Groundbreaking graphic novel publisher Chris Oliveros has already made his mark on the comics industry: He is the founder of Montreal-based indie comics publisher Drawn and Quarterly and served as publisher until he stepped down last April, after 25 years.
Now Oliveros is making his mark in a different way, after writing and drawing his own graphic novel, The Envelope Manufacturer, which follows a small factory owner as his business and his world unravel. Oliveros is self-publishing the book, which is due out on January 19, but it will be distributed by Drawn and Quarterly. He talked to PW about that decision as well as the creative process and the evolution of his book.
Why did you decide to self-publish 'The Envelope Manufacturer'?
I thought it would be a conflict of interest if D+Q published it. Even though I am no longer the publisher, there still is that connection that spans decades, and so I felt that if I somehow joined the roster it would only be because I had the special key for the secret side entrance to get in. Also, I’m in awe of the comics produced by D+Q cartoonists, and my own work is largely shaped and influenced by them. It would be inconceivable for me to be on the same level, so to speak, as them so the best way around that was to self-publish. D+Q is still of course providing an invaluable service of distribution, so the conflict of interest hasn’t been entirely removed.
Were you working on this book while you were at Drawn and Quarterly?
The very earliest incarnation goes back to the late 1990s, when a draft of chapter one was published in pamphlet form. Another chapter was published at some point in the early 2000s. But by the time I started on the final chapter I was very unhappy with all of the material I had completed up to that point. So I went back to square one, editing parts of it and ultimately redrawing the whole thing. It was always a challenge to find any time to work on this, since most of my waking hours were divided between Drawn & Quarterly and family life, raising three sons at home. Somehow I managed to carve out a small chunk of time each day, from about 5:30 am to 7:00 am, which was just enough to allow me to reach the finish line on this book, at long last.
The setting looks like a large city in the middle of the 20th century, but there aren't a lot of clues beyond that. What were you thinking of in terms of time and place?
There are a few vague, implicit references to Montreal, although the story could just as easily have been set in any industrial North American city in the mid 20th century. On a visual level I find that era very appealing: everything from cars, clothes, and buildings looked so much better. And as an added bonus, no worries about having to draw someone staring at a computer screen, which is probably just about the blandest thing imaginable, visually at least. More specifically, I think of the story as being set in the early 1960s, at the very tail end of an era before everything changed.
There are many things in this comic that are left unseen: The building signs are cropped so you never see the whole name, and in the scene where a character is shouting at someone perched on a ledge, you never show the person he is shouting at. Why did you leave these things out?
At least two of the characters in the book are mired in various levels of self-deception, and it’s this delusional state that allows them to survive and get through each day. So there’s a lot that is unsaid here, or only implied. Hershel is shouting for the man to jump, but it’s never really clear if all of this is really happening. As for the buildings, I felt that showing them as partially cropped landscapes can be somewhat jarring, which contributes to the claustrophobic and anxiety-ridden nature of the story.
You often focus on lovingly drawn objects--office machinery, household items. How do they help you tell the story?
The objects in the story become part of the visual landscape, and they often figure prominently in each page. Most of them are composites of real objects with imagined objects. One of the running gags in the book is that the equipment used in this company is completely obsolete. I wanted to create a certain type of machinery that looked old on the one hand, but also looked so archaic that it would be almost inconceivable to imagine these being modern or relevant in any era.