Dreams from the Scrap Heap

20 Years of Co­nun­drum Press

Broken Pencil - - Table Of Contents - by Jonathan Rot­sz­tain...

CO­NUN­DRUM PRESS STARTED THE WAY a lot of good artis­tic ven­tures do: from the left­overs of zines. In 1996, Andy Brown was liv­ing in Mon­treal, leav­ing an un­fin­ished de­gree at Queen's Univer­sity, a se­ries of tree-plant­ing gigs and a stint of world travel in his wake. He'd just com­pleted his MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity. Sur­rounded by friends with note­books and sketch­books teem­ing with un­pub­lished work, Brown be­gan pub­lish­ing their zines. His first pub­li­ca­tion was Ev­ery­thing I Know About Love I Learned From Taxi­dermy, by his then-room­mate Cather­ine Kidd.

“Ev­ery­one was like, ‘We want more, we want more!',” Brown says. Through man­u­ally pro­duc­ing that first book, he re­al­ized that he had ex­tra of­f­cut pa­per. “So I thought, ‘Why don't I just print an­other book on the of­f­cuts?'” Thus, Co­nun­drum Press was born.

The main thing to know about Co­nun­drum Press is that, for two decades, it's been fu­eled by friend­ship and DIY love. From Brown's home of­fice in Wolfville, NS, he sin­gle-hand­edly man­ages a small press pub­lish­ing em­pire, putting out award-win­ning comics and graphic nov­els by es­tab­lished and emerg­ing artists from across Canada. Co­nun­drum has spent the last 20 years launch­ing new tal­ent, mak­ing beau­ti­ful books and pas­sion­ately ex­pand­ing the reach of grass­roots cre­ative ex­pres­sion.

This year, Co­nun­drum cel­e­brates two decades with 20x20: Twenty Years of Co­nun­drum Press, the lofty an­niver­sary tome that cov­ers the depth and breadth of the lit­tle printing house that could. Trav­el­ling year by year, 20x20 fea­tures re­prints, rec­ol­lec­tions and rar­i­ties from a who's who of Co­nun­drum's di­verse sta­ble of writ­ers and artists and in­vites read­ers to re­visit the presses' DIY roots.

Orig­i­nally from Van­cou­ver, Brown found him­self in the cen­tre of what he per­ceived as a cul­tural vac­uum in mid-90's Mon­treal. “At the time fol­low­ing the 1995 Que­bec referendum, An­glo­phone cul­ture re­ally had no sup­port sys­tem in Mon­treal,” re­calls Brown, “At that time the Mile End neigh­bour­hood was in tran­si­tion, of­fer­ing af­ford­able artist ac­com­mo­da­tions. Five of us were pay­ing $600 a month for an eight and a half bed­room apart­ment.”

The low costs of liv­ing meant artists could take risks and get weird, Brown re­mem­bers. “Cather­ine Kidd used to per­form in this bath­tub that she painted like a cow,” he says. “It weighed a ton and had to be lifted up and down three flights of stairs. One day, we were half­way down the stairs for one show and I was like, ‘You can't keep do­ing this, you have to lose this prop.'”

“The walls were all painted dif­fer­ent colours, which was com­mon in our scene. It was very run down. Other peo­ple would have these lofts. God­speed You! Black Em­peror had a place they just called 2Tango. They had par­ties and would prac­tice. It was just like see­ing a con­cert.”

Through this world, Andy was in­tro­duced to artists of all back­grounds from both French and English back­grounds. By his sec­ond pub­li­ca­tion Co­nun­drum Press was of­fi­cially born and adorned with the sink­ing man logo, bor­rowed from 1952's Fun In The Wa­ter YMCA guide. Brown pub­lished a wide ar­ray of ti­tles: po­etry chap­books, alt-fic­tion, artist cat­a­logues and slowly but surely, comics. “I was do­ing all this de­mand­ing work,” Brown says. “It was a lot of cut­ting, sta­pling, col­lat­ing, and I said, ‘Jeez, this is tak­ing up all my time. I should prob­a­bly get a bit more se­ri­ous and try to gen­er­ate some in­come.'” By 2001, Co­nun­drum be­gan pub­lish­ing four ti­tles a year, the min­i­mum re­quired to re­ceive gov­ern­ment sup­port and build a sus­tain­able in­fra­struc­ture. This reg­u­lar sched­ule also marked the tran­si­tion to more vis­ual books, in­clud­ing a greater fo­cus on graphic sto­ry­telling.

“I at­tribute it to the Canada Coun­cil,” says Brown, “I sat on a jury and learned one of the main things is hav­ing a very fo­cused ed­i­to­rial man­date. I went back home and made the de­ci­sion to fo­cus on comics.”

A sig­nif­i­cant stop along the way was the 2004 re­lease of Wit­ness My Shame: a col­lec­tion of draw­ings and sculp­tures by then-emerg­ing vis­ual artist Shary Boyle. The book sold out, prompt­ing a sec­ond printing and the pub­li­ca­tion of a sec­ond ti­tle, 2008's Other­world Up­ris­ing. “Co­nun­drum was an ex­cel­lent sup­port for some­one at that stage of try­ing to fig­ure out what they were do­ing,” says Boyle. “

“(The an­thol­ogy) is about cel­e­brat­ing your ori­gins, youth and the peo­ple that gave you some be­lief when you were an un­known per­son.”

Joe Oll­mann has been a sta­ple of the south­ern On­tario zine scene since the ‘80s, and his re­la­tion­ship with Brown goes back to Co­nun­drum's early days. “I've known Andy since 2000,” says Oll­mann. “The first time we met he was col­lat­ing and sta­pling zines at a friend's cot­tage and I helped him out. It was small press right from the be­gin­ning. We both had kids at the same time, un­like a lot of our friends. We were kind of odd­i­ties with ba­bies. Our kids hung out and grew up to­gether. We spent a lot of time to­gether and be­came good friends.”

The re­la­tion­ship is re­vealed in 2014's Milo & Sam. Writ­ten by Brown with Oll­mann's il­lus­tra­tion, the ten­der comic re­counts the hi­jinks of the pair rais­ing their re­spec­tive two-year old sons.

Fam­ily has shaped the course of Co­nun­drum, though not al­ways as ex­pected. In 2011, Brown's wife Meg Sir­com died of cancer at the age of 43. They moved to Si­crom's home­town of Wolfville for sup­port dur­ing her ill­ness, a per­ma­nent change that of­fered sta­bil­ity. Co­nun­drum con­trib­u­tors pay trib­ute to Sir­com in their own ways in the an­thol­ogy: Dave Col­lier's

comic de­tails how he met Brown and came to be pub­lished by Co­nun­drum dur­ing the pe­riod of Sir­com's ill­ness and pass­ing, while poet Dana Bath pro­vides her own con­tri­bu­tion.

With the end of Co­nun­drum's Mon­treal years, the press' tran­si­tion to comics was com­plete — but not ab­so­lute. Artist and writer Sher­win Tjia is the au­thor of nine books of po­etry, comics and more. His out­put for Co­nun­drum fol­lows the evo­lu­tion of the press, with five re­leases in­clud­ing an il­lus­trated col­lec­tion of fic­tion, a graphic novel and his cur­rent Pick-a-plot books (a Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture-styled se­ries told from the van­tage point of a cat).

“Ev­ery­thing I do is weird,” says Tjia. “Co­nun­drum lives up to its name. Andy ac­tively culls the stuff that many other pub­lish­ers over­look. His ac­ces­si­bil­ity is much wider than most other pub­lish­ers. And as a smaller publisher he can take more risks and he's more than will­ing to.”

Meags Fitzger­ald pub­lished Pho­to­booth: A Biog­ra­phy with Co­nun­drum in 2014 and a fol­low-up, Long Red Hair, last year. She rep­re­sents the crop of emerg­ing car­toon­ists Co­nun­drum is fos­ter­ing in this gen­er­a­tion. Fitzger­ald's ex­pe­ri­ence with Co­nun­drum casts light on how the house nur­tures up and com­ing au­thors through trust. “I had free artis­tic con­trol,” says Fitzger­ald. “I could ask ques­tions about any as­pect of the process but Andy didn't try and in­flu­ence me at all.”

“I came into this as as a cre­ative per­son and be­cause of that I treat the whole form as a means of ex­pres­sion — pub­lish­ing as an art form,” says Brown. “I like to think that I'm not that much dif­fer­ent than the peo­ple I work with.”

As the books them­selves have be­come more beau­ti­ful and pro­fes­sional in pre­sen­ta­tion, the ethics and mind­set be­hind Co­nun­drum's suc­cess has re­mained res­o­lutely DIY and com­mu­nity-ori­ented.

“That's what Co­nun­drum rep­re­sents,” Boyle says. “A sense of com­mu­nity that never left be­hind its old friends. It has the sense of a small ven­ture with in­tegrity and heart.”

Talk­ing to Brown, he has a wealth of sto­ries (last-minute runs to the Canada Coun­cil courier, miss­ing dead­lines com­pletely, fran­tic self-taught ses­sions of In­de­sign and Pho­to­shop) akin to any DIY hus­tler in the small press scene. Some­times you can hear the weight of these fran­tic strug­gles, the end­less hus­tle in his voice. Other times he seems res­o­lutely proud of his self-re­liance.

“I had to learn ac­count­ing and I had to learn de­sign,” he re­mem­bers. “I didn't know how to do that — I never took a graphic de­sign course in my life. I guess it was just a con­stant (process of) learn­ing and push­ing my­self.”

Brown has been de­scribed as tem­per­a­men­tal, but re­gard­less of his out­wards de­meanor, he is wholly de­voted to bring­ing DIY ex­pres­sion to a wider au­di­ence, with a level of ded­i­ca­tion that's de­cid­edly rare and stead­fast at all costs.

“When you meet Andy, he seems very gruff,” says Tjia, “But over the years I've dis­cov­ered he has a heart of gold. He loves all this stuff.”

“I dunno — I'm ap­proach­able,” says Brown. “I'm just be­ing my­self.”

“Co­nun­drum rep­re­sents... A sense of com­mu­nity that never left be­hind its old friends. It has the sense of a small ven­ture with in­tegrity and heart.”

An ad for Cather­ine Kidd’s Co­nun­drum chap­book Ev­ery­thing I Know About Love I Learned From Taxi­dermy, from 20 x 20.

Andy Brown and Joe Oll­man (by Joe Oll­man) from 20 x 20

An ad for Cather­ine Kidd’s Co­nun­drum chap­book Ev­ery­thing I Know About Love I Learned From Taxi­dermy, from 20 x 20.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.