During his 25 years as publisher at Drawn & Quarterly, Chris Oliveros turned his small company into one of the major forces in the comic-book industry, helping to usher in a new era of critical and commercial appreciation for the art form. He cultivated a remarkable line-up of talent at D&Q (which you can learn more about in the phenomenal D&Q 25th anniversary hardcover), and his time spent examining the medium from a management position sharpened his skills as a cartoonist. Oliveros stepped down from the publisher position last year to focus on creating his own comics, and his graphic novel debut, The Envelope Manufacturer (self-published), reveals Oliveros’ talent for alienating the reader through the relationship of art.
Alienation may not sound like a good thing, but it’s an essential aspect of Oliveros’ story, which focuses on how Jack, the owner of a struggling envelope manufacturing company, becomes increasingly disconnected from the people around him and reality at large. The focus of the artwork is often distanced from the action represented by the text, with the panels showing stationary objects or environmental landmarks while word balloons indicate events happening elsewhere. This can make for a frustrating reading experience, particularly when the text is describing moments that aren’t being shown in the artwork, but that frustration is intentional and reflective of Jack’s increasing aggravation with the financial situation of his company.
While the time period isn’t firmly established in the story, the design places it somewhere in the late ’50s/early ’60s, a time just before major changes starting occurring both culturally and industrially. Jack and his company are on the verge of becoming obsolete, and Jack’s mental reaction is a severe break from reality. Oliveros is constantly showing the machinery in the office without revealing the function of these devices, which is an effective way of indicating their archaic nature. Are these even machines used in creating envelopes? Most of them are just junk, but Oliveros’ focus on them reveals the importance of these pieces of junk in Jack and his employees’ lives.
The Envelope Manufacturer is an unsettling read due to Oliveros’ reluctance to clarify what is real and what is imagined, and his tendency to move away from the action to highlight areas of the surround environment plays a big part in that. The attention of the visuals is scattered, but the intent of the artist is confident and direct, forcing distance between the reader and the action to create an atmosphere of discomfort. It’s not the easiest read, but the challenge is what makes it rewarding, and the complex relationship between words and images reveals the depth of Oliveros’ understanding of the medium.