The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, an international show of indie and self-published comics and graphic novels held at the Toronto Reference Library, honored Japanese horror comics master Junji Ito, who debuted the release of Smashed, a new collection of manga short stories published by Viz.

The show featured an expanded slate of programming, the return of the nearby historic Masonic Temple Concert Hall as a programming venue, and an expanded Zineland Terrace, a TCAF-organized DIY zine-focused festival held concurrently at a former mall space directly across the street from the TRL. Photos of TCAF 2019 can be found here.

TCAF founder and artistic director Christopher Butcher said attendance “was up both days,” though the final count has not been confirmed. “We continue to be at the 28,000 people range across all festival events," he said. The number of TCAF exhibitors was about 550, much the same as last year. And the Zineland Terrace festival, he said, adds about 75 exhibitors.

“Our physical space at the library has stayed pretty consistent, so we're trying to grow the festival through programming and events (and venues!) rather than sheer number of exhibitors,” Butcher said. TCAF was able to “reconceive,” the Masonic Temple Concert Hall space which accommodated 700 people for a live drawing event with Junji Ito, which Butcher said was “our biggest program ever.” TCAF is also participating in The Comic Con Research Project, an academic research survey, and attendees are encouraged to fill out the survey.

In addition to Ito, the show also showcased Hiromi Takashima, creator of popular works of Yuri, or manga focused on romantic relationships between girls, with a program marking a 100 Years of Yuri. TCAF’s slate of acclaimed comics authors included Ontario’s own, Seth, who debuted the release of Clyde Fans, a much anticipated new graphic novel he has worked on for 20 years that will be published by D&Q. Another Canadian house, Conundrum Press, was showcasing Taxi!: Stories From the Back Seat By Aimee De Jongh, a nonfiction work coming in the fall, and bestselling kids cartoonist Raina Telgemeier was promoting Share Your Smile and the graphic novel Guts (with a million-copy first printing) coming in the fall from Scholastic.

Rising stars Ezra Claytan Daniels (Upgrade Soul) and Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend), were signing copies of BTTM FDRS, an afrofuturist horror graphic novel that will be published in June by Fantagraphics. Nora Krug, whose graphic memoir Belonging: A German Reckons with History and Home, won the National Book Critic Circle Award for autobiography, was featured on panels and in a spotlight event.

But it was the merger of Lion Forge and Oni Press last week, and the ensuing layoffs at both imprints, that drove conversation at least among some of the American publishers in Toronto.

James Lucas Jones, newly appointed president and publisher of Oni Press, spoke with PW during TCAF adding details about the publishing program going forward. Since the merger was announced last week, Jones and his new partners, Lion Forge cofounders Dave Steward II and Carl Reed, have had to field questions about the merger and the layoffs, which have impacted the staffs of both Oni and Lion Forge. Layoffs included senior executives as well as editorial staff, including a significant number of women, people of color and queer staff, sparking a backlash on social media critical of both houses.

Lion Forge was launched in 2012. Oni Press was founded in 1997 with a mission to specialize in comics and graphic novels beyond the superhero genre. Jones said the companies had been in conversation for more than a year, discussing both outright acquisition and investment. Oni, Jones explained, was looking for an investment partner, and Lion Forge, which began aggressively adding staff and titles in 2016, was looking to stabilize its publishing program after a round of layoffs in late 2018.

In 2018 Oni Press switched its book trade distribution from Diamond Book Distributors to Simon & Schuster. And while the switch has increased sales across the Oni list, Jones also said the change in terms (S&S takes longer to pay) led to revenue shortfalls and Oni was looking for new investment.

The merger of the two houses under Polarity, a new holding company launched by Lion Forge in 2018, has elevated Jones and the Oni Press editorial staff, who will oversee all aspects of the combined publishing list from the Oni Press offices in Portland, Ore. All trade book and direct market publishing will be produced under the Oni Press imprint. Lion Forge will continue to publish the Catalyst Prime superhero line under the direction of acclaimed comics writer Gail Simone.

Stung by the criticism over the layoffs, Jones told PW Oni has “never had a layoff in 22 years," until this merger. However, Lion Forge has editorial staff located in St. Louis, and New York. Oni, he said, is wary of remote editorial departments, emphasizing that, “it does not work. We feel strongly that all editorial must be in-house.” All editorial staff under the new Oni publishing entity will be based in Portland, Jones said, noting the company continues to negotiate with some staff about relocating. Jones acknowledged that staffing is “still being determined.”

On the impact of the layoffs on diversity, Jones said that, ”75% of the staff are women” and the reductions necessarily reflected that. And as for diversity among Oni’s executive leadership, Jones noted that Charlie Chu, Oni Press executive v-p of creative development and an Oni principal, has had and continues to maintain a key leadership role at the new publishing entity.

Oni Press publishes about 50-60 titles a year, Jones said. Lion Forge, according to an interview with Steward last year, published about 130 titles in 2018. Jones said he expected the number of titles published by the new Oni Press combined entity will likely rise to more than 100 titles a year in coming seasons. He emphasized that all forthcoming publishing contracts are under review. Book trade distribution is also still to be determined. Oni is distributed to the book trade by S&S and Lion Forge is distributed by Diamond.

Oni Press has been involved in adapting its comics to other media: the 2010 movie Scott Pilgrim vs the World was based on the 2004 graphic novel series by Bryan Lee O’Malley. the publisher also publishes comics based on the popular Rick and Morty animation series. Lion Forge Animation, a newly launched company under Polarity, also generated speculation over converting Oni/Lion Forge content into animation and films.

But Jones emphasized that “media deals will be negotiated where it makes sense, but all of this is in support of publishing. We are not an IP farm. Our authors turn down media deals all the time. Publishing is the core of what we do and all media is done in support of our authors.”