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A Short Interview With Tom Devlin
posted January 26, 2008
 

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I met Tom Devlin in the late 1990s, either months or minutes before he was about to launch the infamous "Marvel Benefit Issue" of Coober Skeber, I can't remember. He would go on to use that well-publicized event to orient his Highwater Books into a unique place in the late-decade comics publishing landscape. Highwater had a brief but interesting life, among other things drawing attention to the cartoonists in and inspired by the Fort Thunder arts collective. He now works at Drawn and Quarterly doing a variety of tasks, one of the more public being the spearhead for their efforts reprinting the Moomin comic strips by Tove Jansson. He lives in Montreal with Peggy Burns and their two children. Tom is one of those vital cogs in the North American arts comics scene with whom I love talking comics and visiting generally. D&Q is turning out to be a better home for him than I could have imagined; if nothing else, as he points out, his presence means they're capable of producing more work in any calendar year. My thanks to Tom for the chat. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: What is your title there at D+Q, what does that mean exactly, and how do you break down various responsibilities? In what area do you feel most confident? Least?

TOM DEVLIN: I am the "Creative Director" which is a title I actually gave myself as it seemed fancier than "Production Manager," but I am basically a designer and editor. Oh and right now, I'm also a retail store manager.

imageSince D+Q is still a pretty small shop, Chris Oliveros and I share the production work. We divide up the books or comics and then work with the interns and part-timers to put them together. I handle the bulk of the design -- so I do catalogs, web-design and the book covers for some of the artists who don't design the covers themselves. I will make suggestions for projects to Chris but it took me a couple of years to feel confident in my role in the company and Chris' trust in me to do so.

I feel most confident editorially -- I trust my taste in comics or in what will be generally appealing to our audience. I could feel more confident about my design skills. I'm always trying to improve on that front.

SPURGEON: Can you take a few sentences to describe how exactly you went from the end days of Highwater and ended up at D+Q and eventually moved into your current role? My memory is that you simply followed Peggy there and then just started doing work around the office until you were more fully invested, but I'd like to hear your version.

DEVLIN: That's pretty close. Initially, when we moved here it was just Chris and Peggy in the office and I was still running Highwater from home. For people who don't know, Peggy is Peggy Burns who used to be the publicist for DC and Mad Magazine. We were dating for a couple of years before she took the publicity job at D+Q. I started packing orders once a week or doing freelance design on labor intensive books or picking up a catalog or ad to design in order to alleviate the load on Chris until the company grew enough to hire me as well. I was hired as the company was switching distribution to FSG, and we had to put out 10 books a year, at least.

SPURGEON: They'd take away my press card if I don't ask, so are all the Highwater accounts settled now, one way or the other? Does Highwater still exist as legal entity in any way?

DEVLIN: I don't know if you could say Highwater was ever a legal entity. There are still a few outstanding debts here and there but I have payment plans with most of the folks to whom I owe serious money and many of the others are gracious enough to not mention the debt to my face.

SPURGEON: What has your influence been most concretely felt there at D&Q? What is different about the company for your involvement, do you think?

DEVLIN: There's more talking in the office? No, I'm not sure. I hope the company doesn't seem too much different to people honestly. It's no longer just this one sweet Canadian guy working out of his apartment. Now there's brash loudmouth Americans in the mix.

I've always been leery of diluting Chris' editorial vision with mine (not that they are so wildly dissimilar but the company is very editorially consistent under Chris' direction.) But I very much did not want to storm in and "Highwater-ize" the place, I like to think I am very respectful of what Chris and all of his cartoonists have created over the past two decades. He has the most consistent vision of a comics publisher ever. The last thing I would want to do is come in acting like I know more than "The Chief"; it's just not possible. I hope that my involvement on a small level complements all that Chris has achieved.

Pragmatically, I think my presence has helped the company to grow in how many titles we are able to put out a year.

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SPURGEON: Was it gratifying to reach five-figures in terms of sale with the Moomin books?

DEVLIN: I think it may be my crowning achievement in comics. The Moomin series really is gratifying both artistically and financially which is beyond what I ever could have anticipated. The series has done so well -- in comics circles and beyond comics -- that I'm still dumbstruck that it had never been available in the North America before. The whole project has been a dream; I asked Chris if I could pursue the rights, he said yes, it took about two calls, and in about two weeks we had a deal. It's amazing to see so many people respond so strongly to a comic strip one feels is great and has championed for so long before it saw print. I've always had a little bit of that editorially-speaking but the response to the Moomin comics has been overwhelming. We receive letters every week from all over the world thanking us.

SPURGEON: How do you see the material that you've released so far; what is it about that work that really speaks to you?

DEVLIN: I just read the third book in the series it's even better than the previous two volumes. Tove starts to hit her comedic storytelling stride in the second book and it really takes off in the third. Her writing feels distinctively Scandinavian (or perhaps what we view as typically Scandinavian here in North America). There's a sharp wit that is tempered by a humanist outlook rather than the "fallen world" viewpoint. I think Tove found everyone kind of bumbling and humorous rather than just choosing to lampoon a certain group. She acknowledges depression or insecurity in a way that seems very original. As far as her artwork goes, I'm not even sure what to say. Her character design, her overall design is just impeccable. Every flower, or table-leg, or beach is so perfectly realized when I look at it, I think, "That is the way to draw a table leg, there is no other." I'm pretty sure that she is my favorite strip cartoonist to just look at.

imageSPURGEON: Is there a similar re-appreciation of Lynda Barry now that you're gearing up to work with her?

DEVLIN: I've never stopped appreciating Lynda! And I know that the world at large outside of comics hasn't stopped appreciating her. She is such a strong, fantastic voice. It's pretty exciting working on her books. She's sending in her pages for What It Is now and they're these fully-painted ornate drawings with glitter glued on (she knows it can't be reproduced but she just has to put it on there). She writes us these long doodle-filled letters on yellow legal paper and scans and emails them to us because she prefers the act of handwriting over typing. Then she mails them to us. I certainly can't wait to meet her in person. Sometimes I can't even believe that I have the good fortune to be working on a book with Lynda Barry, that just seems impossible to me. I'm about to start working on her mini-site, which will be up in 2008.

SPURGEON: This may be a loaded question, but you've lived and worked in two of the five great North American cities for comics: New York and now Montreal. Can you contrast the two cities as comics cities, and what you've liked about each?

DEVLIN: What about Boston?! I don't know about viewing them as comics cities when you're there though. What makes a comics city? I lived a block away from Tom Hart and Gabrielle Bell when I lived in NYC and it was great when we would meet up at this bar called the Pencil Factory to drink and draw but I didn't see them that often. The one thing I liked about NYC was that everyone goes through there and it is just endless with events and exhibits that you can go to or not.

Montreal is really two comics cities, French and English. I wish I knew French, because I imagine that the French comics city of Montreal is just like NYC, every French cartoonist passes through, a couple of years ago there was a Le Dernier Cri show right around the corner from my apartment. One funny thing upon moving here that whenever I talked comics with someone other than Chris O., they invariably mentioned Moebius and Mike Diana. On a personal level, I've gotten to know Joe Ollmann and Billy Mavreas pretty well, and wish I saw more of Bernie Mireault.

SPURGEON: How do you feel Dan Nadel and PictureBox is doing as the primary publisher for many of the Fort Thunder and related art collective comics? Do you have a good relationship with them? How do you appraise the job Randy Chang has done at Bodega?

DEVLIN: Dan is one of my closest friends in comics outside of the Highwater family. I am in awe of how he's managed to publish such beautiful high-production books one after the next. Dan is a consummate professional and I think most people in alternative comics don't know what to make of someone so together.He's the first publisher in years to start off with a solid business sense, (as opposed to acquiring bits and pieces along the way from making mistakes). He had a first-class distributor that wasn't Diamond, contracts, grants, before he started publishing, I don't think any other independent art comic publisher can say that. He exhibits at the Basel Art Fair and SPX. He's pretty much the perfect publisher for the Fort Thunder artists.

I am also jealous.

Randy is great -- he used to intern for Highwater and has taken what he learned there and has thrown most of it out the window -- as he should. He's so low key and just puts the books out and they're great. As a fan, I wish he put out more books. He told me that he only has time to do three books a year so that's what he'll do. And I think the fact that he knows his limits, and therefore his strengths, right now as a company and publisher is great; I wish I had known that when I started out. I like that Randy is willing to try oddball stuff too like conceptual t-shirts (the Tom Gauld Yeti) and temporary tattoos (Daybreak) just because they crack him up.

Again, I'm jealous.

Another friend from when I lived in Brooklyn is Leon Avelino who is starting Secret Acres with every single great mini-comics artists you haven't heard of yet. People have been trying to make money publishing and distributing mini-comics for years and I think Leon will be the guy to do it.

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SPURGEON: What do you feel Highwater's legacy will be?

DEVLIN: The answer to that question is not my place to say. It's for everyone on the message boards to generalize and dismiss and leave me in tears.

SPURGEON: I've never talked to anyone who worked at D&Q before: what's Chris Oliveros like as a boss? For someone so influential, there's very little known about him. What should comics readers know about Chris?

DEVLIN: Chris is the best boss anyone could ever have. He is very reserved most of the time. He's called "The Chief" by his cartoonists. I think the reasons why his cartoonists appreciate him as a publisher are the same reasons why he is a fantastic boss. He focuses on your positives, he's patient and agreeable. Chris is also very opinionated and articulate about what he likes and doesn't like. He's very trusting of the people he selects to work with, whether it's cartoonists or employees. Knowing he believes in you makes us all work harder to justify that trust. Honestly, none of this is ass-kissing b.s.; he's a great guy. Also, he actually slaps his knee when he laughs.

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SPURGEON: Marvel's going to release an alt-comics anthology featuring their characters, and there have certainly been other attempts at re-imagining those icons through the artistic perspective of alternative comics. Do you feel that you should be blamed for this because of Coober Skeber's Marvel benefit issue? What are your memories now of that project and how it came about? It's hard to imagine anyone doing something like that now.

DEVLIN: I was trying to put an end to that alternative superhero nonsense!! I was naive. When we did that book it was pretty exciting -- people were talking about it, WIRED wrote about it, I was able to launch a publishing empire. At the time I had a few ideas: I wanted to do a children's book with one pagers by alt-cartoonists, a Sunday strip tribute again by alt-cartoonists, and finally a superhero book. Ron Rege wanted to draw Spider-Man and convinced me to do the super book. I actually drove to Quebecor with a couple of Fort Thunder guys to pick it up and they stopped us at the border in both directions because we looked so dicey. I remember the customs agent looking at the Power Pack/Darger spread with a flashlight and somehow missing the fact that he was looking at a bunch of juvenile penises. I thought we were all going to jail for that one.

SPURGEON: You just released a huge Julie Doucet book and the second ACME Datebook, and your plans with Lynda Barry are well-known. What else is on the slate that you can tell people about? Anything you're particularly looking forward to seeing?

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DEVLIN: I'm just finishing up work on Haunted by Philippe Dupuy that is really amazing and will be out in early 2008. The book is similar to the stories he did in Maybe Later but with a heavy allegorical spin. In the Spring, we are publishing Red Colored Elegy by Seiichi Hayashi, which is another vintage manga similar to the [Yoshihiro] Tatsumi series that I'm about to send off to the printer. The book is a real mind blower. It is so far ahead of anything that was going on in North American comics at the time. It's really ambitious stylistically, very fractured plot-wise, and heartbreaking. I think it's going to surprise a lot of people.

In Fall 2008, we have new books by Rutu Modan, Gabrielle Bell, Guy Delisle and Seth, each year, we think "Wow, this was such a strong year," and we think the next can't possibly be better, and then the list gets finalized and once again we end up with a lot of great and surprising titles.

SPURGEON: Your strips output has been relatively modest so far; is there any chance of a third major strip series or more one shots?

DEVLIN: We're always working on ideas. We have a Don Freeman book coming out next fall. He's the guy who did the children's book Corduroy. There are a couple of other things that are just too early in the planning stages to disclose.

imageSPURGEON: Drawn and Quarterly is essentially out of the periodicals business except for a couple of left-over titles from your big stars. And even there you see some attrition -- it's my understanding that Chester Brown's next project is going to come out as one big chunk. Did D+Q leave the periodicals business of its own accord, or did it leave you?

DEVLIN: We do comics pamphlets if the artist wants to. We explain that this is not a viably economic option for them or us and it may not be even good for their career in this "graphic novel age" but we're happy to make the art that the cartoonists want to. Some artists love the back and forth communication with their peers and fans that the pamphlet provides.

The periodical business definitely left us but I think it's a fair trade off for the increased revenues and exposure that book store distribution brings. These great cartoonists really do deserve to be on the sales charts with Phillip Roth and Dave Eggers.

imageSPURGEON: Do you still draw? Are you at any point going to make more comics?

DEVLIN: Jeez, I hope so. It's hard with kids and a job though. I'm trying to write stuff so when I have my evenings back I can start drawing. Right now, I do a lot of drawings in crayon on a miniature easel at the orders of my daughter Georgy. I just drew a Lavender Diamond poster for a show at the D+Q store last night.

SPURGEON: Now that comics have started to work their into bookstores, what are your thoughts about what makes good design? Are there projects in which you were involved design-wise of which you're particularly proud?

DEVLIN: I'm not much of a design nerd and I'm not very sophisticated in my design tastes. I really had to become a designer out of necessity because I couldn't afford to hire anyone to do the work for me. Like any book designer, I want people to notice a book and pick it up and when they pick it up there's something tactile that pleases them. That's about it. I'm especially happy with Exit Wounds and King-Cat Classix -- I think those books have an indescribable feel to them. And I'm really pretty happy with the size and feel of the Moomin books. I had a plan with those books and I wasn't sure it would work but I think it really came off.

SPURGEON: You worked at Million Year Picnic. Why aren't there more great comics shops?

DEVLIN: Part of me can't begrudge the guy who opened a shop to sell his collection and get a discount on his weekly comics even though most of us would consider that a terrible shop. There were a couple of things we did at the Million Year Picnic -- we aggressively courted the casual consumer (people who might buy Dilbert or Calvin + Hobbes collections) and we stocked really deep on comics from Fanta and D+Q and the like to help make the store a destination. We hired a staff that was very interested in the alternative comics. We actually hired women to work in the store. The super stuff sold itself, that clientele knew what they wanted. I'm not sure if you or many of your readers have ever been there but it's a tiny store and most of the wall space is still devoted to weekly superhero comics, but almost every other bookshelf is devoted to a different aspect of comics. We created a place where a diverse group of people felt comfortable. Comic shops are pretty cool places to begin with so you just have to make it welcoming. Maybe most comic store owners aren't interested in what other people think makes a good store.

Also, people could see into the store because we didn't cover the windows with Alex Ross posters that eventually faded from the sun.

SPURGEON: If I remember right, you enjoy the rarest of all industry distinctions of actually meeting the mother of your children at San Diego Con. What advice would you give to the hundreds of other folks that are looking for love at these shows?

DEVLIN: Don't be such a big comics snob that you won't date Superman's publicist.

SPURGEON: The last time I saw you, you were laughing because you had just tracked down Jeffrey Brown not to talk about his comics but to compare daddy notes. What's the best advice you ever got from a cartoonist about being a dad?

DEVLIN: I don't remember anyone giving me advice. It's fun exchanging kid stories with other cartoonists though. Peg says that we have become slightly more interesting because now we don't just talk about comics but we talk about comics and kids. But somehow I think that has actually made us a lot less interesting.

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* photo by Theresa Dillon provided by Tom Devlin
* from the Moomin Strip
* page from the Lynda Barry's greatly anticipated What It Is previewed in last year's FCBD giveaway
* art from Devlin
* Coober Skeber Vol. 2
* Red Colored Elegy promotional art from when the project was announced
* one of the increasingly rare D&Q comic books
* poster for Lavender Diamond show by Devlin
* photo by Theresa Dillon provided by Tom Devlin

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