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Killer comics, part one: Koyama Publishing and Conundrum Press

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 graphically inclined small presses that hope to make a splash at this year’s fest.

Koyama Press
For a self-described publishing neophyte, Annie Koyama has managed to achieve rather a lot in a short period of time. Since founding Koyama Press in 2007, the Toronto native has released about 35 titles (mostly art books and comics), making a name for herself in the male-dominated underground comics world and bringing attention to a roster of largely undiscovered talent.

A measure of Koyama’s growing influence? Of all the books nominated for this year’s Doug Wright Award for best Canadian comic, handed out annually at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, the only title not published by the mighty Drawn & Quarterly belongs to Koyama: Lose #3, the latest volume in an ongoing anthology by young Toronto artist Michael DeForge. (Last year, DeForge won the Pigskin Peters Award for avant-garde comics.)

A former film producer who worked in advertising before health problems sidelined her career, Koyama says she was drawn to publishing out of her love of art and comics, and her desire to promote the work of emerging and overlooked artists (she describes the press as partly a philanthropic mission).

Until now, Koyama has employed a DIY approach to distribution and marketing, relying heavily on events like TCAF and handling local sales herself, essentially approaching retailers with a backpack full of books. The tactic has been successful: Koyama Press titles have landed at Toronto locations of Indigo, Type Books, and Book City, and at alternative venues across the city, including high-end clothing stores (Lileo), art galleries (Art Metropole), and specialty shops (Magic Pony).

Jesse Jacobs’ By This Shall You Know Him (Photo: Koyama)

Koyama says her strategy for the year ahead is to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks, but she acknowledges her biggest business challenge is twofold: increasing print runs to improve margins and lining up reliable distribution for the fledgling firm. After working around the clock for nearly four years (lately with part-time assistance from Pop Sandbox associate publisher Ed Kanerva), she says her goal now is to create a sustainable enterprise that can continue to fulfill its artist-centric mandate.

Achieving that goal means having a good showing at TCAF. At this year’s gathering, the press will debut a trio of titles: the surreal graphic novel By This Shall You Know Him by Jesse Jacobs, a cartoonist from London, Ontario; Wax Cross, a comic by Tin Can Forest (a.k.a. Pat Shewchuk and Marek Colek); and Wowee Zonk #4, the latest volume edited and produced by a Toronto-based artist collective.

As for her long-term plans, Koyama is hopeful the press will finally become eligible for federal and provincial publishing grants, though she acknowledges that the way I make books is not very appealing to granting agencies.

She’s also considering expanding into children’s books. But not in the way you’d expect. While there are a million good kids’ books out there, there aren’t a million good kids’ comics I can see “ especially not weird ones, she says.

Conundrum Press
It’s been 10 years since Conundrum Press released its first graphic novel, but perhaps an even more significant milestone occurred in July 2010, when the small publishing house (now based in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley) released its last prose work, Alisha Piercy’s Auricle/Icebreaker. The book, which collects a pair of novellas, marked the final chapter in Conundrum’s transformation from a literary press to one focused exclusively on art books, comics, and graphic novels.

Andy Brown, Conundrum’s founder and sole employee, says the shift was inevitable once he began experimenting with graphically oriented work. There are 50 fiction publishers in Canada and two comics publishers, he says. In terms of editorial vision, if I do half and half, in a way I’m not being focused. [Graphica] seems to be the niche that’s far more useful and interesting.

Conundrum will bring its strongest season ever to this year’s TCAF, which Brown has attended since it began as a biannual event in 2003. The press’s lead title is The Song of Roland, a recent entry in Quebec cartoonist Michel Rabagliati’s semi-autobiographical Paul series, which, until now, had been published in English by Montreal’s Drawn & Quarterly. (The graphic novel, originally published in French as Paul à Québec, appears under Conundrum’s BDANG imprint, which specializes in francophone works in translation.)

Michael Rabagliati’s The Song of Roland (Photo: Conundrum)

Conundrum will also debut work from three Toronto-based artists: first-time author Nina Bunjevac’s Heartless (originally published in a Serbian-language edition); Britt Wilson’s Greatest Book on Earth, a collection of mini-comics from the eponymous artist (whom Brown compares to Kate Beaton and Shary Boyle); and People Around Here, Dave Lapp’s follow-up to his Doug Wright Award“nominated Drop-in.

Brown’s approach to publishing graphica is no different than the one he employed for literature: Conundrum still provides a home for young, undiscovered talent working on the margins of the mainstream. But he notes there’s very little crossover between the literary world and the comics scene.

It’s a different world of expectations and a different world [in terms] of what the artist wants to get out of it, says Brown, adding that the two sides could learn from one another.

Writers generally want to see their books nominated for awards and reviewed in The Globe and Mail, but it doesn’t happen that much, he says. Whereas with comics, there really are no awards and they never are reviewed in The Globe and Mail. It’s more about creating the work and getting it into the world of peers, as opposed to everyone who can read the English language.