Reach for the Top Shelf

Reach for the Top Shelf
One of the most refreshing things about discussing comics with Top Shelf co-publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock is that they never seem defensive or apologetic about working in the comics industry. They don't just love comics, they also have tremendous confidence in the medium’s potential to entertain the mainstream. "Our goal," says Staros, "is to reintroduce North America to the literary art form it invented, but forgot."

This might sound naïve and fanciful to someone who associates comic books with superheroes, rockets, and obsessive, nerdy collectors. But as Staros says, “We’re purposely trying to publish books that would appeal to the general population, so that we can reach beyond the superhero ghetto." Craig Thompson's 1999 graphic novel Goodbye, Chunky Rice, which tells the story of a winsome, wandering turtle with allusive art and moody, lambent writing, exemplifies the kind of book that Staros says will "change the industry into something much more accessible."

Staros and Warnock deliberately published Chunky Rice as a complete, original work rather than the usual miniseries. Warnock sees no reason to split up a good book into fragments. "People want the story," he insists. "They don't care about collecting little things that they can stick in a bag." Warnock thinks that readers appreciate a self-contained work, because it offers closure, and a richer reading experience. "We’ve had publisher friends of ours who say, ‘Why didn’t you release [Goodbye, Chunky Rice] as a miniseries?’ But once you can sit down and hold that in your hand, and marvel at its beauty, and read the whole thing in one sitting, the dramatic power of that story is so much stronger than if you read one part of it, waited three months, got the next part of it, waited three months  it’s anticlimactic to read it that way."

"I've actually seen a lot of women pick up Goodbye, Chunky Rice," says Maria Harrell, who buys Top Shelf books for San Francisco-based distributor Last Gasp. “Top Shelf is one of those publishers that doesn't fit any stereotypes. They’re open to everyone." That wide appeal may explain why, in some markets (according to Staros), Top Shelf books sell better in bookstores than in comic stores. Harrell confirms that Top Shelf works harder than other comics publishers to get their books into bookstores, which, Staros explains, offer a different environment for selling comics. "The book trade treats graphic novels like perennial books, and keeps them in stock. So over a period of time, the book trade will more than likely move more copies than the direct comic book market, which is still kind of set up to sell monthly pamphlet comics once, and then move on to next month’s title."

The meticulous, engaging book design of Chunky Rice also reflects the consistently high production values at Top Shelf. From the outset, says Warnock, he wanted to make "something that’s almost a fetish object, that when you hold it, it commands its own presence, regardless of the content."

Warnock put out the first of Top Shelf’s cornerstone anthologies in 1995, as a showcase for the mini-comics artists, like Adrian Tomine and Marc Bell, that he read in college. In 1997, he partnered with Staros to form Top Shelf Productions, and since then, says Staros, the company has grown ten times in size. They released their largest, most ambitious anthology, Under The Big Top, late last year, and recently secured exclusive North American distribution rights for Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, as well as for books by Israeli collective Actus Tragicus. All these projects attest to Warnock’s and Staros’ faith, not only in their wares, but in the strengths of the medium itself, and what it could very well become. "I really believe that in ten years, you won’t see a lot of pamphlet comics," says Warnock. "I think the future of comics is novels  I mean books."