PNCA Continuing Education

A chat with Top Shelf’s Brett Warnock

In Interview on May 6, 2010 at 1:00 am

Brett Warnock started the company that would evolve into Top Shelf Productions, publisher of critical and commercial successes such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alan Moore’s From Hell with the publication of the anthology Top Shelf in 1995.

So what prompted you to start Primal Groove Press and publish the original Top Shelf anthology?

When I got into mail-order mini-comics, I discovered there were lots of my favorite cartoonists not being represented in the current crop of indy anthologies at the time (influential books like D&Q, Rubber Blanket, Raw volume 2, Nozone, et al.). So I decided, hey, I’ll have to do it myself!

Did you even attempt to get traditional comic store distribution through Diamond, or did you go straight to alternative sources?

Oh, totally. I used Diamond, as well as Capital City (for one solicitation cycle, before they went under), Cold Cut, Last Gasp, and a handful of tiny mail-order distro outfits.

What alternative ways to get your book out there were you able to find in those dark, pre-internet days?

Besides the normal methods, more than anything, the best way to generate awareness (and therefore sales) was to get out on the road and attend as many small conventions as possible.

Do you still think it’s important to get out to local conventions and meet potential readers face-to-face, or do you rely more on the internet to generate awareness now?

If you want success, you have to do both of these. And more. Even then there are no guarantees. Everything starts with a good comic, however. If you don’t have that, you’re not going very far.

At what point do you feel like you made the shift from small press anthology publisher to the graphic novel publisher you are today? Was there a sudden, game-changing event or was it a gradual process?

I’d published exclusively floppy comics for the first couple years, and then in 1997, as I was virtually out of money, I published my first square-bound book, which was Top Shelf volume 5 (which featured a sweet wraparound cover by Pat Moriarity.). It was then (literally) that Chris Staros approached me about being business partners. From the beginning, we aimed at not serializing any stories, and became known for breaking that new ground with Blankets, at almost 600 pages.

How did you get into the bookstore market, and how do you think it compares to the comic store market?

We started in the book trade with a distributor called LPC. Though that relationship ended up with disastrous results, they did open that new market. There’s no real comparison between the two markets, since they are radically different in many ways. Sales of books into the comics market are non-returnable. A sale is final. In the book trade, stores can at some point down the road, return books for which a publisher is then liable. We count on both to keep the doors open.

What did Chris bring to the table that you didn’t already have or weren’t already doing?

I’m a visual guy. It hurts my brain just balancing my checkbook, let alone crunching the numbers in a business. And that is exactly what Chris is great at. So we complement each other perfectly.

How do you think the comics industry is going to evolve over the next ten years or so?

If I could answer this correctly, I’d be able to retire in ten years.

Obviously digital content is here to stay. Probably printed books will be a niche market, but for small publishers like ourselves, that’s the way it’s always been.

Brett Warnock interviewed by Jefferson Powers.

Top Shelf just happens to be the publisher of three of my all time favorite graphic novels:

From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell. A meticulously researched, fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders, told in exhaustive, gory detail. Eddie Campbell’s visceral illustrations complement the dark story perfectly, and Moore’s writing paints a vivid, immediate picture of the personalities involved and the world they lived in.

Owly by Andy Runton. There’s no real reason why Andy Runton’s sweet, charming stories of a lonely owl’s misadventures should appeal to me particularly, but good cartooning is good cartooning. Runton is a master of conveying emotion, and I always look forward to reading his work.

Box Office Poison by Alex Robinson. This epic tale of relationships gone bad, employment gone even worse, and how ultimately life is down to the choices we make, started over 15 years ago as a self-published minicomic and took the author close to 10 years to complete. Top Shelf has collected the entire series into one massive 600 page volume which I always have a hard time putting down, even on repeat readings.

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