RJ Casey & Ed Kanerva: The Exit Interview

Ed Kanerva (Koyama Press) and RJ Casey (Fantagraphics) are two of the people in comics who I have felt the most kinship with, even if that kinship is possibly built off imagined similarities. Very few of the people I meet in comics have worked the way we have--within the confines of other people’s projects, helping artists towards their own personal goals, and with varying degrees of antagonism towards others. They are two people who I looked forward to speaking to in person whenever the opportunity arose, because they both seemed familiar with the struggle that people outside of the creative community can only deliver a passing respect for (through no fault of their own!), which is that feeling that no matter what you give to these jobs, you could always give more--it just depends upon how much of your life and the lives of those around you are willing to sacrifice. 2020 was a year of reckoning, and at the close of it, Casey & Kanerva both left the comics industry--by choice. In an industry that prides itself both on dying on your feet or being run out on a rail, that choice in itself is a rare thing. They agreed to have a conversation about why they have left comics behind for TCJ. - Tucker Stone

RJ Casey & Kristy Valenti

RJ Casey: How much more time do you have working at Koyama Press?

Ed Kanerva: I actually wrapped up on Dec. 18th!

RJ: What have you been doing with your time since then?

Ed: I have been working. I have thankfully been able to not have a break in employment, which I am very grateful for considering the current climate.

Ed Kanerva, by Dustin Harbin

Tucker: Ed, how did you come to select your new job?

Ed: I am now firmly in my mid-thirties and was looking for a bit of long term security in a future career, so I did what many guidance counsellors in high school told me to do and that was get a trade (of sorts). I am now certified to sell cars, which I have always loved. I have been fortunate to work in some way in all of my passions: comics, film, pro-wrestling, even video games, so checking out the automotive world seemed like an interesting new gamble. Moreover, it was also a career that afforded me a vastly reduced commute than most arts jobs available and the time and space to pursue some freelance publishing and writing work, which appealed to me greatly.

RJ: The decision to close down shop over there — how long did you know ahead of time before it was officially announced? Did it come as a surprise to you?

Ed: In typical Annie fashion, it was well, well in advance (read years) of the actual closing and fairly lowkey. A one-on-one coffee in our building, it was not terribly unexpected, and I was very excited for her next venture and to have some more time to relax.

RJ: What roles do you handle? I remember a few years ago you writing about trying to explain what your job was to people over the holidays and how that was impossibly difficult. I very much related to it.

Ed: For years I would tell people, mainly TSA agents and family, that I worked in comics. This would often result in a bemused stare or too many questions (I was once asked who was the strongest character in comics, to which I responded “me”). So I started just saying publishing, which resulted in boredom more or less, except for one person who said “like Harry Potter?!” 

At Koyama Press, I was something of a five-tool player. I worked on the books from start to finish, from all aspects. I designed and coordinated the production, I wrote the jacket copy and marketing copy, I designed the ads and promo materials, I sold the books to our distributor, I even hauled them hither and thither, I wrote grants and contracts, I participated in editorial decisions, and so on. We were a very small company so everyone spun lots of plates. 

RJ: Did you entertain the idea of getting another comics job?

Ed: Although it is not my current direction, I do hope to be involved in comics in some capacity, as a freelancer and fan. In terms of a full-time job, the reality is that there just aren’t that many fullstop and none where I have rooted my life and family. Moreover, I felt like I had accomplished a number of the goals I wanted to achieve within comics. There was never going to be another Koyama Press to be a part of, I have an outlet if I want to do micro-publishing (Space Wreck), and I have no desire to pull up stakes. That said, as Romeo Void sang: “never say never.”

Tucker: What were those goals you wanted to achieve within comics? Were they goals you brought with you into the job, or did the job bring them about?

Ed: I think starting out my primary goal was that I wanted to be involved with interesting work and people. I left academia because I felt like I was too much on the outside; critiquing work rather than participating in it or making it. That desire to be in the thick of things from all levels was what I brought, and subsequently other goals certainly manifested on the job. Banal things like standardizing contracts and work procedures and producing structures that we followed until the final days, but my global goal was that I always wanted everyone to read our books. I was realistic about the nature of niche markets and readers, but I always started from the lofty goal of “everyone.” 

RJ: I’ve been thinking about becoming just a fan again and what that means. Does that freak you out at all? 

Ed: Honestly, I welcome it. When I was in publishing school one of my instructors said that when she started working in the industry she almost completely stopped reading for fun. To a certain degree, that happened to me as well. Comics felt like work, so I look forward to them being a refuge again. 

RJ: Same! I also want to read again without considering I have to document some kind of “take.” I hope my brain isn’t permanently broken in that regard.

Tucker: What do you mean they felt like work? Reading them? Knowing how they were made? When I stopped working in publicity and retail, I had hopes that part of my brain that treated the reading experience as a pitch generation would go away, but it has never really left. 

Ed: Reading them was still pleasurable for sure; it would be hyperbolic to say that I stopped reading entirely, but I definitely felt, and still do feel, like I saw too much of the work in them. It is hard to turn off the copyeditor or the production coordinator close reading a book thousands of times. Finding an error never filled me with schadenfreude, but rather a sense of dread for the future mistakes I could make and resurrected the ghosts of past ones. I am also not too proud to admit that seeing something supremely well done filled me with a pang of jealousy. 

RJ: Do you have any personal behind-the-scenes triumphs that you’ll recollect fondly?

Ed: Getting to work with artists whose work I adored was never not thrilling, as was learning from Annie.

I relished travelling to sales conferences in New York and Minneapolis, and tradeshows across the US and Japan, but I am ultimately a salesperson at heart, and I always took great pleasure in engaging with fans firsthand and comics shows. Overtime, at shows like TCAF and SPX, we grew to have return customers who would come to say "hi" even if they couldn't buy anything that year. That direct, grassroots connection of putting a book in someone's hand and them telling you they loved it is highly rewarding.

Ultimately, any triumph I was a part of was very much a collaborative one, which is something I appreciated about the backend of publishing. Being a component of a whole. 

I’d love to hear your responses to a number of the questions above namely a description of your role and your own personal triumphs. You had a much more front-facing job at Fantagraphics and I am interested to hear if you enjoyed that side of things, as I quite liked being behind-the-scenes.  

RJ: My own personal triumphs are all over the board. I took a lot of pride in getting the sale of international rights up and running and I loved informing artists they’d see their books in another language. I’m really happy with a lot of the books that I was fortunate enough to work on and the artists I was able to meet. I got to share meals with Gilbert Hernandez and Gary Panter. I talked about major league baseball with Jaime Hernandez and Carol Tyler. I ate sloppy Taco Bell with Ezra Claytan Daniels, Ben Passmore, and Simon Hanselmann. This is all “bucket list” shit for me. I know I’ll always look at a few books that I really love and went to bat for — like Julian Glander’s 3D Sweeties and Eight-Lane Runaways by Henry McCausland — extremely fondly. I think the five issues of The Comics Journal we put out are very good.

My roles sound strikingly similar to a lot of yours. I came to Fantagraphics as an intern in 2014 and got hired on in early 2015. My main task at the beginning was to take all of Kim Thompson’s filing cabinets and notes relating to international rights and licensing and attempt to organize them. I did that, then took over that element at Fanta, pitching and selling our books to other publishers around the world. On top of that, I managed the permissions requests that come in, have been one of the “submissions editors” over the last few years, and organized and managed our digital distribution. In the past, I also did some bookkeeping for a hot minute and helped with social media, but gave that up because I was too antagonistic on there and the current social media manager, Emily Silva, is much better at it than I am. I’ve slowly taken on more editing roles, spearheading probably 5-10 books a year, then became co-managing editor of The Comics Journal magazine, with Kristy Valenti, in addition to everything else.

I would say I was only front-facing in the sense that I worked some conventions and am generally just outspoken and physically large.

Ed: I am also very interested in your reason for leaving. I am leaving because my homebase is gone, and Koyama Press’ closure afforded me something of a fresh start. I would have likely carried on with Koyama Press if it was still going, but you left for far different reasons, from a company that isn’t going anywhere soon. 

RJ: Honestly, if COVID never came and if the protests and uprisings in the U.S. never happened, I wouldn’t be going anywhere. Working at Fantagraphics has always been my dream job and I have been so honored to be a small part of a history and lineage over there that I’m still completely fascinated with and engrossed by.

This past year has affected me in ways that are still a little difficult to articulate but have completely altered my priorities. When that term “essential worker” started getting thrown around, it hit me that I’m the opposite — the definition of an inessential worker. My wife and I are about to have a second kid and I’m terrified for what the world has in store for them. It’s vital to stay optimistic for them and for me, to just carry on with my day-to-day, but I repeatedly questioned myself — how is my job going to help the world, but especially my children’s world, going forward at all? I couldn’t answer that. One kid is two-and-a-half and the other is due in February, and I want to be by their side for whatever’s coming. I want to be able to answer questions they have. I want to attempt to guide them toward a rewarding, ethical life as much as I can. It sounds silly and self-important trying to lay this out, but that’s why I’m leaving Fantagraphics. I want to be there for my kids. I just want to spend more time with them.

I have a huge privilege here because my wife is a physical therapist and gets paid relatively well. It also works monetarily because the amount of money I paid for gas to drive about 90 total miles a day to get to and from work, plus daycare costs approximately equaled my yearly salary. This may be a decision I regret down the road, but I don’t think so. I don’t do a lot of regretting.

With that being said, are we both making big mistakes here by leaving comics?

Ed: When we first spoke about doing this "exit interview" my initial thought was that you were leaving for far more valorous reasons than I am. I can't imagine what it is like to be raising a young family today, Covid withstanding. However, I imagine my comics career, which I loved deeply and was proud of, would be the least of my worries. 

Personally, I'd like to pretend that my leaving comics would be some great loss, but it really isn't. Therefore, it would be hard to frame it as a mistake. One of comics' greatest assets are comics people and there is no shortage of talented individuals ready to forge new paths or already well into forging them.

I guess somewhere in the back of my head I feel like I will weasel my way back someday, but perhaps that will wear off the further away I get.

Outside of some of the mega presses or corporate giants, I can't think of many small press comics jobs, or arts jobs as a whole for that matter, where raising a family and maintaining your career is the easiest path; although I recognize many people are balancing both. This problem obviously isn't unique to comics, but do you think it has affected it in anyway? Perhaps forcing out people at a certain age, or losing folks to other careers be they creative or otherwise? 

RJ: All I know is that everyone who works at Fantagraphics, and I have to assume other similar publishing houses, sacrifices a lot for very little recognition, fiscally and every other way. The majority of people here could easily get another job at a bigger publisher, PR firm, or into another field altogether, but they choose this job and, in turn, this life. I do think that causes a lot of burnout and potential turnover. Also add in the dilemma of your job becoming your entire identity and the issues that accompany that.

There’s also seemingly a revolving door of turnover in all of comics of people leaving their job in disgrace, being pushed out, or under the banner of some sort of shady legal reason. But, Ed, we did it! We got out unscathed, with our pride and reputation intact. We never have to stand behind a table again!

Tucker: Do either of you think that there is something that could be changed about comics, specifically outside of the mega press/corporate publishers, that would make it possible for a comics job to be less of a total identity domination that RJ is talking about? Ed, you and I have joked (well, half-joked) for a long time of the benefit of having deeper commitments outside of comics, like BJJ, obsessive fitness shit. RJ, your commitment to your family has extended to where you live, how early you get up in the morning, quitting this job--did it have to go down this way? What could have made things different, besides blanket promises of being able to work remotely? Not to put words into your mouth Ed, but when I read that there’s no shortage of talented individuals, I think--well yeah, but what do we do with those individuals? At least when Marvel or DC is sucking out someone’s life, they get paid for it, they have medical insurance to offset risk. If you’re an artist, you get a book. The rest of them--I still learn people’s names, but I’ve been around long enough to know that I’m not going to have to remember most of them, because they’re going to tap out, and the ones who stay behind are often being taken for more than they should have to give. What’s the ten step plan to making it more viable? Or is it just--there’s no money, no money is coming, you do this for the love of the game until you reach the limit of what you’re willing to trade?

RJ: A lot of the difficulties that my family has been faced with — obscenely expensive childcare, moving away from the city where my job is located to where it’s more affordable to live — can’t really be taken on by comics. These are problems everywhere and for everyone who is in the “working class,” whatever that means right now, but probably encapsulates 90% or more of all people working on this side of comics. The burnout rate in comics may be higher than your average job, but I don’t think by much. People are getting pushed to the brink and having to make sacrifices to create a family or obtain some sort of personal satisfaction. I’m lucky that leaving my job was the only large sacrifice I’ve really had to make. If there was more of a focus on safety nets and aid, rather than constant austerity, it would only affect comics in a positive way, but I think that’s on national and local leaders, and less on small-press publishing houses. I hope that all makes sense.

Also, do we really think there’s no shortage of talented individuals doing what we do? I’m not so sure about that..

Tucker: I don’t think that comics is uniquely positioned in terms of what it asks for in terms of sacrifice--there’s a lot of industries that are far worse, certainly. But I tend to think that my brain defaulting to that is often a way to circumvent grappling exactly with what I think could make it better, what it is that I’m asking after. In recent years, when I’ve ended up in a situation where the question has been put to me of what I (or “us”) would like, I go right to “more money”, and it takes effort to find the answers beyond that. And when I see criticisms and complaints about the comics “industry”, they so often default to that as the solution to--either we need more money, or we need some kind of exemplary idealized version of human resources assistance. An omniscient complaints and best practices department. Like--what concrete thing can we ask of this thing so it doesn’t endlessly rely on a backbone of die-on-their-feet good soldiers? I tend to think here of the direct market retailers, how so many of the places that I think the three of us really respect and treasure are, at their core, often living off of singular individuals who have taken to comics like a priesthood. I can understand that on a somewhat philosophical level if we’re talking about creators and artists--they have a totally individualistic existence I can’t pretend to provide guidance towards---but for the rest of us, for the jobbers? I don’t think the sacrifice is worth it.

RJ: You might be right about the sacrifice. I do have a little tickle of guilt that’s bothering me about leaving, like I’m abandoning ship, especially without working to make things intrinsically better for my “jobber” peers or working at more angles to make more money for artists we publish.

Ed: Being Canadian, with universal healthcare, I was alleviated of much of the inherent dread associated with being alive. I also had the benefit of working for someone who has rightfully been put on the fast track for beatification by the whole of the comics community. If Koyama Press had kept going I would likely have been right with it till the end when they pulled the Adobe Suite from my skeletal fingers. My overall experience of working in comics has been incredibly positive and fulfilling. That said, I would be lying if I didn’t feel burned out, or perhaps not burned out, so much as something like a relic. The people I started with had moved on or died, the styles that brought me to the scene were being replaced, my position was solidified, but immobile. I am not a mid-career artist with a base of fans and a body of work who is hitting their stride with a new approach to comics making. I am a worker. What was next without my home Koyama Press? It seems like to grow in one’s career in comics you have to start your own company (join the seminary in Tucker’s parlance), but how many people can realistically do that financially? What about someone who does not have that entrepreneurial capacity, but is incredibly dedicated to their profession? Where do they go? What does 65 look like? Moreover, this is in no way just a comics problem; this is an arts problem. I think things like UBI, social security, grants, and endeavors like Annie’s Koyama Provides would be and are an incredible benefit to the arts worker, but I think there is also something of a truth to the fact that there is a point where stultification is a reality. You’ve done all you can or all you set out to do in that role and it is natural to look elsewhere for new challenges. I think that is why you see so many lateral moves in other artistic industries: there is often no clear way up, but there is still some sideways. 

RJ: I’m glad we never put ourselves in the position to pull the classic comics move of failing upward!