Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s the spring catalog of Koyama Press: Crawl Space by Jesse Jacobs, Condo Heartbreak Disco by Eric Kostiuk Williams, So Pretty/Very Rotten by Jane Mai and An Nguyen, Sunburning by Keiler Roberts, Volcano Trash by Ben Sears, and You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis. These six titles highlight the creativity and diversity that have made Koyama Press an industry leader for remarkable graphic novels with a distinct voice and style. (This review reveals major plot points.)
A cartoon version of Annie Koyama appears on the cover of every book released by her Toronto-based small press. Typically, this cartoon Annie wears a red dress (the color of the publisher’s booth at conventions), crosses her arms, and has a look of irritated disapproval on her face. It’s the look of someone who expects more and isn’t getting it, and after reading many Koyama Press titles over the years, I feel like that look is directed at the larger comic book industry. Annie Koyama expects readers to expose themselves to new voices. She expects retailers to take a chance on promising talent. She expects critics to engage with the medium in a more thoughtful, challenging way. And she’s helped make these things happen by publishing exceptional works from a wide variety of creators that all have a unique perspective on what comic books can accomplish.
Koyama Press celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and it’s had a very fruitful decade. There have been multiple pieces detailing the evolution of the company from its humble beginning as a passion project started by Annie Koyama during a period of intense illness, and it’s an inspiring story about an art connoisseur who decided to take an active role in helping artists get their creations out in the world. She’s been described as “the patron saint of the Toronto art community,” and anyone who follows the independent/small press comics industry has probably seen how deeply Koyama is revered by her peers. And for good reason. She’s dedicated her career to supporting cartoonists in a precarious comics landscape, and she has an incredible eye for spotting worthwhile talent with the potential to grow.
Koyama’s spring lineup of books debuted last weekend at the Toronto Comic Arts Fair, and it’s the publisher’s strongest assortment yet. These six titles showcase a wide range of creators working with very different storytelling styles and visual aesthetics, and each is a rewarding read. Jesse Jacobs’ Crawl Space is one of The A.V. Club’s most anticipated books of the year, and the final product doesn’t disappoint. It’s the only hardcover of Koyama’s spring releases and the most expensive title, but $20 is a small price to pay for this stunning psychedelic journey. Jacobs’ last Koyama title, Safari Honeymoon, also experimented with texture and shape for a story about losing yourself in a strange new landscape, but Crawl Space goes even further by incorporating all the colors of the rainbow into endlessly shifting patterns that give the artwork a hypnotizing sense of motion.
The washer and dryer in Jeanne-Claude’s basement is a portal to a higher plane of reality, and the surreal world becomes damaged by the ill intent of new visitors after news of this phenomenon spreads to Jeanne-Claude’s classmates. There’s a moment in Crawl Space where Jeanne-Claude teaches her friends how to experience a deeper state of consciousness by arranging shapes and colors into complex structures, and it can easily be interpreted as Jacobs explaining the meditative action of creating the artwork for this book. Sprinkled throughout the book are textless sequences and splash pages that give Jacobs the opportunity to play with visual elements without advancing the plot, and these moments are very effective at communicating how this plane changes perspective. The whole story can be viewed as a metaphor for the changes that occur during adolescence, but this is a bildungsroman unlike any other.
There are three variations on the cartoon Annie in this season’s books: Her hair and clothing are composed of rainbow stripes on the back cover of Crawl Space, she gleefully picks her nose for Ben Sears’ playful action-adventure tale Volcano Trash, and she’s done up as a Lolita for So Pretty/Very Rotten, Jane Mai and An Nguyen’s collection of comics and essays exploring Lolita fashion and cute culture. Volcano Trash is the follow-up to Sears’ Night Air, catching up with Plus Man and his transforming robot roommate, Hank, as they face the consequences of their illegal temple-raiding actions. Volcano Trash is the book most appropriate for younger readers, a bright, exciting story about challenging corrupt authority in the name of friendship. Sears’ work reads like a mashup of great all-ages entertainment like Tintin, Adventure Time, the Indiana Jones movies, and any number of action video games, and there’s a sense of joy and delight that makes his comics especially well-suited for kids.
Sears’ action storytelling is top-notch. He creates sequences that move fast and hit hard. He often prioritizes clarity over spectacle, like the sequence where Plus Man and Hank are trying to escape Labyrinth’s unnavigable base. The majority of the action at the start is presented from a flat side view, which emphasizes the close quarters of the hallway while creating a sense of forward motion by evoking the feel of side-scrolling video games. When the fight breaks out of the hallway and into a vast desert, Sears incorporates more dynamic angles to highlight the change in the environment, but he often returns to that side view when he needs to break down more complex movement. These action sequences give the book strong momentum, but readers will want to take their time to savor the detail of Sears’ imaginative character and environment designs.
So Pretty/Very Rotten stands out from the rest of the spring selections because of the essay element, the book jumping between short comics and written pieces that include educational explainers, personal anecdotes, and an interview with fashion designer Novala Takemoto, a major force in the Lolita movement who also contributes his own essay. This is a comprehensive examination of a subject that a lot of comic readers are aware of but probably don’t know very much about, and Mai and Nguyen give the book an emotional foundation by including comics that delve into more personal material. In the comics, you see the ideas in the essays applied to different characters and their individual situations (both fictional and nonfictional); both halves inform each other to make the material even more engaging.
The works published by Koyama Press are often very personal, and that is certainly the case with these new releases. Three are overtly autobiographical: So Pretty/Very Rotten; Keiler Roberts’ Sunburning, a collection of comic strips about the ups and downs of parenting while living with mental illness; and Eleanor Davis’ You & A Bike & A Road, printing the travel comics she posted online during her two-month-long bike tour from Tucson, Arizona, to her home in Athens, Georgia. Roberts’ and Davis’ titles both feature sparse artwork detailing small moments that come together to form a larger tapestry, but their styles are very different.
Roberts’ storytelling is very grounded, and her inks have a harder edge compared to the ethereal softness of Davis’ work, which is primarily done with pencil. Sunburning captures the stark reality of Roberts’ situation with total honesty, providing a moving portrait of an artist who manages to keep it together by finding things to be happy and laugh about. The strips in Sunburning range from one-page gags to longer stories detailing her experiences with depression, bipolar disorder, and a miscarriage; the steady stream of humor makes it easier to absorb the moments of bleakness and despair.
This isn’t light chuckle humor either. A lot of these strips are laugh-out-loud hilarious, as Roberts has acute comic timing that makes her punchlines hit with immense impact. She also has a great source of material in her 5-year-old daughter, Xia, whose casual observations motivate her mother to create. At one point in Sunburning, Roberts worries if her comics will have a negative impact on her daughter when she grows up, but she decides that it’s important to chronicle this early part of her daughter’s life. If she’s making comics about her life, she can’t ignore the person that is such a huge part of it, a conclusion that strengthens her bond with her daughter.
Eleanor Davis’ motivation in You & A Bike & A Road is the open road and the joy she feels while riding. She’s dealing with depression at the start of her tour, but biking is one of the things that makes her want to be alive. This tour is about Davis getting in touch with what she wants, a spiritual journey that ends with her in a much more assured, happy place than where she started. Her journals include interactions with people she meets, sketches of her surroundings, and philosophical musings on the lessons she’s learning on the road. Her minimal nature illustrations are gorgeous. She does phenomenal work capturing the sprawl of the Southern states, starting with the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico before moving into more fertile territory.
Davis meets all kinds of different people who show her kindness and generosity, but she also acknowledges the privilege she has as a white woman riding along the border on a bike while border patrol search for “illegals.” The most powerful passage in the book involves Davis watching the police try to wrangle a man, presumably an undocumented immigrant, out of a canal. There’s a deep melancholy permeating this scene, and the image of the man somberly walking through the water as he’s surrounded on both sides by police and EMT workers functions as a metaphor for the struggle faced by immigrants entering the country right now: submerged in a political climate that doesn’t want them and kept under close watch by law enforcement. This is a book about a cartoonist regaining her creative drive by pushing herself to her physical limits, but it’s also a book about the problems affecting communities in the American South. As Davis meets more people and sees more towns, she gains a new perspective on her own struggles that makes them look less insurmountable.
Eric Kostiuk Williams snagged the Best Single Issue/One-Shot Eisner nomination this year for his Retrofit/Big Planet comic Babybel Wax Bodysuit, and his new Koyama graphic novel Condo Heartbreak Disco could easily score him another Eisner nod. Rather than a collection of short comics, Condo Heartbreak Disco tells a single story about two immortal beings fighting against the gentrification of Toronto, specifically the Parkdale neighborhood. As a Toronto-based publisher, it’s easy to see why Koyama would publish this comic, which speaks to the pressing issues faced by the publisher and many of its cartoonists living in a city that is becoming too expensive for artists and losing its character in the process. Condo Heartbreak Disco opens with four wide rectangle panels showing the sun setting over the city, but that sequence is literally blown up on the following page to show that Williams will be deviating from conventional comic layouts.
On the weirdness scale, this book is up there with Crawl Space, though Williams’ plot is considerably denser. Komio is a shapeshifting mercenary who takes jobs punishing men who have wronged their lovers, and she lives with The Willendorf Braid, a walking, talking braid that was the inspiration for the ancient Venus Of Willendorf statue. Together they’ve managed to live relatively normal lives among the humans of Toronto, but their friendship faces a major crisis when their neighborhood is thrown into mid-gentrification chaos. Williams’ storytelling is heavily influenced by queer culture, and through Komio and The Willendorf Braid he explores queer people’s rage against a society that alienates them, as well as their empathy for other marginalized groups. Unfortunately for Komio and The Willendorf Braid, that rage is more powerful than the empathy and pushes them apart.
Koyama Press doesn’t release more than 12 books a year, and limiting its output ensures that the publisher is able to give each book ample attention. Each title from its spring selection has a design tailored to match the interior content, and from the front to the back cover, every aspect of these books has been thought through to make them as attractive as possible. The prices range from $10 to $20, which are very reasonable given the amount a 20-page single issue costs, and these comics are much more complex and satisfying than many of the offerings from larger publishers. By staying small, Annie Koyama has been able to maintain control over her company and continue putting out work she’s passionate about. The industry would be lucky to get another 10 years of Koyama Press, and hopefully the publisher’s profile will continue to rise so it can remain a major force in the comics world.