When the first issue of Drawn & Quarterly sneaked into comics shops in April 1990, it seemed as if its 23-year-old founder, editor and janitor, Chris Oliveros, was trying to single-handedly conjure a future for the testosterone-confused medium that most of his fellow fans and creators couldn’t imagine.First, he featured a beleaguered female cartoonist on its cover, as drawn by Anne D. Bernstein. And second, he criticized in its pages the world of comics for being “a private boys’ club” that discouraged women from reading or making comics. (One contributor to D&Q No. 1 was Alice Sebold, who later wrote “The Lovely Bones.”)
So it seems somehow fitting, in a theater season in which the musical adaptation of the alternative cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel “Fun Home” won five major Tonys, that Drawn & Quarterly is celebrating its 25th anniversary by putting out a strikingly designed 776-page book that makes clear that its rise from Montreal ’zine to well-regarded publisher of graphic novels is inextricably intertwined with the advance of women in independent comics.“Even early on, they were publishing important women like Julie Doucet,” said Hillary L. Chute, a University of Chicago professor and a cultural critic who specializes in comics. “They’re important to what feminism and comics looks like.”Back in 1990, comics pretty much looked like a Y chromosome. Marvel and DC’s male superheroes still dominated; alternative comics, having emerged from the death of the old undergrounds scene, were primarily male; and it was almost newsworthy to see a woman at a convention. Today, Ms. Bechdel and Marjane Satrapi (“Persepolis”) are two of the best-known cartoonists in the world; female characters and creators have become increasingly important (Marvel even transformed Thor into a woman), especially for indie publishers like Fantagraphics and D&Q; and attendance at major comics conventions is now about half female.
James Sturm (“The Golem’s Mighty Swing”), a D&Q artist who is also director of the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vt., said this evolution is reflected at his school. “It’s 50-50, male-female now,” he said. “That’s really changed.”Peggy Burns, who succeeded Mr. Oliveros as publisher just last month, insists gender balance is crucial. “When the medium has more women creating comics, more women reading comics, more women studying comics, more women working in comics, both the industry and comics literary canon become more reflective of the real world,” she wrote in an email.While D&Q has championed female artists, those creators have also helped the company succeed. Its three best-selling cartoonists are Tove Jansson (the “Moomin” series), Lynda Barry (“What It Is”) and Kate Beaton (“Hark! A Vagrant”).Sociocultural goals are all well and good, but they don’t matter as much if the work doesn’t shine. However, as Mr. Sturm said, “D&Q’s list is like the ’27 Yankees.” Besides the cartoonists it nurtured in the 1990s, like Ms. Doucet, Seth, Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine, D&Q has also provided occasional shelter for established veterans like Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Daniel Clowes and Art Spiegelman. And the curatorial eye of Mr. Oliveros, who stepped down as publisher to focus on his own cartooning, has extended far beyond North America. D&Q has published cartoonists from six continents — no frostbitten funnies from Antarctica yet, though.“They’re all one of a kind,” Mr. Oliveros, who will still acquire books, said of his artists. “In that sense, their work belongs together.”
As with EC in the 1950s and Marvel in the ’60s, a singular sensibility — in this case Mr. Oliveros’s — presides over a Drawn & Quarterly age of comics. Not bad for a company that started as one guy working in a corner in a small apartment in the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal. (D&Q’s offices now sit in a former garment factory just north of Mile End.) “Chris took for granted that an audience existed for art comics,” the veteran D&Q artist Seth said. “And Chris didn’t interfere. There was no second-guessing.”Seth added that D&Q’s encouragement of women — its list tends to be 50-50, male-female — flowed from Mr. Oliveros. “Chris has such a gentle personality. It’s a nonmasculine, noncompetitive environment that reflects how art comics have become much more of a women’s world.”Ms. Burns, who joined the company in 2003, said that gender change is also reflected in D&Q’s customers. “At least half of our readers are female,” said Ms. Burns, who oversees a staff of 16 women and three men that puts out 20 to 30 books a year. “Women just naturally gravitate toward our list.”One criticism of D&Q is that it publishes too many quiet, first-person graphic novels. “But,” Ms. Burns said, “we’re author-centric, not property-centric. We like personal, sincere storytelling. When you boil it down to that, you’re going to have more female authors.”Here are three such creators who have made a difference for Drawn & Quarterly and comics.
JULIE DOUCET: FEMINIST GRIT Given that one of Mr. Oliveros’s goals was to grab comics back from the fanboys, he threw down an emphatic 28-page gauntlet in October 1990 when he published Dirty Plotte No. 1 by the Montreal cartoonist Julie Doucet. In these bleakly funny and deeply personal black-and-white strips, Ms. Doucet writes and draws like a punk Sylvia Plath. (“Plotte” is Quebecois slang for vagina, and Dirty No. 1 includes a drawing of one that’s anatomically correct. There’s no word whether Batman or Spider-Man blushed when it arrived in comics shops.)Ms. Doucet was one of D&Q’s key early artists, the first of its cartoonists to get a solo title; her first contract was one page and handwritten. “She’s simply one of the most important cartoonists of her time,” Mr. Oliveros said.As Ms. Chute wrote in Artforum last year, Ms. Doucet’s work, especially “My New York Diary” (1999), “earned her a surge of recognition from multiple corners of contemporary culture, and paved the way for a whole host of graphic memoirs to come, especially by women.”Growing up in Montreal, Ms. Doucet said, she was fortunate to discover French cartoonists like Claire Bretécher, Florence Cestac and Chantal Montellier. “So I had models,” she said in a phone interview. “I didn’t question myself about was I allowed as a woman to draw comics.”In turn, she, too, became a role model. “Doucet set the tone for Drawn & Quarterly in publishing offbeat and important work by women,” Ms. Chute said.
LYNDA BARRY: RESCUE ME!!! The pioneering female cartoonist Lynda Barry — whose early work included the syndicated alternative strip “Ernie Pook’s Comeek,” “One! Hundred! Demons!” and the illustrated novel “The Good Times Are Killing Me,” which became an Off Broadway play — in a phone interview put her relationship with Drawn & Quarterly like this:“Somebody knew a house was burning. And D&Q said: ‘There’s an old cartoonist up in the attic! We have to save her!’ And they saved me.”That rescue came in the form of “What It Is” (2008), Ms. Barry’s beautiful genre-defying volume of comics and collage, memoir and wisdom, that no one else wanted to publish — and became an unexpected best seller. (D&Q has sold more than 135,000 copies of books by Ms. Barry; a typical D&Q volume sells 5,000-10,000.)“My publisher dropped me, and nobody would touch my work for years,” said Ms. Barry, whose other D&Q books include “Picture This” (2010) and “Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor” (2014). “I thought it was over for me. I couldn’t get a ride anywhere.”Ms. Barry, who is assistant professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, paused, as if she still couldn’t quite believe her good fortune. “The most important part of my career is because of Drawn & Quarterly. They gave me a place to imagine into.”
KATE BEATON: HARK! A CARTOONIST The first time Mr. Oliveros came wooing, two years after she had started her webcomic, “Hark! A Vagrant,” Kate Beaton said no. “It was scary to be approached by Drawn & Quarterly in 2009,” Ms. Beaton, who was 25 at the time, said in a phone interview. “I turned them down because I wasn’t ready yet. I was so nervous and weird, and I said, ‘No.’She was spooked because “Drawn & Quarterly is the quality publisher,” she said. “All the big names have migrated there.” Ms. Beaton finally soothed her jitters and “Hark! A Vagrant,” a hilarious blend of history, literature and pop culture, came out in 2011. “Hark!” has sold more than 70,000 copies, and her next book for D&Q, “Step Aside, Pops,” is scheduled for September and a first printing of 50,000. Growing up in Mabou, Cape Breton Island, in Nova Scotia, Ms. Beaton always drew: “When you grow up in a small place like that, you put the time in to practice your art. There are no distractions.”But it was a chance meeting at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, in 2005 that set her on her current course. “I discovered a small shelf of graphic novels at the college library, including Seth and Julie Doucet and Chester Brown.” Upon reading Mr. Brown’s “I Never Liked You,” Ms. Beaton recalled thinking: “ ‘This blows my mind.’ I never expected it. I walked home in a daze.”