Graphic Novels and Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly

“It’s a format, not a genre.”

This is a heading in Drawn & Quarterly’s 2003 manifesto “Selling Graphic Novels in the Book Trade”, a pamphlet guide written by the publisher to teach bookshops how to properly display and categorize their products. This header statement is true, but arguably only because Drawn & Quarterly made it so.

Drawn & Quarterly is a Canadian publisher of comics and graphic novels based in Montreal, Quebec. They are a publisher that took the idea put forth by Art Spiegelman and his seminal comic anthology, Raw, and enshrined it into a business practice. This concept, birthed in New York in the ‘70s and ‘80s by the likes of Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Robert Crumb, Bill Griffith and many others, was to expand the genre of “comic” into a literary form. Comics didn’t have to be for kids; they could be beautiful, they could be diverse, they could contain narrative nuances that matched the books of literary canon. In 2018, Sabrina by Nick Drnaso was the first graphic novel to ever be longlisted for the Man Booker Prize; it was published by Drawn & Quarterly.

They’ve accomplished this publishing success while remaining characteristically and fiercely local; I don’t think a space could ever be embodied by a business in the way that the Mile End neighborhood of Montreal is expanded from place to practice and back again by Drawn & Quarterly.

Drawn & Quarterly started out as a comic anthology magazine (published quarterly, of course), at a time when zines, self-publishing and micropress mini-comics were the main distribution outlets for this alternative form of comics. As a city of political discord, Montreal has always been entrenched in punk and zine culture (something that is still seen today at the annual Expozine in Montreal, one of the largest zine events in North America), so Drawn & Quarterly could work directly with local artists. Soon realizing that these creators had more writing than a magazine anthology could contain, Drawn & Quarterly turned to books. And they did so just in the way that Montreal does everything – presenting every dirty, raunchy, self-absorbed comic as if it were art and refusing to let you say it wasn’t.

Autobiographical comics were the trend of alternative comics in the ‘90s and ‘00s. But while Pantheon Books in New York was publishing narrative-driven autobiographies like Maus and Persepolis, Drawn & Quarterly did not diverge from its grungy Montreal background. Their first book was by Montrealer Julie Doucet, a compendium of her Dirty Plotte mini-comics that detailed her daily life with erratic, heavy black line works and a visceral look at the feminine body. It was angsty, it was harsh, and reading it feels like inhaling a cigarette on a numbingly-cold overcast day when all the car-exhaust has turned Montreal’s snow grey. Drawn & Quarterly lovingly section-sewed it into a hardcase binding and presented it to the world with no less quality and care than a prized art book.

Next came certified weirdo Chester Brown, a Canadian cartoonist who wrote a frank, uncomfortable autobiographical comic about his neurotic teenage obsession with masterbation – an intense second book to publish, but probably not for a publisher based in a city where the sex trade flourishes and PornHub was founded. Brown’s The Playboy got the same beautiful book design and quality that Seth, another celebrated Canadian cartoonist, soon received for Palookaville – a semi-autobiographical comic in monotone drawings reflective of the classic newspaper strip styles, but once again unabashedly presented as worthy of its high-quality casing.

Drawn & Quarterly has since expanded past only Canadian authors, and constantly proves that comics can’t be dismissed or categorized by a particular genre standard. They now publishes an international brigade featuring Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, Guy Delisle, Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Joe Sacco and Tom Gauld. Likewise, their catalog contains fantasy fiction, historical biography, war correspondences, postmodern metanarratives. It has become the publisher to turn to if you want an excellent graphic novel made, genre be damned. But revolutionizing the visual-narrative format never meant relinquishing their Canadian spirit – the 25th anniversary Drawn & Quarterly anthology featured essays from both Art Spiegelman and Margaret Atwood. Crucially, Drawn & Quarterly never left Montreal. In 2007, they opened up a bookshop a few blocks south of their publishing offices in the Mile End, and in 2017 they even expanded that store to include a children-focused bookshop and event space. They run book clubs, they host book launches and book talks – they are devoted to the entire process of bookmaking, from creator to audience. Drawn & Quarterly changed the way graphic novels and comics were published by encouraging that change at every stage of the book process.

Lauria Galbraith