An Excerpt from The Comics Journal #309: Annie Koyama Never Plans

Annie Koyama in 2018.

The two qualities that the best publishers require are taste and the willingness to take risks — and I would throw in eccentricity because, without eccentricity and the courage or recklessness to indulge it, good taste can become ossified, precious and boring. This tenet is as true of literary publishers — such as Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare and Company, Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, or John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press — as it is of comics publishers. But taste has come to be seen as squishy, frivolous, trivial or even effete, even though, paradoxically, more public space is now devoted to arguing about it than ever before in human history. Was there ever an edict more inaccurate than de gustibus non est disputandum? Sadly, it is not so much taste itself that’s become meaningless as the arguing of it. Partly thanks to the culture industry, for whom “taste” means merely pushing down our throats a branding alliance — an important component of corporate strategy because they want you to give them all your money — any serious notion of it has been degraded thoroughly. “Taste” usually refers to nothing more than transient diversions or Pavlovian addictions — rather than the acquisition of knowledge and the cultivation of discernment. “‘Taste is relative’ is the excuse adopted by those eras that have bad taste,’” said the Columbian writer Nicolás Gómez Dávila. Regardless of its current flattening, taste still stubbornly remains the most substantive qualitative distinction between one publisher and another.

I prepared for my interview with Annie by, among other things, reading about 30 of her books (out of the — by my count — 113 she published). When asked about her aesthetic criteria, Koyama says (in the following interview) that she’s first drawn to the visual look of a comic — “Number one is that I have to love the art.” This reflects an irrefutable self-awareness because looking over her books one is struck by how graphically distinctive each one is and how different they are from each other. She has very forcefully eschewed sameness, a trap publishers can easily fall into, any one person’s taste eventually finding a groove. Quite the opposite, in fact: Koyama’s taste, exhibited over these 14 years, has been wider-ranging and latitudinarian but never random or promiscuous.

A woefully inadequate survey will give you an idea. There is the storytelling approach anchored in cartooning tradition, represented by a handful of artists like Julia Wertz, Walter Scott, Keiler Roberts and Dustin Harbin (though all absolutely distinctive in style, composition, pacing, line-work, etc., within this tradition). On the other hand: Jon Vermilyea’s Fata Morgana eschews panels altogether, stuffing each page with phantasmagoric images — that tell an anfractuous story. Emily Carroll’s When I Arrived at the Castle displays beautiful figure drawing, sensuously drawn imagery and highly controlled but dynamic pacing. Eleanor Davis’ You & a Bike & a Road is a diary filled with casual sequential sketches that show off her extemporaneous mastery of draftsmanship and her leisurely journalistic skills. Equally masterful is gg’s I’m Not Here, a limpid example of formal precision allied with emotional force. I’m not sure I would call anything Koyama published experimental exactly, but Aidan Koch’s After Nothing Comes would come the closest — sequential sense impressions. Connor Willumsen’s Anti-Gone is stylistically sui generis with its idiosyncratic rhythms and oddball visual punctuations (which I mean in a good way). Jesse Jacobs’ Safari Honeymoon is a relatively straightforward story of ecological terror told adeptly in a bizarrely Cowboy Henk-ish style combined with lush surrealism. Then there’s Koyama’s most prolific cartoonist author, Michael DeForge, a stylistic chameleon, whose work is an adventurous and playful delight. There is never the hint of compromise in any of her choices. Throughout her publishing, she gave away money to cartoonists she felt were needful and deserving or who she just wanted to give money to. And after she ended Koyama Press in 2021, she formalized this with an organization-of-one called Koyama Provides (can’t accuse her of false humility), with which she continues to give money away. Over the last 15 years or so, she has given away over a half-million dollars. That is especially impressive coming from someone who is not, apparently, wealthy or in the economic league of a Peter Laird or Matt Groening: but simply has more money than she thinks she needs. She doesn’t know how long she can continue this practice, but it is a remarkable philanthropic achievement.

Koyama Press’ run was a fine one, for which we — those of us who think of comics as art, and that taste still matters, anyway — should be grateful. This interview was conducted in two sessions in September and October of 2022. My thanks to Annie for carving out the time in difficult circumstances and providing the photos that accompany this interview.

-Gary Groth

From Jon Vermilyea's Fata Morgana, 2013.

GARY GROTH: I have to ask you a couple of questions that I am often asked. What do your tastes propel you to be attracted to in comics? What are the qualities you look for?

ANNIE KOYAMA: Number one is that I have to love the art. There are good writers out there, but I don’t like their art style. It’s very simple for me. It’s an aesthetic thing. I’ll admit that because that was my main focus and probably would always be. And because I choose to work with an artist rather than an artist and a writer, for the most part. I was always more interested in one person’s ideas and how they execute it. Do they draw like Jaime [Hernandez]? No, of course not. But they’re a pretty good writer. It’s a lot to expect from one artist. I think that often one side will be weak. I’m sure that if you went back to the catalog, you would actually find that in a few of the books, but I’m coming to it for the art. It’s a dilemma for me, because when you decide you wanna work with one person, ideally, who does everything, I don’t think it’s ever gonna be equitable. There are gonna be some genius people who are great, and the writing is great and the drawing’s great. There’s not lots of them though. I think that generally one thing you’re gonna be a little bit better at. That said, look at Julia Wertz’s stuff. She’s a great writer. She’s hilarious. She’s poignant, she’s honest. And a lot of people make fun of her drawing style, but to me it works. It works for her books. For better or for worse, I come for the art.

Which is to say that you place a greater importance on the art than the writing? Would you go that far?

I do. But as I say that I feel like I should qualify it, because as a reader, no one wants to read a poorly written book. I’m just conceding that they won’t always be great at writing if you’re going mainly for the art to begin with.

And of course, using the word “writing” is a little deceptive, because the art also encompasses some element of writing in comics.

Correct. I would absolutely agree.

In keeping with your bias to the visual, one thing I noticed is that all of your books are graphically strong, and that there’s a wide spectrum of graphic stylization, from more abstract, almost experimental work to representational work. Do you have any preferences in terms of the drawing, or any specific qualities or virtues that you look for?

There are styles that I’d prefer over other styles, obviously. I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say that. And I’d rather not name names, but I feel like if the story is gonna be communicated well enough by the artist’s style, whether I love that style or don’t love it as much, it still is gonna make a good enough book. I guess that might sound like I’m settling, but I don’t really mean it to sound like that. It’s just that every package is gonna be different.

I could look at Jon Vermilyea’s art for days. I have, over the years. He came on with me very early. I think you know that those books don’t do that well in stores, but I still really like his Fata Morgana book. I do go back to that. Sometimes I just look at Alex Degen’s stuff for the drawings. I don’t even really care what’s happening in the story. I’m just happy to look at the art. I could go back and read Michael DeForge’s stories. I have a soft spot for some of his characters, even going back to the second issue of Lose. That far back, when I’m sure he would tell you that he’s really moved on from that. I’m always gonna have a soft spot for certain parts of certain books. I took on the Lolita book, the So Pretty / Very Rotten one. It was funny because I know nothing about Lolita, and I was super curious. I had worked with Jane Mai, who was hilarious. And even though I knew this book would not be in the same vein as hers, that was an educational thing for me. It wasn’t like, this is an area I want to move into. It was more of a curiosity. I guess the motive changes.

What would you say are the virtues or qualities that distinguish your books from more commercial comics?

I think certain art styles, which would not necessarily be picked up by a larger publisher because they may seem less polished, but for me they tell the story just right for that artist. I’ve always tried to have good production on the books as much as we could afford. I could say I’m quite proud to have our books sit beside other books by bigger publishers and not look shabby. That’s a good question. How are they different?

What distinguishes them aesthetically?

I’ve often been asked that, and I don’t really have the answer because I myself don’t see it as a particularly cohesive catalog. How can it be when you have all those different styles, all those different subject matter? There’s continuity in some, there’s series in some. There are people who I wanted there to be continuity with, but they only can handle getting the next book out in five years, and by that time I’ve programmed something else in that place. So, it doesn’t always work out. I mean, there are factions like the poetry art comics. I’m uncomfortable with all of those terms. But Aidan Koch — I love her work — but somebody who’s gonna pick up a Keiler Roberts book and chuckle about her life isn’t gonna grab Aidan’s book at the same time, right?

TOP: From “The Dance” in After Nothing Comes by Aidan Koch, 2016. BOTTOM: From Keiler Roberts’ Chlorine Gardens, 2018.

Not necessarily, no.

No. So, I think that the diversity — the kinds of books, I mean by diversity in this case — they make a stronger small press. But maybe I’m just trying to justify the lack of cohesive feel.

Well, in order for it to have been more cohesive, your own taste would have to be more rigid. I think one of the virtues of the line is that obviously every book somehow embodies some aspect of your sensibility, and you have a broad enough sensibility so it accommodates Aidan Koch and it accommodates Dustin Harbin and Michael DeForge, all of whom are radically different cartoonists.

Exactly. And yet there’s John Martz in there, and his stuff could be put up with any other kids’ book. I’m rather proud of that. For those who say it may be less cohesive, it was put together organically. There was no spreadsheet ever saying, “Let’s have two autobio this year, one body horror next year. What about one queer love story?” It was never that. So, there’ve been rocky years where I might have had too many things that were the same.

Right, right. I recently read about 25 of your books, so I probably read about a quarter of the total output.


I very much enjoyed the aesthetic range. There were a few books that puzzled me, but I did not resent them because somehow they fit as part of a whole and I appreciated the whole. I understood how you could come to publish all of these; however different they all were from each other. There is a guiding sensibility that ties them together, and somebody about 10 years from now is gonna do a doctoral dissertation on this and will explain it so that the two of us will read it and go, “Ah, that’s right. Exactly.”

Doctorate of Letters, Honoris Causa from OCAD U, that’s the irony. I never graduated from university. I had a full-time gig in my third year, and so I never went back. Talk about weird stuff coming full circle.

Well, we have that in common too, Annie.

That’s pretty cool.

I dropped out my third year as well.

Wow. Anyway, we’re still standing.

Are there any particularly momentous books in your opinion that you published? Any authors that stand out? I know I’m asking you to select some of your children over and against others, and that’s always very difficult.

Well, Michael DeForge stands out overall, just because we met early on. We spent a lot of time together. We talked at three in the morning, really a lot when we were both coming up. And I really do credit him with introducing me to lots of really good people, many of whom I did publish or have supported since. The anecdote about him is, when I first asked to meet him, I just picked a neutral coffee shop in an area called the Annex. And he showed up, and we had a little meeting. And when we left, he told me that he was fired from that place as a dishwasher. [Laughter] And we became friends, and we’ve seen each other through ups and downs over the years, and different romances in his case. He continues to surprise me. It’s not just his output and how prolific he is, but his personal growth and how I really do feel on some level that if it ended up that comics didn’t work for him anymore, or he couldn’t sell any more books and people didn’t publish him anymore, he could probably go back to that dishwashing job and not be super bitter about it. I feel that this is something he does. It’s something he’s compelled to do like many, many good artists. He’s gonna do it, whether he’s paid for it or not. But at the end of the day, I think he’s just different that way. I just think he’s sort of unique in that way. Watching Dustin Harbin’s progress has been very satisfying. I find him interesting to watch, because he’s pretty upfront about depression and that kind of thing. I think you’ll find, if you spend any time on social media, that so many people in our community deal with mental health stuff. And I guess it’s nice that there’s not much stigma to talking about it for the younger artists. Certainly, when I came up you didn’t talk about that much. So, times are changing. I loved working with Julia Wertz. I wish I could have spent time with her in New York or whatever city she was in. There’s people you get to know and you get to love them, but often from a distance. I have all kinds of praise for Anne Ishii. She basically bought the Japanese book, the vagina artist [What Is Obscenity? by Rokudenashiko]. Did you read that one?

No, I’m sorry to say that I did not read that one.

That’s an outlier book too, that normally I probably wouldn’t have taken on. But because of the subject matter, it was great, I really liked it. You build up these relationships, working with people, whether they are the actual author or, in that case, she translated it also. I’m close to gg who’s a very quiet, very, very private person who lives in a college town in a few provinces away and doesn’t have much of an online presence anymore. She’ll be able to do more in the future. People like that, who I feel deserve a bigger audience. I wish their output maybe was a little bit more, so that we could have gotten at least one more book out there. But you know how that goes.

One thing that’s great about almost everybody I’ve ever worked with is they’ve gone on to do gallery shows because they have met somebody at our table at a show, they’ve gone on to get an agent or whatever, because they’ve met someone through us. They have gone on to sell their work to a different medium, because someone came up to us at a show, or made contact after the fact. Some of them got animation gigs from meeting people walking around certain shows as well. It’s so hard financially to make a go of it, unless you’re up in that top level, and there’s not a lot of people in that top level. And a lot of the people in the mid-level are my age, or they’re almost my age. They have kids and they probably have a mortgage, and I honestly don’t know what those people will do. Even if they keep putting out books every few years, it’s not enough. I worry really a lot about the financial quicksand that we all stand on in this community.

You said something, and I find this as interesting as your methodology in general, about your editing philosophy. You said, “Once I decide to work with an artist, as I have always done with the press, I put enough trust in them and their project not to interfere.” I infer that you have a very hands-off editorial process.

Unless they ask for it. There have been a few books where we went page by page at the artist’s request. But in general, yes, I try and leave them.

And why is that?

Because I want it to be as true as it can be to what their vision was for the book. I understand that that could be at the cost of perhaps a better-written book, but I don’t want to be a heavy-handed editor. Now that I’m out, if I went back in tomorrow, I would feel comfortable doing that with more emerging, or, for lack of a better word, inexperienced, even naive artists coming in. If I was to continue working with the level of an Eleanor Davis or Julia [Wertz], Emily [Carroll], people like that, I think a different kind of editing is called for and possibly expected to tighten up those books. I feel that there’s more at risk when you already have a reputation and you have several books under your belt. I might be wrong about that. I might just be trying to justify giving a lot of freedom to the newbies, but I don’t regret having done that for the most part.

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Read the full interview in The Comics Journal #309.