2006 in Review: Top Shelf

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If there was one small press publisher that stood out last year, it definitely was Top Shelf. The reason? Come on, don’t act as if you haven’t got a clue… it’s Lost Girls we’re talking about here!

BF spoke to Chris Staros about the year that was—truthfully, Lost Girls takes up a lot of the conversation—and we look forward to what’s coming up in the freshly-minted 2007.

BROKEN FRONTIER: I’d say a good way to describe Top Shelf’s 2006 would be as a year of taking chances. In hindsight, is that how you’d call it yourself?

CHRIS STAROS: Yes. Lost Girls was the biggest undertaking we’ve ever done in 2006, it was a big, big gamble. We got lucky in the past putting the whole company on the back of one book—like we did with Blankets—and we got lucky this time around too, with Lost Girls. The gamble paid off in the end; it was really a big success for us in 2006.

BF: The biggest project for Top Shelf was, undoubtedly, Lost Girls. How do you look back on the whole experience, from first starting discussions with Alan Moore to publishing the book and all the gambles you had to take along the road?

CS: Brett (Warnock, co-founder of the company – ed.) and I knew from the very beginning that Lost Girls was probably going to be the most important book we had ever published, not only in terms of content or originality, but also because of its controversial subject matter and the statement Alan and Melinda were making.

The book had been in production for 16 years and had been highly anticipated among comic book fans, but there was no way of telling how it was going to be received, if it was going to be too controversial and so forth. We had to pull out all the stops and make sure Lost Girls was produced and packaged in way that it could immediately be recognised as a legitimate work of art. We also had to work the press really hard so that it would be perceived as such before people got the change to start attacking it. We pulled all that off working closely with Alan and Melinda.

BF: Was producing it as a deluxe edition a deliberate decision to put the book in the hands of an audience that has a finer taste of art?

CS: Originally, we intended to do it as a single volume edition. We were going to do it deluxe, but because of the practicalities of it, it would have been less expensive from a printing point of view. But Melinda had been dreaming of how this book was going to look like for years, and in her head, she visualised it as a beautiful cloth-bound volume with dust jackets, a lavishing slipcase and antique-looking paper. And when you’re dealing with people of the stature of Alan and Melinda, who’ve produced such great works of art over the years, we decided to make it just as they wanted it to be.

That did two things for us, actually. First, it allowed us to create the book as not just another book, but as a work of art and as one that sends a message that you can’t casually peruse it—you’ve really got to go into it knowing what you’re going to get and seek it out. In SDCC, Melinda saw the first copies, and she felt they were better than what she had imagined—Alan knew how he wanted the story to read and how it had to look, but it was really Melinda’s baby from a visual point of view and he let her take a lead in that regard.

All in all, we changed directions a couple of times, but found a course we really liked and pursued it. We worked a total of 18 months on the design; a long, long process, but well worth the time.

BF: You’ve talked in great detail how Melinda felt about Lost Girls. What was Alan’s take when he saw the book?

CS: Alan was extremely pleased with how Lost Girls turned out and told me over the phone while I was in San Diego that it was the single most beautiful packaging of his work he’s ever seen. In turn, we’re pleased to have signed Alan to League of Extraordinary Gentlemen III, the big Bumper Book of Magic he’s working on, which is going to be another huge release all by itself, and then there’s also his novel, Jerusalem, which we may end up being involved in as well. Top Shelf is extremely honoured to be involved in all this, and a few other projects that he may have in store down the road.

BF: Even after Lost Girls got released, there were a few bumps along the way—import prohibitions, negative backlash, etc. Did the amount of reactions and legal roadblocks match your assumptions?

CS: I was worried that there were going to be a lot of bumps if we didn’t handle the project with the necessary care. We sought a lot of press and let them understand that this project was legitimate and that it was a work that had to be released and has a place. Discussion about sexuality is one that has to be held—and protected—from a free speech point of view.

The press chimed in and helped us out by saying it’s an amazing piece of work. At the same time, we had retained several different attorneys for different issues—we had some issues with Canadian customs that were resolved, some with the Peter Pan copyrights in England which were all handled very professionally and courteously by us and our attorneys. Canadian customs has since cleared the book for import, and I went over to the Ormond Street Hospital to visit with the people there; everyone was very respectful of each other, so the release has only been delayed to January 2008 and things will clear there as well.

All in all, yes, there were some bumps in the road, but they were resolved very satisfactorily.

BF: Alice, Dorothy and Wendy were recently allowed entry into Canada, because ultimately Customs felt that “the portrayal of sex is necessary to a wider artistic and literary purpose.” Such a sentiment is relatively common in Europe, where sex in comics is hardly ever frowned upon, but not in your part of the world. From your own point of view, did you feel a need to publish Lost Girls to push the boundaries of the medium in the US?

CS: I knew that this extremely important book, not only because the story is so brilliant, but because of its message about human sexuality—your mind is a playground where anything can exist. The US has been on a conservative trend for about 25 years now where a lot of civil liberties and thoughts about sexuality have been leaning towards more conservative views. Freedom of your sexual imagination is important, and freedom of speech is important, so Lost Girls was an important to take a stand with. I think it’s message has been received, and, judging by its popularity, it’s clear that people out there are looking for this kind of material. The book is so visual, something like this hadn’t been done before, so it’s definitely groundbreaking from a comic book point of view.

BF: When we interviewed Melinda Gebbie in August, she was extremely happy about the fact that most reactions were positive—for example, it allowed people to feel like ‘proper human beings’. Perhaps it’s a little early at this point to say so, but do you think Lost Girls has made Americans more receptive to projects containing sex and nudity?

CS: It’s hard to tell how global its effect has been. To date, I think there’s been about 120 articles written on Lost Girls, which is just phenomenal for the first couple of months of its release. Works like this are setting precedents and become benchmarks, which people can compare future works to… so yes, they can open new doors as such.

BF: Since Lost Girls made so many headlines in 2006, what kind of effect did it have on raising awareness for Top Shelf, both in terms of credibility and sales of other publications?

CS: That’s hard to say as well. The saying ‘a rising kite floats all boats’ doesn’t really work in the comic industry, especially not where small press is concerned. It’s more like a rising boat floats itself, you know, as Lost Girls didn’t effect sales of our other books.

Top Shelf has been around for a decade, during which we’ve put out some great, groundbreaking material, helped break in new cartoonists, but sometimes the work doesn’t get supported all that well. One of my disappointments I guess is that more people would trust our instincts—hence, it’s important for us to get the word out, which is why we do 21 conventions a year. We can go out there and tell people to not overlook what we’re doing, and push them to order more of our material and pull readers in.

Lost Girls has improved our profile and reputation and growth as a publisher, but it hasn’t affected had any direct effect on our other publications as much as I hoped.

BF: To get back to my postulation of the first question: you also took a chance releasing The Surrogates, which started as a mini-series in late 2005 and was collected over the summer. Has venturing into a more mainstream domain turned out to be an attempt worth repeating?

CS: Yes. You know, when Brett and I formed the company ten years ago, one of the things we liked about each other and based part of our friendship on, is that neither one of us were elitist about the small press. We loved indies and the underground, and great mainstream comics too. As long as the material was excellent, it didn’t matter what corner it came from. A good example of that is probably V for Vendetta, which was the book that got me into comics.

Brett is even a bigger fanboy than I am and still reads a lot of the mainstream stuff, whereas I got into the medium more through the indies as opposed to the mainstream material.

Now, about The Surrogates, it’s a book that fits the Top Shelf wants to do—publish stories with a lot of heart and subtext and with great visual appeal. My initial idea for the project was to introduce Rob (Venditti – ed.) to the editors at Dark Horse, Image and Marvel, but when the script started to come in, Brett and I really loved it and didn’t want to let it go. It turned into a really fun project for us and a good thing all around. I have a hunch deep down too that at some point this thing might turn into a movie, so we’re working on that in the background slowly and who knows, maybe that comes true one day…

BF: January saw the release of the third Owly graphic novel, Flying Lessons. 2006 proved to be a successful year for Andy Runton altogether as he went on to win an Eisner and an Ignatz award. As the person responsible for helping Andy find an audience, how do these achievements make you feel?

CS: Andy is just a phenomenon—we’re so lucky to have discovered him. Andy and I met on the convention circuit a few years back where he showed me some of the preliminary ideas he had for comics. He showed me this little owl and I gave him some advice on how to refine his drawings a bit and such. The next convention I saw him at, he showed me a mini comic, which I liked, so I told him to work on a longer story. He did that, along with Robert Venditti, who helped him work his way through the story and work out a few kinks in the plot.

Eventually, he started to sell his mini comics from our table, and afterwards we took him on and started publishing Andy. It was a nice, slow evolution where we became friends, and partners to get Owly out.

It’s interesting that, when you look at the wide spectrum of book we’re putting out these days —from Andy’s book, which is truly all ages, up to Lost Girls and its adults-only content—that fans are really enjoying that spectrum. In San Diego this year, our most popular combination for the show was an Owly toy along with a set of Lost Girls.

So, you can say that our association with Andy is vital to us and that we’re really excited about his success.

What’s also great about producing books for kids is that children don’t really know or care that Top Shelf is a huge company or not. There are thousands of kids out there who just remember the book, love Owly and want the next edition to read and share with their friends. In the end, they’ll always remember Owly as an influence on their early lives and everything else just doesn’t matter. That’s a big treat for me, and even more so for Andy.

BF: Since we’ve been talking about Lost Girls setting benchmarks for comics about sexuality, do you think Owly has set one for US market where the all-ages genre is concerned?

CS: It’s definitely been one of the bigger indie books around right now, together with Bone and Hero Bear and a few others that have made as big a splash as can be made. When we do these new editions in the spring, we do about fifty to sixty thousand of them and get them in a lot of people’s hands.

And actually, this April, we’ve decided to launch a new all-ages series, called Korgi, by a new cartoonist named Christian Slade. Christian is an ex-Disney animator and a freelance illustrator right now who had been dreaming about doing his first work in comics. We fell in love with it immediately when he presented it to us; in fact, on Free Comic Book Day, we’ll be putting out a new Owly comic, which will have a six-page Korgi story in the back.

Korgi is a wonderful little story about a dog named Sprout and a little girl named Ivy—it’s kind of like Owly meets Bone. We’re going to launch it as a new series and pair Christian and Andy, who’ve already become friends, on the convention circuit.

BF: Aside from Lost Girls, The Surrogates and Owly, Top Shelf released books like 110¢, Cry Yourself to Sleep, The Ticking, I Am Going To Be Small and Coffee and Donuts. All of these were very well received and were very humane, intimate and personal. Is that some kind of overall sentiment you want Top Shelf’s books to express?

CS: Absolutely. Not every one of our book fits this mould, since the house style of every company is a bit indefinable, but it is there. If you look at the kind of things that Brett and I do, it’s an intersection of our taste for one thing—we don’t do a project unless we both want to do it—but we love things that are cartoony, have a lot of heart and subtext, mainly projects that have a unique story and artistic style to them. We fall into that line a lot of times, but we publish stuff outside of that too, as Lost Girls, The Surrogates attested.

We have also signed a couple of new projects that we haven’t really announced yet. One is a book called Juction True, written by Ray Fawkes and illustrated by Vince Locke, which will be another full color graphic novel. It’s very futuristic with a decisive cyberpunk feel to it and an altogether amazing story that will just knock people’s socks off.

Next to that we’ve also signed Brian Wood and Matthew Woodson for a project called Dog Days End, so these are the kinds of projects we’ll be experimenting with to venture more into the mainstream kind of territory. There’s a chance they might get done in 2007, but more likely, they’ll end up being published in 2008, because there’s a lot of artwork to be done still.

BF: What else is there to look forward to from the publisher in 2007?

CS: Well, because this year will be our official 10th anniversary, we’re going to be throwing a party, probably around the time of the MoCCA convention. What we really want to do in 2007, though, is break new talent. We’ve never been a publisher that rests on its laurels or milked properties like Owly, Blankets, and Lost Girls. We really do try to mix everything up by mixing new people on board.

We’ve signed about ten or twelve new cartoonists and we’re going to bring out a bunch of new books, like Regards From Serbia by Alexandar Zograf, Incredible Change-Bots by Jeffrey Brown, Kissypoo Garden by Craig Thompson, Infinite Kung-Fu by Kagan McLeod, Crum Bums by Brian Ralph, Wormwood by Nate Powel, That Salty Air by Tim Sievert, Syper Spy by Matt Kindt, Lyrical Whales by Scott Morse, Death by Chocolate: Redux by David Yurkovich, and so on.

So, next to the Alan Moore books we’ll be doing, we’re looking at getting the ball rolling on a new wave of talent.

Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge    Click to enlarge

2006 was an enormously busy year for us, and we got some great support from the fans. Not just Top Shelf, but all the small press publishers live and die by the sale of a handful of books. We hope people remember us, and the one thing we can hope for is that readers will support some books or creators they are not familiar with at first. One of the books we recently published, Lone Racer by Nicholas Mahler, is wonderful, but I’m afraid it’ll be one of those books that gets overlooked by fans, because they just don’t know Nicholas’ work that much—but it’s a real jewel.

Overall, at a lot of smaller companies, a lot of new talent is brought in, so if I ask for one thing it’s that fans give a try to a few new people. It costs publishers a fortune breaking them in, so it’s important to give them a shot. These smaller books are the hidden gems—the big books are easy targets.

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