Last month, Montreal-based comic book publisher Drawn and Quarterly celebrated their 25th anniversary with the release of a massive collection titled "Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-Five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics, and Graphic Novels." The 800-page book featured new work from Kate Beaton, Chester Brown, Michael DeForge, Tom Gauld, Miriam Katin, Rutu Modan, James Sturm, Jillian Tamaki and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, as well as rare work from Art Spiegelman, Adrian Tomine and more. But that celebratory tome wasn't the only big news to come out of Drawn and Quarterly in recent months; it was announced in early May that Chris Oliveros would soon step down as publisher of the company he founded twenty-five years prior.
Enter: Peggy Burns, incoming Drawn and Quarterly publisher who had previously worked as a publicist at DC Comics when she quit her job, cancelled her wedding and moved to Montreal with her fiance Tom Devlin to become take a job at the graphic novel publisher. Now, over a decade after starting as Drawn and Quarterly's publicist, Burns has stepped into the role of publisher. Following the announcement of her promotion, Burns was kind enough to take time out of her incredibly busy schedule to talk about her new job and her big goals for the company as it enters the home stretch of its third decade.
CBR News: I really loved "Drawn and Quarterly: 25." Where did the idea for putting it together originate?
Peggy Burns: [Executive editor] Tom [Devlin] had the idea. Tom wanted to do a 20th anniversary book and then he wanted to do a 25th. I think Chris was a little bit more reticent. I mean he was into the idea but it doesn't really fall into the idea of how Drawn and Quarterly operates where it's mostly all about the authors. Tom just kept wanting to do it -- and they sit right next to each other -- so eventually they started plotting and planning and getting really excited. Tom wanted new material and Chris was digging into the archives. They started reaching out to the authors and the authors were also excited and so, from there, the project was born.
I can understand the hesitation towards putting a book like this out, since it means at least one less book that you can publish that year.
One less other book and, also, to tell your own story is very hard. It's not an easy thing to do and we know we don't have the most exciting history. That would be Fantagraphics or "Zap" or "Raw." We're proud of our unassuming history, though. When you're creating this artist-friendly company to take a step back and to look at yourself and how you're going to tell the story is very difficult. Chris is interviewed in the book and when we got the interview back, it was classic Chris in that instead of reflecting he was deflecting and talking about the employees and their contributions to the company -- which is very nice and all well and good, but we were like, "No Chris, talk about how you met the authors . We want you to talk about how you met Seth, how you met Julie Doucet, how did you meet James Sturm. Those are the stories that people want to know."
I loved Chester Brown's "A History of Drawn & Quarterly in Six Panels."
We all realized that Drawn and Quarterly has never been stronger than it is right now and we actually have the manpower to do the book. We have our managing editor, Tracy Hurren, who is basically Tom's right hand and she designed the book with Tom. Julia [Pohl-Miranda], our marketing director, spearheaded some of the book's interviews. The company was big enough to be able to handle a 776-page book. We were working on the Rookie Yearbooks for a couple years and those were very intensive time-wise, so without them -- and with our website redesigned -- we actually had the time to be able to do a project this grand a scale.
Is there something in the book that you really love or were involved in assembling?
The one thing that I contributed that gave me the "oh my god she wrote back!" was the Margaret Atwood essay on Kate Beaton. I had met Margaret Atwood two years ago at Comic-Con. I was at the Archie Comics booth and when you're Canadian, you know who Margaret Atwood is. I saw her and I started freaking out. I was like, "Oh my god, that's Margaret Atwood." Everyone around me was like, "What is this woman doing? Why is she freaking out?" And then Margaret Atwood turned around and I was like, "I'm such a fan of yours!" She was like, "Drawn and Quarterly?" Because she's from Toronto, she knew who we are. She did an event at our store. We had a 700 person event for her there. I had her email so I wrote to her and I felt bad because it's like, how many favors can I ask of this woman? She just did an event for our bookstore, but she loves comics and she loves Kate Beaton and she was happy to do it. That was my one big contribution.
My other contribution, which is not as exciting but in the end it worked out well. We had a dead period in terms of photos. We had no photos from the mid-2000's -- before camera phones. We had all these early beautiful ones and then we'd have all the convention photos of the last couple years and then nothing in between. So I just went online and would do a flickr search for Adrian Tomine or APE. I found [Calvin Reid's wife] Jody Culkin's and hers were wonderfully organized. They were by year and by convention. If she had time to put the authors name in there she would. I was able to find a lot of pictures we wouldn't normally have in there. The one picture that I'm especially fond of that I found on flickr was Jen Vaughn's photo of Jason Lutes doing karaoke with all of his CCS students. When I found that on Jen's stream I was like, yes! I wrote her and she was like, of course you can use that.
One thing that was fascinating was learning just how financially precarious the company was for so many years. It's something that I think most people wouldn't have known.
When I made the move from DC Comics it was very unceremonious in the industry. I think people in indie comics knew I was with Tom and knew that I liked independent comics and so no one really paid attention. When I got to Drawn and Quarterly, it was pretty barebones and there wasn't a lot of money -- maybe none. I don't think people really could imagine this because our books were fancy. Chris doesn't complain, he doesn't write editorials -- anymore! We were very much a quiet company. Some people would say to me, well, you're just the publicist. I'm like, just the publicist? At that time, Chris and I did the royalties together with the help of Rebecca Rosen, our intern. I cleaned out the fridge and the bathroom, drove mailings across the border -- it's a small business, you do it all. I think because Drawn and Quarterly doesn't have a scrappy attitude, people definitely did not understand just how severe it was when I came on.
The story that I tell in the book of San Diego Comic-Con is true. We were sitting at this outdoor cafe and Chris said, "I need to tell you, the company might not be around in six months." It was only because of the strange confluence of all these different events. LPC going under, our new distributor was very expensive, as well as printing in Europe and expanding into the book market. It was just all too much. It was interesting to look back when we were doing this history book. Just to know that Chris hired me -- and Tom came with me -- and he was able to hire the right person at the right time. The person who's going to bring along Tom, obviously, but the three of us always knew that the company could be so much more and we had to do whatever it took to make it that much more -- and we did it. Who knows what would have happened if he hired someone else!
You arrived at a key time when graphic novels were taking off. The company had been around and had a good reputation, but you clearly played a key role.
Definitely, but it was easy. And I'm not downplaying my being a publicist, but even though we were always broke those first few years, if you said to Chris, "I need to spend the money for this reason," and he could see the benefit in spending that money -- even if we didn't have the money -- he would say yes. The New York Times Magazine did that big story the summer after I arrived at D+Q. They called up and said we want to do a photo shoot with all the authors and I said, "Well, MoCCA's coming up -- you can do the photo shoot there." At the time, Seth and Chester Brown weren't even coming to MoCCA, so I said, "We need to bring them to MoCCA so they can get their photo in the paper." We really had no money but Chris was like, let's do it. So there's little things like that, where Chris just believes in you.
Or things like the distribution, which is probably the first non-publicity business decision I made that really affected the direction of the company. Our old distributor, Chronicle, is a wonderful publisher and a wonderful distributor for like-minded books like theirs, but our books were so serious at the time. You'd have to go in to a sales conference and be like, "This is [Chester Brown's] 'Louis Riel' and he's a folk hero," or, "Joe Sacco goes to war zones." It just wasn't the right fit. I remember marching into Chris' office and saying, "We need a more literary distributor." Which is unheard of and it costs so much money to change distribution. And Chronicle is on the west coast and any literary distributor is on the east coast. We had just switched distribution. He said, "You know, I've thought that and if you're thinking that, then yes we should." That again sent the company into an economic tailspin because we had no money coming in.
When Chris, who founded Drawn and Quarterly, came to you and said that he wanted to step down, what did you say?
I did not want to talk about it. I refused to basically talk about it. I was dead set against it. Tom was happy. He was concerned for Chris, being his friend, but Tom's a fan so he was very excited. He's a former Newbury Comics, Diamond Comics and Million Year Picnic employee now stepping in for Chris Oliveros. For me, I can't really say it was a dream come true to run a company with my husband. Taking over for Chris Oliveros seems like a fool's errand. I like working with Chris. I refused to talk about it for, like, six months. In those six months, Tom and I eventually talked about it because I did feel like Tom and I would have to sort out how we would work with each other and how we were going to make decisions. If you wanted to say that Tom is the editor of our home life, making creative decisions, and I'm the publisher of our home life, making business decisions, that's true. I didn't want to have that duplicated at work so I'm filing the taxes at work and at home. We had to sort that out amongst ourselves and once we did, then I came back to Chris and said, "Okay, I'm ready to talk. Let's get a lawyer. Let's form a succession plan." He was just so happy. Just last week he went part time and he comes in at 1:00 after drawing all morning and you can just tell he's very at peace. He's very happy.
As the publisher, are you doing work that's different from what you've been doing in recent years?
Chris and I always worked on business decisions together. Up to a month ago, Chris' end was more the printing end. He deals with the printers more and the production of the books and then I would deal with the distributors more and the selling of the books because of our backgrounds, but business decisions were always made together. The bookstore was made together or ebooks were made together or any big new direction for the company was always made together. In that regard it's not really that much of a shift. One thing is I'm not going to be doing much publicity anymore. Julia was just promoted to Director of Marketing and she's going to oversee the publicity. After being a comic book publicist for about sixteen years, it feels pretty good that I won't have to do all the mailings anymore. It's hard for me not to track and research bylines though -- I do it automatically!
Now that you're Drawn and Quarterly's publisher, what is the next goal for the company?
One small thing that I have been working on -- which is a very Quebec thing and might not make much sense to people outside of Quebec -- is that I've been working for a couple years for our bookstore to get accredited to sell to school libraries and universities, which we weren't before. It's called a SODEC accreditation. That really excites me because the bookstore has created this other revenue stream for the D+Q. It's been around for about eight years and is now the premiere English language bookstore in Montreal. The way the bookstore has helped stabilize the publishing company is very interesting in that it helps our cash flow because when the publisher is spending money to put the books to press, you're getting Christmas money from the bookstore. The cash flows compliments each other. I've seen how course options through universities have given life to our book sales in January and August -- and given life to our backlist. Macmillan's academic marketing department takes our books to these conferences all over North America. That's done wonders for us so I'm excited for our bookstore here in Montreal to be able to start selling books to universities and schools because I feel like that will help stabilize the store a lot.
Outside of our Montreal store, I want to explore the academic and gift markets. I have always wanted to exhibit at the NY GIft Show but never had the time doing publicity. I would like to attend AWP in Los Angeles next year. Mimi Pond has already offered me a bed! As a company, we are going to Thought Bubble in Leeds this Fall and to Angouleme next January. We shook up our convention schedule a bit for our anniversary. There are so many conventions these days and with rising travel costs from Montreal, it made us question whether attending them is the best use of our time and money or if it is better to instead send authors to the shows or on the road to the retailers. TCAF has become such a focus for us with so many authors attending every year that we were forced to drop MoCCA. If we have TCAF and an author on a spring tour like we do every year, we just don't have the manpower or the willpower to do another show. SPX and the Brooklyn Book Festival are two of our best shows and they are on the same weekend, with events for Adrian Tomine and Kate Beaton so we will have to make similar decision this Fall.
It's interesting now to be a publisher, one thing that's nice is ebooks don't seem as frightening as they were five years ago for publishers, so you'll probably see us do more ebooks and expand our backlist. There's a rhythm now that people who like to read on devices will read their books on devices and people who still like to read their books in hardcover will still read their books in hardcover. We're at peace with that now. Another thing we're working on our store website and hopefully having a web store for our bookstore.
I basically just want to be stable. Chris, Tom and I and the staff have worked really long and hard on making the company stable. That's all I want. I want to be able to pay the bills on time and make money and be able to be prepared for anything that comes our way -- whether it's the chance to publish a good book that we have to pay a lot of money for or just paying our royalties on time or just being prepared for anything that happens.
But initial trepidation aside, I have been waking up lately excited to do the job. Little things have happened over the past few weeks that have given me a rush. Zadie Smith blurbed Adrian's Fall book "Killing and Dying." We have a whole slate of projects to announce with our 25th anniversary. One of which is we're announcing Chester Brown's next book. For me, a Chester Brown book really drives the anniversary and the future home. He is a true genius. I guess I can now say I am the publisher of Chester Brown, and I don't think I ever would have guessed that when I found a copy of "Ed The Happy Clown" at the Coney Island Flea Market 20 years ago. Chester Brown, right? I'll go to the ends of the earth for him.