Adrian Tomine’s portrait of Chris Oliveros.
Drawn and Quarterly, one of the world’s premier comic book publishing companies, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. For many years D&Q was a one-man operation, run by Chris Oliveros (with assistance from his immediate family). In recent years, the company has gone through a strong growth, overseen by Associate Publisher Peggy Burns, Creative Director Tom Devlin, and a very talented production team. The new crew has remained true to Oliveros’s high standards while expanding the range of books published by D&Q.
At the Doug Wright Awards last month Stan Bevington, himself a distinguished Canadian publisher, delivered a tribute to Oliveros. Here is a slightly amended version of what Bevington said:
T.S. Eliot once said “Literature is produced by a few queer people, in odd corners.” Eliot was referring to the small presses and little magazines of the early 20th century that published most of the great work of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf—and Eliot himself—that larger publishers were afraid to touch.
Great comics are also produced by a few queer people in odd corners. Long before the large New York publishers started their “graphic novel” lines, the work of publishing decent comics was done by a few hardy, hard-working, visionary independent publishers who dared to believe that comics could be art.
Chief among these publishers is Chris Oliveros, known affectionately as “the chief” by the cartoonists he publishes.
For 20 years at the helm of Drawn and Quarterly, a company that he started as a one-man operation, Chris has distinguished himself as a publisher who has changed the cultural landscape through his uncompromising commitment to excellence.
How can we properly cover The Chief’s achievements over the past two decades? It’s difficult to do so briefly but, a few points can be made:
1) His unrivalled eye for quality
Time and time again, Chris has looked at the work of a young cartoonists and discerned their potential for making a permanent achievement. Today, Seth, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, and the other artists in the D&Q stable are internationally celebrated, but they were all near the beginning of their careers, often doing self-published mini-comics, when Chris discovered their works and gave them a platform to shine.
2) His belief that good comics deserve to be showcased in beautifully produced books
Prior to drawn and Quarterly, comics publishers were criminally indifferent to production values. Comic strips appeared in newspapers and got reprinted in slipshod paperbacks; traditional comic books were notoriously cheap (flimsy pamphlets printed on pulp paper in gaudy four-colour made by plastic plates and having staples for the spine); underground comic books were even more low grade than their mainstream counterparts. Chris, who is himself a very talented cartoonist, changed all that: from the start, his magazines and pamphlets were packaged as art objects. He has spent countless hours thinking about paper stock, the shape and size of books, and the need to have striking covers. Drawn and Quarterly books are always art objects in and of themselves.
3) His internationalism
Rooted in cosmopolitan Montreal, Chris has always paid close attention to what is happening in Europe and Asia. He has made extensive efforts to translate the work of such international giants as Philippe Dupuy, Charles Berberian, and Yoshiro Tatsumi. By doing so, he’s immeasurably enriched the Anglophone world, giving us a glimmer of the riches that exist in other comics traditions.
4) His quiet but firm loyalty to Canada
Coupled with his internationalism, Chris has always been a Canadian patriot. Aside from the roster of great Canadian artists he has nurtured, he has done yeoman’s work in excavating and restoring the Canadian past, bringing back into print unjustly ignored cartoonists like Laurence Hyde and Harry Mayerovitch. The gorgeous new book on Doug Wright that Chris has just published, which is unstinting as always in its lavish design, is a testament to Chris’s strong commitment to Canada’s heritage.
Finally, a few words should be said about Chris the man. Soft-spoken and modest, Chris has been more than a publisher to his cartoonists. He’s been a true friend. Many in this hall can testify to his many personal acts of kindness. The cartoonist’s life can be hard: it often involves long hours of work for little recognition. Many cartoonists have found though that however tough live gets, they can always find a kind word and helping hand from Chris Oliveros.