Book Review – Drawn & Quarterly 25 years (Drawn & Quarterly – 2015)

This celebration of the first 25 years of ‘contemporary cartooning, comics, and graphic novels from Canadian publisher Drawn & Quarterly (edited by Tom Devlin) is something of a leviathan.  At over 770 pages and weighing around 4lb 10oz (or 2.1kg if you work in metric) it’s not something you could snuggle down with in bed unless you have wrists of iron or a bed lectern.   

The book is crammed with cartoons, art work, photos, history, memoirs and written ‘appreciations’ of the many artists and cartoonists who have been associated with D&Q since it was started by Chris Oliveros in 1989.  D&Q has been likened to the comic equivalent of the New Yorker and many of the contributors to this book have achieved critical acclaim such as Julie Doucet, Seth, Joe Matt, Chester Brown, Art Spiegelman, Joe Sacco and many others.

In the early days D&Q struggled to get serious comic books taken, well ‘seriously.’ Amongst the reproduced ephemera is a leaflet entitled “Selling Graphic Novels in the book trade”, which is a charming pamphlet and something that booksellers could still learn from.

The work of the artists and cartoonists is preceded by an appreciation, which helps to set the work in context.  One that stood out was an appreciation of the cartoonist James Sturm by Noel Murray.  I’d not heard of Sturm before but the essay by Noel Murray made me want to read his work straight away.   This was followed by a story by Sturm about a comic artist who feels he is falling behind and about those he abandons in pursuing his aims.  Sturm adopts a variety of cartooning styles and the story ends in a neat punchline.

Naomi Fry describes the profound affect that the work of Daniel Clowes had on her:

If you weren’t consistently humiliated by life, you wouldn’t recall every stupid moment of it in such intense detail.

This is a feeling a lot of people can identify with and the autobiographical work of some of the artists linked to D&Q can be so open and honest, in the way that very personal and possibly embarrassing memories are bought to life, that the reader feels their pain and shame. 

Rather than just being lots of boring words to be endured between the cartoons, the written appreciations of the artists are genuinely interesting, illuminating and add to the enjoyment of the work.  

The D&Q artists enthuse about great cartoons from the past and the enduring impact that it has had on them.  Chris Ware writes fondly about Walt and Skeezix by Frank King, a strip where the characters aged in real time and ordinary things happen.  The strips reproduced in the book revealed a lovely, engrossing story of real life.

Seth writes at length about Doug Wright and argues he was every bit as important to comics and cartoons as Charles Schulz.  In capturing the texture of the 1960’s, Seth notes that Wright achieved it 

…thought work that was focuses on quite, tiny little moments.’

Wrights influence can be seen in the work of Seth which often has a quiet Zen like quality about it.  

Many of the cartoons are beautiful artworks in their own right and demand to be studied and appreciated, a couple of cases in point being the works of Denys Wortman and Shigeru Mizuki.

In a tome of this size with an amazing variety of contributors, not everything hits the mark but this would be true of any publisher who tried to put together a collection involving their entire roster of authors. 

This is a great collection and serves as a great introduction to D&Q and a celebration of its achievements over 25 years. 


Book Review: Paying For It – Chester Brown (Drawn & Quarterly – 2013)

The subtitle for Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown’s graphic novel is ‘a comic-strip memoir about being a john’, which it is.  But it is also much more than this.  It’s a psychological study of attitudes towards sex-workers and people who pay for sex.  It’s a deeply contemplative argument for decriminalising prostitution , a call to reassess the value of ‘possessive monogamy’ in traditional relationships and an insight into the lives of prostitutes.  It is also very funny in places.

Chester Brown shows how his relationship came to an end when his girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else.  The new boyfriend eventually moves in and Brown seem remarkably unperturbed by this turn of events.  It is this attitude of non-possessiveness that sets Brown apart, an attitude he wishes more people would cultivate.

Brown takes the decision to pay for sex and we follow his experiences in very graphic detail.  The is one of the most revealing and honest autobiographical books I have read.  Sometimes it is painfully honest and I think it is incredibly courageous for Chester Brown to share this with the world.  Most of us could not be this honest, even with ourselves.

Throughout the book we see Chester’s discussions and conversations with his ex-girlfriend, his brother and his fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth (looking suspiciously like Clark Kent in his trademark vintage clothing and hat).  As you would imagine, Chester meets a variety of responses including disapproval, concern and mockery.  We see Chester justifying his actions and arguing in a Socratic way, which often undermines prejudices and persuades his friends to alter their views.

The artwork is quite minimalistic and static.  One thing that struck me was how little expression is given to the faces of the people depicted.  We have to determine what they are feeling by their words alone.  For the most part Chester’s face is a mask.

Most pages have small equal-sized frames in 2 columns by 4 rows. For me, they were a little small and I wondered if the may have been bigger in the hardback (my copy is the paperback edition).

Almost the last quarter of the book is taken up with handwritten appendices and notes, which are very interesting in themselves.  In the appendices, Chester largely reviews the prejudices and arguments against prostitution together with his own thoughts, opinion and rebuttals of commonly held views.  It’s thought-provoking and well argued.

Whilst reading the book, I did think about the impact on marriage and children.  Chester deals with both of these subjects briefly in appendix 18, but not satisfactorily to my mind.  He views marriage as an ‘evil institution’ and suggests that if the institution of marriage did not exist then ‘new social and legal structures will arise.’  He posits a ‘child-raising contract’ as a substitute for marriage that parents may be willing to enter.  In some ways, this made me think of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ where sexual relationships are constantly changing (and the drugs are free!).

Chester is realistic enough to see that his views on marriage, child-rearing and possessive monogamy are only likely to change at a speed commensurate with continental drift, but I think even that may be wishful thinking in the case of marriage and family life.  However, Chester has thought about this subject in more depth than I ever have and so may have further arguments that could sway my opinion.

This is a serious, revealing, funny and profound book.  Strongly recommended.

The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists – Seth (Drawn & Quarterly 2011)

This is very much a companion piece to Seth’s excellent Wimbledon Green (the greatest comic book collector in the world). In his introduction Seth notes that if “Wimbledon Green was created on a lark, then this book should likely be filed under the category of an indulgence.”

An indulgence suggests a work that is primarily in the interest of the creator and few others. In the case of Seth. The result of his indulgence is likely to be appreciated by existing fans and new readers.

Seth, as narrator of the book, takes us on a tour of one of the four branches of the GNBCC based in the fictional Canadian town of Dominion. The other three are supposedly located in non-fictional Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto. The guided tour of the Dominion branch of the GNBCC takes various detours into the lives of the members and their cartoon creations.

Members of the club have their own blazers, handed to them on entering the building, which is itself resplendent with stone-carved cartoon characters above the door, murals, photos of past members, trophy cabinets and a bar (which has copper plated supporting pillars in the shape of trees). There is also a Mountie acting as a doorman, which we later learn was made up by the narrator (a fiction within a fiction).

The golden days of the GNBCC are long behind it and we feel the wistful nostalgia of the narrator as he takes us around the faded building. It is a nostalgia for something that has never been and in many respects appears as a yearning for greater recognition, respect and even financial reward on the part of Seth for all cartoonists.

As with other works by Seth, there is a quiet melancholy throughout the book, a regret over what has passed and what might have been.

During a recollection early in the book, the narrator comments that the 20th century was a high watermark for Canadian cartoonists, a time they were treated with great respect, quoted extensively in the press and winners of important cultural awards. It’s droll but also shows a wish for cartoonists to be afforded the same recognition as other branches of the arts.

Almost every page is split into nine cartoon frames. Some pictures take up two or more of these frames; the blank space between them making the scene more noticeable. I found myself looking at some of these split scenes for much longer than I would have looked at a larger single picture. The artwork is quite simple and cartoony, befitting the subject, and all is in black,white and grey. Seth’s use of light and shade with this limited palette is very effective.

The book mixes fact with fiction, mentioning Doug Wright’s Family, which was a much loved Canadian strip. Doug Wright Awards are handed out annually and the GNBCC won the award for Best Book in 2012. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau makes a cameo appearance and there is mention of the first ever Canadian comic called General Fox by the Marquis of Townshend. The comic is a fiction but George Townshend, veteran of the Battle of Culloden and latterly commander of British Forces in the closing stages of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham was a skilled caricaturist and delighted his peers with barbed caricatures of General Wolfe, whom he held in contempt. These caricatures are often regarded as Canada’s first cartoons. Chester Brown, a contemporary of Seth, also receives an honourable mention.

There are humorous moments, such as when we learn that the GNBCC raised funds to build a massive and elaborate archive which, when built, was so remote that visitors must use several modes of transport, including dog-sled to get there. The idea of a profession that is now craving recognition making their archives so obscure and difficult to view is amusingly perverse.

Overall, there are few diversions to lighten the mood and detract from the general air of sadness, as there were in Wimbledon Green. At the end of the book, Seth looks out from the roof of the building and hopes for the return of the great days.