It should surprise no one that Drawn and Quarterly is celebrating its first 25 years in style.
A new full-colour anthology, staggering in its range and scope at nearly 800 pages, makes plain what many have long known: The company founded in 1990 by Montreal comics aficionado Chris Oliveros — run first out of his apartment, then out of two rooms above a travel agency on Parc Ave., and for the last several years out of a spacious and stylish loft space in Mile Ex, soon to be shifted to an even bigger space nearby — is one of the finest independent literary publishers in the world, having established a brand that makes it not only influential in the golden age of graphic literature and non-superhero comics, but synonymous. D&Q, in a very real sense, helped create the thriving culture that it represents so well.
What will catch people off-guard is a piece of news that the company, with typical counterintuitive flair, has chosen to reveal almost casually in the pages of the new book, Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels, tucked away like the proverbial needle in a haystack, making public something first mooted in the company office a year ago: Oliveros, 48, is stepping down as publisher, effective imminently. His place will be taken by publicist Peggy Burns; Burns’s husband, Tom Devlin, formerly creative director, will assume the title of executive editor.
Coming from a company that has been renowned for its continuity, the news has understandably landed in industry circles like a bombshell.
The 41-year-old Burns, talking in the D&Q office last week, was happy to reflect on the life-changing decision she and then-fiancé Devlin made in 2003: moving from the United States to Montreal, where she would take on the job of Drawn and Quarterly’s publicist. (Devlin would assume various ad hoc duties before becoming a full-time D&Q employee himself in 2005.)
Burns had been living in New York City for a decade and was working as a publicist for DC Comics and Mad Magazine, under the Warner Brothers umbrella. But she was born and raised upstate in Syracuse, something that stood her in good stead when she applied for, and landed, the position of publicist with D&Q.
“Chris said, ‘I should warn you, the winters here are really bad.’ I said, ‘I’m from the city with the most snow of anywhere in the U.S.’ He said, ‘Oh, okay. You’ll be fine, then.’
“But he also said, ‘You don’t want to move here, you’d have to take a big pay cut.’ I said, ‘We’re spending $1,700 a month on our apartment in Williamsburg right now. What would it be in Montreal?’ He said ‘Maybe $600.’ I said ‘See? That’s $1,000 a month you don’t have to pay me right there.’ ”
For Burns and Devlin, the timing of the D&Q opportunity was especially fortuitous — not quite now-or-never, but with a certain sense of urgency.
“Tom had never had a girlfriend interested in comics before,” she said of the man 10 years her senior whom she met at the San Diego Comic Con, where he was representing his cutting-edge comics publishing house Highwater Books. “He was living in Boston, working for Harvard University Press. I’d take the bus up from New York and say things like, ‘So, today Frank Miller was in the office.’ And he’d be like (mimes jaw dropping off).
“We long-distance dated for a year before he moved to New York. But it was right after 9/11, so he couldn’t get a job. He had one interview, with the New York Times, and didn’t get it. But these things happen for a reason. If he’d been working for the Times, and I’d been with Warners, we’d have been living the kind of life where we wouldn’t have been so open to moving.”
Further encouragement came from a quarter Burns might not have expected: her father. “He’s a marine sergeant and a lawyer, a pretty conservative, traditional guy,” Burns said. “But when I told him that I was taking a pay cut, postponing the wedding and moving to Canada, he said ‘Great! Do it now, before you have kids. Take the chance.’ It was great to have that kind of support.”
Having uprooted to Montreal sight unseen, Burns and Devlin found that any apprehensions about the city that was to become their home were quickly allayed.
“Chris took us on a quiet walking tour, from his condo on Hutchison (St.) up to Marché Jean Talon and back. We had lunch on his balcony over the alley. (Popular D&Q-published cartoonist) Julie Doucet came, kids were playing in the alley, we were drinking La Fin du Monde. I said, ‘I’m sold.’ ”
There was, to be sure, a period of adjustment — cultural, economic and linguistic. (Burns describes her level of French after 12 years here as “intermediate.”)
“For someone who grew up four hours away, I knew nothing about Canada and Quebec,” she admitted. “When I came here, Hillary Clinton had just become a senator in New York. Here, the big news story was about Conrad Black. ‘The millionaire who lives like a billionaire!’ I remember thinking that was a really funny Canadian crime. Where I’m from, you’re always living above your status.
“The hardest part of the job, at first, was going from having an expense account and a big office to being in two small rooms with Chris, a man who never spoke,” she laughed. “Things were tight. There wasn’t any money that first year. Any spare change was being used to pay me, I think. As for the actual publicity work, it was easy, because the quality was there. When that’s the case, you’re not really selling anybody, you’re more just coordinating.”
After 13 years as publicist at Montreal’s Drawn and Quarterly, Peggy Burns will take over as publisher, replacing founder Chris Oliveros. DARIO AYALA / MONTREAL GAZETTE
For Burns and the company, that initial period of parlous finances eased with the production of three crucial hits: Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang and Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings in 2007, and Lynda Barry’s What It Is in 2008. Since then it’s been strength to strength, with scarcely a major cartoonist and graphic novelist in the world not having appeared under the D&Q banner; refinements in distribution, and the success of Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, the store at 211 Bernard Ave. founded in 2007, have further cemented things. None of which is to say there aren’t bumps in the road, Burns said.
“Our two closest peers in the States, Fantagraphics and McSweeney’s, have just done major kick-starters,” she pointed out. “In Canada, independents who’ve tried to compete with the multinationals — McClelland & Stewart, Douglas & MacIntyre — are no longer what they were. So it is a daunting time to be a big independent company. There’s really no model for what we’re doing. That’s nerve-racking. And on a personal level, even though to have grown in 12 years to 18 employees from three is really something, now I’m feeling the weight of being on the other side. When you’re an employee, which I was, you can always just check out. Now those people count on me.”
Happily, stresses are alleviated by the many successes Burns can point to.
“We are a force in Mile End,” she said with evident pride. “The whole experience of the store has been amazing. It’s not our ‘flagship store’ anymore — it’s the community’s store now. It’s not just a closet where we sell our remaindered copies.”
Speaking of community, these two American transplants now feel fully a part of their adopted one, living and raising their two children in Mile End.
“Having kids was our way of assimilating,” she said. “I don’t think we would be living the same life without that. And I could certainly not have done what I have done, working and having two kids consecutively, without subsidized daycare. It was such a godsend.”
Those two kids, a daughter born in 2005 and a son in 2007, are now enrolled in Mile End’s École Lambert Closse, where they’re schooled in French. “I’m very proud that they don’t have accents,” said their mother. “People at their school don’t even know that they’re anglophones until these two loud American parents come in.”
An unexpected curve ball came Burns’s way in 2008 when she learned she had thyroid cancer. “They tell you it’s ‘the good cancer,’ ” she said. “It’s treatable, with isolation and radioactive iodine therapy, and I did that and I’m fine now. Being sick and having two kids were our crash course in Canadian health care, and it’s been amazing.”
What’s the vision as the company heads into its second quarter century?
“Stability,” she said without a pause. “I don’t want to hit any rough patches. I want the company to be able to take a hit and still be standing. So, nothing too different in the works, really. Continue to pay the royalties and the paycheques on time. That’s the vision.”