McGill Daily visits D+Q And lives to write about us!

“La belle ville de comics” / The McGill Daily / Nicholas Hune-Brown / March 10, 2004

Montreal is known for a lot of things – poutine, stripclubs, no right-turns on red lights – but not necessarily comic books. Nevertheless, over the last decade or so, the city has quietly become one of the world centres for graphic novels, in large part due to the output of Montreal comic publishing house Drawn and Quarterly.

Drawn and Quarterly was founded in 1990 by Chris Oliveros, then a bike messenger and sometimes cartoonist, who wanted to publish an occasional anthology of comics he liked. “I never figured that I’d be publishing books other than the anthology,” says Oliveros. “But while I was searching, I found other artists who were doing work I loved and I slowly started putting out individual books.”

In the 14 years since then, the publishing house has become one of the most successful publishers of comics in the world, putting out literary graphic novels and comic books that push the boundaries of the form, telling strong stories with beautiful images.

Comics at home and overseas

Drawn and Quarterly’s Mile End office doesn’t look like the point of reception for many of the world’s best graphic novels. Unmarked from the outside, the two rooms that make up cartoon headquarters are cluttered with piled comic books and posters for Chester Brown and Joe Sacco. The only people who work there are founder Chris Oliveros and publicist Peggy Burns.

But existing in this office, and in this city, is a large reason Drawn and Quarterly’s been as successful as it has been. Being in a city that has a vibrant comic scene, both in English and French, has certainly helped Drawn and Quarterly, just as having a world-class publishing house in the city has helped the scene grow.

According to Burns, part of the strength of the scene comes from the fact that Quebec is so willing to assist its artists. “Montreal really supports the medium. Lots of other cities are cutthroat to live in, but Montreal supports artists more than other cities.”

And though the publishing house is definitely a part of the city’s comic book scene, Drawn and Quarterly looks well beyond the St Lawrence river confines of our island for material.

Drawn and Quarterly’s roster of artists reads like a who’s who of serious international cartoonists. Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, Jason Lutes, Seth, Adrian Tomine, even the granddaddy of alternative comics, Robert Crumb, have all had work published by Drawn and Quarterly.

According to Oliveros, the wealth of talent his publishing house has been able to attract is partially due to the fact Drawn and Quarterly has filled a waiting niche, and partially due to the fact that, in comics as elsewhere, quality attracts quality.

“Part of it’s being known as a company that publishes good work,” says Oliveros. “I give the artists complete freedom, and when you have a good track record you can get people who’ll want to work with you.”

The high quality of the stories and art are reflected in their high production value. Drawn and Quarterly books just look good. Like slick Dave Eggers literary mags, they’ve got the combination of smooth design and beautiful cover art that, simply put, make them look cool.

Comics for comics’ sake

Much of the work published by the Montreal publishing house transcends the limitations of the comic book. Stories by artists like graphic-novel “prodigy” Adrian Tomine and comix-journalist Joe Sacco aren’t just great comic-book stories, they’re great stories period.

In Tomine’s Optic Nerve series and in his short story collections you’ll see depictions of modern life as piercing or as insightful as those in any contemporary fiction or film. Imagine Raymond Carver drawing comics, revealing the quiet pathos of ordinary modern existence frame by frame.

And the art within books like Chris Ware’s The Acme Novelty Date Book isn’t just great comic-book art, it’s some of the best graphic art out there. This is another side of the graphic novel Drawn and Quarterly has recently been expanding into – comics as art in their own right – recently publishing “sketchbooks” by Ware and Crumb.

The Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, a new series featuring undiscovered graphic artists, is another new venture for the publishing house. According to Peggy Burns, the impetus for the series came from the wish to expose readers to the work of underground artists.

“Here in Montreal and across the world, there’s a large mini comic and DIY scene,” says Burns. “A few years ago Chris was interested in what he saw and wanted to expose people who read D and Q’s graphic novels to these new cartoonists who were doing great stuff just making their own comics on photocopiers.”

Book one in the series features Kevin Huizenga’s minimalist comics about life in the suburbs, and the surreal work of Nicolas Robel.

The Comics Canon

By now it’s old news that comics aren’t just for kids and pimple-speckled Star Trek fans – and the most cursory glance through any of D and Q’s recent publications will reveal a world far removed from battling mutants or Betty and Veronica.

But despite their present day popularity, you don’t have to look back more than a few years to find a time when comics were completely disregarded as an art form. Since his entrance to the comic industry in 1990, Oliveros has had the chance to see the dramatic shift in the way graphic novels are treated first-hand.

“I remember doing interviews with people years ago and always having to explain to them – ‘OK comics don’t have to just be for kids, you can do comics for adults,’” says Oliveros. “People would just look at me like I was crazy. Or when I’d say ‘comics for adults’ people would think I was doing pornography or something.”

A lot has changed in the last 15 years. Now it seems that graphic novels have officially entered the mainstream. This past year a number of Drawn and Quarterly titles have made it onto literary critics best -of lists and Louis Riel became the first Drawn and Quarterly publication to become a bestseller. Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary is even on a McGill English Literature syllabus – as sure a sign as any that literary graphic novels have been fully accepted by the literary establishment.

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