Lifesaving brain surgery is as good a chance as any to start over. For Annie Koyama, it was the catalyst to abandon a career in advertising ten years ago and start Koyama Press, the influential Toronto-based publishing company that has propelled the careers of hundreds of international artists. The emerging and established artists who have released comics, art books, and zines through the press include fine artist Aidan Koch and award-winning cartoonist Michael DeForge. The company is behind seminal works like Rokudenashiko's What Is Obscenity?, which documents the artist's struggle against Japanese obscenity laws, as well as Patrick Kyle's Don't Come in Here, which pushes the boundaries of narrative comics.
Koyama Press champions overlooked voices while still paying its artists some of the highest margins in the book industry. This month, the company celebrates its tenth anniversary by releasing some of its most innovative titles yet, so I took a look back at the impact the press has had on art and publishing.
Koyama's leap from advertising to publishing can be traced to back 2005. She was considering leaving her job at Partners Film, one of North America's largest production companies, to travel the world. "I wanted to get out of advertising by a certain time," she says. "I had two years' worth of savings, not a lot of debt, and I had all of this money allocated to travel. But I suddenly wasn't able to."
Dreams of trekking the planet disintegrated when Koyama developed chronic, debilitating migraines. Her doctor told her the pain was nothing to worry about, but the migraines got so bad that travel was out of the question. Koyama used her savings to play the stock market instead. By investing in everything from pharmaceuticals to aviation, she turned a small sum into a considerable nest egg. But the newfound wealth didn't quell her suffering.
After months of excruciating pain, a neurologist discovered two aneurysms on Koyama's brain, told her she had just two months to live, and that surgery was out of the question. "I said, 'Let me see a surgeon.' What did I have to lose?" Koyama says. "I was like, 'Fuck, I'd rather die on the operating table.' And [the doctor said] OK. It pays to be bossy, because if I hadn't been bossy, I would be dead."
Koyama survived the risky surgery in 2005. Her surgeon was able to treat the larger of the two aneurysms, but Koyama has a smaller, inoperable aneurysm in her brain to this day. Having faced death, Koyama confronted the life ahead of her. With more money than she could fathom keeping to herself, Koyama decided to commit her life and funds to supporting artists, starting with those working in Toronto.
"Around that time, I read an article about grants for the arts starting to dry up," Koyama recalls. "So I wanted to find some local illustrators and do some projects with them." Some of Koyama Press's earliest projects were with artists like Clayton Hanmer, Aaron Leighton, Steve Wilson, and Melinda Josie. "I chose the individual artists based upon the work I'd seen of theirs, but then encouraged them to do projects that they couldn't afford to fund themselves," Koyama says.
A turning point came in 2008 when Koyama came across A Very Kraftwerk Summer, a "memoir" in the style of a children's book by Christopher Hutsul about spending a summer with the stoic German electronic band Kraftwerk. Around that time, the print media industry was looking grim, with many newspapers and publishing houses folding or restructuring. Their demise left small presses to fill the void. When Koyama published A Very Kraftwerk Summer—the press' very first comic—it received praise from LA Weekly and was noted in The Best American Comics 2011. The 500 copies that were printed have been sold out for years.
With the success of A Very Kraftwerk Summer, Koyama shifted her focus to books and began tapping the talents of burgeoning Toronto artists. She found a long-term collaborative friendship in DeForge, the young artist she's published more work by than anyone else. "Starting out, I think she was more trusting of me than I deserved," DeForge says, recalling initial discussions with Koyama to publish the first installment of his short story series, Lose. That book garnered widespread critical acclaim, with write-ups in The Comics Journal, Comics Alliance, and VICE.
The format of Lose #1 was structured and printed as a single issue, referencing alternative comics like Dan Clowes's Eightball, which seemed outdated in 2009. "It was like me saying, 'Will you please throw money into this pit?'" DeForge says. The artist's esoteric storytelling and idiosyncratic drawing style inserted the work into the primary indie comics discourse, catapulting the artist to prominence at just 21. Lose #1 won the Doug Wright Award in 2010 for Best Emerging Talent, and DeForge's work with Koyama Press has gone on to win praise from the New York Times, Paste, and the AV Club. "I can't overstate the impact she's had on my life," DeForge says. "It's crazy."
Following the success of Lose, Koyama Press committed to favoring taste over marketability. "She puts so much trust in the people she publishes," says Ginette Lapalme, who worked with Koyama on her art book, Confetti, in 2015.
Lapalme, along with her collaborators Patrick Kyle and Chris Kuzma, met Koyama just after graduating Ontario College of Art and Design in 2009. Their collective, Wowee Zonk, released a handful of books with the press. Kyle published Don't Come in Here, a claustrophobic epic about a supernatural apartment, through Koyama in 2016. His book was subsequently nominated for Best Graphic Novel by both the LA Times and Broken Frontier.
Koyama Press reached a new height of attention and impact in 2016 with the release of What Is Obscenity? The Story of a Good for Nothing Artist and her Pussy by Rokudenashiko, a.k.a. Megumi Igarashi. The graphic memoir functioned not only as an art book, but also as a protest piece against Japan's outdated obscenity laws. Rokudenashiko is best known for making functional objects resembling a manko (vagina) in an effort to de-stigmatize female sexuality.
For years, the artist crafted manko necklaces, iPhone cases, dioramas, and even a vagina kayak, before being arrested and imprisoned for "distribution of obscene materials." With the help of Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins, the founders of queer fashion label Massive, Koyama Press gave Rokudenashiko a platform to tell her story. In May 2016, a week before her book's release, Rokudenashiko was found not guilty of obscenity, but was slapped with a $3,700 fine for "distributing digital data of indecent material."
In addition to her public work through her publishing company, Koyama has supported artists behind the scenes. She's been the secret benefactor of dozens of small presses in their formative years, making sure nothing stands in the way of ambitious printed work. "I feel like she really prioritizes stuff that might not have a home otherwise," says Eric Kostiuk Williams, a young Toronto cartoonist who put out his first book, Condo Heartbreak Disco, with Koyama earlier this year. "She really nurtures people to go in their own direction."
Since getting into comics, Koyama has been more than a patron; she has served as the connective tissue for the community, bringing together artists and opportunities. "Comics is such a marginalized art form. It's really difficult, not many people do it, and not many people actually like it," says Michael Comeau, a printmaker, cartoonist, and longtime Koyama collaborator. "She fulfills the needs in a comics community so well. She's more social than us, so she brings us together. Putting out books is one thing, but all of the rest of it is something else."
The legacy of Koyama Press' first decade will continue to shape the way new artists and publishers approach the industry. Regardless of what the next ten years hold for contemporary comics, you can bet Koyama will be at the forefront.
Koyama Press Fall/Winter 2017 books are available online and in bookstores.
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