Monday, 16 August 2010

Art, Books & Connecting People : an Interview with Anne Koyama

Britt Wilson's take on Koyama Press' "Kickass Annie" logo.

It's not hard to see why Anne Koyama is one of the most beloved people in independent comics and art publishing. Setting up Toronto-based Koyama Press in 2007, she’s gone on to build an acclaimed catalogue of art and comic publications with impeccable taste and a barometer-like sense for upcoming talent. Aiding upcoming artists and creators by financing books, distribution and travel costs, her publishing rap-sheet reads like a Who’s Who of exciting, unique creators in comics and art today.

A Jill of all trades, Anne worked as a producer in documentaries, feature films and commercials, a set painter (for the Canadian National Ballet & Opera) and even a voluntary probation officer before founding Koyama Press in 2007. Re-evaluating her outlook following risky surgery to combat a life-threatening brain aneurism, she states that “I looked at what I love, and that turned out to be art, books and connecting people”.

Officially beginning with her selling her car to finance a book with Trio Magnus, Anne’s managed to maintain forward momentum even without wheels, producing books, zines, comics, prints, t-shirts and a whole lot more. Read on to learn more about Koyama Press, Annie's background, thoughts on digital publishing vs traditional as well as a whole bunch of awesome upcoming projects we can’t wait to get our grubby hands on.

Koyama Press is a very atypical publisher, in that your primary focus is enabling creators to reach a greater audience via project funding. How would you describe your publishing ethos?

Funding for the arts in Canada seems to shrink each year despite all the talent we have here. So I try to promote emerging visual artists and give them a product with which to generate a little income.

Trio Magnus member and designer of the original Kickass Annie, Aaron Leighton's latest book for Koyama Press

Your latest release, Aaron Leighton’s Spirit City Toronto, looks phenomenal. What appealed to you about the book?

I’d worked with Aaron on the very first book Trio Magnus: Equally Superior and he is an amazing artist and person. He’s known for illustration but does beautiful collages and enjoys walking or biking around cities with Steve Wilson (also of Trio Magnus). They both take a lot of photos, some of which end up in montages or in this case, a book.

It’s fun to try to recognize the background locations in the book but I think it works just as well even if you didn’t know those backgrounds were in Toronto. And the spirits are lovely.

Although you’ve worked with people from all over North America, you're deeply involved with local, Toronto-based talent like Aaron Leighton, Clayton Hanmer, Wowee Zonk, Michael DeForge and others. Please feed our jealousy by explaining exactly what makes the Toronto scene so special?

I had initially planned to work with local artists only. This changed as soon as I saw Jon Vermilyea’s work. Good artists inspire from everywhere. And, it’s just as difficult to make a living as an artist in New York, the U.K. or Mexico.

There is a lot of amazing talent in Toronto, but sadly, the high rents are pushing some of the artists out of the core. Maybe there’s something in the water here!

It goes without saying that you’re an art lover. How does this influence your process when selecting projects and creators?

Very simply, I have to love their art. If I would buy a book or print or zine by that artist, I hope that others would too. I’m a big fan of printmaking, various illustrative styles, typography and lots of colour. I’m drawn to indie comics. I like that anyone can make a zine. My taste is pretty diverse so I don’t expect people to like every book or zine I put out.

Jon Vermilyea's Pizza Time celebrates the animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. True cultural history here, people.

You’ve described documentary film-making as your first love, and were involved in it prior to founding Koyama Press. We’re interested to know more about your experience with documentary making and whether or not you plan on returning to the craft one day?

As with anything I’ve done, I fell into filmmaking accidentally and loved the world of film production. It’s been fun to watch documentaries gain greater audiences and turn into longer formats over the years. I worked in feature films for a short while and then made commercials for a long time.

It’s very difficult to get funding for a film these days and I can’t see going back to that world but continue to support local film initiatives. I sponsored an art book of the making of a lovely short film called Lost For Words by Sean Wainsteim with character design by Nathan Jurevicius.

Almost without contest, “Kickass Annie” is our favourite logo in independent publishing. Originally designed by Aaron Leighton, many artists have since produced tributes to your iconic cartoon self. Can you tell us a little about the creation of the logo?

Aaron adapted the Annie figure from an existing character he’d created for the interactive show called Zimmer Twins. My t-shirt printer Toby Yamamoto called her ‘Kickass Annie’ and it stuck! I think she embodies me pretty accurately.

You’ve developed a reputation of releasing unique, high-quality material in a variety of formats. Is there a project that you are most proud of? Do you have a “dream” project?

Thank you! I will always have fond memories of working on the first book with Trio Magnus. For me, it was like saying “let’s build a boat”, since I know nothing about boat building or book making. Fortunately, Clayton Hanmer has a design background and Trio Magnus put together what I think is an amazing book. 

As a publisher and reader, what is your take on digital publishing?

I used to read a ton of fiction but ironically, don’t have as much time to read as I used to. I firmly believe that while digital publishing has its place, there are others like me who will always prefer to hold a book in their hands, especially an art book. I dislike reading comics online but understand that it’s a great way to get your work out there if you don’t have a publisher behind you. Or cannot afford to self-publish your work. 

Anne cradles a bouncing, bearded Dustin Harbin in the introduction to his upcoming Diary Comics #1.

You’ve got so many exciting projects coming up that it’s difficult to list them all succinctly within an interview question. To name just a few: sign-maker/ typographer RCADE, Tin Can Forest, and Cartoonist/ letterer/ HeroesCon organiser Dustin Harbin. What can readers expect to see in the coming months?

Dustin’s Diary Comics #1,  Tin Can Forest’s Baba Yaga and the Wolf, Steve Wolfhard’s Cat Rackham, Michael DeForge’s Lose #3 and kids' comics by Chris ‘Elio’ Eliopoulos and Steven Charles Manale are all in the works. Hellen Jo is on board to do a comic with me too.

Also exciting is a book and show for the Lepos Arcade Project by animator/street artist Diego Bergia to debut in November at the Magic Pony gallery in Toronto.

Michael DeForge and I are co-editing an anthology which will be ready sometime in 2011.

I have fine art projects with Mark Laliberte, Lukas Geronimas and Andrew Kidder (RCADE) and a few others in various stages right now. 

If it's not super secret, maybe we could ask you to tell us more about your and DeForge's anthology?

Well, I don't normally talk much about stuff until it's about to go to print but I can give you a list of the contributors. It's a forest-themed anthology: Angie Wang, Bob Flynn, Chris "Elio" Eliopoulos, Dan Zettwoch, Derek Ballard, Greg Pizzoli, Hellen Jo, Inés Estrada, Jason Fischer, Jesse Jacobs, Jon Vermilyea, Joe Lambert, Lizz Hickey, Mickey (Michaela Collette) Zacchilli, Robin Nishio, and T. Edward Bak. 

Chris "Elio" Eliopoulos' version of  the Kickass Annie logo. We think This should totally be the cover to a whole comic.

Finally, we demand to know more about your pizza testing nights. How do we get an invite?

Greg Pizzoli is a fantastic printmaker from Philadelphia and he did a book called The Pizza Book: An Illustrated Guide to Philadelphia’s Best & Worst Slices. Michael DeForge suggested that we start to informally research Toronto pizzerias after that model. So I got some artists together and we unscientifically tested some pizzas, but it’s really just a way to get some artists out for a fun evening to meet other artists. How scientifically we test the pizzas is directly proportional to how much beer is consumed.

You are welcome to join us when you hit Toronto!

We want to thank Annie for taking time out of her schedule to take part in this interview with us. Not only the Arthur Fonzarelli of cool publishers, she's quite possibly one of the nicest, friendliest people we've ever had the pleasure of being in contact with. All self-respecting comic/ art/ comic-art fans need to direct themselves over to the official Koyama Press site now to see all the essential works available. If that killer list of talent up there didn't convince you, we don't know what will. You can be sure that there will be plenty more Koyama Press coverage on the blog in the future, so don't be a stranger y'all.


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