Burns leads comics list Drawn & Quarterly into fourth decade

Burns leads comics list Drawn & Quarterly into fourth decade

There is arguably no better place in North America for an independent, literary graphic novel publisher to be based than Montreal. Sure, it is a sizeable market with a foot in the English and French languages, but Quebec’s biggest city also has a deeprooted appreciation of comics as an artform and, like the rest of the Francophone world, an understanding that bandes dessinées aren’t just for les enfants.

That culture is part of the reason why Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q) has built itself up, in the 31 years since its founding by then-23-year-old cartoonist Chris Oliveros, as one of the globe’s most respected alternative comics publishers. Over the years it has brought out giants like Chris Ware, Kate Beaton, Chester Brown and Seth (the pen name of Gregory Gallant, who will be appearing virtually at two events in this year’s Canada Guest of Honour programme). D&Q has English-language rights for Tove Jansson’s Moomin comic strips—its four bestselling books sold into the UK are all Moomin collections—while its output is becoming known to even non-graphic novel readers: in 2020 Seth’s Clyde Fans was longlisted for the Giller Prize (Canada’s most prestigious books gong), while in 2018 Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina was Booker-shortlisted—it was the first time a graphic novel had been in contention for either award.

D&Q publisher Peggy Burns—who stepped up to run the company almost seven years ago after Oliveros opted to concentrate on cartooning—says: “We are very fortunate to be in Quebec because it is a graphic novel-friendly place. In a French society no-one questions that graphic novels are for adults. It’s not a novelty here. [D&Q author/illustrator] Michel Rabagliati is a hero in Quebec; everyone knows who he is. Only in Quebec would you have a politician like [Montreal’s first female mayor] Valérie Plante deciding to tell her story in comics. And not an adapted autobiography, either, but her first instinct was she wanted to write it as a graphic memoir.” D&Q published Plante’s Okay, Universe, with art by Delphie Côté-Lacroix, this year.

A new appreciation

Seth and Drnaso’s appearances on those prize lists suggest the English-speaking world is finally catching up to the French, Belgian and Japanese markets, where comics are put on an equal footing with “serious” literature. But they also come within a long, wider acceptance of geek culture on the superhero front, with the explosion of comic-cons and the ongoing Marvel-isation of the movie industry. 

But Hughes, who prior to joining D&Q in 2003 worked at DC Comics, does not think the “Intellectual Property extension” part of the comics industry—most exemplified by the Marvel Cinematic Universe—helps her side out. At least not any more: “I’ve been in comics since the turn of the century. When the first ‘Spider-Man’ came out in the early 2000s, you saw a difference. And then we had ‘American Splendor’ [a comedy drama film about Harvey Pekar, author of the comic book series of the same name] and ‘Ghost World’ [based on Daniel Clowes’ comic book] around the same time. That really helped build momentum not just for comics sales, but to help graphic novels become a category in general bookstores. But I don’t think the films help now. Marvel movies are so far beyond comics, they don’t translate back for us. I don’t think they translate back for Marvel comics anymore.”

But comic-cons have been a boon for D&Q, or at least those comic fairs on the more alternative end, as they are a vital part of book sales and breaking first-time creators. Not having them for the past two years has been a blow, Burns admits: “The biggest challenge of the pandemic was that it was really hard to début a new author.” But she adds that the D&Q team adapted quickly to virtual events and pivoted to online sales (both through its own website and pushing customers towards Bookshop. org rather than Amazon). After a dip early on in the pandemic, sales picked up, particularly for D&Q perennial authors like Lynda Barry, Adrian Tomine and Jansson.

The next step Burns is a Syracuse, New York native who became a publicity director at DC in New York City shortly after university. Though she enjoyed her time with DC, Burns says it was “inevitable I turned the corner [to independent comics]. I liked the superhero stuff—when DC would say, ‘Oh, we’re having Green Arrow do something new’, I would say, ‘Sure, I can get behind that.’ But the titles I really gravitated to always had an author and clear creator behind them”. She had become friendly with Oliveros over the years (“it’s a small industry”) and one day he emailed her asking if she knew a publicist who might fancy a job in Montreal. She says: “I wrote, ‘Yeah, me.’ I was in my late twenties and I was thinking, ‘This is the chance to do something big now’—if I didn’t, I’d be locked in forever.” She wasn’t moving north alone, however, as Tom Devlin, her then-fiancé and now husband, was also offered a  job. He is now D&Q’s executive editor. 

What sets D&Q’s list apart from even a lot of other alternative comics publishers, but certainly the superhero conglomerates, is the number of women creators. From Beaton to Woman World author/illustrator Aminder Dhaliwal to Emma Grove, whose début memoir, The Third Person, is one of the publisher’s spring 2022 lead titles, D&Q is no boys’ club. This reflects a change in culture— and not just in gender balance.

Burns says: “I’ve been at D&Q for 18 years and in that first year we only published one woman. So, every year we’ve made a concerted effort to publish more women, but also to publish more people of all different identities and backgrounds. We try to balance the list as much as we can: by genre, by person, by translator, by country. The thing with independent cartoonists, though, is you can’t make them work faster. The work comes in when it comes in, so sometimes we have a season where you’re like, ‘Oh my God, we really killed it [on balancing the list].’ And then the next season not so much.”

As a comics publisher in a Francophone city, D&Q is “a silo within a silo” and sits outside much of the rest of Canadian publishing. That said, Burns praises the Canada Guest of Honour organisers for their support, and says the two-year stretch as the GoH, owing to last year’s fair’s cancellation, has given a boost to rights trading. D&Q’s rights strategy in the UK is interesting, as it makes “book by book decisions” on whether to go direct through its distributor PGUK or let a British publisher take it on. The Moomin titles, for example, are direct, but Drnaso’s Sabrina was sold to Granta. Burns says: “We really want to make sure that all of our books find the right home. Sometimes they are the right fit for a Granta, Faber, Canongate or Cape. But we publish very idiosyncratic comics, and sometimes it’s better for the author if we keep it to ourselves.”