A Conversation with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions

Top Shelf Productions logo

Even if you’ve unfamiliar with the books published by Top Shelf Productions, odds are very strong that you’re familiar with big-budget Hollywood movies based on some of their books.  Mind you, I don’t think that anybody in their right mind would argue that those movies are the equal of their source material, but it’s worth noting for the uninitiated that both the Johnny Depp-starring From Hell and the Bruce Willis-starring The Surrogates were originally published as comics by Top Shelf.  And the fact that the former of those works was produced by a pair of comics veterans (and certified geniuses, if I may be so bold), and the latter was produced by a pair of relative newcomers is a pretty good representation of the breadth of the aptly named Top Shelf Productions’ high quality offerings.

Brett Warnock of Top Shelf ProductionsNote: Regular readers may recall that I mentioned in my last post that I had dinner with my friend Brett Warnock, co-publisher of Top Shelf (along with his business partner Chris Staros, who is also a friend) while vacationing in Oregon last week, so I make no claims as to objectivity with regard to Top Shelf  but, for what it’s worth, I was already an admirer of Top Shelf (and Chris Staros’ The StarHouse, which you’ll see referenced below) before I ever had the pleasure of meeting and becoming friends with Brett and Chris.

But enough with the prelude, right?  Let’s get to the interview…

Since SPX is taking place this weekend in Bethesda North, MD, and since Top Shelf has a long and happy history with that most excellent celebration / showcase of indie comics, SPX seems like a natural starting place.  It occurs to me that in addition to an unbroken streak of …what is it now, a streak of a dozen or more annual SPX appearances as an exhibitor?…  that it was at one of the famous post-SPX Sunday pig roasts of yore at then-Executive Director Chris Oarr’s house that you and Chris Staros first talked about joining forces and expanding the Top Shelf brand, wasn’t it?

Well, yeah, we’ve been at every SPX (either me and/or Chris) since 1996.  And that year (1996), me and David Lasky were the only two people from the West Coast to attend.  Chris Oarr worked me hard, but he knew he had a good thing going, and he also seemed to sense that I was heading somewhere myself.

And yes, it was that same year, while I was staying at Chris Oarr’s house (up all night stuffing bags and menial labor), that Staros approached me about partnering up.  Since at the time I was essentially out of money, it took me all of ten seconds to respond with a resounding YES!

(That’s also when I met you, Ian Sattler, and Greg Bennett.  I remember chatting it up with Greg at the pig roast, while we all beat up on a piñata.  Shannon Wheeler was there, as was Jeff Smith.)

Ha!  I’d forgotten the piñata!  Good times.  I understand that you won’t be in attendance personally this year, but Top Shelf will be well represented by Chris, along with Leigh Walton.  What’s on the docket for this year’s show?  Which artists will be appearing in the Top Shelf booth this weekend?

Since I won’t be there, I’m going to crib from Leigh Walton’s blog on our SPX 2010 slate:

BB Wolf and the 3 LPs cover“This year Team Top Shelf has a healthy blend of creators, both Top Shelf veterans and those who are new to the family this year, but all have been in comics for years!  Writer and retailer Johnnie “JD” Arnold is coming out to sign his debut graphic novel with art by Rich Koslowski, BB Wolf and the 3 LPs, as well as the awesome new soundtrack album of blues-rock songs written by the BB Wolf himself!  SPX vet (and award-winning minicomic auteur) Will Dinski joins us to sign his cool, clean, and creepy Top Shelf debut Fingerprints! And Eisner-Award-winner Nate Powell joins the party as well, guaranteeing some karaoke stardom as well as signed copies of his masterpiece Swallow Me Whole.  Rounding out the team are Chris Staros and Leigh Walton, ready to see old friends and make new ones.

All this PLUS Eddie Campbell’s nomination for the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist! Will he win? We’ll find out Saturday night.”

Moving on from SPX (while at the same time looking forward to it … that’s the Small Press Expo, taking place this Saturday and Sunday, September 11-12 at the Bethesda North Marriott Hotel & Conference Center, kids, and as always, all proceeds benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund!), let’s look back at another important annual event for Top Shelf: Comic-Con International in San Diego.  I trust that, as always, it was all-hands-on-deck for the Top Shelf gang at The Big Show.  How was this year’s show for you?  What were the big Top Shelf premieres and announcements at the show?  Any fond (or not-so-fond, for that matter) memories of Comic-Con 2010 you’d care to share?

The show seemed to start off slowly.  All of Hollywood’s events and panels are starting to suck people off the floor.  But lo and behold, by the end of the day on Sunday, we’d done alright.

We had several debuts, and a fleet of our authors were on hand pimping their wares.  New books included:

- BB WAX: A Collection of Alternative Manga coverolf and the 3 LPs, written by Johnnie Arnold and drawn by Rich Koslowski (both present)

- Fingerprints, by Will Dinski (not present)

- The Playwright, written by Daren White and drawn by Eddie Campbell (not present)

- Johnny Boo volume 4 and Dragon Puncher, by James Kochalka (present)

- AX: A Collection of Alternative Manga, edited by Sean Michael Wilson (present)

Other authors working the table included: Jeffrey Brown, Stuart and Kathryn Immonen, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire, Nate Powell, Kevin Cannon, and Andy Runton.

Sounds like a typically action-packed year in San Diego.  As you note, with Hollywood-themed events continuing to divert attention away from the comics themselves, thoughts of Comic-Con bring up thoughts of movies based on comics.  Specifically, I’m curious what the experience is like from an indie comics publisher’s standpoint (and/or from the respective creators’ standpoints if you’re at liberty to speak for them) when Hollywood comes a knockin’ with an eye toward optioning a book you’ve published.  Top Shelf has seen this process through to completion in at least two instances that I can think of off the top of my head, with From Hell and The Surrogates … how do those deals go down?

The Surrogates volume 1 coverThese are usually a product of advance buzz.  Usually, somehow, we’ve drummed up enough advance hype for a particular book that by the time it comes out, producers are knocking on the door.  And of course, most often we and the author in question are only too happy to entertain offers.  An option alone can pay a creator’s rent and utilities for many months or longer.  If a film is actually made, then that increases sales and brand.

Keep in mind, we NEVER publish a book because we think it would make a good movie.  If the book alone can’t stand on its own two feet, it won’t come out by us.

That said, I think a large percentage of our books would work well as feature films, television series, animated cartoon shows, etc.

Gotcha.  OK, back to the comics themselves.  Top Shelf has introduced and/or significantly raised the profiles of some of the brightest indie comics superstars over the years, including (to name just a few) such luminaries as Craig Thompson, Jeffrey Brown, Jeff Lemire, James Kochalka, Andy Runton, Nate Powell, and Tom Hart.  That’s a hell of a track record, and I’d say kudos are in order for identifying such talents early in their careers, and for giving those careers (with apologies to Stephen Colbert) the Top Shelf bump.  I realize this may be a tough one to quantify but, at a guess, how many submissions would you say you have to sift through before you hit on work at the level of quality and promise that those folks showed?

Great question.  Let’s put it this way: In the course of an average week, I get (here in Portland) between 5-15 submissions.  The Atlanta P.O. box (i.e., corporate headquarters) gets double that.  So, let’s see… oh geez, that’s a lot.  I’d say we get 1,000 submissions a year at least.  And we put out maybe 15-20 books.

Wow, that’s even more blind submissions than I’d have guessed you received.  Of course, it’s not as if Top Shelf is purely the domain of indie creators, as you’ve also published works from such titans of the art form as Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, including such books as From Hell (Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell), Lost Girls (Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie), and Alec: The Years Have Pants (Eddie Campbell).  How did you come to publish those distinguished gentlemen?

Long story short is, before Chris and I joined forces, Chris had introduced himself to Eddie Campbell and a few otFrom Hell coverher creators from outside the U.S. (Gary Spencer-Millidge, for example) and offered to essentially rep and broker their comics as a distribution agent in the U.S.  Thus was born The StarHouse. In time (as is his way), Chris really became good pals with these folks.  And it was through Eddie that Chris met Alan. The rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed.  The design and packaging of Top Shelf books is your department for the most part, right?  I’m assuming design decisions regarding the look and feel of a book are typically done in close collaboration with the artist of the book in question, but the consistent quality of the look of the Top Shelf line is down to your own eye and design sense.  Purely from a design perspective (i.e., taking the between-the-covers content out of the equation entirely, since I wouldn’t be so cruel as to ask you to name your favorite book published in the history of Top Shelf), which book or books do you think of most fondly?

Cicada coverThat’s tough.  Of the books I designed myself, I have to say I love the cover to Cicada (by Josue Menjivar), and recently, the Three Fingers reprint.  By other designers, Matt Kindt’s designs on the Essex County Collected are outstanding, and Eric Skillman (staff designer at the Criterion Collection) killed on Alec: The Years Have Pants.

(There’s many more, but I don’t want to bore anybody.)

Let’s see, what did I leave out that we should touch on in?  Oh, I know where we should end … by looking not backwards, but forwards:  What are some of the exciting upcoming releases currently on the Top Shelf production slate?

Next year, we’re doing the two-volume set of The Complete Bacchus.  That’s amazing.  Plus, we’ll be working with some new authors like Jess Fink, Colleen Coover and Paul Tobin, Chris Eliopoulos, Ray Friesen, Eric Orchard, Jennifer Hayden, Diana Thung, and many, many more.

Excellent.  Thanks for your time, Brett!

UPDATED TO ADD:

Eddie Campbell did indeed win the Outstanding Artist Ignatz Award for Alec: The Years Have Pants last night at SPX.  Congrats to Eddie and Top Shelf!

And in related news, Top Shelf just announced that they’re having a massive sale:

For the next ten days — through Friday September 24th — Top Shelf is having a giant $3 graphic novel web sale. When you visit the site, you’ll find over 100 graphic novels and comics on sale — with over 70 titles marked down to just $3 & $1!

To go directly to the list of items on sale at the Top Shelf website, just click here: http://www.topshelfcomix.com/specialdeals

But here are a few sample sale items:

– Slashed Prices: Lost Girls, Alec: The Years Have Pants, and more!

– Slashed Prices: Essex County, Moving Pictures, BB Wolf, and more!

– Slashed Prices: Owly Hardcovers and Plushy, Undeleted Scenes, and more!

– Slashed Prices: Dodgem Logic, The Surrogates Owner’s Manual, and more!

– Slashed Prices: The 120 Days of Simon, Far Arden, The Ticking, and more!

– $3 Titles: Voice of the Fire, The Surrogates (Vols 1 & 2), and more!

– $3 Titles: Sulk (Vols 1, 2, & 3), I Am Going To Be Small, and more!

– $3 Titles: SuperF*ckers #1-#4, Lower Regions, Please Release, and more!

– $3 Titles: Regards from Serbia, Comic Book Artist, Delayed Replays, and more!

– $1 Titles: The Surrogates #1-#5, Black Ghost Apple Factory, Dang!, and more!

– $1 Titles:The Man Who Loved Breasts, Comic Diorama, 24×2, and more!

– $1 Titles:Jack’s Luck Runs Out, Tales of the Great Unspoken, and more!

Please note that Top Shelf accepts PayPal (as well as Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Discover — all secure), and that this sale is good for retailers as well (and comic book shops will get their wholesale discount on top of these sale prices).

About John Anderson

John Anderson blogs Microsoft SharePoint for his employer, Bamboo Solutions, but what may be far more germane to Whatever readers is that he was the co-creator and editor-in-chief of ComicsAlliance.com, blogs the SXSW music festival annually for Twangville.com, and has known Scalzi longer than (most of) you. Nyah nyah.

4 thoughts on “A Conversation with Brett Warnock of Top Shelf Productions

  1. Interesting stuff!

    One problem, though…

    “And the fact that the former of those works was produced … and the former was produced by a pair of relative newcomers …”

    Which was produced by the latter? :)

  2. Claire, you ask which one was produced by the latter… why, the latter, of course! ;)

    But seriously, thank you for gently pointing out my oversight. Fixed now. That’s what I get for rushing through a final edit.

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