Top Shelf Productions, which celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, is a small press with a big footprint. Best known for March, the late Congressman John Lewis’s three-volume graphic memoir of the Civil Rights movement, Top Shelf has been a leading force in the expansion of the comics medium and market, bringing in new readers with graphic novels such as Craig Thompson’s Blankets (2003), Jeff Lemire’s Essex County (2008), and Jennifer Hayden’s The Story of My Tits (2015).
The house pushed the boundaries of adult comics with Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls (2006), and it was among the first publishers of children’s graphic novels with Andy Runton’s Owly series (2004) and James Kochalka’s Johnny Boo series (2007). And many of their titles, including Kim Dwinell’s Sursfide Girls (2017), Filipe Melo and Juan Cavia’s Ballad for Sophie (2021), and Jeff Lemire’s Essex County, are being developed for film and television.
In 2023 the house will publish 16 titles and its books are distributed to the book trade by Penguin Random House Publisher Services. Top Shelf cofounder and editor in chief Chris Staros told PW that his approach to publishing has always been incremental. “I've never considered myself a revolutionary,” he said. “I'm more of an evolutionary. I just get up every day and work really hard to seek near-term opportunities and near-term talent. I always try to move things forward in an interesting direction.”
The seeds of Top Shelf were sown in 1995, when Staros brought his zine, The Staros Report, to the Small Press Expo, sold 100 copies, and found his calling. “I was a wallflower listening to all the famous people in the room talk to each other, and I kind of caught the bug,” he said. Soon he was serving as the U.S. agent for such comics artists as Eddie Campbell and Gary Spencer Milledge, selling their comics alongside his zines at comics shows and learning the ropes of book distribution and sales.
Two years later, at SPX 1997, Staros and cofounder Brett Warnock decided to join forces and publish graphic novels together. “He was a great designer,” Staros said. “I had more editorial and maybe some business skills. We thought we'd make a good pair, and we did. Brett and I were a team for almost 20 years and never had a single fight or a problem between us.” Warnock left the company when Top Shelf was acquired by IDW in 2015. The deal leaves Staros free to recruit creators and edit the books, while IDW handles the logistics of shipping and selling the books.
Among Top Shelf’s first books was the collected edition of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell, an acclaimed literary graphic work inspired by the history around Jack the Ripper; Top Shelf’s edition won both the Eisner and the Harvey awards in 2000. In 2003, Craig Thompson’s Blankets won two Eisner Awards, and the long-form coming-of-age story brought new readers to the medium.
Graphic novels were still a relatively unknown format at the turn of the 21st century, so Top Shelf sold its books principally at comic shops and comics conventions, setting up at 20 or more shows each year. Staros, a former rock guitarist, liked the idea of hitting the road and making fans one at a time, and he and Warnock had a knack for getting their books into the hands of influencers. “We were good guerilla marketers,” Staros said. Their timing was good as well: In the early 2000s, bookstores and Amazon began carrying graphic novels, expanding the opportunities for success: “If you had a hit, you could really hit the ball out of the park, because it was just such a deeper market,” Staros said.
At the beginning, Staros resisted publishing graphic novels for children, preferring to focus on literary comics for mature readers. “I was kind of anti kids' books, because I felt that was going to hold back our efforts to get comics to grow up,” he said. “It didn't take but two or three years of that mindset to realize that I was wrong. If there aren't comics to engage kids that spark their imagination and their wonder of reading and of that particular art form, they may not go to the next step.” Top Shelf began publishing young-readers titles with James Kochalka’s Pinky & Stinky in 2002 and Andy Runton’s Owly (now published by Scholastic), which won a 2005 Eisner Award. More recent kids’ titles include Kim Dwinell’s Surfside Girls, which has been adapted by Apple TV, and Jared Rosello’s Red Panda and Moon Bear.
Their biggest hit, Lewis’ March trilogy, which has millions of copies in print, came about after comics writer Jimmy Palmiotti recommended Top Shelf to Lewis’s co-writer (and legislative staffer) Andrew Aydin, who was looking for a publisher for the project. The initial publishing team was small—Staros, senior editor Leigh Walton, and designer Chris Ross—but the first volume was a hit, and when Top Shelf joined IDW, just before the second volume was released, the parent company’s larger infrastructure helped propel sales higher. An important part of the trilogy’s success was Lewis’s willingness to make extensive public appearances to support the book. “Generally, authors are willing to do a handful of [events], and that’s it,” Staros said. “The Congressman said ‘This is my major mission in life. This book is the tool I want to use to get the civil rights message out to a whole new generation. Put me on the road, and I will support this with everything I have.’” Together with Aydin, Walton, and artist Nate Powell, Lewis made more than 250 appearances before he passed away in 2020, even cosplaying as himself and leading a procession of children across the floor at the Comic-Con International in San Diego several years in a row.
The third volume of March came out in 2016, just as national politics pivoted from the Obama to the Trump era, and three years later, as U.S. authorities were putting refugees in cages at the Mexican border, Top Shelf published They Called Us Enemy, George Takei’s memoir of his childhood in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Both books not only made an important statement, Staros said, they helped graphic novels continue to expand into the general book marketplace.
In the end, Staros is all about the books. “At Top Shelf, we always publish what people want to read, not necessarily the books people buy in droves,” he said. Top Shelf has books that sell 2,000 copies over their lifetime and others that sell a million or more. “I love them all the same,” Staros said. “I’ve always been more about the product than the sales, honestly. Art before commerce.”