Twenty-five years after its birth as the publisher of a modest comics anthology, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly has become one of North America’s most acclaimed literary graphic novel publishers. The house has published a stellar list of comics artists, including Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, and the late manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi, among many others. The pioneering comics house will mark its first quarter-century by returning to its anthology roots with Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels, a lovingly crafted hardcover volume that documents the publisher’s history and celebrates its rich and varied lineup of artists.
The publication of the book also signals a new era at D&Q and a transition to new leadership. The house’s pioneering publisher and founder, Chris Oliveros, stepped down May 11 to focus on his own work as a cartoonist; longtime associate publisher Peggy Burns took over as D&Q publisher. She will be joined by her husband, former D&Q creative director Tom Devlin, who has been named executive editor of D&Q. In January 2016, Oliveros will self-publish The Envelope Manufacturer, his new graphic novel, completing his transition from D&Q founder to comics artist. D&Q will distribute the book, although Oliveros is self-publishing the work to avoid any appearance of favoritism from the house he founded.
Published this month, the 25-year anniversary tome of 700-plus pages has 12,000 copies in print after two printings. The book collects out-of-print work from dozens of D&Q artists, along with remembrances from employees and essays penned by a number of high-profile prose writers, including Margaret Atwood, Jonathan Lethem, and Lemony Snicket. The book also features a new generation of D&Q stars, including Kate Beaton (her 2011 webcomic turned graphic novel, Hark! A Vagrant, has sold more than 60,000 copies) and Jillian Tamaki (her webcomic, SuperMutant Magic Academy, was just released as a D&Q graphic novel)—both artists have won Canada’s prestigious Doug Wright Award; Beaton won a Harvey Award in 2011 and Tamaki a Printz Honor Award in 2015.
In 1990, 23-year-old Chris Oliveros borrowed $2,000 from his father and enlisted members of Canada’s vibrant comics community to publish a quarterly comics magazine featuring eccentric, personal literary stories, often created by talented young female artists. “My initial plan was to do the anthology,” Oliveros explained. “But as I was seeking out material and meeting cartoonists, many were just beginning to do longer works. So we published [Julie Doucet’s] Dirty Plotte and a few months later, [Seth’s] Palookaville, and then Joe Matt and Chester Brown.”
For the first several years of its existence, D&Q was largely a one-man company operating from Oliveros’s apartment—after 2001 he added a part-timer for scanning and mailing, a full-time publicist, and an intern. “It didn’t take that long for everything to gel,” Oliveros said of the company’s evolution. “We [found] a teenage cartoonist from the Bay Area named Adrian Tomine. He was influenced by [our other artists], and then by 1995, we were publishing his serial Optic Nerve [the minicomic Tomine had originally self-published]. It just developed naturally from there.”
In 2003, Drawn & Quarterly finally added another full-time employee, Peggy Burns, a publicist who previously worked at DC Comics. Burns brought her experience working for a large corporate house and organizing traditional publishing publicity campaigns. D&Q was moving away from periodical comics and the superhero-dominated comics-shop market and focusing on longer, book-format comics—graphic novels—and looking to the book trade. Burns was instrumental in moving D&Q distribution to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, a publisher in tune with D&Q’s literary list.
“At the time, we needed a champion for the kind of books we do,” Burns explained. D&Q emphasized to FSG that “our cartoonists are the equivalent of FSG’s authors. We needed that literary connection. They understood.” Burns called the distribution deal a key moment in D&Q’s history. Following the distribution switch, D&Q published Guy Delisle’s 2005 acclaimed work of travel nonfiction, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, and in 2007 Tomine’s equally lauded graphic novel, Shortcomings. “[FSG] got us into Borders; we got a huge order for Shortcomings. Lynda Barry’s What It Is was next [in 2008]. Our authors became bestsellers,” Burns said. “Things got easier around here after that.” All three titles—Pyongyang, What It Is, and Shortcomings—sold more than 50,000 copies each.
Another important moment came in 2006, when D&Q executive editor Tom Devlin (who joked that he’s in charge of “crazy acquisitions ideas”) convinced Oliveros to publish Moomin, a popular Scandinavian comics strip by Tove Janson starring a fantasy-creature family, which was little known outside of Europe. The gamble paid off on a global scale. D&Q has since published 10 Moomin collections, selling more than 260,000 copies across the entire series with sales in 25 countries around the globe; it was the first time Moomin was published outside of Sweden. Devlin, a former indie comics publisher who started working at D&Q in 2005, said the decision to acquire the series was typical of how Oliveros runs the company—everyone at D&Q has input. “It was my first suggestion [after joining D&Q].”
Today, D&Q offices are in a spacious loft in Montreal (with plans to move soon to an even larger space) housing a staff of 20. In 2008, D&Q opened Librarie Drawn & Quarterly, a 1,000-sq.-ft. French and English-language bookstore offering comics and prose (12,000 titles in stock) and a wide variety of publishers and artists. Burns said Montreal’s English comics shops are full of superhero comics, and the French stores all stock French-language euro-comics. There were “no indie comics, very few local publishers, no Fantagraphics or McSweeney’s titles,” Burns said.
D&Q publishes 20 to 30 books a year and plans to stay at that number; “I couldn’t sell more than that when I was a publicist,” Burns said. In addition to new works by Tamaki, Beaton, and Seth (who is publishing the latest in his Palookaville graphic novel series), in November D&Q is releasing Tomine’s Killing and Dying, a much-anticipated new collection of interconnected short stories.
“When Chris said he wanted to step down, I freaked out. I wouldn’t even talk to him about it for six months. It’s daunting to take over a company, to go from being an employee to having employees,” Burns said, adding that she doesn’t expect much to change under her watch. “More e-books maybe,” she said, emphasizing that though Oliveros is stepping down as publisher, he’ll be a contributing editor and have an office. “We have a succession plan in place, and Chris is still involved. I told him, ‘I want you involved,’ ’’ she said, joking that she needed him “to protect us from Tom’s crazy projects.”