Cartoons and comics will always have a home, thanks to a devoted shop and publishing house in the heart of Montreal.
Drawn & Quarterly was born between racing red lights and urgent deliveries. Chris Oliveros was an artist working as a bike courier when friends enlisted him to help them put together an indie magazine. Working on the mag lit a spark in Oliveros and he started dreaming of starting his own.
So he did. In 1989, Oliveros borrowed $2,000 from his father and started inviting cartoonists to contribute to the first edition of Drawn & Quarterly, a colourful anthology inspired by Raw, the 1980s underground comics bible created by Art Spiegelman – the Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of Maus - alongside his wife, Francoise Mouly, who is now art director of The New Yorker.
One of those early hand-written letters landed on the doorstep of Daniel Clowes, the cartoonist behind Ghost World, a comic-book tale of two awkward teen girls that saw him nominated for an Oscar when it was adapted for the screen in 2001. “At that time, there were a lot of people putting out magazines and trying to get in on this burgeoning field of alternative comics so I didn’t put much stock in it,” recalls Clowes. “I just thought he was another one of the many. Then the first couple of issues of his magazine were pretty good, but they just got better and better and more ambitious over time. Then he started publishing books by some of my favourite artists.”
Since then, Clowes has published a number of cult books with D&Q, including recent hits Wilson and The Death Ray - just some of the twenty books D&Q puts out a year. “I thought it was only going to be this magazine, right?” Oliveros recalls. “But as I started contacting these other artists, many of them had a lot of work and were looking for their own comic-book series. So it went very naturally from the magazine to these other series that we did.”
For a decade, Oliveros worked mostly alone from his spare bedroom, publishing memoirs, travelogues, reportage and fiction in comics form by some of the medium’s greatest emerging talents, including Seth (Gregory Gallant), Guy Delisle and Adrian Tomine. He couldn’t offer large advances but he built up a roster of artists by offering them higher royalties and working with them to make the most beautiful books possible.
Graphic novels had long been overlooked by mainstream publishers, but in 2000 when a series of books became best-sellers – including Clowes’ David Boring, Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian youth memoir Persepolis, and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, which won The Guardian first-book award – big New York publishers started eyeing D&Q’s roster in search of the next hit.
“Any time you design a book you really want it to be like you can’t take your eyes away from it.”
Knowing he needed to step things up, Oliveros e-mailed his friend Peggy Burns, then a publicist for DC Comics, to recommend someone to help him promote D&Q’s books. Burns responded with her own CV. “I was certain she was joking,” Oliveros says. But Burns left Manhattan for Montreal, determined to help D&Q succeed and compete against larger players. Her husband Tom Devlin, who ran a small comics publisher called Highwater Books, also eventually joined D&Q as creative director. “Chris and I both believed graphic novels were the artistic future of comics,” Devlin says. “A lot of people didn’t take a flimsy comic pamphlet seriously and that had held comics back for years.”
Devlin credits McSweeney’s with injecting new excitement into publishing by smashing the mould with magnetic spines, fold-out covers and and books that come in pieces in boxes, ready to be read in any order. “There is definitely a bit of a design revolution going on,” he says. “We definitely still think: ‘This needs a little extra,’ or ‘What’s going to make this special?’
“Any time you design a book you really want it to be like you can’t take your eyes away from it. It really just catches your eye and you’re like, ‘What is happening?’” Devlin says. “If you can just get someone to touch the book, you’ve won a battle.”
Five years ago, D&Q opened its own store in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood to showcase its own books, and those by publishers they admire. Hosting readings, gigs and workshops – Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore is a community space where people can share their love of the comics. “It’s a design thing, it’s a rhythm thing and it’s the writing and drawing,” says Devlin, “And when it’s all there together, it just works. It’s magic.”