For much of the 20th century, consumers bought their goods and services from local manufacturers and independent businesses. Over time, globalization and the inevitable outcome of a capitalist economy saw large corporations and chains replace everything from local grocery and hardware stores to corner druggists and stationers. Long before the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1994, the era of the mom-and-pop shop had largely faded.
Chris Oliveros became sympathetic to the plight of small business in the mid-1990s, a few years after he had launched comics publisher Drawn & Quarterly from an office in Montreal’s working-class Mile End neighbourhood. “I was ordering envelopes from this older gentleman, a guy who had run his company for a good 20, 30 years,” he says. “It seemed at one point or another his company had been more successful, but by the time I started ordering from him it was clearly on its last legs. He was the only employee. He was even doing the deliveries on his own. And I was thinking, ‘Jeez, this poor bastard. How did he get to this point? What’s going to become of him?’”
A cartoonist himself, Oliveros began developing a fictional story of “obsolete machinery and outmoded business planning,” inspired by the envelope manufacturer. Over the next few years, Oliveros managed to publish a couple of chapters of his story as comic books, but the initial day-to-day struggle to keep his own company alive, followed by the demands of its eventual success, left little time to complete his tale of a man who loses his mind along with his business.
The book languished for two decades until last year, when, after 25 years of shepherding other artists’ creations, Oliveros stepped down as D&Q’s publisher, in part, he said, to allow himself more time to create his own comics. Politicians and heads of business commonly step aside citing a need for personal time, and they’re usually met with a skeptical glance in response. But Oliveros, a 49-year-old father of three, quickly delivered, self-publishing his debut graphic novel, The Envelope Manufacturer, in January.
Oliveros is especially well-connected in the comics field, so it wouldn’t have been surprising to see him place his book with any number of noted graphic-novel publishers. His loose but highly detailed black-and-white line work certainly wouldn’t look out of place in D&Q’s catalogue – one of his few previously published stories appeared in the first issue of D&Q’s eponoymous anthology series in 1990. Self-publishing, he says, was a conscious decision to avoid seeming nepotistic – not just to others, but also to himself. “I feel it would have been too easy to get in by default,” he says. I’ve really admired the work of the cartoonists we’ve published for so many years. I’m in awe of their work and I’m inspired by their work, and I would feel very uncomfortable to put myself officially in the same category.” D&Q will distribute The Envelope Manufacturer, however, “because otherwise there’s just no way you can self-publish.”
The Envelope Manufacturer’s 20-year gestation gave it a second layer of meaning Oliveros couldn’t have conceived of in 1994. It now stands equally as an allegory for the dawn of the digital age, which has seen the web, social media, and smartphone apps disrupt not only small businesses such as bookstores and taxi companies, but also the global media and entertainment industries. “There’s been enormous changes in everything,” Oliveros says. “To some degree, the book is a universal story. Some people, I think, want to see more in it than there is. They read it and say it’s the story of Drawn & Quarterly. I sort of knew that that would be an issue, so in a couple of areas in the book, I actually put in things that would throw people off and make them intentionally think this is about D&Q – but only because I thought it would be funny.”
Oliveros still spends one day a week at the D&Q office as a contributing editor, but has taken his character’s fate to heart and is already working on his next book. “I wanted to make sure I didn’t waste any time,” he says. “I’m almost 50, so I feel I really have to do what I can and make the most of each day.”