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Top Shelf turns comics into literary gold

Pen and ink lives. Despite the proliferation of Vine videos and Instagram, the hand-drawn image has lasted into the digital age, giving rise to that flower of the comic art world: the graphic book.

Graphic literature will cut a dashing figure at the AJC Decatur Book Festival this Labor Day weekend, with a keynote address provided by Rep. John Lewis, whose autobiographical trilogy “March” is certainly the first book-length graphic memoir written by a sitting U.S. Congressman.

Lewis’ book tells the story, in words and images, of his remarkable life story, including his journeys to Washington, D.C., in 1963 and Selma in 1965, stepping past the edge of safety, putting his life on the line for the sake of racial equality.

Joining Lewis at the podium to discuss “March: Book One” will be co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell.

In addition to Lewis’ address, the festival will offer, for the first time, an entire track of lectures and panel discussions related to graphic literature, featuring creators whose concerns range over a fantastical spectrum of the human experience:

They include:

• Jim Ottaviani, a writer of nonfiction, science-oriented comics and his book “Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas.”

• David Axe, writer of “Army of God: Josephy Kony’s War in Central Africa.”

• Jonathan Hennessey, author of “The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation,” and the upcoming “The Comic Book Story of Beer.”

Beer, the Constitution, primates, murder, civil rights — all are fair game in graphic literature, a genre that long ago slipped the surly bonds of its superhero origins.

In fact, when Chris Staros, co-founder of Top Shelf Productions, the Marietta-based publishing company producing the “March,” started the company in 1997, the first blockbuster was about as far from “bang! pow! zap!” as you could get.

It was a 2003 magnum opus called “Blankets” from Midwestern writer/artist Craig Thompson, a 600-page rhapsody on falling in love, coming to terms with Christianity and growing up in the forever winter of Wisconsin.

“It changed a lot of peoples’ lives and changed a lot of perceptions about what graphic novels can be,” said Staros, speaking from Memphis, where he was deep in Elvis Week celebrations.

(“This is sort of like my religious pilgrimage,” said Staros, 50, of his yearly trip to Graceland and environs. “This is my 26th year coming here.” Ruefully, he added, “here we are with one our biggest books ever published, and here I am remotely coordinating it by my cell phone.”)

His big book, “March,” has ushered Top Shelf into a brand-new world of television interviews and international press, even at the San Diego Comic Con, where Lewis was competing with the likes of Tom Cruise and Samuel L. Jackson.

“Here we had a real live super hero on the floor in a world of fictional super heroes, and I was very nervous going in that he might be overlooked,” said Staros.

But his fears were allayed when he saw the lines of fans waiting for Lewis’ autograph. “It was a mob scene.”

Early in the life of his publishing company the mobs were much smaller.

A military brat, Staros lived in a variety of places but made regular summertime trips to Atlanta to visit Yiayia and Papou (Greek for grandma and grandpa) and his many cousins on his mother’s side. He studied computer science at the University of California, Irvine, and his first job out of college was in Atlanta, writing software for Lockheed.

Then one day he stumbled on a copy of Alan Moore’s dystopian story of anarchism and fascism, “V for Vendetta,” a serial comic book that was compiled into a single volume in 1990.

“It blew me away,” said Staros. He began looking at every example of comic art he could find, taking notes on what he liked, and, by 1994, was publishing a sort of comics guide called “The Staros Report.”

To start Top Shelf, Staros teamed up with Brett Warnock, who he met at one of the San Diego Comic Cons. A resident of Portland, Ore., Warnock had already been putting out comics through his independent Primal Groove Press. His previous career as a bartender gave rise to the “Top Shelf” name.

Warnock handled design and packaging for the new venture, Staros crunched numbers and balanced spreadsheets, and their cross-continental business operated swimmingly until a day in 2002 they call Black Tuesday. A distributor that owed Top Shelf a significant amount of money went belly-up and “stiffed us for a fortune,” as Staros describes it.

At 8 a.m. on that day Staros appealed to his customers, saying “if you want a Top Shelf product it’s now or never.” The readers bought like crazy. An aspiring Atlanta writer named Robert Venditti, who was working at Borders, volunteered to help pack and ship as the orders rolled in, and became the first Top Shelf employee.

While aiming a tape gun and doing fulfillment, Venditti wrote a graphic novel script called “The Surrogates,” which Top Shelf published as a series starting in 2005. It was made into a movie starring Bruce Willis in 2009, and Venditti was off and running.

Volunteering for the mail room? “In many ways the best thing I ever did,” said Venditti, a Forsyth County father of two. He went on to write the graphic novel adaptations of Rick Riordan’s “Heroes of Olympus” series (illustrated by “March” artist Nate Powell), and writes the Green Lantern comics for DC Comics.

Since 1997, Staros estimates, Top Shelf has published about 300 graphic books and has sold about 3 million volumes. The variety of subjects that his writers and artists tackle gives a strong sense of the vitality of the genre. (See sidebar.)

Philip Rafshoon, program director at the AJC Decatur Book Festival, said the graphic novel has certainly earned a place at the festival. “It’s an area that has been growing,” he said. “There’s been a demand for it at the festival over many years and with the John Lewis graphic novel released now, it seemed to be the perfect time.”

Powell said the book festival appearance and the increased attention to graphic literature is a good sign for the health of the genre, which had an earlier reputation as a “mouth-breathing boys club.

“This is a promising cultural shift,” he said.

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