Guttergeek: Top Shelf’s Capitalization Deal

Posted by on January 14th, 2010 at 9:43 AM

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Yesterday, Chris Staros announced what is clearly a very big deal for the beloved Georgia independent comics company, Top Shelf:

TOP SHELF PRODUCTIONS ANNOUNCES INVESTMENT DEAL WITH JOHN S. JOHNSON AND PRODUCER ANTHONY BREGMAN

January 13, 2010 — Atlanta/Portland/New York — Co-Publishers Chris Staros and Brett Warnock of independent graphic novel and comic book publisher Top Shelf Productions (www.topshelfcomix.com) announced today that it has entered into a capital investment deal with new media entrepreneur John S. Johnson, and independent film producer Anthony Bregman.

Johnson, and Likely Story, Bregman’s film production company, have purchased a 33% interest in Top Shelf Productions, Inc. Johnson will join the board of Top Shelf, and Likely Story will get a first-look deal for all new Top Shelf publications for possible film and TV development.

Small, independent publishers have not had an easy time of it of late (to put it mildly), and so I should be happy for Top Shelf to have found significant capital infusion at a time when so many publishers are cutting back. And I am happy for them, for anything that will keep a publisher like this going through this dark times. But my immediate reaction (somewhat surprising for a cold-hearted realist like me) was more of a sigh than a cheer.

But maybe it is my cold-hearted realism that makes me less inclined than others to cheer this arrangement. While Staros and Warnock assure all that they will remain “firmly in control of the company” and the comics media seems to be rallying behind the idea of this marriage of what newsarama calls “genuine kindred spirits,” it is hard to see how this marriage will not begin to change priorities in fundamental ways—will not, that is, lead to a shift in priorities, a tendency to privilege pitches that have the potential to lead to the movie deal. In saying so, I am not casting any doubts on Staros and Warnock’s integrity, which is about as super-heroic as integrity gets. I am commenting only on basic human nature: you want to please your partners and when they are sitting around the table or looking over your shoulder, you have their interests always in mind. As you should. And those interests are not always good for comics.

Look, I’m not being naive here. Nor (to repeat) am I being critical of Top Shelf for taking this deal, which allows them to retain independence and remain viable in an increasingly competitive and Hollywood-driven comics industry. And from the minute Surrogates was optioned, any possibility of not thinking about the next possible movie deal was pretty much a done deal. Hell, it’s a done deal for everyone in the industry. I was at a Hero Initiative event recently, where thoughts of retirement and the future of the industry are necessarily on all participating creators’ minds, and inevitably and understandably the conversation quickly turned to fantasies about the movie deal that would allow these talented and good people not to end up needing to depend on the work of the Hero Initiative themselves.

So my sigh is not one of judgment, or even regret. Maybe a touch of nostalgia, which I am old enough to earn even as it is a quality I generally disdain. But I must say, my skepticism is somewhat reinforced by news that “the first project slated for development by Likely Story is Alex Robinson’s critically acclaimed “Too Cool to Be Forgotten,” named one of Amazon.com’s Top Ten Graphic Novels of the Year and considered his best work to date.” Really? Too Cool sure has the makings of a very small and ultimately forgettable film, it is true, but the idea that this is Robinson’s “best work” seems just plain wrong. What it seems like is the most filmable of Robinson’s works, and those are two very different qualities. Here’s hoping that Top Shelf, Robinson, and all the talented people in the Top Shelf family never lose sight of that distinction.

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