Chris Staros of Top Shelf Comix finishes his conversation with Royal Nonesuch here!
In Part 1 of our interview, Top Shelf Comix co-publisher Chris Staros took a seat in The Outhouse to talk about his role in the creative process, and the company's presence at comic book conventions. In the second half of the interview, Staros talks about how his relationship to comics started, as well, as his thoughts on digital comics and how Hollywood adaptations are good for Top Shelf's business.
The Outhouse (TOH): I’m curious how you went from playing guitar in rock bands to running your own comic book publisher. What was your path?
Chris Staros (CS): I guess I’m cursed with being a slightly obsessive person. When I get into something, I really get into it. When I was four years old, I fell in love with Elvis Presley, and that has been my biggest obsession and passion my entire life. It’s never left me, and I still go to Graceland for a week every summer and my house is not a shrine to comics, it’s a shrine to Elvis. Then I heard Black Sabbath when I was 13 years old, and decided "I could do this. I’m going to do this." I proceeded to play in hard rock bands and heavy metal bands until 1989, and then after that I finally hung up the guitar because my ears had gotten so bad from playing night clubs for so long. So I just had a straight job in the software industry and I didn’t have an artistic outlet, and that really got to me. And I remember I was picking my wife up from work, but I had about an hour to kill, and I would drive by this comic book shop everyday. I decided to stop in, and I was talking to someone and I asked “What do you read if you’re grown up and into literature.” They put a copy of V For Vendetta in my hands, Alan Moore’s masterpiece. That actually hit me like Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality where I thought “I could do this. This is incredible.” I didn’t realize that comics could be so powerful, that it could really be the combination of fine art and literature and something that was so much more powerful because the juxtaposition of the words and images together, how clever you could be. To start with Alan Moore is such a treat because of how brilliant he is. I started out being one of his biggest fans and I’m still his biggest fan now that we’re publishing some of his books. Alan Moore got me into this business and in a lot of ways, Alan Moore has kept me in this business. I’m grateful to him in a lot of ways.
TOH: On the other side of that, I think you might have kept Alan Moore in this business, since he’s been so complimentary towards you in his interviews, while he seems so frustrated by the American comic book industry in so many ways.
CS: Well, Alan is just so talented, and everything he touches is just so genuine and so layered. You read his stuff over and over and over again…you think about Watchmen, being the epic revisionist superhero work and every couple of years I’ll pull it out and this stupid idea will always flow through my head, which is “maybe I’ve outgrown it by now,” and I’ll read it and it’ll blow me away every time. You’ll see something else and you’ll see the tapestry of it. When we published FROM HELL, which I think is one of the greatest things ever written, and then LOST GIRLS, which is such a complex masterpiece. They’re just phenomenal. He wasn’t going to go anywhere anyway. His work would have gotten out there with or without Top Shelf, but I’m glad to be part of it.
TOH: What kind of guitar do you play?
CS: I have a 1970 Les Paul Gold Top which is my favorite guitar, and a Marshall half stack. Back in the day I used to run two half stacks that were a few milliseconds separated from each other with a little bit of chorus floating through one of them, and I ran my effects through a loop, nothing on the floor, and a little bit of reverb and played it pretty clean but it was pretty crunchy. It was a good sound, I had a lot of fun with the guitar.
TOH: I read an interview with you recently with Publisher’s Weekly, where you said "Everything is more integrated these days, and you have to think big picture. You can't just think only about print." You were talking about Hollywood, but it also applies to digital content delivery. What are your thoughts on that in terms of comics? What inroads has Top Shelf made into the digital realm?
CS: We’ve partnered up with iVerse, who put THE SURROGATES on the iPhone when the movie was out, and we’re working with them to develop a Top Shelf app, where we can have all our books, kids and mature readers, together and a Top Shelf Kids app where we can have our all ages books in one place. We’re going to be debuting a third of our catalogue by Christmas on those apps, or maybe a little later than that, these things always take longer than you expect. But it’ll be great. We’re definitely going to support the digital revolution. Because a lot of the stuff we do is boutique and coffee table in nature like LOST GIRLS and some of the deluxe editions like Eddie Campbell’s new one, THE PLAYWRIGHT or ALEC, or those kind of things, that the print’s not necessarily going to go anywhere. Or if we lost some people in print to digital, the digital explosion might bring some people from digital to print, and since we’re a small press publisher, they might just help each other out and make each other viable together. But definitely we’re going to support the digital revolution and be a part of it and embrace it. When you think about the things that you loved over time, like you bought them on 45 and LP and 8-track tape and cassette and CD and then downloaded them off of iTunes. You’ve bought them over and over again, music in every form that was available because you love them. Content is key, and that’s what Top Shelf really focuses on and as long as we’ve got good content no matter what the format is, there will be an artist who we’ll buy either in print or download it, or buy it in both forms, or all forms available because they like it so much. So with our kids stuff like OWLY or JOHNNY BOO or KORGI, I know the kids buy them in print and they’re realy savvy and have an iPad or iphone or whatever, they will be picking up the books that way as well.
TOH: Do comics lose something when they enter the digital realm? Are comics still comics if they’re divorced from the paper they were originated on?
Part of it’s a generational thing. People my age come from print, and they have this innate bias towards it. The younger and younger you go, that’s less and less the case. Ideally they’re the same to an extent. There’s something really nice about holding a book in your hands and reading it but I’m not positive that’s going to translate to the next generation. I miss LP’s as much as anybody because when I listened to a record, I could stare at that album cover the whole time I was listening to the album. You really don’t get that with CD or when you download it onto your iPod. But I really do enjoy having all that music available to me so I can listen to it on an airplane. There is something lost in that experience, but it’s not so much whether comics lose something by being on a digital platform as much as what comics might change to on the digital platform. Whether they’ll have active components and interactive components and Flash animation and music and all this kind of stuff where all of a sudden the mediums are all starting to merge into each other. Comics as a pure artform might start to shift a little bit as time goes on, and then the young people who are doing comics are more technically savvy.
Comics might change a little bit because of this new avenue, but there will still be that ode to the past. Even these devices still sort of mimic books, they still give you these curly turn pages cues so it still looks like you’re turning pages in a book, and are still trying to be books even though they’re being digitized so to speak.
TOH: I’m wondering if there’s another medium that’s been altered by technology, and the first thing that comes to mind is film, and how they only got to sound film once the technology allowed for it. That was a huge change in the medium.
CS: It’s just like the difference between the computer and your TV. They used to be different devices, and now they’re starting to look similar to each other. The monitors look the same, you can watch movies on both, and they’re merging more and more as time goes on.
TOH: I wanted to ask a little bit about film adaptations. You had THE SURROGATES recently, and at MoCCA in New York, while talking to people about that book, you mentioned the Bruce Willis film pretty heavily. Nowadays, it's not just the big superhero guys that are getting adapted, they’re looking at everyone in comics.
CS: I think all in all it’s a good ting. Top Shelf has never been a license house, we’re not ones to say “We want to do Star Wars or Star Trek comics,” we’ve always tried to be the company that builds stuff from the ground up. We’re a company that really focuses on art and not commerce so much, not to toot our own horn, but we’ve always worried about art first. But we’ve never been a company that minded when commerce met art, because when commerce met art, that meant that what we’re doing struck a chord with a lot of people and we can be very proud of that. We believed in BLANKETS and worked with Craig on that for four years. I spent four years of my life marketing that book to make sure people knew that this was going to be the biggest event of the decade when it came out, and Craig’s work backed that up. It wasn’t just me blowing smoke. When people read BLANKETS, they understood that what I was saying was absolutely true. Craig delivered and BLANKETS turned into a monster hit and really helped define a generation of cartoonists. And if something like that got turned into a film or whatever, that’s ok. I’m proud of that, because we were part of the creative and business team that got that really good story out to the public and got noticed and got to a wider audience. I’m a big movie fan, so seeing these things turned into films is great, and you always know the book is the book, and the film is the film. If the film is great, that’s fantastic since it helps sell a lot of books, and if the movie is not so great, it’s still helpful because the whole build up to the film and the release of the film help sell a lot of books and the more people who buy the book, the better because people can be aware of it and of the people who put it together.
TOH: If a studio or production company wants to make a film or TV series of a Top Shelf product, do they approach you, or the creators directly? What’s the mechanism there?
CS: I have over the years gained a good bit of experience dealing with Hollywood on things and understanding the components of a film deal or a TV deal: what’s a good deal or not a good deal, what are the industry standards, and what to hold out for or not hold out for. We work with our creators on our properties as publisher and cartoonist, and as a team to negotiate deals with people and comics. It’s a good, symbiotic process. And because there’s a good trusting relationship between us and our cartoonists, generally we act as a good unified front and try to hold out for good deals on these things. It’s not easy negotiating with Hollywood, there’s a million ways to skin a cat out there, so negotiations can be difficult. But once it’s done, and things get rolling and moving, it’s an exciting process to see it unfold.
TOH: Is there anything else you’d like people to look at in terms of what’s on the horizon for Top Shelf?
There are so many cool projects out on the horizon. Come visit our website, topshelfcomix.com. If you look in the Catalogue section, it talks about all our 2010 releases, and all of our future releases, things that we’ve signed. In fact, this weekend, I’m flying out to Portland and Brett and I are having a weekend meeting where we’re going to plan out next year and lay out everything.
In the all ages department, we have some really big releases set up. We’ll have the new OWLY next year, a new KORGI next year, a new JOHNNY BOO next year, we’ve also signed four or five new kids series next year: one called MONSTER ON THE HILL, one called OKIE DOKIE DONUTS, one called MADDY KETTLE, one called PIRATE PENGUIN VS NINJA CHICKEN, and then one really cute all ages vampire story which we signed as well. We’ll be releasing a bunch of those and we’ve got a bunch of mature works as well that are fantastic. The next couple of years are going to be really exciting.
There are some really cool mature readers things we’ve got coming up. The long-awaited second LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: 1969 will be coming out. That’s been coming along very nicely. Alan has finished the script for the conclusion of CENTURY, and that will be going to Kevin O'Neill right after he finishes the second one, so we’re very excited about that one. Also, Eddie Campbell’s working on the compilation of the entire BACCHUS series, which will be twice the size of the ALEC one and we’re really excited to have that one out. I’m not sure if that’s coming out in 2011 or 2012 but that’s going to be a big release as well. Craig Thompson’s new book Habibi will be coming out from Pantheon, but after that, his next book called KISSY POO GARDEN will be coming out from Top Shelf, so that is going to be a big one-two punch from Craig. I know that people have been waiting a log time for a follow-up book to BLANKETS, and both of those are going to rock the house when they come out. They’re going to be big deals for sure. Then Jeff Lemire, who did ESSEX COUTNY with us and is now doing a really great job with Sweet Tooth at Vertigo, is doing a new book with us called THE UNDERWATER WEATHER, which will be his next lit masterpiece. That’s either next year or the year after, but we’re really excited he’ll be doing that big project. Nate Powell, who did SWALLOW ME WHOLE his new book called ANNIE EMPIRE will be coming out from us. THE HOMELAND DIRECTIVE by Robert Venditti and Mike Huddleston will be coming out, which is a completely new project, but it will be great to have a new project by the writer of THE SURROGATES out. I could go on, but there are about 25 really key projects I’m really excited about right now.
TOH: Do you have a “typical day?”
CS: Yes, and it’s probably about 12 hours long (laughs)! And seven days a week. It’s a lot of work running a publishing company.
I get up every morning, I check the emails, see what needs to be done for the day, I get an average of 150 emails a day, and now that I’ve finally joined the world of Facebook, I’m dealing with that every day as well. Then I generally run my errands, the bank, the post office, the warehouse, if things need to get done there, I still sometimes unload semis that show up with palette’s of books. Robert Venditti, who works for the company, he handles a lot of our orders for us, and a lot of our editing and proofreading and all kinds of things for our company. Right now with the sale going on, it’s me and Rob and two of the Top Shelf family members Dwayne Ballinger and Van Jensen, we’re in the warehouse packing all the orders for everybody. It’s a very glamorous life, you know? Then reading manuscripts, checking on people’s work, editing books, worrying about the whole cycle of the publishing schedule, from marketing to distribution to printing, those kinds of things, on the business side, the money aspects. I’m doing that basically all day long.
Generally, I work weekends too. In this day and age, it’s so hard to get away from it. Even that week off that I took in August for Graceland, which is my holy week of the year. Because I have the power of the iPhone now, I can stay connected with everything. I actually answered a thousand emails from my iPhone while I was gone those eight days. It’s like “Wow, was I really on vacation that week?” Modern technology is great, and you can do the work of ten men with all these devices, but boy it is really hard to get away from the office now. Even when you're lying in bed at night, you’re still checking emails andanswering things, putting things in motion and then falling asleep. I’m not sure when we rest anymore.
TOH: Is there anything else you’d like to get out there?
CS: I would just say to everybody out there: thanks. This has been a hard road. I can’t believe that the first STAROS REPORT, my little fanzine that I started with, my very embarrassing entry into the world of comics that came out in the summer of 1994...I think I made about 30 copies of it, and they’re still only worth about a buck on the back issue market, but that was just 6 pieces of paper stapled together about comics I thought people should read. It really grew from there. If it wasn’t for the community aspect of this business, Top Shelf would not have survived as long as it has, because every year it is a struggle to keep the doors open on a publishing house. It is very difficult to sustain publishing operations. It's very expensive to run and you take a lot of risks.
Publishing is like mowing everybody’s yard in your neighborhood, and then hoping they’ll pay you for it afterwards. In a lot of ways, if you’re mowing lawns you can make a lot more money. You can knock on the door and say “I’ll mow your lawn for 40 bucks” and then he'll pay you, and if he doesn’t pay you, you go and knock on the next door. But in comics and publishing, you’re mowing everybody’s yard and then hoping somebody’ll pay you for it. So it’s a much riskier business. It’s a lot of labor and it’s a lot of money, but comics is a community between the conventions, the publishers, the retailers, the distributors..if it wasn’t for Diamond and the Direct Market retailers and their support over th years, if it wasn’t for the fan support over the years, and even the fans coming to the rescue like in 2002, when one of the big distributors went out of business and left us in the lurch, these are the things that make this industry really, really special. The bond between the talent, the publishers, the fans, the cartoonists, and everybody is just fantastic. So I just want to say thanks, because it’s been a really great ride and I hope we can keep it going.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch