“There was this post-Maus explosion in comics,” says Tom Devlin, executive director of Drawn & Quarterly, an independent graphic novel publisher in Montreal. “Interest in comics had been building for a while, but Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a real tipping point. We finally saw widespread acceptance (and commercial value) we hadn’t seen previously.” Thus, founder Chris Oliveros opened a business solely dedicated to the art and literary form in 1989.
Though D&Q started as a quarterly magazine, eventually it came to focus on representing and publishing individual artists with their own cartoon series, which in turn could eventually be collected into graphic novels. For the less initiated, Devlin explains that graphic novels differ from comic books in that they’re a collection of comics that “need to have a spine.”
The process of choosing the artists the publisher wants to work with is a fairly straightforward one. “It’s such a small world you can pretty quickly pick up on who the good ones are,” says Devlin. Whether it’s discovering talent at a comics convention, crafts fair, or even a flea market, he seeks “artists with an idiosyncratic vision, an individual style, and an individual voice.
“You feel great cartooning, like you can feel a great pop song. You just know right away.”
For he and his colleagues—who refer to themselves as “lifers”, he says that “comics are interesting because you can make a pretty quick judgement based on visuals, like graphic design. But, you need to spend time with it to suss out if there’s actual value, or if it’s just flash.” And above all else, “We just want make these books look like books regular people would want to read,” says Devlin.
Devlin refers to one of his favorite artists, Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown, as a good example of this meeting of style and substance. Brown’s cartoons are a memoir, and illustrate his own awkward coming-of-age story. From getting picked on as a teen for refraining from swearing, to the relationship with his mother, Brown draws in a way that Devlin feels is “relatable. It looks easy in a way, but in that simplicity is a real perfection, especially when you look at what’s happening panel to panel.” And as with all cartoons, the words carry as much weight. Devlin discovered Brown’s work right after reading Maus, and got hooked on his ability to both illustrate and write simply, but emotively.
“Cartooning is really about graphic design and writing. It’s not just about drawing,” says Devlin. “It’s like graphic design, because you need to immediately get your message across to people, hook them in, and let them know what you’re up to.”
“But comics, especially, have to accomplish that because you need to more your readers along.”
Recently, the company relocated to the hip neighborhood of Mile-Ex. The space, which was formerly occupied by a tech company, feels vaguely industrial and raw with its concrete floors, exposed ceiling duct work, and shared offices. A light-filled corner where a sofa, dining table with mismatched chairs, and record player reside lend coziness and warmth. So too do the colorful citron paint accents throughout the studio, which are a playful nod to one of D&Q’s artist’s Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve covers.
The nook is also where employees can curl up with a manuscript, and where the company’s graphic novel club congregates. “We’ll just hang out on the couch, pull up a couple chairs, have wine, and talk about a comic someone else published,” says Devlin. “We wanted to create an atmosphere that lends itself to closeness.”