Talking Top Shelf Productions With Chris Staros

For most publishers, this week's Comic-Con International in San Diego is an important occasion. It's a chance to meet fans, work with creators in person versus on the phone and it's an opportunity to sell books and hopefully lots of them. Publisher plan for months which announcements to make as well as what they plan on selling during the convention.

Top Shelf Productions is one of those very publishers. This year Top Shelf storms San Diego with an offering of eight new graphic novels, some which have been released in recent weeks and others which make their debut at Comic-Con International. The eight titles include:

  • "Carnet De Voyage" by Craig Thompson
  • "American Elf" by James Kochalka
  • "Conversation" by James Kochalka and Craig Thompson
  • "The Blankets Soundtrack" by Tracker & Craig Thompson
  • "Same Difference & Other Stories" by Derek Kirk Kim
  • "Grampa & Julie: Shark Hunters" by Jef Czekaj
  • "2 Sisters" by Matt Kindt
  • "Less Than Heroes" by David Yurkovich

CBR News sat down with Top Shelf Publisher Chris Staros to learn a bit more about what they have to offer and what visitors to CCI can pick up from the publisher.

Jonah Weiland: First, eight projects debuting at San Diego. This sounds like the biggest year yet for Top Shelf.

Chris Staros: Well, so many great projects came to fruition this year that the summer ended up being our biggest release season ever. With our printing bills between April and July alone topping $200,000 -- yee-gads! -- this summer is definitely our biggest gamble yet. But these eight books, combined with the three recent Alan Moore/Top Shelf editions of "From Hell," "Voice Of The Fire" and "The Mirror Of Love," were so strong, that it was definitely a gamble worth taking. Of course, the fans and retailers will ultimately let us know whether we'll be paying off these printing bills in a timely manner … ahem.

JW: Talk a bit about your plans, a bit about each of the books and how they came together.

CS: We first wanted to make a big summer splash for Craig Thompson and James Kochalka, as they were both completing important books -- Craig, his first-ever travel journal, and James, his mammoth Sketchbook Diaries collection. And thanks to James who came up with the idea for "Conversation," they also collaborated on a comic book jam, which turned out to be a real gem. So, right after Craig won his three Harvey awards for "Blankets," we put them on the road for their "Conversation" signing tour, which actually ends up at the San Diego Comic-Con, Top Shelf booth #1721, where they'll be signing all four of their new releases:

"Carnet De Voyage," Craig Thompson's 224-page travelogue diary documenting his adventures during his recent three-month trip to Europe. He was over there supporting the summer release of five foreign-language editions of "Blankets," and the overall result is a stunning and reflective piece that perfectly captures the spirit of the wandering artist.

"American Elf," James Kochalka's five-year, 520-page collection of his groundbreaking sketchbook diaries. What makes this book so special is that James single-handedly redefined the daily comic strip, turning it into something that's quite addictive. The more you read of it, the more insight you gain into what it means to be human.

"Conversation" is one of the best "jam" comics ever set to paper. Craig and James trade pages back and forth, answering each other in what turns out to be an amazingly insightful mediation on art and religion.

And The Blankets Soundtrack, performed by Portland, Oregon's Tracker, and designed exclusively by Craig. Wait 'til you see this CD. It's got one of the most beautiful jackets and booklets I've ever seen, and the ambient music on it is perfect for any background mood.

JW: Let's stick with your last paragraph there. How did the "Blankets" soundtrack come together? What's the genesis of this project?

CS: Craig and Brett have been friends with the Portland, Oregon instrumental band Tracker for some time now. The band members were blown away by "Blankets," and asked Craig if they could compose an album inspired by the book. With Craig's permission, what resulted were nine ambient tracks and a complete package design by Craig. It's a little bit of a departure for us, but a novelty we thought people would get a kick out of nonetheless.

JW: "Same Difference & Other Stores" is a reprinting of a previously self-published effort, right?

CS: Exactly. Derek Kirk Kim self-published the first edition of "Same Difference" in 2003, which went on to be named one of the best books of the year by Publisher's Weekly. After it sold out, he asked us if we'd like to take it on, and we readily agreed. Brett and I were both big fans of the graphic novel and of the way Derek deftly explores Korean-American life and his own "quarter-life" crisis in it. We were more than happy to welcome him into the family. So the first Top Shelf edition is actually a second printing, but with a new cover design to spruce it up.

JW: Another one of your big summer releases was actually covered in a feature at CBR back in April, "Less Than Heroes." How did a superhero project come to Top Shelf?

CS: David Yurkovich and Brett Warnock were the instigators of this one, and I became a fan of David's work once Brett brought it to my attention. Brett's been a fanboy his entire life, and it was Alan Moore's "V for Vendetta" that got me into comics at the ripe "old" age of 28, so, it's no surprise to me that a stellar book like "Less Than Heroes" -- which could be described as "Watchmen" meets "Bratpack" meets "Seinfeld" -- would end up finding a welcome home at Top Shelf.

JW: When "Pistolwhip" and "Mephisto" first came out, they caught me by surprise, and I've got a feeling the same will be happening with "2 Sisters." This is another giant book, clocking in at 336 pages, right? What's the buzz on this one?

CS: For some reason we've always had our best luck with our "phone books"; the giant tomes of "From Hell," "Blankets," "Box Office Poison," etc. So, if "size matters," "2 Sisters" should be a winner on that factor alone -- ha! But the truth is, the buzz on this book has been fantastic. This World War II spy thriller is so epic - it's got ancient Romans, pirates, shady gypsies, nazis, mysterious rockets, buried treasure, pen-guns, cyanide teeth and, of course, romance -- that you just can't put it down. It's also a touching stories about two sisters, and a real tribute to the female struggle throughout the ages. What can I say; it's a winner.

JW: "Grampa & Julie" looks very interesting as well. It also appears to be one of the few all-ages books in the Top Shelf line. Is this the first of a number of all-ages books, or is this something of an experiment for Top Shelf?

CS: It's been clear to Brett and I for some time that we've needed a few fantastic all-ages books in our line. After all, comics will never become the "thing to do" unless kids discover great comics at an early age. Of course there's "Archie," "Donald Duck," "Bone" and other great all-ages books already, but there's really not enough of a critical mass of these kinds of titles yet to ignite anything. So, we're just jumping in with both feet this year, and starting to hunt down and publish a few key all-ages books, whenever we can find them.

In any event, Jef Czekaj's "Grampa & Julie: Shark Hunters" is a real coup for us. This full-color graphic novel collects Jef's delightful tale from the pages of "Nickelodeon Magazine." It's a joint project involving Jef's own publishing company, the Xeric Foundation, Nickelodeon, and Top Shelf. A real team effort here to get out the story of Grampa and Julie, and their mission to find Stephen, the largest shark in the world -- who just so happens to like fruit stripe gum.

JW: Top Shelf publishes a diverse group of books that appeals to a large range of readers. When choosing books to publish, what are the main criteria you use to select them?

CS: Brett and I are basically looking for projects that are intriguing, thoughtful, witty, and fun. Hip and unique -- absolutely! -- but with a real positive sense of community and no attitude. We're a very inclusive publisher, one that embraces and celebrates all forms of comics, and our goal has always been to be one of the forces that helps to unify the camps and to re-introduce comics as a literary art form to the world at large.

Interestingly enough, it's the intersection of Brett's and my tastes that have defined our direction, or "house style," if you will. As imperceptible and indefinable as it is, it's there. And to make sure that we were both were behind everything that we published, when we formed the company we gave each other what we call "an inarguable veto" over the other. In other words, we wouldn't fight over projects. If one of us didn't want to do something, that was it, and we moved on. And that intersection of our tastes has helped guide us and define us over the last several years -- without a single argument, I might add.

JW: Just over two years ago Top Shelf asked the community for help. Clearly the demise of LPC hurt you guys, but now that you've survived that, what else has changed that's allowed you to be in a position to release so much during CCI? Has the market improved? Has recognition of Top Shelf increased? What does the current situation that Alternative Comics is in, or even Crossgen's myriad financial troubles, say about the industry, and how have you managed to survive when others are facing renewed challenges?

CS: You know the old joke: "You want to know how to make a small fortune in publishing? Start with a large one!" That would be kind of funny, if it wasn't so true. They don't call it the "small press" for nothing, so it's a constant struggle to keep any alternative press publishing enterprise alive. Getting a company off the ground is hard enough, but sustaining one could possibly be even harder.

To tell the truth, I'm not exactly sure how we've survived. I guess getting up every morning and working 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week, helps. Setting up at eighteen conventions a year to meet all the fans personally doesn't hurt either. Simultaneously working several fronts: the direct market, the book trade, and convention/website sales is also a key factor. And, of course, being lucky enough to publish a few really successful books, like "From Hell" and "Blankets" -- which have helped improve our brand recognition -- is all a part of it, too.

Almost all of the publishers I know have invested every penny they could save and borrow to get their operations off the ground and sustain them. And even after years of publishing, they'd all be hard pressed to say that they've recouped any of those financial investments. This is an industry propped up by love, and love alone. It's something you throw yourself into because you want it to be your life, not because you think a paycheck is there. And so, no matter what hardships there are, these people and this industry will survive, because the love of comics is not something that's going to go away.

JW: What's next on the slate for Top Shelf? Anything we should be looking out for towards the end of the year that we haven't heard about yet?

CS: Right around the corner we have two really cool graphic novels that are going to rock the comics world as much as any of our summer releases will: "Owly" by Andy Runton & "Bighead" by Jeffrey Brown.

"Owly" is a 160-page, all-ages graphic novel about a kind little owl who's always on the search for new friends and adventure. It's been a mini-comics sensation for Andy -- and us -- and all indications from the "buzz" on it, from readers and retailers alike, is that this graphic novel is gonna really take off. This, along with "Grampa and Julie," will be our two giant all-ages releases for the year.

As for "Bighead," I think it should be required reading for every comics fan out there, as it's an amazingly clever superhero parody that will appeal to mainstream and alternative fans alike. If you managed to get a copy of our Free Comic Book Day Book, "Top Shelf Tales," there are a few stand-alone "Bighead" stories in it that you can check out. The book brings together moral fable, social commentary, and classic comic book action, while leaping all clichés in a single bound. Definitely check it out.

And as for next year -- 2005, baby! -- there are several really cool things already planned: "Lost Girls" by Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie will finally debut; and so will Craig Thompson's next big graphic novel, "Habibi;" James Kochalka's all-new superhero series, "Super F*ckers"; Alex Robinson's highly-anticipated new graphic novel, "Tricked"; Rich Koslowski's take on one very enigmatic Elvis impersonator, in "The King"; a delightful all-ages book called "Spiral-Bound" from extraordinary newcomer Aaron Renier; Scott Morse's next book, "Lyrical Whales"; Renee French's return to graphic novels in "The Ticking"; Robert Venditti & Brett Weldele's "The Surrogates" -- Top Shelf's very first mainstream mini-series (done with a Top Shelf flair!); and "The Dark Hotel," written by Bob Callahan and illustrated by underground legend Spain. Whew! And that's just what we can talk about right now.

But for now -- this year! -- just come by our booth at San Diego, as we'll not only have all the cartoonists from the "big eight" releases above, but we'll also have Eddie Campbell, José Villarrubia, Jeffrey Brown, Rich Koslowski, Scott Morse & Jennifer Daydreamer on hand to meet fans and sign books. Plus, we'll be giving away extra copies of our Free Comic Book Day book to anyone who didn't manage to get one. See you there!

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