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High art: Is Drawn & Quarterly Canada’s greatest unsung publishing success story?

(Illustration: Pascal Girard)

An early summer rain pounds the Montreal sidewalks, but the Librairie Drawn & Quarterly bookstore, with its exposed brick walls and rustic wood shelves, is a cozy respite from the storm. Drawn & Quarterly publisher Chris Oliveros gets caught in the downpour on his way from the office to the shop, but he doesn’t have far to go: most of his life exists within a five-block radius of this vibrant Mile End neighbourhood.

For 22 years, the literary-minded publisher has produced high-quality comics and graphic novels, elevating comic books into art objects and its authors into icons. Without much industry fanfare, D&Q has grown from a bedroom operation into one of Canada’s top boutique publishers, courting international artists and stacking up awards, while running a profitable retail bookstore.

Finding D&Q at this year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival was a matter of following the crowds. During the two-day event in May, thick lines of comics lovers snaked around the publisher’s table, books in hand, waiting to meet big-name graphic novelists Chester Brown, Chris Ware, Seth, and Adrian Tomine. D&Q associate publisher Peggy Burns refers to the event as the “tsunami signing.” Over 10,000 people attended this year’s TCAF, a far cry from the inaugural event in 2003 that attracted only 600 attendees.

In many ways the rise of D&Q, beginning in the 1990s, parallels the mainstream popularity of the medium itself. No longer the purview of the ponytailed Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons, comics and graphic novels are now reviewed alongside literary fiction, their authors invited to read at prestigious events.

“There’s definitely been a huge change from that first decade, where it went from aficionados of the material to now, where novelists are reviewing these books,” says Oliveros.

Perhaps it just took the rest of the world a little time to catch up to Oliveros, who, in 1989, decided to create a quarterly anthology of some of his favourite artists. “The idea was to do a magazine like Harper’s or The New Yorker but for comics,” he says. An artist himself, Oliveros began writing to others whose work he admired. He corresponded with an emerging talent named Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth, now one of Canada’s most successful graphic novelists, whose comics have been serialized in, among other places, The New York Times Magazine.

Seth recalls: “Since day one Chris has been the perfect publisher to work with. His main concerns were always the quality of the books. He cares about publishing good books, and he cares about publishing beautiful books.”

Many of the artists Oliveros initially contacted produced pieces that were too long for an anthology, so several months later D&Q began publishing comic-book series. By 1991, Oliveros was putting out serialized editions of, among others, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte, and Seth’s Palooka-­Ville – three artists who continue to publish with D&Q today.

D&Q grew quickly but still couldn’t get its titles onto the shelves of general bookstores. “The individual comics were all successful, but they were as successful as they could be within that milieu,” Oliveros says.

D&Q’s business model stayed essentially the same for the next 12 years: “It was a very small company run out of my apartment,” says Oliveros. As Seth recalls: “In the beginning it was a small venture, and it felt that way. You called the office and got ‘the Chief’ [Oliveros] picking up the phone. I don’t think anyone else was in the office in those days.”

Things started to change in 2000, and not just for D&Q. A handful of graphic novels, in particular Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (Pantheon Books), proved the genre was capable of wider commercial success. Ware, who has since published The Acme Novelty Datebook with D&Q, won the 2001 Guardian First Book Prize for Jimmy Corrigan and earned international critics’ praise. “Bookstores slowly started to have graphic novel sections. That opened things up for us as well,” says Oliveros.

Fearing competition from larger publishers like Doubleday’s Pantheon imprint, D&Q looked to expand its readership outside the comics world, without alienating its fan base. The publisher signed on with its first major U.S. distributor, Chronicle Books, in 2001, and a year later moved to the more literary Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In 2002, D&Q partnered with Canadian distributor Raincoast Books, and is still represented by both companies.

The soft-spoken and reserved Oliveros knew he could no longer effectively run D&Q alone, so in 2003 he hired Peggy Burns as publicist. A friend of Oliveros’s, Burns was already a recognized name in the comics industry, having worked in New York for DC Comics and MAD Magazine. Burns wanted to transition out of the corporate environment and into a company where she could make an impact.

“I wanted to get another job in book publishing, not in comics,” she admits. “But at that time it was very hard to break out of comics and work for a mainstream publisher. I don’t think I’d have that problem today because of the popularity of comics.”

Seth says Burns immediately “put D&Q on the map,” improving everything from his profile in the media to the quality of hotel rooms on book tours.

Oliveros and Burns shared a two-room office, sandwiched between a liquor store and a lingerie shop on Parc Avenue. Burns’s husband, Tom Devlin, who until 2004 ran a respected comics publishing company, Highwater Books, also helped out, packing boxes and doing freelance design work until the company was able to hire him full-time as creative director.

Today D&Q has six full-time employees and a couple of part-timers, and outsources foreign rights sales to Samantha Haywood of the Transatlantic Literary Agency. Oliveros, Burns, and Devlin don’t split responsibilities in a traditional manner. “There’s a lot of overlap,” says Devlin. “We all tend to act as editors and scout talent and projects, but then we have specific things, too.”

Seth observes that the arrival of Burns and Devlin also brought diversification to D&Q’s catalogue. “I’m not sure if the general reader of D&Q books would notice this change in any significant way … but I like to think I can guess at who picked which books.”

While overhead is kept low, D&Q’s sales expectations are high. When D&Q started distributing with Chronicle in 2001, selling 10,000 units was considered a success. After partnering with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Guy Delisle’s memoir Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea sold 15,000 in its first printing. These days, Adrian Tomine (Shortcomings, Scenes from an Impending Marriage) regularly sells 20,000 copies, and underground comics legend Lynda Barry (Picture This, What It Is) sells more than 30,000. Big things are also expected of rising star Kate Beaton. Based on the overwhelming response of fans at this year’s Comic-Con festival in San Diego, Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant went into reprint well before its October release.

D&Q’s business-savvy yet artist-focused approach is also attracting big names like Daniel Clowes, the U.S. author of the cult hit Ghost World. Oliveros had been talking to Clowes for years, and in 2010 D&Q released Wilson, which follows the life of a cranky, middle-aged divorced loser.

“I think it’s because the company had become so strong on so many different levels that someone like Daniel Clowes would even think to approach us,” says Oliveros. This fall, D&Q is releasing Clowes’ new superhero graphic novel, The Death-Ray, which also previewed at Comic-Con. Film rights have been optioned by actor Jack Black’s production company.

In a rare moment of boasting, Oliveros acknowledges the achievement of a small Montreal firm playing in the same market as U.S. multinationals. Eighty per cent of D&Q’s sales come from south of the border, as do many of its authors. “I can’t imagine there are many Canadian publishers that publish in the U.S. as well [as D&Q], and compete with a Random House for the same author,” he says. “I think this might be one of the only cases where that happens.”

***

There’s an ephemeral quality to D&Q titles that’s hard to express, even for Oliveros. After 22 years, he simply knows what works.

“I think one of the things is that each artist’s work is unique,” he says. “It’s so much a product of their own personality. You can’t say that Lynda Barry is like Chester Brown.” Oliveros pauses: “On the other hand, there’s a certain affinity they share: they all have a unique vision, and they’re all very interested in telling stories and [have] a strong desire to express themselves in this narrative way.”

Devlin agrees that the brand is largely ineffable. “It’s like record labels with strong identities,” he says. “It’s a feeling – does it fit? Is it work that our other authors feel will go with D&Q? Does it seem like the kind of book that would appeal to a general populace?”

Part of what sets D&Q apart is its focus on high-quality design, incorporating elements like glossy embossing on covers. “We want to treat the comic as the nicest object possible,” says Devlin.

While Devlin says he collaborates with authors on design, D&Q’s willingness to cede creative control has given the company a reputation as something of an artist’s haven. Seth says he prefers to work independently, providing the publisher with camera-ready artwork for computer production. “They almost never interfere with my design plans,” he says. “I would not be the designer I am today without D&Q allowing me to make the books I see in my head.”

Like Seth, Lynda Barry, who won an Eisner Award for her graphic novel What It Is, says all her books are handmade using scissors, white glue, and scrap paper. “Most publishers want nothing to do with that sort of thing, but D&Q was fine with it,” she says. D&Q is working with Barry on an upcoming prose novel, the company’s first, which may be entirely handwritten as well.

One of the loveliest books D&Q produced last year was The Native Trees of Canada, a quirky but lush collection of leaf paintings by New York City–based artist Leanne Shapton, inspired by an old botanical book she discovered at the Monkey’s Paw, a used bookstore in Toronto. D&Q continues to scout the contemporary art scene for new authors like Shapton, and recently launched an imprint of art books, all under $20, from emerging talents including Jillian Tamaki and Sonja Ahlers. It’s also introduced translations of international artists, such as 89-year-old Japanese manga master Shigeru Mizuki, and reissued archival work from classic cartoonists such as Doug Wright. This year, D&Q will test a few iPad e-book titles, the Apple tablet being “the most graphically friendly,” says Oliveros.

The Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, which opened in 2007, is another extension of the D&Q brand. Inside the charming but modern shop, a painted red wall acts as a backdrop behind a small events stage. The wooden display tables hold a selection of titles from Canadian and international publishers: literary fiction and non-fiction, glossy art books, and, of course, comics and graphic novels.
Burns, who oversees the store, says the staff, which consists of a full-time manager and four part-timers, is selective about what it stocks. “We have a very curated view of what books we’ll carry, but also the freedom for the staff to order what they want,” she says. ­“Because we’re choosy over who we hire, we know we’ll get what our clientele likes.”

Before the bookstore opened in 2007, D&Q suffered from a low profile in its hometown. “We weren’t really that focused locally,” Oliveros says. The company hosted book launches at local bars and other venues – not ideal for book sales, says Burns – and, at Montreal events such as Expozine, would receive a surprising reception. “We’d make lots of money and get a huge, warm response, and people would say, ‘Oh, you came all the way up from Toronto,’” Burns explains.

Having a physical storefront has cemented D&Q’s identity as a Montreal publisher. And the company continues to mine local talent, be it French-Canadian artists such as Pascal Girard or Montreal resident Matthew Forsythe, whose series, Ojingogo, Oliveros discovered at a local zine fair, an experience Forsythe describes as being like “finding out [New Yorker editor] David Remnick reads your blog.”

Perhaps that’s the dichotomy that drives the D&Q success story: a locally minded publisher successful in a competitive global market; trusting its instincts and its authors, but still willing to take risks. Barry says that, over the past 30 years, she’s collaborated with several publishers, but “none of those experiences compares with working with D&Q. They’ve completely changed the way I think about my work and about what a book can be.”

From the Oct. 2011 issue of Q&Q.

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