So We Can Weather Any Storm
by Annie Mok
When Chris Oliveros, the publisher of Drawn & Quarterly, emailed Peggy Burns to ask if she knew any good publicists looking for work, she sent back her resume. Chris thought she was joking. He couldn’t believe she’d leave her job at DC Comics in Manhattan, the steady paychecks coming from Batman and Neil Gaiman comics, for a low-paying job in Montreal promoting comics by artists like Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown, and Seth.
Peggy persisted, even after Chris told her D+Q had unexpectedly hit dire straits and he could no longer “in good conscience” hire her. Peggy called her partner Tom Devlin, the publisher of the influential comics micropress Highwater Books, and they came up with a plan.
As she writes in Drawn and Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels, she and Tom “both agreed that we couldn’t let Drawn & Quarterly go out of business.” They “rented the crappiest U-Haul in all of Brooklyn” to make the grueling drive to Montreal without any time to learn the prerequisite French.
Over the next few years Chris, Peggy, and Tom endured the Dickensian difficulties unique to small independent publishers, but they endured. Tom brought his eye for thoughtful design and production values from Highwater to D+Q’s projects. Peggy landed big publicity for books like Joe Sacco’s The Fixer, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography, and the bleak vignettes of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve. They opened a bookstore — “in the middle of the recession,” Peggy notes — and named it Librarie D+Q, now a fixture in Montreal’s Mile End neighborhood.
Over the years, D+Q published a string of evocative works. They published the first complete English collections of Tove Jansson’s classic Moomin comics. Relative newcomers Michael DeForge, Aisha Franz, and Julie Delporte revealed disturbing dreamscapes. D+Q brought alternative manga masters Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and Shigeru Mizuki to Western audiences, often in their first English translations. Marguerite Abouet and Clément Ouberie depicted a funny, sensitive teenage soap opera set in 1970s Ivory Coast in their Aya series. Comics heroes like Lynda Barry and Gilbert Hernandez showed new sides of themselves in their work for D+Q.
The behemoth-sized Drawn and Quarterly: 25 Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels collects new comics from D+Q’s roster of authors and artists, along with remembrances by Margaret Atwood, TV On The Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe, Chris Ware, and others.
This year, Chris Oliveros announced his decision to step down as Publisher to focus on his own cartooning. Peggy took up the mast as Publisher and Tom became Executive Editor. In the middle of this truly monumental year, Peggy took the time to speak with me about the art and business of publishing comics.
You worked as D+Q’s publicist for years before recently moving to the Publisher position. Did, or do you have a particular philosophy of selling books? Can you describe how you helped books find their audiences?
Officially I was Publicity Director until about 2010. I became Associate Publisher to better reflect the range of responsibilities I had, which is pretty typical of a small business. You do a little of everything.
The one philosophy we have at D+Q is that less is more. We want to sell more units of fewer books; we try to keep our list small, fewer than 30 titles a year. So far this has worked and I can’t see it changing now that I’m Publisher. I think a small list instills a trust with the retailer and the customer and naturally helps our books find their audience.
I attended the ComicsPro conference this past winter and met with retailers from across the country. They all said the same thing: “Thank you for not publishing too much. It helps us sell your books.” Specifically, in regard to each book and not our list as a whole, our marketing director Julia and I do sit down before every season and talk about the potential markets for each book.
What changes might you envision for D+Q’s line in the coming years? Are there shifts that you can see between Chris Oliveros’s tastes and your own?
Chris will still be involved editorially. My one condition of succession [was] that the three of us would still decide all editorial decisions. We have always done this and it works. We’re a vicious threesome, as our allegiances can be capricious. Tom and Chris can agree on a project, Tom and I. Chris and I. The rule is that two of us must agree, but our tastes are so similar that we rarely disagree. If one of us is impassioned about a project, it’s pretty infectious.
As Publisher, I want to explore new business avenues and keep D+Q, as a publisher and retailer, on the momentum it is right now. We are having our best year ever and each year is better and stronger than the previous year. I want us to be strong and healthy so we can weather any storm.
What was it like to edit down so much history for the twenty-fifth anniversary book, to create a loose but semi-coherent narrative?
I’ve always joked that in the annals of indie comics, our history is pretty staid. We’re not as revolutionary as Fantagraphics, Zap, or Raw. We did not invent alternative comics, and we know this. Our story can be summed up that a nice, soft-spoken Canadian man had good taste and the utmost respect for his cartoonists and set out to publish good books, which he did. So the history portion of the book in our minds was always second-fiddle to the cartoonists. We always envisioned this book as thank you to our authors and an anthology to showcase their comics. We wanted to let them know how much we appreciate their loyalty and dedication to such a small company. There were times when they had no reason to believe in us, but they always stayed with us.
D+Q has made some pretty bold publishing decisions. Michael DeForge’s First Year Healthy works a little bit like a children’s picture book for adults, in a salmon pink 32-page hardback. Anders Nilsen’s The Rage of Poseidon is a hardcover book that opens up out as one single long accordion-folded page. You seem to have an incredible confidence and trust in your artists and your readership.
It comes back to the small list. When your business is based on 30 books a year, you choose carefully. And it only makes sense to publish cartoonists you fully believe in. Though I should say it is different with each author, some authors are more collaborative, some are not. Some want an editor, some do not. Some design their own books, some do not. Some feel comfortable promoting their books, some do not. Some place the utmost importance in the book as an object over everything else and some just want it to sell. It’s knowing the expectations and boundaries of each author.
D+Q books are always very elegant; jacket-less hardcovers, for example. Can you talk about what the presentation of the books says to you about the content of the book and the overall intent of the company?
It’s funny, because we tried dust jackets and they just get banged up, so jacket-less hardcovers are really a practical decision.
I think understated design is key. Not having a house design is key. We do have fun with the design when we can. Seth’s books are a blast. When Anders wanted to do the accordion we were thrilled; we jumped through printer hoops to make Lynda’s Syllabus a softcover similar to a MEAD composition book.
But I have always said, and always will say, that our books could be black-and-white paperbacks that come in a paper bag, and they would still be the best comics out there. Sometimes I get annoyed when people talk about the design too much. It’s about the comics, after all.