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Killer comics, part two: Editions Tchai, Top Shelf, and Jeff Lemire

In less than a decade, the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (May 5“6) has grown from a niche event into an annual gathering that attracts upward of 15,000 attendees. In the May 2012 issue, Q&Q takes a look at four graphically inclined small presses that hope to make a splash at this year’s fest.

Editions Tchaï
Eugene Zhilinsky started Editions Tchaï with his wife, illustrator and fashion designer Tatyana Yuditskaya, in 2005. The Russian-born, Toronto-based couple was having a hard time getting published, so they decided to go it alone. It’s been a hard-knock education in publishing, but the pair has figured it out on the fly. It was easy, Zhilinsky deadpans. We just bought a printing machine.

The couple tends to all aspects of production, even collating the final pages by hand. Add to that Zhilinsky’s full-time work as an architectural illustrator, Yuditskaya’s new clothing line, and their three-year-old daughter, and an already labour-intensive process becomes that much more complex. It’s why they keep print runs to 20 copies.

That said, in seven years, Tchaï has released 14 titles and published in three languages. Hungry Heart, a psycho-thriller about a small-town woman’s search for a glamorous man, and Ah, Gilgamesh, about the immigrant experience in the Middle East, both by Yuditskaya, were published in French and English. Sketches of the Time, an anthology edited by Zhilinsky, appeared in Russian.

Eugene Zhilinsky’s Rock Testament, co-written by Kimberley Whitchurch (Photo: Editions Tchaï)

The pair believes their breakthrough title will be Rock Testament, co-written by Toronto caricaturist Kimberley Whitchurch and illustrated by Zhilinsky. Starring a street prophet preaching the gospel of rock ‘n’ roll in biblical Jerusalem, the book is part comic, part carnet de voyage.

Inspired by his 12-year stay in Jerusalem, Zhilinsky spent years working on the volume. Galleys in hand, however, he reluctantly admitted the text didn’t live up to his vision. Whitchurch, who originally agreed to proofread the manuscript, quickly found herself rewriting the book frame by frame. Sometimes you do need somebody on the outside, says Whitchurch, who’s now collaborating with Zhilinsky on a book of Toronto sketches.

Tchaï originally hand-printed Rock Testament last year, and has sold a smattering of copies online and at a few local bookshops. For the book’s official debut at TCAF, the pair hired a commercial printer to produce 500 copies and is hoping to land a distributor.

While he would happily sell his work to another publisher, Zhilinsky is proud of what he and Yuditskaya have accomplished at Tchaï. All along, their aim has been to produce books that spark thoughtful discussion “ an ambition summed up by the company’s name. Tchaï is Russian for tea, and, Zhilinsky says, in his home country, the most engaged conversations happen over a cuppa.

Jeff Lemire and Top Shelf
U.S. publisher Top Shelf will have a big presence at this year’s TCAF. The featured publisher will spotlight six authors from its stable, including a couple of Canadians: up-and-comer Kagan McLeod, whose 2011 debut, Infinite Kung Fu, was praised by CNN, Paste Magazine, and USA Today; and Jeff Lemire, who will launch the Top Shelf edition of his 2003 self-published graphic novel, Lost Dogs.

That volume is in advance of the summer release of Lemire’s widely anticipated follow-up to his Essex County trilogy, which won a Joe Shuster Award and a Doug Wright Award, and brought Lemire to national prominence thanks to its appearance on last year’s CBC Canada Reads. Due in August, The Underwater Welder is a surreal sci-fi story about a tradesman who works on a Nova Scotia oil rig.

Top Shelf was formed 15 years ago as a joint venture between Brett Warnock, who had been publishing a comics anthology since 1995, and Chris Staros, an agent for several international cartoonists and the author of an annual comics-industry directory.

Jeff Lemire’s Lost Dogs (Photo: Top Shelf)

In 2003, Top Shelf published Craig Thompson’s coming-of-age memoir Blankets, a book credited with introducing the graphic novel format to a general readership. Since then, the publisher has grown into a five-person outfit operating on both coasts, publishing 20 to 30 books annually in both print and digital formats, selling into foreign markets, and attending more than 20 major events each year.

In the comic book industry we’re sort of considered an alternative publisher, explains marketing manager Leigh Walton. [Staros] cut his teeth in heavy metal bands back in the 1980s and, to a certain extent, I think we still operate the company like a band: we put out a new release and then we tour behind it.

Top Shelf’s author-focused approach attracted Lemire as a publishing newbie in 2006. Though his initial submission was rejected, the manuscript was returned, to Lemire’s surprise, with editorial comments. No other publisher did that, he recalls. It was really valuable to me because I was just starting out and I was still finding my voice as a storyteller.

A year later, Top Shelf accepted and published Essex County: Tales from the Farm. It instantly became like I was working with this close family, Lemire says. I’ve worked with a lot of publishers since, and I’ve never seen that anywhere else.”