Is the purchase of Top Shelf by IDW a groundbreaking event in the North American comic book industry or business as usual? On Tuesday January 6, 2015, IDW Publishing announced that they had purchased Top Shelf. Co-founder Bret Warnock has decided to leave the company. He was one of the most innovative talent scouts for Top Shelf. Chris Staros who has always been the public face of the publisher will remain as he editor of the Top Shelf that will be run as an imprint of IDW. In essence, Top Shelf is becoming IDW’s Vertigo. Except, instead of being a studio grown in house, it is an acquisition.
Acquisitions in comics are not new. They may not occur as frequently today but if one recalls the Golden Age of comics in the 1940s and 1950s, companies such as DC Comics bought smaller publishers and their entire property catalogue. Recent major acquisitions include Boom Studios’ purchase of Archaia Entertainment in 2013. In the case of Top Shelf, the company doesn’t own a catalogue of property per say. Most of the comics it publishes are by cartoonists who retain their copyrights on the comics, although I speculate that some ancillary rights like movie rights may be assigned to Top Shelf. What leads me to speculate this is that when Top Shelf brought in new media entrepreneur John S. Johnson and film producer Anthony Bregman as minority capital investors in 2010, one of the obtained first-look right at all Top Shelf publications for movie development. IDW did not mention if they had bought out Johnson and Bregman as part of their purchase.
With Warnock’s retirement from comics, Top Shelf’s business end has probably been fully absorbed by IDW. This is good news for Top Shelf fans as the publisher had frequent capitalization problems over the years and often had to resort to their famous three-dollar sales to keep afloat and bring in some quick cash flow. Supporting cartoonists and nurturing talents is what Top Shelf does best. One of the valuable assets of Top Shelf for IDW is its relationship with creators such as Alan Moore who will not publish under some companies such as DC and Marvel Comics.
IDW has been very aggressive in its acquisition of licensed properties to adapt to comic books and in reprinting classic comics such as Corto Maltese and Terry and The Pirates. While it publishes its original comics by a variety of cartoonists, it’s undeniable that having Top Shelf as an imprint brings a lot of prestige to IDW. Some cartoonists, however, may feel that with the consolidation of Top Shelf into IDW, that there is one less competitive avenue of second-tier publishers who will invest in their projects. There is an opportunity for IDW to invest in secondary publication channels like Web comics to cultivate talent. It is the one strategic asset that is missing from the publisher.