Why Drawn & Quarterly is thriving despite tough times for publishers

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (11/25/12)

At the Montreal corner of St. Urbain and Bernard in the early 1990s, the rent was cheap and the neighbours were cool. From his flat on the second floor, Chris Oliveros started a small hand-made magazine. He wanted the comic strips that he and his friends drew to find a larger audience. At his kitchen table, he put together the first issues of Drawn & Quarterly. That was 23 years ago. Now, Drawn & Quarterly is the hottest publisher of graphic novels in the English-speaking world.

At a time when the future of the book itself is in question, and many independent publishers struggle to stay afloat, Drawn & Quarterly is thriving. David Gutnick produced this lovely documentary about Drawn & Quarterly's, ahem, colourful history and its current success for The Sunday Edition.

It all started in 1989, in Oliveros's cheap second-floor flat in Mile End. By day, Oliveros worked as a bike courier. By night, he read comics and hung out with his cartoonist friends, sharing work and filling notebooks with illustrated anecdotes from their lives. They were prolific, but they had no audience except each other. The comics being published were about Archie or Marvel superheroes, and there seemed to be no place for comics about the day-to-day lives of humans outside Riverdale (the setting of Archie comics). Then Oliveros had an epiphany: why not become a publisher himself?

"I wanted to start a comics anthology that would come out quarterly — hence the title Drawn & Quarterly — and I got a loan from my father to print this first issue," Oliveros said. "In the early days it was on the kitchen table because that was before computers...you would send everything to the printer and they would have these giant cameras to photograph artwork. So a lot has changed in the ensuing 23 years."

Chris kept his day job, but spent more and more time figuring out how the comic-book industry worked. He had never thought of himself as a businessman, but he started nosing around comic-book fairs, learning about distribution and markets. His instinct told him that his little quarterly magazine could become something much bigger.

His instinct was right. French-speaking Quebeckers have a long tradition of spending plenty of money on comics like Asterix and Tintin, and talking about beautifully published comics as if they're art. With Drawn & Quarterly, Oliveros has brought that respect for the medium to English Canada as well.

But Drawn & Quarterly's growth from quarterly comics zine to full-fledged publishing house and bookstore didn't happen overnight. "While I was searching for material for this magazine I ended up meeting other cartoonists, like Seth, and it turned out that many of them actually were just starting to do longer works that wouldn't fit into a magazine," said Oliveros. Seth had a comic book he was just starting called Palookaville and he was looking for a publisher. "So it was sort of a story of one thing leading to another."

According to Oliveros, "you can really do comics about anything." Drawn & Quarterly has been experimenting with material that isn't strictly comics-related, too — one of its major releases this fall has been the Rookie Yearbook, a collection of work from blogging wunderkind Tavi Gevinson's smart online teen magazine Rookie.

These days, Oliveros publishes some of the biggest names in graphic art and comics in North America, including longtime American heavyweights like Linda Barry and Art Spiegelman alongside Canadians including Seth, Chester Brown, and Kate Beaton. And now the team works out of a spacious loft.

Below, check out a few of the artists that Drawn & Quarterly is publishing now.




All images courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.



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