Facing down a life-threatening illness would cause anyone to re-assess their priorities. In the case of Annie Koyama it led her to create her own comics company. Since 2007, Koyama has been giving up-and-coming cartoonists in the indie scene the chance to get their work in print via her imprint, Koyama Press. As a result she’s published some of the most visually striking and inventive comics around, such as “Lose” by Michael DeForge, “Diary Comics” by Dustin Harbin and the anthologies “Root Rot” and “Wowee Zowee.”
CBR News spoke with Koyama about how she made the jump from a job in the advertising world to becoming a comics publisher, the challenges she faced in doing so and what she has lined up for the rest of the year.
CBR News: How long have you been a fan of the medium? Did you grow up reading comics or did you come across them later in life?
Annie Koyama: I definitely grew up reading comics. My uncle brought “Pogo” books to our place and I loved “Peanuts,” “Archie,” “Little Lulu,” “Nancy,” “Richie Rich” and superhero comics. I didn’t read them for many years until “Calvin and Hobbes” came out. I liked B. Kliban’s work and loved Roz Chast’s comics. I subscribed to the New Yorker for a couple years but never had time to read many of the articles but I always looked at the comics. I only really got into reading indie comics three years ago.
How did you discover indie comics then, and how did that lead to your decision to become a publisher?
My brother and sister always had comics around and I guess I was certainly aware of them but after deciding to work with some artists on individual projects, I found Clayton Hanmer and through him, Trio Magnus. I decided to publish a book by the collective and we sold it at TCAF after a small debut in Tokyo at Design Festa.
I had been buying Christopher Hutsul’s prints for years and he did a comic called “A Very Kraftwerk Summer,” I found Jon Vermilyea’s work and helped him with the “Princes of Time” comic. I saw and loved some gig posters by Michael DeForge online and tracked him down, met him at the next TCAF and we started working together on his “Lose” comics soon after that. It wasn’t a conscious decision to start a publishing company, my background is actually in film.
Meeting and doing projects with those artists lead to discovering a lot of other indie comic people. I’m an insomniac and look at sites in the early hours of the morning, which is how I’ve found several of the people I approached. I credit Michael DeForge with introducing me to certain artists as well as educating me in that world which he graciously continues to do.
Tell me about your film background. What aspect of the business did you work in and what type of films did you work on?
I started in film at Canada’s National Film Board — comparable to PBS in the U.S. I became a producer after working asÂ production manager and assistant director. I’ve worked on quite a few documentaries, a couple features, and then moved to commercials. I produced commercials and then ran the day-to-day operations of the largest commercial production house in North America for ten years.
So how did you move from producer to publisher? My understanding is that you had something akin to a life-threatening illness. Is that accurate?
I wanted to leave advertising and had planned to take a year off to travel but fell ill and wasn’t able to travel or work for a long time. Later I was terminally diagnosed with brain aneurysms but opted for a risky surgery that was successful. I still have another aneurysm but choose to mostly ignore it.
During my non-working years, I built up a nest egg by playing the stock market. After I survived the surgery I wanted to do something other than film so I started funding projects with local emerging artists and that led quite accidentally to the making of the first book.
I did a few more projects that involved zines and little comics and enjoyed that, so I devoted all my time and resources to starting a company that publishes and helps emerging artists.
Playing the stock market? Wow. Can you be my financial adviser. Did you have an affinity/interest in that previously?
[Laughs] I have no background in finance. I was looking for a way to grow my unused travel funds since I had no income for several years. I started slowly and cautiously but had some success so I kept at it for a while. You have to be comfortable with a certain level of risk. I didn’t have any previous interest; I just saw it as a means to an end. Fortunately there were more winners than losers.
What was the timeline on this? When did you have the surgery done and when did you start up Koyama Press?
I worked in film from the early 1980s until the mid-’90s. My surgery was in late 2005 and I started funding projects in early 2007 but didn’t create Koyama Press until the end of 2007 with the “Trio Magnus: Equally Superior” book.
OK, so let me ask the semi-dumb question, why comics? Why invest your time and money with this particular medium rather than say, poetry, prose, theatre or what have you?
It wasn’t a conscious decision initially to publish comics but after publishing the comic “A Very Kraftwerk Summer” by Christopher Hutsul and then starting to work with Michael DeForge, I saw more and more really good work that I liked. I love books, art and print so it was sort of a natural progression. I do continue to support local film, theatre (I worked as a set painter for the ballet and opera before I worked in film) and other art initiatives as well. I knew it wouldn’t be very lucrative, especially publishing small runs of pamphlet comics, but I still love the format.
Had you had any experience as a publisher, either in comics or elsewhere beforehand?
What unexpected challenges did you come across when you decided to set up Koyama Press?
A fun challenge was choosing whom to work with as I found an abundance of really talented local artists. More challenging was how to get the books out there once the art bookstores started closing rapidly.
Also, doing all the work myself for the first two years meant that some parts of the business took a back seat to others. Now I have a little help, which is great.
Do you have any overriding aesthetic or goals as far as what sorts of books you publish beyond “things you like?” What shapes your judgment and what sort of comics are you looking for?
There’s nothing formal but I’m drawn to humor, lots of color, good typography and lots of different drawing styles. I like the quality of the books to be consistent though. I try to stay pretty open to new work from all media but I know very quickly whether I like something or not. I’m a pretty visual person.
What’s your main method of distribution? How are you getting books out there and do you feel like you’ve been successful so far in selling comics?
I’ve had some distrobution help from AdHouse, Last Gasp and Spit & A Half but still send orders to some Canadian retailers. I’m working on getting the books to a wider audience through a couple new venues for 2012. I’ve avoided the Diamond distribution option so far.
Of course I’d love for the books to be available at more retailers as people from all over now ask for them. I go to shows with some of the artists since it’s a lot nicer and sometimes easier to sell the books that way. Chris Pitzer and Revival House Press have repped me at other shows too. Blank Slate will rep my books at the Thoughtbubble show in the U.K. in November too.
How did that art meme of various cartoonists drawing you in a red dress come about?
Aaron Leighton, with whom I did the “Trio Magnus” and “Spirit City Toronto” books, designed my logo. People started playing with it and I initially commissioned a few versions. Once I began posting them, a lot of artists wanted to do their versions, which is great. There are still a few more in the works but last time I looked there were over 100 different versions now.
What books do you have coming down the pike?
Next up is Maurice Vellekoop’s “The World of Gloria Badcock”, Matthew Forsythe’s “Comics Class” and Jeremy Kai’s photography book of his underground explorations. All will debut in the U.S. at the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Festival.
As someone who entered into the industry somewhat unfamiliar with it, what are your overall impressions of it? What works and what doesn’t? Did you have any preconceived ideas that were either confirmed or proven wrong?
I think you’re being kind, I actually was “totally” unfamiliar with any kind of publishing let alone comics publishing. What I liked was that in addition to the great medium to larger publishers like Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, Picturebox, Top Shelf, Secret Acres and AdHouse, there were several smaller publishers doing different work. Buenaventura Press initially influenced me, as I love the kind of books Alvin [Buenaventura] publishes. My overall impression was that there was a huge amount of good work out there, something for everyone.
I am really excited by all the good work coming out of some of the smaller publishers like Grimalkin Press, Tugboat Press, Uncivilized Books, La Mano 21 and more. I hope Sparkplug Books will continue to publish new work too.
I was never under the impression that anyone was getting rich publishing the kinds of books and comics I chose to do but hopefully by staying a certain size, you can at least sustain the business and continue to break out new artists. I’m still figuring out what works and what doesn’t, but it’s nice to see others out there taking risks on new talent too.
Because I wasn’t saddled with preconceived notions of how things worked, I of course made some mistakes but I was also freer to carve my own road. In Toronto, where I’m located, most of the art bookstores have closed but we have one of the best and most supportive comic stores anyway, The Beguiling. I would still personally rather read a book that I hold in my hands, but you cannot ignore the digital content that’s available to anyone now. So, for now, I remain optimistic.
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