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The Good Guys

[whitespace] Top Shelf Comics
Revolt of the Unedited: A street-corner bard hawks his wares to Aunt Mary in a panel from the 'Hey, Mister!' series by Pete Sickman-Garner.

Georgia's small publisher Top Shelf Comics delivers the graphic goods

By Richard von Busack

MOST COMIC-BOOK publishers are ready to sing a swan song of "My Heart Goes On" and plunge into the Atlantic. Yet the Marietta, Ga., publisher Top Shelf Comics is one of the last companies in America still bullish on comics for adult readers.

Chris Staros, who was one of the attendees at last weekend's Alternative Press Expo (APE), began the aptly titled Top Shelf Publishing with Brent Warnock. When you call him on the phone, Staros begins with the business talk: "We've really been trying to make a quick run with it, with a lot of good product and high design. We're here to stay. The market's not real healthy right now, as you know. So as publishers, you have to get to a certain point fast. We needed market penetration, we needed to work the comics conventions hard and we needed to get a lot of product. It's working, though. We just signed with LPC, a distributor that's going to get us into Barnes & Noble and Tower and Virgin superstores."

Staros and Warnock have an impressive line of alternative comics. Along with Fantagraphics, Black Eye, San Jose's own Slave Labor, and Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf is concentrating on autobiographical works. Aaron Augenblock's lovely Tales of the Great Unspoken has been praised by Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and Peter Kuper. IMHO, if Top Shelf gets a corporate headquarters, it should have a big revolving sign on top with a picture of Aunt Mary from Pete Sickman-Garner's Hey, Mister!

Top Shelf's Hey, Mister! collection titled Afterschool Special (it's available direct from the artist for $4.95; P.O. Box 4085 Fayetteville, AR 72702-4085) stars "the lovely and talented Aunt Mary." She's a sour-faced, old/young, hard-drinking woman with a violent streak. Aunt Mary is a cashier at a hip record/book store, stuck in a backwater college town full of every type of annoyance, from creepy redneck to weedy poet.

I revere Aunt Mary for saying whatever strikes her. Stimulated by the sight of a fellow beer drinker in one of those Big Johnson T-shirts, she shouts, "Hey, ladies! It's Big Johnson! Isn't he dreamy? Cast your astonished gaze in the direction of this priapic wonder!" Hey Mister! is often a long chalk funnier than South Park.

The Hey, Mister! Celebrity Roast ($8.95) is due sometime in April. Staros affirms that Hey, Mister! is Top Shelf's most popular book. "Humor is always an easy sell, but it's hard to find humor that's not really slapstick," he says. "The politics in Hey, Mister! make it popular, and the characters are really interesting. You can never count on this kind of thing, but Pete Sickman-Garner's had some interest in Hey, Mister! from television."

The Reader's Digest-sized collection Magic Boy and Girlfriend ($8.95) is another prestige item. Artist James Kochalka tells two different kinds of stories. He writes realistic tales about his life as an art student in a dangerous neighborhood. He contrasts these gritty tales with more fanciful pieces about an elf called Magic Boy, drawn roughly in the style of the cartoon sprites that advertise cereal and Keebler's cookies.

It sounds too cute for words. Sometimes it is. But the stranger realities of Kochalka's life--failed orgies, dead pets and housemates' suicides--always leak into the Magic Boy tales. The best chapter in Magic Boy and Girlfriend is "Satan's Walk" about a common late-night occurrence. A man stood up by his girlfriend divines that the girlfriend is dead, lying somewhere with her throat cut; during the long walk home, the dreaded fantasy becomes more and more elaborate.

BY COMPARISON, Jack's Luck Runs Out by Jason Little ($3.50) is more thematically restrained. "Little is a New York City animator," Staros explains. "He works on the MTV show Daria. He got a Xeric grant to publish his first comic book. Xeric grants are funded by Peter Laird, who co-created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and this wonderful institution deemed Little's work artworthy. We offered to publish his work and were allowed to print it under our own label."

Jack's Luck Runs Out is a one-shot noir tale with an experimental twist. The characters in this nasty Las Vegas tale of gamblers, infidelity and murder have the faces of the king, jack and queen from a deck of playing cards. Since the facial expressions aren't changed by Little, these literally poker-faced characters show their emotion through the symbols of cartoon language: the exclamation or question marks over the head, the bubbles floating around the face of a drunk. It's more than just a card trick, thanks to Little's concise storytelling and dialogue. His spare use of primary colors is as effective as the use of shadows in a film noir.

Warnock, Staros' partner, still edits the Top Shelf anthology, which gave the publishing company its name. This anthology gives Staros and Warnock a way of filtering through submissions to find the better new talents among the younger cartoonists such as Tom Hart and Dylan Horrocks. I don't adore everything they print: for example, Rick Pinchera's Crest ($3) by Top Shelf is a selection of cartoons previously published in the alterna-newspaper Willamette Week.

If you read many self-published comics, you know the drill: isn't-coffee-amusing? why-doesn't-my-computer-work? lookit-the-bleeding-ponytails-taking-up-my-space. Sickman-Garner's comics are so much better at explaining how sordid it is to spend the livelong day in a state of malaise.

Speaking of work, Staros still does. Top Shelf is something he does in addition to "a 40-hour-a-week day job and a wife and a house." This small publishing company, operated on the outskirts of Atlanta, is taking a risk; even venerable comics publishers such as Kitchen Sink have gone under in the last year. So it's inspiring that there are still publishers willing to risk money and time on the idea that comics are a medium with a future. "Even though we're getting larger, we're still the good little guys," Staros claims.

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From the March 4-10, 1999 issue of Metro.

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