IN A RECENT New York Times Sunday Book Review column, responding to the question, “Does the size of a book suggest significance?,” author Mohsin Hamid deftly maintains, “an aesthetic of leanness strikes me as just as appropriate to literature, and to one’s existence, as an aesthetic of expansiveness.”
The release of Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels — a book almost two and a half inches wide — plainly coheres to an aesthetic of expansiveness. This 776-page tome includes just about everything as it relates to the history and output of this flourishing Montreal-based comics publisher: gorgeous, original covers and endpapers (Tom Gauld); a history of the publisher in six sequential comics panels (Chester Brown) and in a 44-page essay and timeline (Sean Rogers with Jeet Heer); interviews and reminiscences with the masterminds behind the enterprise (Chris Oliveros, founder/editor-in-chief; Peggy Burns, associate publisher; and Tom Devlin, creative director); short essays of appreciation written by comics lovers and aficionados (like Naomi Fry on Dan Clowes, or Sheila Heti on Tove Jansson); photos of artists and staff members attending festivals and readings; and of course many pages of comics excerpts.
A list of cartoonists Drawn & Quarterly publishes, either with their own full-length works or in one of the publisher’s anthologies, is a who’s who of the contemporary comics world (with, of course, some notable exceptions). But what is perhaps most striking about this anthology is how it testifies to the power of the individual to transform a medium — in this case a sometimes marginalized mode of telling. A distinct vision, and the alliances and collaborations that such a vision engenders, can revolutionize an art form, including, as an integral component of this transformation, its perception and reception. As Rogers relates in his comprehensive introduction, Oliveros and Burns first worked together when Burns was still a publicist at DC Comics. Along with a collective of publishers and artists (including Art Spiegelman), they lobbied in 2003 to add a new major category, “graphic novels/comics,” to the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) Subject Headings List. Soon after Burns would join Oliveros in Montreal, taking a financial and personal risk in order to bring her publicity expertise and unique taste to a company that had begun to make a niche for itself in the so-called literary comics industry.
Founded in 1989 by Oliveros, who in part initially proposed an “artistic — and feminist — agenda,” Drawn & Quarterly is easily one of the most influential publishers, along with Fantagraphics Books, of what is sometimes broadly termed graphic narratives. Its earlier publications often leaned toward the autobiographical — think of the 1990s animate accounts of Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, and Joe Matt. But especially in the new millennium, the company has challenged the way people approach the history and purview of comics by publishing a wide range of materials. These include works in translation (Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Astrid Lindgren, and Rutu Modan, for example), reprints of early and mid-20th century comic strips (Frank King’s Gasoline Alley; Doug Wright’s Nipper), uncategorizable artist books (via their Petits Livres imprint), web-to-print compilations (Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie Yearbook; Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant), and children’s literature books (via their Enfant imprint).
This sweeping catalog, demonstrating what Rogers describes as “growth that resists definition,” points to the preponderant talent of Oliveros and his team: finding and promoting texts and creators they find interesting and engaging, and standing firmly behind those choices. Like cultural journalist Jeet Heer’s critical exploration of the influence of comics and art editor Françoise Mouly (in a 2013 book titled In Love with Art, which is as slender as this volume is hefty), the Drawn & Quarterly anthology makes visible the often invisible art of the forces that remain (sometimes at their preference) behind the scenes. Mouly’s aesthetic of leanness — a “surgical, literary editing of comics” that, according to Heer, “simply didn’t exist” before her — reads like a congenial correlation to the expansive aesthetics of the Drawn & Quarterly team. He argues how her effect on everything from Raw (an alternative comics magazine cited by Oliveros, among many others, as a commanding influence) to The New Yorker is an art in itself, though an often underappreciated one. In Drawn & Quarterly, we witness how a team of editors (or, as Oliveros describes himself, curators) can have a similarly poignant, though often unrecognized, effect. The range of reprinted and original materials included throughout the book collectively testify, sometimes humorously and sometimes somberly, to the theater of a medium adapting to and amending, responding to and metamorphosing the mechanisms that prompt and subsume it.
In one entertaining anecdote buried in this mass of pages, Ivan Brunetti describes Chris Ware feeling compelled one day to move a bright orange highlighter on his wife’s desk to “place it at a particular angle into a cup, because otherwise it violated the immediate visual field.” Such obsessive attention to detail (prompting his wife to remark that “he had a problem, man”) reflects how a deeply personal system of checks and balances can inevitably connect an individual to his environment. Like the selection and management of texts released into the visual field of a rapidly flourishing medium, collectively such gestures, born of impulses that can’t often be easily explained or even named, can shape a world.
If there is a limitation to an aesthetics of expansiveness, it is that oftentimes such a flourish can obscure the negotiations that are always at play when canons and archives are created, arranged, and maintained. Despite the feminist mission of the company, and its promotion of a motley of texts reflecting diverse voices and visions, the face of comics is still often predominantly white and male. An index at the back of the volume listing contributors of all D&Q publications, for example, reflects a one to four ratio of female to male creators, as identified in their author bios. While this particular publisher has done more than most to broaden the visual field that is the world of contemporary comics, there is still much terrain to be exposed.