A comic equivalent of the New Yorker

The way Tom Devlin tells it, they were the loud ones, the brash American pair parachuted in to the small independent comics publisher in Montreal, Canada.
A comic equivalent of the New Yorker

It was late 2003, and Devlin’s wife Peggy Burns had been hired by D+Q as publicist. For most of its life up to that point, D+Q had operated out of the apartment of its founder Chris Oliveros and only that summer, after 13 years in existence, had hired its very first intern.

The story of the now-legendary company is recounted in Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels, a 776-page monument to publishing vision, creative endeavour, and comic book innovation.

It bursts at the seams with a diverse range of comic art and stories, history,ephemera, as well as essays from luminaries like Margaret Atwood and Jonathan Lethem.

The book was published this year to celebrate D+Q’s legacy, which can be seen in the way comic books and graphic novels are being regarded on an equal level to literature.

Back in 2003, the company was going through a shaky period and the hiring of Burns, highly regarded for her work with DC Comics and Mad Magazine, and later Devlin, who also brought a broad range of comics industry experience, was crucial in seeing the small publisher establish a more global reach.#

This year has also been significant in that it saw Oliveros step down as publisher to concentrate on making his own comics and hand the reins over to Burns, allowing Devlin to become executive editor.

If Devlin and Burns paint a picture of a garrulous duo dominating the quiet ambience of their open-plan office environment, Devlin’s quietly spoken manner suggests that something of the Canadian temperament has rubbed off on him.

Affectionately known as the Chief, Oliveros prefers to leave the limelight to his artists. An enquiry as to what type of character he is elicits hushed shock from Devlin.

“Oh my God, he’s not a character at all,” he gasps.

“He’s very quiet and he’s very even-tempered and very trusting. And really, Peggy and I still feel this way, especially felt this way when we arrived, that we were just big loud Americans, bulldozing over Chris. We obviously always had a respect for the company that he built, but I suppose now we look at it and we’re even shocked and grateful that he was so trusting of us because we don’t always find that such an easy thing to do.”

He adds: “Chris is not pushy in any manner. I think he just very early on just said ‘this is how I’m going to do it: I want to make a comic company and the artists come first — it’s never about me.’ And he stuck to it.”

The first Drawn & Quarterly comic was published in the spring of 1990, and in his editorial Oliveros declared his ambition to create a literary comic and magazine, a comics equivalent of the New Yorker.

His trust in the tastes of the public was justified and amongst D+Q’s roster are such international critical favourites as Adrian Tomine, Rutu Modan and Guy Delisle.

But he was helped early on by having on his doorstep such acclaimed Canadian cartoonists as Seth, Chester Brown and the iconoclastic Julie Doucet.

These, alongside the American cartoonist Joe Matt have built a reputation for expressing work that is particularly confessional and intimate in tone.

“I think Chris was always thinking good comics are just good comics,” reasons Devlin. “He wasn’t just a Canadian publishing Canadians. It just worked out that way initially.

“The way those cartoonists were all autobiographical cartoonists was more coincidental than it was an aesthetic choice. They were exploring, and that was sort of the primary mode of exploration at the time, to kinda look inward.”

Drawn and Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels is published by D+Q

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