A Decade of Friends and Comics with Top Shelf

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."

But as fate would have it, one of those 30 people was Oregon native Brett Warnock. Warnock had created Primal Groove Press in 1994, and his primary publication was an anthology called "Top Shelf." "Brett and I met through the mail, when he became aware of 'The Staros Report,' and sent me some samples of his books for review," Staros said. "I really dug his books, as they were very cool and impeccably designed, but what really made me remember him, as a person, was his cover letter. Here was a hepcat with no attitude, who just dug cool comics no matter what corner of the industry they came from. In other words, a really cool, involved person who wasn't an elitist -- the kind of person I've always been drawn to."

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.

"We both had day jobs at the time, and had to juggle 9-to-5 jobs along side full shifts for Top Shelf after we got home each night," Staros said. "And it was three to five years later before we actually pulled the first dime out of the company and eventually transitioned both of us to working full time for Top Shelf. I think in our first year together we made about twenty-five grand with a full publishing schedule, and now, ten years later, we need about that much every week just to keep the doors open. But the great thing about starting out small was that we were able to learn a lot of valuable lessons about the industry and publishing without so much money being at stake."

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."

It was also around that time that Top Shelf began its association with Alan Moore, via the scribe's "From Hell" collaborator Eddie Campbell. "I had actually become sort of pen pals with Eddie before Brett and I hooked up, and that led to me becoming Eddie's agent for his publishing company, Eddie Campbell Comics," Staros explained. "When 'From Hell' came about, it was just a logical extension of our relationship to handle the book for them. Funny, at the time, there were several big book publishers that wanted to publish 'From Hell,' as they had heard about the movie buzz, etc., but Eddie, Alan, and I decided to just let Top Shelf handle the book, and boy did that turn out to be the right decision for everyone. I'm still grateful for their giant leap of faith that Brett and I could take on and handle a book that important."

"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."

"Brett and I talked, and the next morning I sent out an email plea to our fans on our email list, which numbered about 4,000 at the time, to explain exactly what had happened, and that if people would buy a few graphic novels, that might help us raise enough money to have time to regroup," Staros continued. "Oddly enough, that letter started to bounce around the internet that day, with people posting it and forwarding it to others. And by the end of that day, not only had probably over 100,000-200,000 people read that letter, but over 1,000 really healthy credit card web orders had hit our website, and we were actually fully back in business on that same day. I sent out a second email that evening telling everyone that we were back in business, and to thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts. It was a staggering day, one that we will always be grateful for. Not only did the entire comic book community rally behind us, but it was also an example of the power of the internet, fully realized that day."

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."

In exchange for the writer's generous aid, Staros resolved to help the youth break into the business.  As Top Shelf had little to no experience with "assembly line" mainstream comics, when Venditti brought his proposal for "The Surrogates" to the company, Staros originally planned to find the book a home at a publisher that was better suited to the task. "But once he started giving me the scripts to the five chapters of 'The Surrogates,' I liked the story so much, and saw so much potential in it, that we just couldn't let it walk out the door," Staros said. "So, Brett and I decided to actually take on our first 'assembly line' book, and we hired Brett Weldele and the design firm of Bissel & Titus to complete the project for is. And it came out just perfect. It's a first class project in every way." Venditti has since gotten work at Marvel, and has two other graphic novels in development. The Surrogates has since been optioned for feature film development.

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.'"

Unbeknownst to Staros at the time, Moore and Gebbie had been quietly working on "Lost Girls" for years, and the project was only about 100 pages from completion when the publisher arrived. "Melinda's originals are huge and absolutely gorgeous, and there was no better way to hear the story than sitting by Alan's fireplace, drinking tea, while he flipped through all the pages and narrated the entire tale," Staros recalled.

"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 issue at the Canadian border boiled down to this: Are depictions of underage sex the same thing as child pornography? "While Canadian case law does support the arts, they don't have the 1st Amendment, and their laws also don't distinguish between drawings of sex with minors and actual photos of minors, which is a big distinction that the US Supreme Court made in rulings on these matters in the US," Staros said. "It was a difficult (and expensive) decision, but we decided to do the right thing, suspended distribution of 'Lost Girls' to Canada, and hire a Canadian law firm to approach Canadian Customs and seek a ruling from them. This way we would know definitively if the book could be imported into Canada. This took several weeks of work for us and the attorneys to put the case together, and it ended up being a rather large document that was submitted, which included legal arguments on the artistic merit of the book, reviews, interviews with Alan and Melinda, etc.

"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.

"So, we kept our fingers crossed, waited 30 days or so, and then in a thoughtful letter from the agency, dated 27 October 2006, the CBSA stated that the 'depictions and descriptions are integral to the development of an intricate, imaginative, and artfully rendered storyline,' and that 'the portrayal of sex is necessary to a wider artistic and literary purpose,'" Staros said. "That was a big victory for a book this important, and we we're very grateful to the Canada Border Services Agency for their enlightened decision regarding 'Lost Girls,' as well as to our Canadian attorney Darrel H. Pearson (of Gottlieb & Pearson) for helping us prepare the documents necessary to request a formal review of the work."

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.

"We've always had the strategy of balancing our releases from big stars, established talent, and new creators," Staros continued. "There will always be welcome room for new publishers, but as long as we're actively seeking and releasing projects from new talent, I think we can still stay relevant to the fans, industry, and creative community. For example, last year was a really big year for us with 'Lost Girls.' But instead of resting on our laurels with just big reprints this year, we actually signed more than a dozen new creators, and are planning a bunch of new, and really cool, releases from them in 2007 and 2008."

"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."

"And this year, being our 10th year anniversary, we're actually trying something new," Staros continued. "In May we're publishing a free 200-page Top Shelf Seasonal Sampler, which will be a trade paperback detailing all of our 2007 releases and featuring a preview section from each title. We'll be giving these away to retailers, at conventions, and from our website, and this way you can sit down and read sections of all our books for the year, and see if you'd like to pick them up. It'll also have a lot of info on our perennials and future releases as well. Again, check out the website for all the juicy details on these."

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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