United States, but a special act of British Parliament extended the copyright in the UK through 2007. "And while we always felt that the story of 'Lost Girls' was not an infringement on they story of 'Peter Pan,' but rather a work with literary allusions to the story, we were definitely not interested in getting into a legal battle on British soil with the copyright holders of 'Peter Pan,' which just so happened to be the most popular charity and children's hospital in all of England, the Great Ormond Street Hospital (whom author J. M. Barrie had bequeathed his rights to)," Staros explained. "So, when Great Ormond's cordially contacted us about the matter, we brought in a New York copyright law firm to help us resolve the matter. In the end, we negotiated a settlement through our attorneys to simply not release the book in the EU until 2008, and I actually flew over to England for a face-to-face meeting with the members of GOSH where the settlement was signed. They were actually very nice about the whole thing, big advocates of free speech, and just wanted to protect their interests as long as they could."
|"The Incredible Change-Bots"|
"Ironically, the day we submitted the legal package to Canadian Customs, was the day that a copy of 'Lost Girls,' ordered online from one of the big US retailers, was actually seized at the Canadian border for obscenity," Staros said. "So, when we found out, we asked Canadian Customs to combine both cases into one, and make a ruling on our request and the seizure at the same time, which they agreed to. We never did announce the fact that a book was seized, as this would have been bad PR for Canadian Customs, and we wanted to give them a fair shot to do the right thing on the ruling of the book.
One of the ways Top Shelf stays competitive in a marketplace with dozens of burgeoning small press competitors is their formidable convention presence: They average 20 a year, more than any other publisher in the business. "Every publisher has their own completely valid strategy for survival, but for us, we realized early on that they didn't call it the 'small press' for nothing," Staros said. "If we were going to survive, we needed to get out there and meet fans one at a time, and establish long-term relationships with the community face-to-face. We value our personal relationships, and at the end of the day, that's what we treasure the most: our friends thru comics.
"Lone Racer" by Nicolas Mahler, "Regards from Serbia" by Aleksandar Zograf, "American Elf" Book 2 by James Kochalka, Essex County Vol 1: Tales from the Farm" by Jeff Lemire and "Feeble Attempts" by Jeffrey Brown are just a few of the high-profile projects that Top Shelf released in the last year. And in the coming months, Top Shelf will be releasing Christian Slade's "Korgi Book 1: Sprouting Wing!," Andy Runton's "Owly Vol. 4: A Time To Be Brave," Renée French's "Micrographica," James Kochalka's "Super F*ckers" #4, Andy Hartzell's "Fox Bunny Funny," David Yurkovich's "Death By Chocolate: Redux," Jeffrey Brown's "Incredible Change-Bots," Jeremy Tinder's "Black Ghost Apple Factory" and Matt Kindt's "Super Spy." The details of all of Top Shelf's current and future projects can be found on their website, www.topshelfcomix.com.
"In addition to all the projects from new creators listed above, we do have a few big releases already slated for 2008 and beyond," Staros said. "These include: 'The League Of Extraordinary Gentleman (Vol III): Century' by Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill; 'The Moon & Serpent Bumper Book Of Magic' by Alan Moore, Steve Moore, and various artists; 'Kissypoo Garden' by Craig Thompson; and 'Too Cool To Be Forgotten' by Alex Robinson."
|"Tales From the Farm"|
And the Seasonal Sampler is not the only way Top Shelf is ringing in their 10 th Anniversary. "We'll be putting out a 10th anniversary poster this summer, illustrated and designed by one of the very first Top Shelf cartoonists, Ulana Zahajkewycz," Staros said. "And if you drop by and see us at a convention this summer, you're very likely to get one for free." The company will also be throwing a Top Shelf 10th Anniversary Party at the MoCCA convention in New York, on Saturday, June 23 rd , starting at 6:00PM at the very hip nightclub, GSTAAD, on 43 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10010.
"I think Brett, Rob and I just get up every day, work as hard as we can, and hope we live to see another day in publishing," Staros said. "This is not an easy business, and the small press lives and dies by the sale of a handful of books each day. So, we're grateful for all the support we get from fans each and every day."
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