Drawn and Quarterly, the Montreal-based publisher of comics and graphic novels, began life as a magazine, released in April of 1990. That first issue served as a de facto mission statement, laying out what the company would one day achieve on a grander scale – and what it would strive always to avoid.
Editor Chris Oliveros felt a kinship with the idiosyncratic, deeply personal work appearing in underground anthologies like Art Spiegelman's RAW and Robert Crumb's WEIRDO. He'd previously helped put together a comics anthology himself, only to be disappointed by its shapelessness, its lack of a discerning editorial eye.
So he filled Drawn and Quarterly #1 with comics that met his exacting standards. Those first stories, notable for their technical skill and the strangely matter-of-fact nature of their ambitions, were by turns funny and sad, exultantly filthy and coolly cerebral, but they shared a powerful narrative drive. This was not the formalist experimentation that the alt-comics scene was then known for, which often devolved into arch, art-school pastiche.
No: it was storytelling, vibrant and singular and achingly human.
As such it was also a defiant (albeit Canadian, so you know: politely defiant) reaction to the prevailing winds whistling through the comics landscape. As ever, the mainstream was dominated by superheroes, endlessly iterating their recursive Manichean slugfests; they were a bold, bright, unignorable spectacle crowding the marketplace, but as the 1990s dawned, superhero comics slid into a nihilistic fascination with anti-heroic violence and grit. They were, simply put, loud.
Oliveros knew that there was an audience for work that was quieter, moodier, more nuanced. Comics that didn't scream battle-cries, but that muttered self-deprecating asides. Comics in which the conflicts were internal, not cosmic, with emotional stakes that landed on the reader all the harder.
The story of how Oliveros and a small but passionate staff built a stable of comics artists, and ultimately a successful publishing house, takes up only fraction of the massive, 776-page tome, Drawn and Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels. It's largely a celebration of the comics, and the artists, that Oliveros and company have published over the years, and as such the encomiums come hot and heavy: glowing testimonials from writers, artists, critics, editors, and retailers abound.
The praise is well-earned, but there is inevitably a sameness to it, and given the sheer number of these reminisces, the casual reader can be forgiven a certain impatience to get to the actual comics that make up the meat of the book.
At first, these reprints and new stories, by D & Q notables like Seth, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Joe Sacco, David Collier and Debbie Dreschler, walk us through the turbulent '90s, when the comics industry experienced an unprecedented boom and teeth-shattering bust. Through it all, Drawn and Quarterly kept its head down – and pointed, more often than not, at its own navel. In those first few years, the publisher developed a reputation – only a bit unfairly – as a clearinghouse for work by Canadian comics artists who explored the myriad struggles of being Canadian comics artists, often in breathless confessional detail.
Soon, however, the publishers' line swelled with richly varied voices, styles and subjects. Oliveros had led off that first 1990 issue with an editorial calling out the alternative comics scene as a "boys' club." In the years since, Drawn and Quarterly has published artists and writers like Rutu Modan, Lynda Barry, Lisa Hanawalt, Kate Beaton, Marguerite Abouet, Mimi Pond, Vanessa Davis and Jillian Tamaki. They've translated massive tomes from the great Japanese manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi. They've reprinted strips by masters of the form like John Stanley (Milton the Monster) and Tove Jansson (Moomin).
This work, and much more, is collected here, reproduced with the close attention to production quality and design for which the publisher is known. The result is effectively a textbook you might be assigned in some fantastic survey course that combines the history of comics publishing, the study of human behavior at its most intimate, awkward and revelatory, and the drive to tell stories that live suspended in the tension between word and image.