Corporate superhero comics aren’t the only area of the comics biz that make waves with their business deals these days. Last week, the long-standing independent comics publisher Top Shelf Productions entered into a capital investment deal that saw a 33% stake in the company purchased by film producer Anthony Bregman (“Synecdoche, New York”) and new media specialist John S. Johnson. Part and parcel of the announcement was word that Bregman’s Likely Story production shingle had optioned Alex Robinson’s 2008 graphic novel “Too Cool To Be Forgotten” and would have a first look deal at other Top Shelf comics headed towards Hollywood adaptation.
CBR News spoke with Top Self Publisher Chris Staros shortly after the deal was announced to discuss the ins and outs of what Bregman and Johnson’s involvement with the company means for the future of Top Shelf, how the Top Shelf staff will be headed to Sundance as a result and what new media opportunities lie ahead as well as an early look at the entire Top Shelf 2010 publishing slate from new releases by Eddie Campbell and James Kochalka to April’s big “Swedish Invasion” promotion of comics from up and coming Scandinavian talent.
CBR News: The investment of capital and resources of this kind into a publisher like Top Shelf is certainly a very big deal for you guys and has a lot of different features to it, but I think one question everyone asks when new interests take part in a publisher is what does it change? Is there anything different for you going forward in terms of the books you’re putting out or day to day business?
Chris Staros: Actually, not at all. Anthony and John are both huge Top Shelf fans. They read a lot of our stuff, and they’ve been buying our books for a long time and also getting our books from us for a long time. So they’re very aware of what we do and like exactly what we do. And both men are also extremely busy in their own respective fields. They’re not jumping into Top Shelf as if to take control. They’re there to support us so we can tap on their shoulders when we need to do stuff in Hollywood or with the multi-media aspects of things. There may be some projects that come to us through them, and we’re all ears to that kind of stuff. But it’ll be really business as usual at Top Shelf, and we’re going to stay a small, lean operation with just the four of us working it. And we’re going to try and eventually do a few more indie films through John and some other people as well, and work with John on multi-media aspects of the program too.
Any comic publisher who’s been in business throughout the last 15 years or so has seen ups and downs, and Top Shelf has had a few close calls financially calling for sales to help bring capital in. Does this capital free you and your co-publisher Brett Warnock up to pursue some different programs and releases that you hadn’t been able to before?
It does free us up a little bit, but by keeping us so small I think it doesn’t free us up that much because we are going to be pretty busy. We are putting out about 25 books this year and doing 20 conventions. Add that to about 15 or 20 reprints a year, and our days are still going to be pretty chock full of publishing. But for example, one of the things we’re doing next week which we normally wouldn’t have the funds or time to do is that we’re going to go to the Sundance Film Festival. Anthony’s got two films debuting there, so we’re going to go there and go to the after events for the films and meet people and start to get involved in that world a bit for some key books we think could be suitable for adaptation. We might take a little but more time to get involved. Brett just finished directing a movie himself based on the “Veeps” book we put out a while ago. They’re working on that and trying to get that set up to submit to festivals. It’s something he wanted to be more involved with as well. This is something that’s going to allow us to get into some doors we haven’t been able to get through, and that’s the key. We’re going to try and take the time to go through those doors and see what’s there.
The big piece of creative news coming with the capital announcement was that you guys and Alex Robinson have set up “Too Cool To Be Forgotten” with Anthony. After doing “Box Office Poison,” which took a number of years to serialize and made for a massive single volume, “Too Cool” seems at the very least a much more manageable, approachable book for adaptation on size alone. Is that one of the reasons it became an early pick for optioning?
“Box Office Poison” in and of itself was originally an ongoing series, which was an epic project for Alex. And “Tricked” was an ambitious project itself at 350 pages. You’re right. Because of the size of “Too Cool To Be Forgotten,” it’s very tight and well-defined as a story. And also, “Too Cool To Be Forgotten” is just a remarkable story in that it’s a clever idea about going back in time and having to relive your high school years, which all of us can relate to, and yet what seems to be played off for laughs and is very funny actually gets darker and darker and creep under your skin. It turns out to be a very emotional experience and one that a lot of people have teared up at, including me. When you got to the end of it, it’s a very powerful piece. It makes sense that it’s something where Anthony and his staff all loved the project and have been shopping it around town to put together the right team -writers,Â directors and actors -Â to be involved and bring it to fruition. That team hasn’t been fully formed enough to make announcements, but it is something we’re working on as well as all the other things they do. Anthony has a very big production schedule. I think he does four to six movies a year.
“The Surrogates” film came out from Disney last year, which was a project that if I recall was brought up in house at Top Shelf along with creators Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele with an eye towards a more mainstream kind of release. With this investment deal, do you expect to be developing more projects along that mindset?
Actually, “The Surrogates” is creator-owned as well. Just like any other book we do, the copyrights are with the artists and then we license certain rights for a certain time to publish and so forth. Most of our contracts do involve our participation in the Hollywood rights of things because we do feel it’s important that in those one in 100 or one in 1,000 or whatever the odds are of something turning into something big we want to be a part of it, because we do pay our dues. We’re the people putting these things out and paying the money to market them and get the groundswell of support around them and get them into Hollywood, and in the rare cases it works out, we want to be a part of it. But it is one of those things where we don’t like to do anything an artist doesn’t approve of -Â so they have to approve their movie deals, and we have to approve their movie deals.
Also, there’s a little bit of protection involved with us because Brett and I are good people, and we want to make sure we do right by our guys. We want to make sure these movie deals are sound and solid, and we’ve done enough to know what’s in a deal and what should not be in a deal. We want to make sure that cartoonists don’t get stars in their eyes from somebody putting a piece of paper in front of them so then they just sign it. It’s good that a lot of the guys with us have us in a loop so we can put our agents and attorneys on the project to work with the cartoonists to negotiate deals that are fair and reasonable for them. And then the bulk of that goes straight to them, and it’s still their baby all the way through. We’ve never been the kind of house where the house owns it like Batman or something. We handle Hollywood and foreign rights, but ultimately all approvals go through them. They are in control when it comes to the other things that take place.
I think the thing about Anthony Bregman and John Johnson are respectful of that too. They like the creators and respect them, and when they do want to get involved with those kinds of projects and move forward, there are still a lot of terms that have to be negotiated. Anthony’s now a part of the family, and we’ll try to make things work with him if he wants to. Not everything is going to be something he wants to take on, and he couldn’t make that many movies if they were. [Laughs] We’re all on the same team now so it’s not a big fight.
John is the other side of this, and I think the assumption would be that he’ll help take Top Shelf comics into spaces some other publishers are getting involved in like comics online and for mobile devices. Is that what you’ve been discussing as part of this as well?
Yes. He’s involved in lots of new media aspects. He’s also involved in things like screenplay-to-comics adaptations, new media, web-casting and internet stuff -Â all of that is of interest to him. And he’s got a lot of good ideas and a lot of connections. I was in New York a few months ago and went to a talk he sponsored about new media and webisodes and things like that, and I met all kinds of big players that are pioneering those kinds of events. There are opportunities to move in that direction, and we will be launching in the spring a Top Shelf iPhone application where all our books will eventually be available for purchase on the iPhone. We’re going to load them in slowly. And we’ll have an updated web site in another month or so that is iPhone compatible as well -Â so if you go to your computer it’s one way, and if you go on your phone it looks like it belongs there. We’re working with John to get everything more web savvy, and a little bit of that is “time permitting” because there’s still only 24 hours in the day even if you still have people helping you out.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the Top Shelf slate for 2010, it feels like you’re anchoring the early part of the year with some books that should be very familiar to fans from James Kochalka having a “Superf*ckers” collection to a new “Super Spy” book by Matt Kindt before moving into some new material. How has it been planning the line for the year in terms of how you’re grouping releases?
It is different. I would love to say there’s a giant art to how we put our schedule together, but in some ways it is a real intuitive process. Part of it is based on stuff we’ve signed that we know is coming, and part of it is based on when something is actually completed and delivered. In the case of Eddie Campbell’s “Alec” book, what better way to start the year than with one of the greatest tomes and raconteurs of the whole comics industry? “Alec” belongs in the pantheon of “Blankets” and other great auto-bio books of the time, so I’m really glad to see that launch and that other people are enjoying it so much. It’s one of the things where a definitive collection of this work has been needed for a long time. Now it’s there and can be a true perennial.
And then of course, Kochalka’s “Superf*ckers” collection with an extra chapter in it is something we’ve wanted to do for a while, and it’s going to have a really cool flexi-cover. It’s a really cool package. And Matt Kindt’s “Super Spy: Lost Dossier” is great because “Super Spy” really launched Matt’s career to where he’s doing books for lots of people and for us as well. We’ve got two more “Super” books planned for the next couple of years as well. Those were naturals to lead off the year with because they were all ready to go.
In April, our Swedish Invasion thing is something we’re totally excited about because over the last couple of years we were invited to go over to Sweden as guests of the Swedish Small Press Expo…and you do not know how rare it is -Â actually how impossible it is -Â that a publisher get invited as a guest to a convention. It never happens. And what happens is that for talent, I get five calls a day, “Hey! Can you get so and so for our convention?” Nobody wants a publisher! [Laughs] But the Swedish Expo that Johannes Klenell of [Swedish comics magazine] “Galagos” asked me to come to that first year really built a bridge between their community and Top Shelf. The next year Brett came over too, and we’ve really got some strong ties with them. I really appreciate what they’ve got going on over there and feel like the American community would grok well with these guys. So we did two Swedish books last year, and now we’re doing five in April, plus we’re reemphasizing the two we did last year. There’s seven books all total. They’re all flying in for MoCCA, and the main guys for the new books are staying for the following week to go to Chicago for C2E2. We’re going to be throwing parties in both cities to welcome the Swedes to America, and they’ll be signing all week at the cons. And the Swedes went so far out of their way to make Top Shelf and the other American guests they had with their post-con and pre-con parties and the convention themselves that we felt we had to introduce not only some of the key works they’re doing over here but also really welcome them with open arms into our community. We view this as a cultural exchange and are really excited by that.
And all that’s still just through April. There’s so much more to the year past that.
Well, the last two questions I have line up together to that effect. The first is if you can pick one of your babies out, what book do you think is going to be an under the radar hit for Top Shelf this year?
I’ll tell you what that book is. This summer, we’re putting out another Eddie Campbell book that was written by his friend Daren White, and it’s called “The Playwright.” And it is one of the most staggeringly amazing graphic novels that I have ever read. It is a masterpiece, an absolute masterpiece. I had a stack of books back during the last San Diego where they’d brought a galley with them, and the stack of things that people gave me took a month to read. I sat there and read everything, going “Yes, enjoyed it. Yes, enjoyed it.” And then I read “The Playwright” and was just stunned. I said, “This is so incredible. This is a book I’m going to make a big, big deal about when it comes out.” It’s one of those books that is kind of understated, and people could not pay so much attention to, but it’s a masterpiece. It’s probably not going to be a blockbuster, but I think it should be a sleeper and a book people should really pay attention to this summer.
And to wrap where we began, as you’re stepping into the Hollywood stuff more, are there any books that you’re particularly holding with an idea for setting it up somewhere as a film?
Some of the stuff that’s coming out this year like “Moving Pictures” by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen has a lot of potential. “The Playwright” also has a lot of potential. And even Robert Venditti has a new book coming out this year called “The Homeland Directive” which I think is a real interesting book which just like “The Surrogates” has a lot of intrigue and plotting to it that make it attractive. There are a lot of others as well, but those three come to mind as things people might be interested in not even from our back catalog but of stuff coming out this year. We’ll probably, in addition to some of our perennials, mention those to people and put them on the list to send along a copy when it comes out.
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