An Interview with Andy Brown, Conundrum Press

[Originally published Feb 23 2010 for books.torontoist.com. I’ve posted this on my blog Dec 21 2022 and backdated the post to match the date of publication.

Andy Brown is the publisher of the iconic Conundrum Press. From their website:

Conundrum Press is located in Mi’kma’ki/Nova Scotia, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. The press was founded by publisher Andy Brown in 1996, amidst the political turmoil and cultural vibrancy of Tiohtiá;ke/Montreal. Originally a publisher of chapbooks, short stories, novels, comics, and zine collections, Conundrum began exclusively publishing literary graphic novels in 2010.While Conundrum is proud to have published many award-winning comic artists, such as Meags Fitzgerald, Max de Radiguès, Jillian Tamaki, Cole Pauls, Aimée de Jongh, Joe Ollmann, Sami Alwani, Michel Rabagliati, Dakota McFadzean, and Nina Bunjevac, the press also remains committed to discovering new voices in the graphic novel field.]

Andy Brown – publisher of Conundrum Press

Howard: Tell me, are you doing Conundrum exclusively? 

Brown: You mean is it my only job? Oh yes, I haven’t had a day job in a while. Well, this is my day job, my seven day a week job.  I freelance design a fair amount, art book design and Matrix magazine, and collaboratory stuff. I still have that going.

Howard: That is amazing, congratulations.

Brown: Oh, well, it’s still a lot of work for no pay. (laughs) It takes up all my time.

Howard: A few years ago you decided to go heavily into the comics and graphic novels. What prompted that? When did that happen?

Brown: Well, I started in 1996 doing chapbooks and spoken word type work, and some fiction – I still do some fiction. At the time I had some Montréal writers around me doing some interesting things, and then I met Billy Mavreas, and he was doing the posters for the YOP YAWP! spoken word series which I used to go to regularly to. Billy was doing a new poster every week, and they were all over my neighbourhood. It was pretty wild, a pretty psychedelic stage for Billy, including some concrete poetry as well. This was long before the Montreal silkscreen posters. So I approached him and we did a book of posters called Mutations, which was a very small print run.

Then he and I started hanging out a bit and going to some events. Later we moved in and we were roommates for a while. He worked at Fichtre! – the comic store – and from there I met Hélène Brosseau and Mark Marc Tessier – that was the francophone connection. I met Howard Chackowicz on the English side, and Billy Mavreas, and Joe Ollmann. That was sort of it. And then I met Marc Ngui and people like Dave Lapp, and it all just sort of followed, you know? It’s been just in the last five eight years.

We’ve also published work like Shary Boyle’s collection of drawings, those have done really well. And then Jillian Tamaki. These are all just people I’ve approached based on work I’d seen of theirs. 

So that’s how that all happened. I started applying for translation grants from the Canada Council, and did Line Gamache’s book Hello, Me Pretty, and then Richard Suicide, these were people I knew through Mark Marc Tessier and an anthology that I had been doing, Cyclops and Mac Tin Tac. This year I’m doing three graphic novels. I’m hoping Linde will be at TCAF and then I also have Simon Bossé’s new book – which is the guy who had done Mille Putois, an infamous Montreal zine –  and also his collected new work which has only been published in Europe. There’s also Philippe Girard’s book, and now Dave Lapp’s book, Children of the Atom.

Howard: How has Drop-In done?

Brown: Oh it’s been good, it’s wonit was nominated for a couple of awards, and it’s first print run is now almost sold out. They’re not big runs, but it’s done well, one of the better books I’ve done. Do you know the show Inkstuds? We’re going to be publishing a collection of their interviews in the fall. There’s 30 of them in there, some big names, the list of names are is pretty impressive. Jeet Heer is doing the introduction. I’ll have an announcement for TCAF, right now we’re just doing the permissions and figuring stuff art out.

Howard: Inkstuds is a fantastic resource. He (Robin McConnell) really gets his guests to talk. There’s nothing better than talking to someone about something they love.

Brown: And they’re long interviews – there’s no interview that’s less than 10 pages long. Some are more than 30 pages! Gary Panter and Kim Deitch are 30 pages long, each one. There’s some great names, too – Chester Brown, David Collier.

Howard: It sounds like you’re doing well. There’s been a lot of talk about books and new technology that’s coming along that may put a dent in sales.

Brown: Well, the kinds of things I publish are really hard to translate to e-books, they’re things that kind of have to exist as books. Except for the fiction books, and even those, there’s often a lot of play with page layout and the like. So, my attitude is basically e-books are convenient for academic books and text, like fiction, but I feel I’m working outside that whole model. That’s a niche I suppose. But I’m also a luddite, I’m not really going there anyways.

Howard: Do you find you sell a lot of books online or through stores?

Brown: Stores, and, well, it’s two different worlds, the fiction and the comics. With comics I sell as much as any other book, but then I also sell to comic stores, and so that’s most of my sales. And then for art books I have an art book distributor in the States that sell my books. But now Diamond is shutting everybody many smaller folks out, so it’s a lot harder, there’s a chunk of sales right there.

Howard: How do you feel as a book maker, a book publisher, straddling the book world and the established comics distribution world?

Brown: I find it great, I’m able to use everything. Last year I went to 10 book fairs –  there was the an Anarchist book fair, an art book fair, comic festivals and zine fairs. And the same book I could sell equally well to all those four places, a lot of times. That was my goal in terms of selling. And usually these are the things that end up really selling well, because people find them so interesting.

Howard: You’ve moved from Quebec to Nova Scotia – what prompted that?

Brown: It was my wife, wanting to beeing close to her family, and it’s something I like too. We were able to buy a big farmhouse here, so we have lots of storage space, and a couple of offices.

Dave Howard: When did you move?

Brown: Just in the fall [of 2009]. But I still have an office and PO Box in Montreal, and I have an assistant who works there, and most of the people I publish are still in Montreal, all the stuff I’ve planned for next year.

Howard: Is there a scene happening there in Halifax?

Brown: Well, there’s something going on here, yes, but it’s something I have yet to crack to be honest. I’ve been to Word on the Street and the zine fair, I hang out at Strange Adventures, the alternative comics shop here. I like to think I know what’s going on. And there’s Gassborro Gaspereau Press here too, in the same town as me, in the country. I’m going to start printing there, apprenticing on the machines. They make some beautiful stuff.

Howard: Do you like book-making? Is that part of your attachment to publishing?

Brown: Yes, that is the number one attachment. I also enjoy writing, I have a master’s degree in English. I’ve also written a couple of novels, and they’ve been publishedmost recently The Mole Chronicles, published by Insomniac. I’m into the writing and editing, but making the package is quite interesting to me too. I’ve discovered I have a tendancy to sort of package things that become these kind of archival documents, such as Children of the Atom, for example, which is collecting Dave Lapp’s strips from 10 years ago; and the Big Book of Wag, which is collecting Joe Ollmann’s past mini-books; and Inkstuds which is collecting interviews for posterity. Collecting people’s zines and putting them into books.

I think of it sort of as documentary films in book form. I’d like to make documentary films, too – new technology enables that now. Back when desktop publishing became popular, it gave me a nice job, and nowadays the same is true for film making, film editing. You have iMovie and a $100 camera. I mean, I’m not in the documentary scene, but the closest thing I can equate to what I do to is a documentary film making, I suppose.

Howard: So you like the archival part of it? Do you have an attachment to history, the timelessness of it?

Brown: The immortality of it in some way? I suppose, just in the sense of literary traditions. I read, for example, people’s non-fiction books about Greenwich Village of the sixties, these sorts of things interest me.

Howard: Well, it sounds quite lovely, being able to work on something you love.

Brown: Well, it’s anxious as well, because you don’t have a paycheque, basically.

Howard: How long has it been that way? How long have you been independent?

Brown: I guess my last office job would have been 2001. I’m not living the high life though! And my wife of course has a job too.

Howard: Do you intend on doing any other projects outside of book publishing? You’re interested in documentary filmmaking as well?

Brown: I’d suppose I’d like to maybe dabble in it. I’m trying – once my kids are a little older – to maybe work with Joe Ollmann on something we’ve been doing for a while called Milo and Sam, which we’ve been publishing serializing in Matrix Magazine. It’s an homage, if you will, to Gasoline Alley by Frank King. It’s the two of us, walking our two kids down the alleys of Montreal and the “hijinx” that they get into. It’s done in the same way, but it has it’s dark moments – and funny moments. It’s a darker version of Gasoline Alley, in Montreal.

Howard: You’re doing the writing portion of it?

Brown: I’ve been doing the writing and the storyboarding, and Joe is a co-writer and he is the artist who draws the panels.

Howard: You’ll be at TCAF in May here in Toronto?

Brown: Yes, we’ll have a table, and some signings. Dave Lapp will be there, though he has his own table, and signing books. Hopefully we’ll have Simone’s book for TCAF, Philippe Girard will be coming down as well, so that will be nice. That will be a mind blowing experience to have Philippe there – he has something like eight books out in French.

Howard: Tell me just how much is English Canada missing in terms of the talent that’s in French Canada?

Brown: Oh my, quite a bit. I could publish three or four books a year for the rest of my life, probably, it just keeps coming. La Pasteque – all those books, mécanique générale, all those books, nobody sees those outside of the French.  Drawn and Quarterly, obviously, translates the Michel Rabagliati which is absolutely a necessary thing.

Brown: Philippe is more involved in sort of mainstream Quebec. He did a humour strip about his daughter in La Presse for a while, and then there was a book that came out of that. There’s a lot there – there’s as much there, except in French, as in any other city in North America, that’s for sure. And that doesn’t even include the English work.

But in Quebec their market is France. Jimmy was just at Angouleme, their main festival, but even there we they get treated like the Quebec cousins – they’re not from France. So Quebec artists are really caught in between.

Howard: Michel Rabagliati has just this year won an audience favourite award at Angouleme for the first time, so it’s possible that we’re just breaking in.

Brown: La Pasteque is a pretty amazing publisher, I’d say. I don’t know if anyone really knows them outside of Montreal really. Do you know who La Pasteque is? You should look at their other books. And then Catson Too (oops- spelling?)400 Coups bought mécanique générale. Their work finds it’s way into libraries, and wins awards. That’s who publishes Philippe as well. But yeah, it’s a whole other world. It’s amazing how it just keeps opening up. Philippe alone puts out one or two books a year. And they’re all very nice people, too. I mean, artists tell me they’re very excited to get their books into English so they can get into comic stores in, like, New York or in The Beguiling for example, and all across North America. It’s really important to them to get published in English, and into the United States.

Howard: It sounds as if you’re doing a wonderful service for them – for artists – and for readers too. The role of publisher is a very very important role, and I don’t think there’s enough attention paid to that.

Brown: Well – you should tell that to all the funding bodies! Write the Canada Council a letter!

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