Friday, May 11, 2012

Comic Book Good Guy- Chris Staros

Fifteen years ago, two men decided to put their love and passion for comics into a combined effort to find quality stories and artists and turn them into "top shelf" quality books. One of those men, Chris Staros, was kind enough to have a phone interview with me as he talked about what Top Shelf has accomplished and where the company will go from here.
 Chris Staros' venture into comics looked like a very unlikely thing a little over 15 years ago. Starting in the 1970s, Staros was into playing heavy metal music, and that was his career until retiring in the 1990s after he noticed the effect it was having on his hearing. He then moved into software development for a few years before fate brought him into a comics shop where he bypassed the "capes and tights" comics and was introduced to Allan Moore's V for Vendetta. Staros said it was a moment where he realized that comics were a medium that could present meaty and relevant stories to adults.
 "I thought, 'I can do that' and I started to do research," he said. "I researched by reading all that I could get my hands on. I went looking at the full spectrum- underground comics, the history of comics, other publications about them."
 By 1994, Staros had made his first fanzine, The Staros Report, of the best comics to read. From this, Staros said he learned the business end of publishing, from how to run the production to warehousing and taking orders. It was in 1997 when Staros joined forces with Brett Warnock in publishing an anthology series called Top Shelf.
 Fifteen years later, Top Shelf has a string of critically acclaimed graphic novels to its credit, including From Hell, Blankets, the Alec and American Elf series, Infinite Kung Fu, Essex County and Moving Pictures.
Staros said that while he competes with other publishers like :01 and Oni Press, he is also friends with many of them.
 Top Shelf expanded its audience when it began to introduce children's and all-ages titles into the mix. From the wordless adventures of Owly and Korgi to the silliness of Johnny Boo and Okie Dokie Donuts, the company has made a strong effort to find and produce material that any child could read. Staros called the offering of kids comics "an entry point" for new customers.
 "It is competition, but we know each other, too, " he said. "And the cartoonists we deal with know that, too."
 Staros said Top Shelf receives about 1,000 unsolicited submissions for graphic novels and comics each year, but getting one all the way to the store shelves for sale is the proverbial needle in a haystack.
 "About one-third of our titles are devoted to breaking in new talent," Staros said.These "new" artists are people who work the convention circuits, and have gotten to know the people in the industry while shopping their projects.
 And speaking of conventions, Top Shelf might be the best-represented publisher on the entire comic book convention circuit. Staros said he attends around 21 conventions every year!
 "Years of band tours taught me you gotta get out on the road," Staros said. "When it comes to small press, sometimes it means you make fans one at a time."
 That's not to say Staros is not a supporter of internet applications that can help his company. The virtual space of the computer world offers the luxury of 24-hour stores, and an environment that is like doing a comic show without having to move at all. The company has expanded into digital books, and email campaigns to make loyal customers aware of the happenings at Top Shelf.
  Telling great stories and putting art first has been something of the formula for Top Shelf's eclectic blend of titles in its vast catalog. "I would like to think that we are a company with a good heart and soul," Staros said. "While we are competitive, we want the whole industry to succeed. We want to work with creators who bring unique artistic vision."
 Staros said he has no idea what Top Shelf looks like fifteen years in the future or what it will accomplish, but he knows what will get the company there. "Fear, motivation, inspiration, and working our butts off."

 Staros' last "advice" to comics fans? Visit the Top Shelf website, come see him at a convention, and support your independent publishers.

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