14 September, 2005

An Interview with Top Shelf's Brett Warnock

Brett Warnock of Top Shelf ProductionsAlong with Chris Staros, Brett Warnock is the publisher of Top Shelf Productions, one of the two most prominent and frequent publishers of James Kochalka's work (the other being Alternative Comics, the subject of another interview coming soon). Earlier this week, Brett took the time to talk to me about publishing Kochalka's work and other topics.

How did you first get interested in comics?

Well, besides the requisite Richie Rich, Casper, and Archie comics when I read as a wee little lad, the comic that rocked my world, and which my dad bought for me rather randomly in a possible act of kismet, was X-Men #112, part of the epic Claremont/Byrne run. Flash forward a few years during which I still hadn't developed a big interest, and one day while dropping quarters into an Asteroids machine at Plaid Pantry, I spied the cover of X-Men #135. It was like stumbling across the holy grail, and I've never looked back. My Holy Trinity then were the aforementioned Claremont/Byrne X-Men, the Wolfman/Perez New Teen Titans and Miller's Daredevil. At that time, vets like Kirby and Ditko scared the shit out of me. They certainly weren't as pretty as Byrne. Ha! What a dumb-ass.

What led you into publishing comics?

Well, my teenage comics hero was Terry Austin, who was without a doubt Byrne's best inker ever. And so my dream was, of course, to ink the X-Men. But during high school I did nothing to further that dream. I was pretty lazy. Around the time that I graduated from University of Oregon with a B.A. in design, I met a guy named Steve Ryan, a Klingon-on-Earth type of intense guy, who happened to be one incredible artist. And still is. He took me under his wing, and taught me a great deal about not just art, but also much much more about following one's bliss and realizing one's potential. We dabbled together in more mainstream, heroic comics, and submitted some stuff to places like Dark Horse and Eclipse, to no avail.

Concurrent with this, I started to get quite bored with "mainstream" comics -- this was after all the late '80s/early '90s, arguably the absolute aesthetic nadir of American superhero comics. My local comics shop, in spite of existing two blocks from campus in an extremely progressive college town, treated indy/alternative comics like the fucking plague. Still, they did have, buried behind some D&D manuals in the back, three or four books that opened my eyes to a whole new world of comics. I guess you could say these were the comics that made me born again, and directly inspired me to publish. Pete Bagge's Hate, the issue with Stinky and the guys in the band on the cover, Clowes's Eightball, of course; an issue of the first-volume Drawn & Quarterly anthology, and David Mazzucchelli's sublime, and much-missed Rubber Blanket.

So inspired, I drew my own comics. I even submitted to D&Q. They pretty much sucked, and to be honest, writing and drawing comics didn't flow too easily for me. Luckily, I had it in me to self-publish a mini-comic. And while drawing comics may've been no fun, I had a blast producing the mini. I quickly realized that I was much more qualified to edit and publish than to write and draw.

After very little thought, it dawned on me that my potential for making comics a career was zero as a cartoonist, and "hopeful" as a publisher. The rest is history.

How did you first discover James Kochalka's work?

Well, the next discovery for me beyond Fantagraphics and D&Q was the mini-comics phenomenon, thanks to a stellar anarchist bookstore in Eugene called Hungry Head, where I first saw Joe Sacco read. And then, through John Porcellino's seminal Spit and a Half catalog, I made all those mini-comics discoveries. Tom Hart, Sam Henderson, Jason Lutes, The Brube, Megan Kelso, David Lasky, Jennifer Daydreamer, Jon Lewis, Josue Menjivar, James Kochalka, et al. This was the period when the Seattle contingent was ON FIRE, and the mail order scene was still strong. It was also, coincidentally, right before e-mail had really caught on yet, and everyone was sending -- gasp! --letters in the mail!

Kochalka was a frequent contributor to the Top Shelf anthology title, and obviously has appeared in many other anthologies as well. What do you think a Kochalka story brings to an anthology?

Well, when I got started, his willingness to do it! But no, there's a certain quality to James's comics that really touch me. A humanity that was conspicuously missing from the big deal alt-cartoonists of the day, except for Los Bros., that I still think is missing in some of our unqualified "greats." Make no mistake, I'm a HUGE fan of folks like Clowes, Ware, Panter, Burns, and the like, but one thing I don't feel when I read their comics is compassion. In fact, I finish one of their books, and I'm down for days.

James brings that intangible, lively, well, elfish quality to an book. A certain mischief.

At the time, it seemed like Top Shelf was taking a chance on publishing James's Sketchbook Diaries. While I regard the work as his best and most visionary comics, I know that it's not always his best-selling work. Can you tell me what the thought process is behind continuing to get this work out there, and what the challenges and rewards have been?

I think you answered the question yourself, Alan. Not best-selling comics are a struggle, a challenge, and best-selling comics, the reward can come in many shapes and sizes. Sadly, it's not always so easy to tell what will catch on.

The Diaries I think are some of the best comics in the history of the medium. That's the thought process as to why we decided to publish them. They are comics in the purist sense. You could not, in any other medium do what James does to convey his range of emotion, passion, joie de vivre. His attention to detail, and the ability to make deeply humane the simplest minutiae of day-to-day life. I'm honored to be publishing this.

How do you see the dynamic between Top Shelf and Alternative, Kochalka's two most prominent publishers?

Well, James is quite possibly the most prolific cartoonist of his era. Besides that, it makes good business sense for James to work with multiple publishers, no single publisher could possibly print everything that flows from his feverish imagination.

The comics artform seems to be undergoing a huge expansion right now, with more good work just this past summer than I can remember in some recent years. What do you see as Top Shelf's role in the industry?

Without trying to sound like a publicist, I just hope that we continue to publish vital comics, by established AND new cartoonists, that contribute to the well-being of the industry, both commercially and aesthetically.

You might know that I tended bar for over a decade, and did so during the formative years of my comics career, up until three years ago. It allowed me to follow my dream, and while I made MUCH more money tending bar, I'm fortunate enough to be living that dream right now. If a genie popped out of my beer bottle right now, and said "I'll grant you the job you most desire," I'd tell him to bugger off. Done.

If, in ten or twenty years, the people in comics look back on our company and what we've published as a valuable addition to the history of the medium, like I do at my friend Denis Kitchen, and Kitchen Sink, for example, then I'll die a happy man.

Any thoughts on James Kochalka's role or influence in the artform of comics?

James's influence would be impossible for me to measure, unless I could be a fly on the wall of aspiring cartoonists everywhere. But his role is as one this generation's shining lights. With comics as diverse as Monkey vs. Robot, The Sketchbook Diaries, The Cute Manifesto and Super-F*ckers, how can he NOT be looked back on as such?

Next month will mark the seventh anniversary of James's daily diary comics -- what are your thoughts on that accomplishment?

You know how I feel about his diary comics in general. The fact of its seven year anniversary is astounding. NO ONE else can make a similar claim, even though James has spawned a plethora of imitators. If he keeps it up, he'll always be the king. He started first!

What has Top Shelf got in the works in the months ahead that you'd like folks to know about, both Kochalka-related and not?

Super-F*ckers #2 is going to the printer any day now. At the printer now, and debuting at SPX is a book by newcomer Liz Prince, called Will You Still Love Me If I Wet the Bed? Fans of James or Jeffrey Brown will love this.

Also, the sophomore effort by Max Estes is a real treat. It's called Coffee & Donuts, and is slated for a February release.

Then Renee French's long-awaited The Ticking will be coming out in June. It's AMAZING!

Thanks for taking the time to talk comics and Kochalka with me, Brett.

Thanks, Alan.

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