Top Shelf Comix co-publisher Chris Staros speaks to Royal Nonesuch in this brand new interview!
Top Shelf Comix has spent over a decade building itself up into one of the foremost independent publishers in the comic book space. By focusing on more nuanced, intimate stories, aggressive marketing campaigns, and a range of products intended for various demographics, co-publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock have created a place where writers, artists, and cartoonists of different sensibilities can bring their work and have it seen by a considerable audience. While running a "massive" sale on a great number of products in the Top Shelf catalogue, which ends Friday, September 24th, Staros took a seat in The Outhouse to talk about the way Top Shelf works in the modern comic book climate as well as his role in the company's operations.
This is Part 1 of the interview.
The Outhouse (TOH): You recently attended the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Maryland. How did that go?
Chris Staros (CS): Well, SPX is always a really nice end of the year celebration of indie comics. The second SPX was the first convention I ever attended. I can’t remember what year that was – the mid to late 90’s – so SPX has been a great tradition in my life and in Top Shelf’s life. Top Shelf was actually formed at SPX in 1997. Brett and I had become friends and we pitched the idea to each other to join forces and work Top Schelf together, so we have a lot of history with Small Press Expo. And every year there’s a lot of fantastic talent. The bar is raised every year.
TOH: It's interesting to attend shows like that where you guys, and Drawn + Quarterly and Fantagraphics, etc. are the big dogs at the convention.
CS: Depending on what kind of con you go to, we’re either the boutique indie publisher, or we’re the dinosaur. It is neat to see a new generation of cartoonists come up who are young enough in the scene that Top Shelf seems to have been around forever while I remember coming up in the scene as wallflowers at conventions just trying to make friends before we even formed the company. It’s the great circle of life and everyone’s participating, but my goodness are there a lot of great young cartoonists out there with a lot to say and some really great chops. The SPX is always a place where we meet people and new talent. For example, last year I was actually blown away by the work of Jessica Finke, and we signed two of her books, CHESTER 5000 and WE CAN FIX IT, and she’s an example of some the young talent that we’re bringing into the fold and we’ll be releasing both of her books next year.
TOH: In addition to promoting your own work, you’re scanning for new talent as well.
CS: Absolutely. Top Shelf does a bit more conventions than most of the other publishers, we do about 20-25 cons per year. I come from a rock'n'roll background, I played in bands for 11 years before I even read comics. I was a hard rock and heavy metal guitarist for years and I never read comics when I was a kid, so I grew up in that Loretta Lynn story, where you put your records in the car, and the radio station in playing your records, and you work the nightclubs, you do the shows. You try and build fans one at a time and Top Shelf always had that aesthetic to it. They don’t call it the small press for nothing! You have to get out there and make friend one at a time. It’s just as much about the community as much as anything else. We try to produce products that we’re proud of and have a lot to say and have a lot of subtext and heart and will resonate with people. But we know that these things are not necessarily that easy to see, so we need to try and find an audience for these books and build the clientele so we do a lot of shows and meet a lot of people at them. We meet a lot of talent and watch them grow over time and as friendships form we’ll bring people into the fold and we’ll start publishing their work and work with them over the long term.
TOH: That said, you can’t really say there’s a “typical” Top Shelf book. How would you characterize your catalogue?
CS: All of the publishers have a “house style.” In some ways it’s a bit indefinable, but in basic terms Top Shelf publishes the books that are at the intersection of my personal taste in comics and Brett Warnock’s, my business partner’s, taste in comics. Surprisingly we agree on almost everything and that is one of the reasons why we joined forces. We both lit up with the same kinds of comics and we’ve always seen eye to eye on the projects that we publish.
Basically, we’re looking for stories that have a unique art style, and have a lot of subtext and a lot of heart and will resonate with people. But also things that are kind of hip and fun and accessible. We want to be the indie publisher that is accepted by the mainstream and by everybody. Our mission in the 90's was to redeem graphic novels and comics as a literary artform. By no means were we alone in doing that, but Top Shelf was a part of that movement. I think we and the other publishers were successful in doing so.
TOH: You mentioned some of the other publishers out there. Some of the creators you work with, like Craig Thomson and even Alan Moore, keep coming back to you. How do you sustain these relationships?
CS: I think the relationship between artist and publisher is an interesting one and one that is complicated. Part of the reason I think that people tend to be loyal to Top Shelf is that Brett and I are genuine people. We really love comics. We love what we’re doing and we’re good to people. And we’re intrinsically good guys, not to toot our own horns so much, but it’s just our nature. We look after people, we’re supporters of the industry, we’re not territorial or competitive by nature. We’re team players with the industry as a whole. We applaud and celebrate other people’s successes as much as we do our own because we know how hard an industry this is. I think that a lot of people have stayed loyal to us because we’ve helped break them; we’ve helped their careers and they see how hard we work behind the scenes to make this happen. Making comics popular is not an easy task at all. It’s something that requires an enormous amount of work and an enormous amount of guerilla marketing and the ability to survive.
But the world has changed in the last ten years with regards to artist relations because a lot of big players have jumped into the game. Publishers that can offer big advances, and even though the peak of that probably existed before the economic downturn that hit everybody pretty hard these last few years, it’s still a big factor. One of the things we’ve had to get used to over the last few years which probably didn’t sit too well with me in the beginning but I’m totally at peace with now, and actually support now, is the fact that people we develop leaving us. But I think what’s happened now, which I’m really grateful for, is that people are definitely taking opportunities that come to them and I surely don’t begrudge them that at all, but also they’re staying loyal to their roots. So while some of our guys might be doing projects with Pantheon, they’re still doing projects with us, or they’re doing projects with Simon and Shuster but they’re still doing projects with us. What’s really neat about that is that you get the big push of the big publisher who can give them the big advance and help them stay a full time cartoonist, but often big publishers will put out a book, promote it for a while, and if it does well then fine, and if it doesn’t then fine, but they move onto other things, while the boutique publisher is sort of a tenacious group that doesn’t allow you to forget about people. So we’ll do twenty shows a year, we’ll always have a place to sign and we’ll keep promoting the book and we keep our catalogue alive and while we tend to pay more on the back end on a royalty structure, in some cases the cartoonist has made more money from us over time than they ever have off the advance that they never recouped from the larger publishers. They never felt abandoned by us because we always stuck by their side and always promoted their work.
There’s something to be said for the small publisher's tenacity to get things done. In a world where the infrastructure is there where even the big publishers and us are all being distributed through the same channels, if you have a hit, we can sell as many of them as the bigger publisher. So when we have a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN or a LOST GIRLS or a FROM HELL or a BLANKETS, or an OWLY or something that sells in the hundreds of thousands of copies, we can do that. And we have the reputation for putting out quality material now, and the relationship with the cartoonists have changed over the last fifteen years, but it’s very healthy, and now that [the creators] are doing stuff with the big publishers, we get the benefit of their PR and the big publishers get the benefit of our guerrilla marketing and our third party endorsement PR because we feed off of each other. So I think it’s a symbiotic relationship that’s happened in the industry due to the success and awareness of graphic novels. I’m cool with that now, and I’m happy with the way it’s moving forward.
TOH: How much of a presence do you have in the creative process?
CS: Brett and I have a real natural division of labor between us. I’m more of the story editor for the company. Brett’s more the art director and the packager and the designer for the company. Unlike a lot of the indie publishers, we believe that editing is an important part of the process, where it’s important to have a person who can work with the cartoonist and say if there are flaws in the story; to point them out and try to make the story stronger. Just like when you see a movie and they spend $100 million on a weak script, and it’s like “Wow, if they had spent a little bit of time to get the story a little bit better, this $100 million would have been really worthwhile."
I feel the same way of penciling and inking, where if the artist goes to pencil and ink a book, that could take almost a year, so why not make sure the story is right first? Sometimes, people submit their scripts and stories to us and it’s perfect and I don’t touch a thing, and other times I’ll suggest that maybe the pacing is wrong, or they’re not giving enough time to the most important part of the story, or it’s going off-track, or characters are changing over the course of the story which is completely natural, but all of a sudden they’ll do something that is completely unnatural. We need to talk about how the story is progressing and why somebody did something when they did. Let’s talk about the middle and the ending and those kinds of things. Oftentimes they’ll talk me out of stuff, like I'll miss something, or I was wrong, but every once in a while I’ll hit on something that was nagging the cartoonist as well and they’ll go, "Hmm, I was wondering if anybody would notice that, and you did!" So we’ll bounce some ideas around on how to fix things and so forth, and ultimately all those final creative decisions lay in the artist’s hands, but I’m that quiet person in the background who sometimes they can bounce ideas off of and help improve the product.
So we do have a lot of input creatively, and from a design point of view, Brett will work with the cartoonist if the cartoonist has a lot of design chops, like a Matt Kindt who is one of the best storytellers we have and one of the best designers working in the industry today. When he’s designing SUPERSPY, all we’re doing is looking at the ideas he’s putting across, and we say we like this one, run with it and Matt can package his own books. In other cases, Brett will do the designs or bring in somebody from the outside, like Eric Stillman, who we’re actually going to be publishing a book by next year called LIAR’s KISS, which he wrote. He’s the guy who designs the DVD packaging for Criterion, and he’s a big fan of comics, and we brought him in on a few projects including AX, which hit stores this week, and the big ALEC omnibus, THE YEARS HAVE PANTS by Eddie Campbell. So Brett will manage how our books are packaged. Ultimately, we hope we’ll have a really good product that people will enjoy.
I’ll tell you a story: When I was 15 years old, I was playing in my first rock band, and we had graduated to not playing in our garage, but playing in other people’s living rooms for parties. We were mostly doing covers back then, you know, Skynyrd, David Bowie, Black Sabbath, that kind of stuff. I remember we were playing one time, and I can’t remember which song it was but it was time for my guitar solo and I remember just closing my eyes and breaking out into this wailing solo and just jamming it out and all of a sudden, this whole place just erupts into applause and cheers, and I had my eyes closed and I was smiling to myself, and I was saying to myself “This is what rock'n'roll is all about, this is it.” When I opened my eyes, I saw that somebody had opened the door and someone was wheeling in a keg. Everybody was just cheering for the fact that the beer had shown up! It wasn’t my majestic playing that turned them up. And then, right after that show that evening, a guy walked up to me and called me the best guitar player he’d ever heard; that I was fantastic, that I should never give up because I was going to be a rock star someday. And he turned around and I watched him as he proceeded to walk through a plate glass window! The ambulance had to come and he ended up with like 150 stitches in his body. So the lesson that I learned that night was that you get your biggest compliments from the drunkest people.
In comics, when somebody has a piece of work, it’s such a tight-knit, close, friendly community that when you have a piece of work you show it to your fellow cartoonists and your friends and they tend to value friendship more than the work itself and they’re going to tell you that it’s great, and not really delve into it critically and get into the heart of the matter or find the weak spot. That’s the job of an editor, to be that silent partner that points out the problems in stories and not to be giving you compliments, but to give it to you straight. That’s something I brought from music to publishing. That's one of the things that’s also helped keep Top Shelf’s relationship with its cartoonists good because a lot of them value that editorial process while we’re getting their books out.
To take advantage of Top Shelf's massive sale, click here!
Come back tomorrow to The Outhouse for Part 2 of the interview with Chris Staros!
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch