On June 23, local comic-book publisher Top Shelf Productions celebrates its 10th anniversary with a party at MoCCA (the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art) Arts Festival in New York. Over the past decade, Marietta's Chris Staros, together with his Portland, Ore.-based partner Brett Warnock, has survived cliffhanger-style adventures worthy of the kind of superhero comics they almost never publish. As a birthday present to readers old and new, the publisher offers a free, 264-page Top Shelf Seasonal Sampler, chock full of excerpts and previews.
When did you first read comic books?
I never read comics as a kid. I was always under the illusion that books with pictures were for little kids. I was into novels, then picked up a guitar and played in bands for years. One day in 1990, when I was almost 30, I had an hour to kill before picking up my wife, so I decided to stop by Titan Comics in Marietta. I looked at Spider-Man and Batman comics, but they didn't really hold my attention, so I asked the guy what adults read. He put Alan Moore's V for Vendetta in my hand. Reading that gave me an epiphany along the lines of when I was 15 and heard my first Black Sabbath album: I could do this! It just took me a little while to figure out what.
How has the comics industry changed in the past 10 years?
It's not just the changes in the industry, but in life in general. Compared to 100 years ago, life is really difficult these days, because everything changes so rapidly now. In the 1990s we were one of the few publishers who decided to do graphic novels exclusively, trying to redeem comic books as a literary medium. We did a lot of marketing to the real-world press, and made books that looked like books. Our titles like From Hell and Blankets helped change the popular idea of comics. Around 2000, that idea really took hold. Everyone, from booksellers to librarians, seemed to realize that comics weren't for kids anymore. Now when I meet people and mention that I publish graphic novels, people often ask me things like, "Do you know Frank Miller or Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore?" And I can say "Yes," "yes" and "yes."
What about comics for young people?
That's the other thing. After all of us spent time legitimizing comics, around 2003-2004 we realized that we'd forgotten about the kids, and that all of our readers were well over 20 years old. Top Shelf put out books like Owly [by Lilburn's Andy Runton] and Korgi and Spiral Bound and more, and that market has started to explode recently. Libraries have latched onto them as a way to get kids to read. Comics are perfect for young readers today because they're fast-paced and convey concepts so easily.
How economically healthy is the industry?
The comics industry is always an underfunded niche industry. It's always having a struggle to survive, but if the current readership grows a little more, it will have a nice, healthy financial life. The Internet has saved Top Shelf at least four times. In 2002 we almost went under because of a distributor's bankruptcy, and we were saved by an online appeal [that raised the necessary funds within 24 hours]. When we're hurting for money, we've had big Web sales that have really helped us.
You do a lot of conventions; what kind of "spiel" do you have to attract readers?
It's true, we do more conventions than any other publisher. If you're a small press, you make fans one at a time. My spiel is a nonspiel. I'm very low-key. I like to talk to people at our booth and let them know what we do, and that we're nice guys, and the stuff we do isn't too esoteric or weird. We just find out what they like and steer them to the right stuff in our pretty diverse catalog.
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