Feature

A Graphic Tale

A couple of Christmases back an enlightened gift-giver presented me with a copy of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. “Gee, thanks,” I said, while thinking “Hmmm. A comic book, eh?” By Boxing Day, when my mind had been blown by Ware’s mesmerizing and psychologically profound combination of words and pictures, a rethink was clearly in order. This wasn’t a novel as I understood the word, but it was leagues beyond the Don Martin strips, devoured in childhood, that were my main connection to the world of comics. Whatever this was – let’s refer to the form henceforth as comix – I knew my brain and bookshelf had better start making space for it. And it turned out (many of you know this already, but bear with me) that I was living in just the right city. Drawn & Quarterly, one of the genre’s handful of most acclaimed and popular publishers, is Montreal born and bred.

Founded in 1990, Drawn & Quarterly was the brainchild of Chris Oliveros. Now 32, Oliveros took a youthful passion for comix and, by a judicious combination of well-placed ads and word-of-mouth, soon attracted a stellar lineup. “We were very lucky,” he recalls. “A lot of things happened pretty fast. You begin a relationship with a cartoonist on faith – as a publisher you choose somebody because you believe in that person’s talent, and that over the years and possibly decades they’ll deliver on it. Within a year we managed to gather a good percentage of the people we’re still working with today – Julie Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown, Joe Matt. If someone were to try to do the equivalent now, with people of that calibre, it would take years.”

Oliveros was an early convert to the idea of comix as a true art form. “My father used to buy Mad magazine and Heavy Metal, so those things would be around the house. When I came across the first issue of RAW magazine, edited by Art Speigelman (of Maus fame), that was an epiphany for me, in that it set my own standards of what comics can be in artistic and literary terms.” (Another early hero of Oliveros, the legendary R. Crumb, will appear under the D&Q imprint next year when the third volume of his restaurant drawings is co-published with the Dutch company Oog & Blik.)

Oliveros and his sole employee, 27-year-old publicist Elizabeth Walker, are in one of the only areas of the book world where people are commonly asked to explain and defend what they do. There’s a prejudice, gradually diminishing but still tenacious, holding that comix, by their very nature, aren’t true literature.

“Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, talks about that imaginative leap from one panel to the next,” says Walker. “If you’re willing to make that leap, it’s magic. In childhood we’re trained to read pictures and words together, but as we grow up we’re trained out of it – it’s all about the word, and pictures are seen as a childish distraction.”

“It’s like learning a language, a way of seeing things and reading things, and if you’ve never spoken that language before, you’re not going to get it.” Oliveros says. “But it comes with time. The whole artistic legitimacy thing is not something I question myself. Convincing others is the challenge.”

The hybrid form cartoonists work in has meant they often don’t get the credit they deserve as writers. Adrian Tomine, for example, is every bit as good a chronicler of modern American manners as is Jonathan Franzen, so in a perfect world, why shouldn’t he be on the same shelf in the bookstores? As Oliveros says, though, it’s not quite so simple.

“A retailer in Seattle wrote about this, saying you can’t really put it in the fiction section, as much as you might want to, because when you get right down to it, it’s not fiction, it’s comix. So he came up with a section called Graphica. You need something that’s not science fiction, that’s not superheroes – which are legitimate but have different readers, just like Jackie Collins has a different readership than Kurt Vonnegut. The danger is that stores will take all this comix material and plunk it down in one area, and that’s what doesn’t work.”

Such questions have real immediacy at D&Q lately, as the company has just signed a distribution deal with Raincoast for Canada and with Chronicle for the rest of the world. It’s a move heralding a leap beyond the world of specialty shops – highly supportive but limited – and into the megastores.

“Pre-Chronicle,” says Oliveros, “our percentage of sales in mainstream stores has been 15 to 20 percent, but they’re looking to flip that in the next few years to where the comic trade sales will be 20 to 30 percent, with conventional bookstores doing the rest. Both (Raincoast and Chronicle) are very keen on selling the stuff, but the other link is the actual stores, so we’re hoping they’ll embrace us.”

Making the most of a relationship with, say, Chapters/Indigo involves the sensitive issue of placement: where your books are, and what books they’re in with. It’s part of what Walker calls the “eye candy” factor.

“We’re looking for repositioning, closer to art, design and pop culture titles,” she says. “A lot of the books (Raincoast and Chronicle) publish would go well with our own titles, like Chester Brown’s Louis Riel collection (a series recounting the life of the Métis rebel) which is coming out next year, to be there, as opposed to being in with the Star Wars books.”

Growth is the key word at D&Q these days. Their first two years were solely focused on small comics; a period of two book titles per year followed. In 2001 that number jumped to eight, and it will soon go past ten. In June 2001 Oliveros realized the operation had outgrown his Mile End apartment and moved the company into two cozy rooms above a Greek travel agent on avenue Parc. “I feel a little like the first twelve years were the first part of something, and now we’re moving into something new.”

Would that “something new” entail increased staff?

“Well, Chronicle has a view of what we’ll sell in the next eighteen months, and if reality is anything like their projection, we’ll definitely need more people,” he says, glancing at his publicist with a chuckle.

Walker, for her part, tells a story that says a lot about the funny world of Canadian publishing.

“We were looking into having a booth at the Canadian Book Expo last year, until we learned that we were categorized, because of our sales, as a large publisher. So the booth would have been too expensive. A large publisher! There’s only two of us!” mRb

Ian McGillis is books columnist for the Montreal Gazette and author of the novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry. His memoir Higher Ground will be published by Biblioasis in 2017.

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