The legendary comics publisher readies for a wide-open future

Annie Koyama did not set out to be a comics publisher or an art collector. Those turned out to be ancillary to her main purpose, which was to help up-and-coming cartoonists.

So, I was not surprised when the Toronto-based Koyama recently announced that she is shutting down Koyama Press in 2021. She wants to spend less time selling books and more time setting up systems to financially support artists.

But there is still that art collection — hundreds of comics pages, drawings and paintings that are a virtual survey course in alternative comics — and now everyone can see it.

Koyama donated about 250 pieces from her collection last year to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University. Selections from it are on display through Oct. 21 in an exhibit called “Koyama and Friends: Publishing, Patronage and the New Alternative Press.”

The artists include Michael DeForge, Lisa Hanawalt, Joseph Remnant, Julia Wertz and Alive cartoonist Noah Van Sciver, among many others.

On a recent trip to Toronto, I met with Koyama to talk about the exhibit and her company, as well as why we need patronage of the arts.

“People think the logo is me,” Koyama said of her company's cartoon logo: a tough woman with spiky hair and arms folded. “She has attributes of mine, without question. When you see my logo, that represents my artists, too. Over 100 titles in 10 years.”

This gets at one of the contradictions about Koyama and her press. Annie Koyama is unassuming. She isn't comfortable being photographed. Yet the company carries her name and the logo is a badass cartoon version of her.

The name and logo were an accident, she said.

When she published her first book with three cartoonists, she needed to quickly come up with a company name and logo, not intending for them to stick.

“I became accidentally successful at doing this,” she said. “After a year or so, it was sort of too late to change the name because I was already getting press. If I had done this again … I would never have considered putting my own name on everything. It horrifies me.”

But I've skipped over how she got to that first book. Koyama grew up the oldest of six children, and her parents often struggled to pay the bills. She became an artist and documentary filmmaker, and then went into advertising.

Then, in 2005, she had a debilitating migraine. She found out she had two brain aneurysms and doctors said she might have only had a few months to live. She chose to have a risky surgery, which successfully dealt with the aneurysms.

When she recovered, Koyama decided that she needed to make the most of the chance she had been given. She had the resources to start a business due to her advertising work and because of gains from investing in stocks.

Koyama Press started in 2007 as a one-person operation run out of her home.

“I did everything wrong. I have no publishing background whatsoever,” Koyama said.

In addition to being a publisher, she took on another role as a supporter of artists — even those whose work she didn't publish. She would pay for them to attend shows to sell their work, and sometimes even give money for rent and groceries.

Often, this help took the form of buying their original artwork. Koyama would routinely pay much more than the artists were asking.

One of the beneficiaries of this was Van Sciver, who now lives in Columbus. He never published with Koyama Press but benefited from the support of Annie Koyama.

“She was the patron saint of up-and-coming cartoonists in the alternative comics scene,” he said, adding that she remains in this role.

He got to know her because she approached him and said she admired his work.

“If I would see her at a show, she would give me gift cards to restaurants just so I would have something to eat because she was so aware of how difficult the industry is if you're starting out, or even in the middle of it,” he said. “It's such a struggle. She was always there to give support to everybody.”

Van Sciver thinks one of Koyama's greatest legacies is as a tastemaker, publishing work that often helped to define the leading edge of alternative comics.

“Every season that she would publish, it was like, ‘Here's your new favorite artist,'” he said.

Koyama's personal art collection grew much larger than she could ever display. She says she felt guilty because she and her friends were the only ones who could ever see the work. So at some point, she decided that she was collecting with the idea of eventually donating the art to a museum that would make it available to the public.

She donated pieces from American artists to the Billy Ireland, and still has her collection of Canadian artists, for which she hopes to find a suitable home in Canada.

“Annie Koyama is a significant figure in alternative comics due to her extraordinary patronage, support of independent creators, enthusiasm for the form, and efforts to expose otherwise hidden artists,” said Caitlin McGurk, the curator of the exhibit and the Billy Ireland's associate curator for outreach, in an email. “Plus, she has genuinely great and unique taste, and the material she publishes has become a bellwether for a certain flavor of artful comics.”

Koyama announced her plans to close Koyama Press in a July interview with The Comics Journal. After the press shuts down in 2021, she will devote herself to programs designed to help artists.

She isn't yet sure of the structure of that support, but it could include grants and residencies, and likely will not be limited to cartoonists.

While this may seem like a plan made by a wealthy person, she says she is not. Rather, Koyama places a priority on being generous. The art collection is just an unintended benefit of that.