Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

June 23, 2007

CR Sunday Interview: Brett Warnock



imageTop Shelf Productions is celebrating their 10th anniversary this weekend, in conjunction with an appearance by the publisher at the MoCCA Festival in New York City. It's appropriate for the company to have their birthday party in coordination with a convention. Maybe more than any other mid-sized publisher out there, Top Shelf has practiced the gospel of hand selling and getting their works directly to an audience, and has done so for several years now.

In the following interview, co-publisher (with Chris Staros) and art director Brett Warnock talks about his comics past, the anthology that preceded the company, and some of the major events in the company's history. I'd identify three: publishing what would become an international comics hit, Blankets, by the cartoonist Craig Thompson; their direct plea to fans and customers for financial support through direct sales when a book distributor's bankruptcy caught the company at an extremely vulnerable moment, and their management of Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls -- both in meeting the high demand for the expensive volume and negotiating the potential litigation waters that could have erupted at any moment due to its explicit content.

I've always enjoyed Brett as a person one sees on the convention trail, and I'm thankful he took time from his extremely busy ramp-up to the MoCCA Festival to answer a few questions.


TOM SPURGEON: Congratulations on your 10th anniversary. Have you had time to sit down and reflect on that accomplishment? Does it feel like 10 years?

BRETT WARNOCK: Thanks, Tom. The truth is, I've been reflecting on this often since last Summer with the release of Lost Girls, and more than anything I just feel thankful that I've been able to do this for the last ten years at all. In spite of the platitudes about following one's whim (which I believe in wholeheartedly), it's not always as easy as that, and yet here I am, ten years on, and I have indeed been living my dream. Like with having children, the time seems to have flown by, and yet I can't really quite imagine my life before Top Shelf.

SPURGEON: Brett, can you tell me about your life and relationship to comics leading up to your decision to start doing the anthology? It seems that you were widely read in comics.

WARNOCK: Well, that's a lot to chew on. I grew up a solidly middle-class kid in the suburbs of Portland. My dad was a firefighter, while my mom was a housewife through my childhood, up until I started high school, when she took up a job as the principle's secretary at a different high school. With a little sister, a lap-dog named Buffy, and a very typical ranch-style home, we were the prototypical nuclear family unit. Also not uncommon at the time, we also had some dysfunction in our family.

imageI consumed copious amounts of television from early on, and loved going to the Saturday matinee double-features at our local theater. At 11 years old in May of 1977, how could I not become a Star Wars acolyte. In middle-school I discovered and devoured [Edgar Rice] Burroughs (Tarzan, Barsoom, Pellucidar, etc.) and Robert E. Howard's Conan books. At the same time, always being a visually-minded kid, the [Frank] Frazetta covers on those Conan books literally blew my adolescent mind. I'd dabbled in comics as a kid, but mostly Richie Rich, Hot Stuff, Casper, Plop!, the occasional superhero book or reprints of the Atlas monster books. But when I was 14, my freshman year, at the local Plaid Pantry spinner-rack, three books hooked me, and I've never looked back. Claremont/Byrne's Uncanny X-Men, Wolfman/Perez's Teen Titans, and Frank Miller's Daredevil. This was my Holy Trinity, and made me the life-long fan of superhero comics that I remain to this day.

In 1985 I left home for college in Eugene at the University of Oregon. There was a comics shop right on campus, but boy did it (and still does) suck. Spandex and games, with nary an indy book to be seen. Had this store stocked a more vibrant comics spectrum, I would be at least four or five years ahead of the curve, but alas I rode out the last of my Marvel Zombie days while the then-current mainstream fare just got mired in lame continuity, and visuals which trended towards the horrible Image pin-up style. In the early '90s however, tucked in a dark corner in the back of the store, I found three crazy new books, all of which made an immediate impact on my comics buying habits: Peter Bagge's Hate; Dan Clowes' Eightball; and David Mazzucchelli's brilliant Rubber Blanket. This opened my eyes to the infinitely broad canvas of what the medium could offer.

imageAlso at the time, there was a kick-ass punk/anarchist bookstore in Eugene called Hungry Head Books. Here I expanded both my political horizons and more importantly, it's where I discovered the world of mail-order zines and mini-comics. This was back in the dark ages, before the Internet invaded our planet, and Factsheet 5 reigned supreme. Through mail order outfits like John P.'s Spit and a Half and the Wow Cool catalog, I read and befriended the likes of Tom Hart, James Kochalka, David Lasky, and even Craig Thompson. The Seattle scene was starting to rage, conventions like APE and SPX brought us all together, and the next thing I knew I was addicted to this world like crack.

I became something of a student of the history of the medium, as well as the business of comics. Starting with Comics Buyer's Guide, I soon moved on and became a devout junkie of The Comics Journal.

Anthologies like RAW, Blab!, No Zone, and Drawn & Quarterly were out and hugely influential, and yet at the same time, I felt these rising mini-comics stars were largely being ignored by the previous generation of publishers. Thus, the main impetus to launch the anthology Top Shelf.

SPURGEON: One thing I always wondered about you is that there was a lot of rumor-mongering when you first showed up on the scene, the way comics people will gossip, that you were this super-rich guy from Portland that was going to do this anthology until you ran out of money. Some of the stuff I've heard since makes me think that maybe the opposite was true, and that you were struggling during those early years to get out every single book. What was the real story of the early days of doing the anthology?

WARNOCK: I've never been super-rich. Sorry. (Not that I'm morally opposed to the idea.) What happened was, right out of school in Eugene I'd befriended a guy named Steve, another aspiring comics professional, and I was broke as hell. I started bartending back then to pay the bills, and together we struck out to make it big creating some fantasy-type comics, aimed at publishers like Eclipse, Dark Horse, and Sirius. I lived with Steve for a couple years, and we would spend all night working on our stuff, until the birds started chirping the next morning. It was a fun time, but Steve was an infinitely more talented artist, and I soon found that my talents lay more with production and design. (Steve has recently had work featured in issues of Heavy Metal, and will appear in this Summer issue coming up too, under the name Steven MnMoorn.)

In 1994 my mom died of cancer, and I decided to move back home to Portland, to be around my family. My dad told my sister and myself that we could each have upwards of $20,000 from mom's insurance policy, if we had a reason to spend it. I'd talked about visiting Ireland and Scotland for a few years, but decided to stay put and launch a small publishing company. (I was also signed up for film classes, but had to drop that as soon as I realized how much work was involved in publishing.)

So I had 20K, no idea what I was doing, a few one-shot projects, and the anthology. Thinking that that much money was infinite, I paid a $30 page rate for the anthology, nor did I shy away from nice production values. For the time (and possibly still to this day), for an alternative anthology, that was huge. It was more the idea of it than anything. Still, by the time SPX 1996 rolled around and the debut of Top Shelf issue #5, I was pretty much out of money. But with copious amounts of guerilla marketing and sweat equity also behind my efforts, I'd made enough of a splash, and enough connections, that I could cruise through early 1997, when Chris [Staros] then pitched the idea of a partnership that September, also at SPX.

SPURGEON: Is there anything about your working relationship with Chris that people on the outside might be surprised to hear? Do you guys share an interest outside of comics, maybe, or is there some way you guys interact that people might be surprised to hear?

WARNOCK: I think what surprises most people is how little we actually interact. I live in Portland, Oregon, and Chris lives in Atlanta. I'll see him maybe four or five times a year, usually at conventions, and we actually only talk on the phone maybe two or three times a month. Most of our communique is via email. Our division and overlap of duties is so natural, that as long as we're on the same page regarding scheduling and whatnot, we've achieved an ability to work almost independently of each other.


SPURGEON: Why do you think you work well together?

WARNOCK: More than anything we simply share a vision of what the medium and the business might be. We both like stories and ideas (in comics, film, etc.) of all stripes, regardless of genre, so long as there is an underlying humanity therein. And in an industry full-to-overflowing with cynicism, I think we might stand out because we look for upbeat and/or uplifting stuff when we can. I realize that might sound twee, but whatever...

We've also been on the same wavelength regarding trends in publishing. From day one we said we didn't think we could compete with that market segment which serializes comics in four- or six-issue mini-series, followed by a collected trade paperback. We opted for a straight-to-trade policy since the beginning, and if you look at the marketplace before Blankets, the only "phone book" collections you saw were From Hell and the Cerebus books. Since Blankets, everybody and their brother have followed suit, from Jeff Smith's giant Bone (no pun intended, Jeff!) to Linda Medley's Castle Waiting from Fantagraphics.

SPURGEON: How do you look back on your fund drive to stay alive when your distributor collapsed, now that there's been a few years between now and then? It's become kind of a popular way to get out of that specific problem... how confident were you that it would be successful? What do you remember about that period now?

WARNOCK: We had no idea it would be successful. None. This was Chris' idea, and it was an act of desperation, plain and simple. It was a heady time, because after the fans saved our ass, all eyes were on us to do something big. All of a sudden, we were on the radar. It was at this time that I quit tending bar and went full-time, and a year before before Blankets debuted. Man, I can't believe it's been five years already...

SPURGEON: You're one of the more respected designers out there, Brett. Could you name a few books that you think of as really successful designs you've done? How would you say your basic approach is distinct among all the very good designers in the field?

WARNOCK: Actually, my skills are limited, especially compared to the likes of someone like Jacob Covey, who I think is the king of comics design at the moment. I'm more of a traditional "art director." That is, I have a good eye for what looks good, even if I have limitations in executing my ideas. I often hire designers to do freelance cover designs, based on my art direction. When possible, I let the cartoonist of a given book do all of their own work. And in this regard, I think my best asset is in recognizing when a creator can do it on their own, or if I need to step in and assist. I pretty much fake it when I do step in and work on a book cover, and even in these cases, I call on the creator for input. The only directive I've had in all these years, is that I don't want any of our books to look like a "comic book." I've always intended our books to look more at home on the shelves at a book store, than to resemble the classic title logo/giant image inherent on comics covers.

Our best looking books, frankly, are ones I never touched: Craig Thompson's books (Chunky Rice, Blankets, Carnet De Voyage), Max Estes' books Hello Again and Coffee & Donuts, Aaron Renier's Spiral Bound, The Ticking (which Renee French designed with Jordan Crane), the Jeffrey Brown Girlfriend Trilogy, and the entire oeuvre of Matt Kindt (the Pistolwhip books, 2 Sisters, Super Spy). That said, I'm proud of some of the books I've overseen. The new From Hell design, Lost Girls, Cicada, the Bughouse Trilogy, the anthology...

SPURGEON: You guys have a reputation now as being really aggressive hand-sellers of your books. How do you feel about retailer complaints that publishers hand-selling their product is sales out of their pockets? How have you felt about some of the intense convention schedules you've kept the last few years?

WARNOCK: It's really sad, and pretty naive when a retailer thinks we're "stealing" from them by selling at conventions. They above all should realize what an almost impossible endeavor it is to make a living in comics, and in our case, upwards of a third of our annual income derives from convention sales. Again, it's about survival. Doesn't it make more sense that the more we hand-sell our books, the stronger our brand becomes, and thus the more likely our books will have viability on the retailer's shelves? (Certainly, if we had wide enough support from more retailers, and our advance orders paid for the cost of the book on its release, we wouldn't be so desperate to make up those costs in the post-release market.)

That said, I came to an amiable solution with one of comics' more vocal retailers, regarding this situation, and i think it's pretty fair. That is, to make our convention-debut books available to retailers in the same town as a given convention during the same weekend. That said, we've always been generous this way, and with some exceptions, we've offered fat discounts for wholesale purchases line-wide during a convention, at any time -- not just at the end of the show on the last day.

How do I feel about these intense convention schedules? Well, it's a grind. Part of the cost of doing business to be sure, but have you seen how much more salt is in my salt & pepper hair these days?

SPURGEON: Who is the best artist in terms of helping you sell at conventions? Who's the best?

WARNOCK: Good question, that I don't think I can answer by a list of names. More importantly, what you're getting at is a vital part of how we determine who we publish any more. We've discovered that two things are crucial in this process -- one is a commitment to producing (i.e. being relatively prolific), and the second is the desire and ability to attend as many conventions, book signings, and tours as possible. Like in music, or film, or the book trade, in order to compete in a media saturated world, it's the comics creators who produce, then get out there and make fans one at a time who are far more likely to build an audience for their work, than the cave-dwelling types who rarely produce and can't or won't do the work to promote what they do make. It's that simple.

Jeffrey Brown both produces excellent work at a brisk pace, and promotes himself like a fucking champion. It's no small wonder that he is one of our best sellers. He is an example for all aspiring comics creators.

imageSPURGEON: When I read your blog and talk to you, it seems like you have really broad taste in comics. And yet Top Shelf seems to have had a lot of success in recent years with a specific kind of wistful funny animal comic. Do you feel any pressure as a publisher to capitalize on certain ways the public sees you?

WARNOCK: Well I think we publish more than you maybe think we do, since the wistful animal output is in the minority of our line. The only pressure we have is to stay afloat. You'd think that ten years in, our brand would be strong enough that our books might be a break-even proposition out of the gate, line-wide, right? Nope. Sad but true. So if we find a niche at which we excel, as long as we refrain from publishing books that we don't believe in, just because they'll make some dough, why not?

Feeling pressure based on how the public sees Top Shelf? Hmmm... I don't know, but it seems like our reputation is based more on the undefinable aesthetic of providing an interesting story and cool package, than working in any particular genre or sub-category. I'd say we're certainly more populist in our tastes than the more "lit-minded" publishers, and that's something I love being a part of, because I think our appeal is to a wide range of mainstream readers. I like the tag, "we've got something for everyone."

SPURGEON: Do you think Top Shelf will personally be around for 10 more years? Are you in it for the long haul? At what point did you realize that Top Shelf could be around for quite some time?

WARNOCK: I can't even think about this question. It's just what we do. There's not much I wouldn't do to keep this dream alive.

imageSPURGEON: Did handling such a massive project as Lost Girls change Top Shelf? Are you a different publisher now for having been successful with such a project?

WARNOCK: The only way it changed us was in making us see the value in the long roll-out. The book trade already works a year or even two years ahead of release, and I think as the direct market continues to creep along as it does, our model will keep shifting towards this book-trade schedule, where we're thinking a year ahead ourselves, rather than three months ahead.

If we're a "different" publisher because of Lost Girls, it's only as far as it's given our brand more credibility. Every little ounce helps.

SPURGEON: How do you feel in general about the move of comics into bookstores? One the one hand, I imagine it's been good for you, but on the other, you publish a lot of young talent that's going to be attractive to larger publishers.

WARNOCK: You've more than covered this ground in your columns. Bookstores = more sales. Good. Bookstores = occasional returns. Bad. Mainstream enthusiasm = exposure for our cartoonists. Good. Exposure and success of our cartoonists = poaching by big publishers with deep pockets. Bad.

It's like Nirvana and the independent vs. major record labels back in the early '90s all over again.

All we can do is pay attention to our creators, treat them right, and hope for a little loyalty. Certainly, we don't expect anyone to turn down a mammoth advance, which we could never match. But if we're doing our job right, we're offering maybe a little more creative freedom, and some perks here and there, so that even if and when a cartoonist might take a gig with Pantheon or whomever, at the end of the day, we're still friends, and they'll want to keep our working relationship alive and well.

imageSPURGEON: If Top Shelf ended today, what do you think its legacy would be in terms of wider comics history? Do you ever think in those terms? Is it important to you that Top Shelf have a place in comics history?

WARNOCK: I'm sorry, Tom, but just thinking about this question makes me feel like a poseur. All I can say is that I feel incredibly lucky to be able to do what I do, and have any affect on the medium and business at all. Between From Hell, Lost Girls, and Blankets, I think we've helped deliver some of the greats, and if that alone was our legacy, I'd die a happy man. Ask me again in 20 years.

SPURGEON: Finally, the most important question: Greg Oden or Kevin Durant?

WARNOCK: You're kidding, right? With the lone exception of the Great One, Michael Jordan, every dynasty depended on and revolved around the men in the middle. The Celtics had Bill Russell, then McHale and Parish. The Lakers had Kareem, then Shaq. The Spurs had David Robinson, then Tim Duncan. Even in the east a few years ago in Detroit, you had Big Ben Wallace clogging up the middle, defending the rim.

Many people are comparing the excellent Kevin Durant to superstar studs like Kevin Garnett (no rings), Tracy McGrady (who can't make it past the first round), and even Kobe (ditto, without Shaq backing him up). So the comparisons don't add up.

Greg Oden, baby! I can't wait to start taking my kid to games!


* a handsome variation on the Top Shelf logo
* photo of Brett Warnock by Whit Spurgeon (2004)
* three influential comics: Byrne/Claremont X-Men, David Mazzucchelli's Rubber Blanket, and Dave Lasky's Boom Boom
* the first Top Shelf anthology
* panel from Craig Thompson's Blankets
* a nicely-designed book by Matt Kindt
* photo of Jeffrey Brown by Whit Spurgeon (2004)
* cover to Aaron Renier's Spiral-Bound
* panel from Lost Girls
* cover to Top Shelf edition of From Hell
* Jeffrey Brown cover to the company's anniversary sampler (below)


* Top Shelf Web Site
* Brett Warnock's Blog


posted 10:30 pm PST | Permalink

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