Conundrum Press is Canada’s second oldest publisher of comics and graphic novels, yet within the sparsely populated Canadian comics publishing community, Conundrum is still somewhat under the radar. Considering that their main competition are the world famous Drawn and Quarterly and the smaller, brand new Koyama Press, why isn’t Conundrum a household name in the comics community?
For the 16 years they have been around, Conundrum and Andy Brown (the man behind the curtain) have been publishing a uniquely Canadian roster, and at this year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival 10th anniversary, Conundrum will be introducing its new international imprint, its first break from a strictly Canadian collection. I emailed Andy Brown some questions to get more acquainted with where the press is coming from as it prepares to make this significant shift.
What is your publishing philosophy? If not for the granting bodies who contribute to your operations, would you be focusing on Canadian work exclusively?
Publishing philosophy. Hmmm. I believe this has changed over the 16 years. Originally I was living in post referendum Montreal and knew many many very talented writers who had no support or backing from institutions or English publishers. (Simon at Véhicule being the exception but there is only so much he could do). Cheap rents and available lofts and so much talent created a vibrant “spoken word” scene. Originally it was my goal to “create books” in the same way I was writing and drawing and taking pictures. (I was one of those disenfranchised writers). These people were highly under the radar. So my mandate was to keep my creative energies flowing and to represent the underrepresented. Then this was taking so much of my time that I had to look into grants. It took ten years with grants slowly increasing before I was able to pay myself from them. So I did all the work myself and freelanced to make ends meet.
After ten years things changed again. I was starting to publish comics and novels and short stories. Still the underrepresented. I had discovered the French underground comics scene. Started getting some of that translated. Then I realized to continue to get grants I needed to narrow my editorial mandate and focus exclusively on the graphic novels. At the same time I looked at the “industry” of publishing more closely. I realized I could not keep publishing fiction for a number of reasons. 1. The big publishers were all consolidating and paying big advances and hiring publicists who got the reviews in the Globe. I could still publish the marginalized writers, but to be reviewed or to get into festivals I’d need to spend double the cost of the book for a publicist. 2. The amount of time I was spending editing made my life unbearable. However, when I looked at the graphic novel “industry” as opposed to the underground stuff, I realized that same niche was open for me to step into, and it was more valued than 10 years before.
So my publishing philosophy has always been to represent the marginalized, but now it’s the marginalized of a growing niche. I have always been a niche publisher. It’s the only way to survive without staff and a large budget. So I am beginning to see this niche pay off. The funding is for Canadian work. I have always done this. However this year I am starting a new International imprint for non-Canadians. The first is a Hong Kong artist which I will debut at TCAF. I also have a foreign rights agent now. I have sold French rights to a couple of books. That money goes into the printing of the foreign authored Conundrum titles (as well as the sales of course). If it all breaks even then I come out ahead because I have international exposure with little or no extra expense, and no grants. So that is the future. I realize the grants can’t go on forever.
With English as your first language, what draws you towards the Quebecois tradition of bande-dessinée?
Well it’s exotic I guess. It’s something that I was not exposed to growing up. There is a definite European aesthetic that I was ignorant of until moving to Montreal. And then there are those who are blending that aesthetic with North American sensibilities. It has been said many times how Montreal is the fertile ground where the two traditions meet. I think going to the shop Fichtre and events like Komakazee just blew my mind. Fichtre had all the L’Association books and more from France and Belgium. I’d never seen this before. It just seemed so underground, so bohemian, and yet these were artists living no different than myself and my gang of disenfranchised writers. So there was easy access. Then Marc Tessier asked me to publish the English edition of the Cyclopes anthology so I got to meet a lot of those folks, and of course I was then on their radar as well. Being English I think helped me see their work in a wider context since really they had contacts in France but the rest of N. America was a blank spot on their maps.
In an interview in 2010, you describe Quebecois artists as outsiders in English Canada. Do you see the translation of their work as lifting them from obscurity, or as supporting an under-appreciated community that is self-sustaining, even in its isolation? Can Quebec’s BD creators continue without more support from English publishers, or does it seem there’s a risk of the style and unique perspective being diluted with further assimilation into English Canada?
I do see the translation of this work as raising them from obscurity in some senses and others not so much. Rabagliati, for example, is huge in the French world and assumes that the English market is even bigger. When in fact a mainstream artist in Quebec has resources to EVERY citizen of Quebec. They all watch the same TV shows and read the same media. Hard to explain them that in the English world there is no equivalent to this kind of blanket exposure. However, someone like Richard Suicide is underground and not even published in French. So yes he is isolated and I am trying to help. I don’t think these kind of works are self-sustaining. I do what I can but mainstream is the same wherever you go. Of course BD creators don’t need us Anglos and they can be famous in Quebec and even France, like Rabagliati, but others are outside the system just like many of the Anglo artists I publish. Someone like Phil Girard has 10 books in French, and he is kind of the middle ground between mainstream and underground (Jimmy Beaulieu too) so me translating them has given them that extra exposure to break out of the Quebec ghetto. Also the Quebecois are treated as the outsiders in France, so always the outsiders.
I don’t think the style gets diluted with English exposure. These are artists with their own style, going their own way. I don’t think they are changing that to appeal to anglos.
To look at it globally, one might argue that Canadians are marginalized in the growing niche of comics and graphic novels in general, and Canadian publishing even moreso than Canadian authors. I can count the Canadian publishers I know on one hand — which doesn’t diminish the QUALITY of the work they put out there, but certainly doesn’t seem sustainable as the industry grows and more artists from Canada choose representation in the States (and artists from Quebec always have the option of choosing representation in Europe). What’s your take on the future of Canadian comics, for publishers, authors, and fans? Are there any needs yet to be filled?
Canadians tend to punch above their cultural weight class. Look at D&Q. Look at all the famous Canadian actors. Canadian authors such as Margaret Atwood and Ondaatje are known on the world stage. But in comics it is pretty much representative of our population. The Americans and French and Japanese dominate. As far as I can tell, there are less than a handful of English comics publishers in Canada (me, DQ, and Koyama) which is miniscule compared to those other countries, but we have a disproportionate amount of talent in my opinion. And I’d say that D&Q is actually picking up more international talent, big names. Artists are not leaving Canada, Americans are coming to us. I get submissions from the US, soon I will be getting them from Europe too. But certainly I’m sure many people think of North American comics as American. But that’s a fight we as Canadians have been fighting forever and not just in comics.
The future: I think it looks good for us Canadians, as it does for all comics creators. I am just here to fill a need I guess.