Graphic novels: Canadian splendour

How Quebec's Drawn & Quarterly became a global powerhouse in the unlikely realm of graphic novels.

This August, while the general public was discussing the news that Disney had bought Marvel Entertainment, the venerable comic publisher whose roster includes Spider-Man and the X-Men, for a whopping US$4 billion, the world of independent comics was still reeling from an equally staggering announcement made a month earlier: Daniel Clowes, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Ghost World and creator of the comic on which it was based, was publishing his next graphic novel with Drawn & Quarterly. To most people, this would mean nothing. But to anyone who follows comics seriously, it was like Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals to play for the Barrie Baycats — that is, if the Baycats had revolutionized baseball in the same way that Drawn & Quarterly has revolutionized comic books over its 20-year existence.

D&Q is a small (by industry standards), independent publisher based in Montreal, known for its attractively designed, critically acclaimed graphic novels. The company’s stable of artists, which includes Seth, Julie Doucet and Adrian Tomine — may not be household names, but among comic fans they are luminaries. As a result, D&Q now claims an annual revenue of $2 million (industry insiders estimate it to be much higher), with a profit margin of about 6%, $300,000 of which comes from a retail outlet the press opened in Montreal in 2007.

Before Drawn & Quarterly, “literary graphic novels” as we know them today were uncommon. There were mainstream superhero comics (the usual suspects) and underground comics (everything from Robert Crumb to Harvey Pekar). But D&Q was the first North American publisher to consistently marry the sensibility and craftsmanship of art books with the high-minded sheen of contemporary literature.

Founded in 1989 by Chris Oliveros, a budding cartoonist with fantasies of running his own publishing company, D&Q’s first publication was an eponymous anthology in the spirit of Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s Raw, the seminal adult comic magazine. The fledgling issues of Drawn & Quarterly included many of the celebrated cartoonists whose books still define the company today: Joe Sacco, Maurice Vellekoop and Chester Brown. The writing and art was unexpectedly complex, the subject matter provocative. D&Q quickly adopted a keen curatorial eye, a cosmopolitan, internationalist bent and, perhaps most significantly, uncommonly high production values in a debased medium where cheap paper and glum colour were hallmarks.

For more than a decade, Oliveros ran D&Q out of an office in the Mile End apartment he shared with his wife. Over the years, Oliveros has shifted his focus from periodicals to more ambitious books — some of which are collected editions of previously published comics while others are coffee-table-style sketchbooks. “It was a natural evolution,” Oliveros says. “Throughout the ’90s, most comics were being produced in the traditional ‘pamphlet’ format. The graphic-novel format gradually replaced that.”

While Oliveros is reluctant to claim credit, D&Q was pivotal in that transition. Its titles were lavishly, lovingly produced, and mainstream media outlets took breathless notice of this blurring of publishing boundaries. In 2004, The New York Times noted D&Q’s (along with its closest competitor, Seattle’s Fantagraphics’s) role in shaping the renaissance of the comic book form. Crossover success was concomitant: the titles started to appear in traditional bookstores where, suddenly, every self-respecting independent and chain devoted a section to graphic novels, and major publishing houses started getting into the game. D&Q’s fastest bestseller, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, an improbable “comic strip biography” of the controversial 19th-century Métis leader, sold 10,000 copies in its first season, and to date has sold more than 36,000, more than most bestselling books in Canada. Publishers Weekly called it a “major achievement.”

Approximately 10% of D&Q’s revenue now comes from government grants, a ratio much lower than most Canadian publishers, if only because D&Q publishes so many non-Canadian creators. As a result, about 75% of D&Q’s business is now in the U.S., a ratio unheard of for a Canadian press. Peter Birkemoe, owner of the Beguiling, a Toronto-based comic shop, calls it “the best English-language comics publisher in the world.” He stresses that, unlike other Canadian presses, D&Q is a North American publisher that just happens to publish in Canada. While many of the company’s greatest successes are unabashedly Canadian (who else would have published Louis Riel?), it rarely possesses any of the programmatic self-consciousness of the country’s homegrown film and television industry. Oliveros’s allegiance is, in many ways, only to the form.

“Oliveros was the first publisher who really cared about design,” says Jeet Heer, an academic who co-edited the book Arguing Comics, as well as a handful of D&Q titles. “You’d think comics people would be sensitive to that, but the obverse is true.”

When friends and colleagues describe the 43-year-old Oliveros, the words used are invariably “reserved” and “soft-spoken.” (One close friend also calls his voice “Peter Lorre–like.”) An unlikely entrepreneur, he is thoroughly self-contained, and occasionally self-deprecating. Some of his artists and employees — there are 11 — call him “the Chief,” a sobriquet that sounds facetious but is a testament to the loyalty he inspires. It was precisely that loyalty that led to Clowes offering his new graphic novel, Wilson, to the press. Mutual admirers, Clowes and Oliveros had long talked of publishing a collection of the former’s sketches, but after that project fell by the wayside, the Oakland-based Clowes simply offered the new book. “We were ecstatic,” Oliveros says. (Clowes declined to comment for this article.)

D&Q’s business model has been deceptively simple, even self-evident. Oliveros publishes exclusively what he likes, and does so as well as possible. (His tastes run the gamut from reprints of obscure classic comics like Melvin Monster to Gabrielle Bell’s surrealistic Cecil and Jordan in New York, a story from which was recently adapted by director Michel Gondry.) It’s a risky, uncommon strategy, and Birkemoe says that, as a result, Oliveros might have missed some opportunities. Pressed for examples, however, he laughs and can’t name any. “OK, he’s just got really good taste,” Birkemoe says. Heeragrees, comparing Oliveros to Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor who discovered Fitzgerald and Hemingway. While Oliveros is known to be highly critical of his books (that is, himself), he’s equally renowned for giving his notoriously perfectionist artists an extraordinary amount of creative latitude. Adrian Tomine, a New York–based cartoonist noted for his droll New Yorker covers, has published several comics and books with D&Q, and sums up his relationship with Oliveros thusly: “Usually, he doesn’t even read my work until I send it to him to be printed. It seems to me that Chris’s strategy is to be very selective and discriminating in terms of whom he chooses to publish, and then, once he’s chosen someone, he basically gives them free rein.”

The death knell of print publishing grows louder every year, but it seems not to have reached the D&Q offices. Defiant in a digital age, it continues to produce elegant, fetishized objects that no website could imitate, books of compelling beauty that appeal to both the cognoscenti and the casual reader. Frustrated by the lack of good English-language book shops in Montreal — it was almost impossible then to find D&Q titles in the very city in which they were being created — Oliveros entered the retail market in 2007 with a bricks-and-mortar shop located on Bernard Street. A warm, inviting store, it quickly become a de facto hipster community centre, with regular events and workshops. To celebrate D&Q’s 20th anniversary in June, the shop co-hosted a raucous concert featuring buzz bands TV On the Radio and the Dirty Projectors.

Oliveros plans to keep things relatively small and focused, releasing about 30 books a year (while continuing to put out three or four comic book series, including Tomine’s Optic Nerve). Looking back at his success over the past 20 years, he is triumphant in his characteristic, quiet way: “When you do good work, it attracts other people who are doing work of similar calibre. It’s a domino effect. And when the work is good, you find an audience.”