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Annie Koyama reflects on 10 years of comics publishing

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Annie Koyama wasn’t sent from another planet or bitten by a radioactive spider. The comics she publishes focus more on personal stories and individual idiosyncrasies than battling aliens. But her origin story is as compelling as any of these superhero tropes.

Koyama has an insatiably curious nature, and her early career is akin to the opening montage of a comic book. She was a set painter for the National Ballet and briefly studied to be a probations officer. She worked at the National Film Board of Canada and had some jobs in film and advertising before finally settling down to run Canada’s largest commercial film production company, wher she worked for more than 10 years. The job was lucrative, but Koyama never cared about owning a house or any of the traditional trappings. She wanted to travel. She saved diligently, squirreling away enough for two years abroad. She stopped working, but she never got on the plane.

Severe endometriosis and then intense migraines took over her life. She spent the next decade in such intense pain that she rarely left the house. The pain brought depression. To give herself something to do, Koyama played the stock market from her sickbed, eventually accumulating a tidy sum to add to her never-to-be-used travel fund.

Then came a new diagnosis: Koyama had a brain aneurysm. She settled her affairs before a highly risky surgery. The operation was a success, but it revealed a second, inoperable aneurysm. In her superhero life, this was the epiphany moment. Annie decided she wanted to use her money to do something.

Koyama Press opened for business in 2007 in Toronto. For the past 10 years, Koyama has been kicking ass, taking names, and publishing some of the best comics in the industry. For much of that time, she worked seven days a week, running the press with a mostly philanthropic mission.

“She wanted to support those starting out, who may not have had the opportunity or finances to follow through with their ideas, and make sure they had the resources they needed to complete their projects.” says Melinda Josie, an illustrator and one of the press’ first artists. “She’s been affectionately referred to by some of our friends as the patron saint of the Toronto art community.”

Christopher Butcher, co-founder and director of Toronto Comic Arts Festival says, “As a company, Koyama Press’s best quality is its support of young artists, their willingness to discover new talent. But really, their best quality is Annie Koyama’s kindness, which will resonate through the industry for decades to come.”

Annie Koyama is more than a mouthpiece for her own stable of creators. Looming over the Koyama Press office are giant red words painted on the east wall. The monolithic sign reads “If one picture is worth a thousand words why waste valuable space on words?” She is a modest crusader for the medium of comics.

Koyama recently spoke with Quill & Quire.

What’s the first book you remember falling in love with?

I am the oldest of six kids and my mom always read to us. I remember Peanuts. And Pogo! I loved how different it was from our lives. I didn’t totally comprehend the idea of little animals being really big substitutes for people. It was just an alligator. But what I do remember is that at first I was so surprised that there were no humans in it, then I realized that it didn’t matter.

I read that for first few years of Koyama Press you would fund projects for artists, to help get their careers started.

I actually started with small projects, not even books. I did T-shirt deals with different artists. Early on we made letterpress cards with a wonderful illustrator, Melinda Josie. It’s a project she would not have been able to do on her own, so I paid to print them. I kept a couple packs and the rest went to her. She could sell them and keep all the proceeds. Eventually, it got more complicated with books and art shows and that kind of thing. But I could do it. I had minimal debt, I already had what I needed. I didn’t have any kids.

Do you see your artists as your kids?

No… [Sighs] Well, I love them as children, mostly. I care about them. I worry about them. Some I occasionally want to spank them like a child. [laughs] Honestly though, I’m always a little bit uncomfortable when people call me a comics mom. Yes, I’m nurturing, I get why they say that. But really, if I wanted to be a mom I would have been a mom.

Why do you think you are described as nurturing?

I have patience and empathy if an artist is depressed. They don’t have to describe to me how hard it is to get out of bed. I get it. For people experiencing depression or chronic pain and trying to be creative at the same time … putting it out there takes a lot of energy. It’s hard. Not everyone wants to talk about it. That’s why people use animals and other things in their work. It’s them, but it’s not. That way they can handle telling their story, without it being entirely intrusive.

There are Koyama books where most readers may not understand the depth of the story because the artist has chosen not to speak out about their depression. I would never push someone to disclose more than they want to, even if it would help sales. I’m not here to make someone uncomfortable. I’m here to help them.

You’re often described as a patron.

In any creative discipline there are all these different paths. I’m not the artist who produces content, yet it still takes a lot of creative skill to curate. I don’t like using that word but I don’t have a better one. To pull everything together, to get it out in the world. We continually have to educate buyers and readers, generate interest in even just the concept of comics before we can even think about getting a title stocked in a store. Too many people still don’t understand there is more to comics than superheroes. It can take a lot of time, and frankly sometimes a lot of convincing.

How did you get into comics?

AK: I started Koyama to do art books the same year [local bookstores] David Mirvish Books and Pages Books & Magazines closed. Where else do you sell art books in Toronto? In the ’80s all the big gallery shows had catalogues, but pretty much no one makes gallery catalogues anymore. So the art books stopped.

I met Chris Hutsul at the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition. One day he put this hilarious comic online about a little kid hanging out with Kraftwerk. I convinced him to make that into a chapbook and I published it. It’s long out of print now but it was pretty fantastic.

The first proper book was Trio Magnus: Equally Superior. I sent the artists to sell their books at Design Festa in Japan, which was probably the most foolish thing ever. I sold my car and shipped 100 copies from our printer in China. They sold eight books. They were three hulking white guys with goofy drawings – everyone was afraid to come too close and actually look.

Where did your mascot, Kickass Annie, come from?

AK: It was sort of an accident. I had to get the name of the company and logo fast. I went to a regular drawing night that the collective Trio Magnus organizes called Pen Club. One night, me and a handful of artists started futzing around with some ideas for a logo. I ended up picking Aaron Leighton’s grumpy girl in a red dress. People started randomly sending me drawings of her. There have to be at least 300 by now. People’s kids do them.

Is she you?

AK: When my T-shirt printer saw the design he laughed and went, “Hey! Kickass Annie!” The name stuck. I loved it. Inevitably I get called that now, even though it was never meant to be me. It was just an avatar for the company. I guess she has some of my qualities – stubborn and feisty and noble and shit.

Koyama was supposed to be a temporary name, but then books started coming together and I needed to incorporate. That’s how so much of Koyama Press came about. I’ve basically fallen into everything I’ve done in life. For somebody who’s good at organizing, who is a natural planner, I’m impulsive. If someone had asked me about a five-year plan when I started all I would do is laugh. I don’t laugh as much anymore though; planning long-term is imperative now.

How has Koyama changed in the past 10 years?

It’s more international. We have fans. I will hear that someone bought my book in Beijing. Someone will send a photo from Melbourne. I can’t track specific stores through our distributors, so it’s pretty amazing to see proof. Koyama Press is out there. Other comic publishers are out there too. Readers are buying comics in places they may not have ever thought to have looked for them before. Comic book stores are opening all over. It’s exciting.