There’s Something Oddly Comforting in Chris Oliveros' Futile Tale

The Envelope Manufacturer is a light parable on the ravages of neoliberal capitalism.

The Envelope Manufacturer

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Length: 104 pages
Author: Chris Oliveros
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-01

The genre of “Comics and Graphic Novels – Accounting” must surely be a small one, but that’s the whimsical tag Chris Oliveros has drawn onto the back of his latest work, The Envelope Manufacturer. A light parable on the ravages of neoliberal capitalism, it chronicles the last gasps of a small independent business that is finally done in by the accumulated weight of debt, old machinery, and transnational supply chain competition.

It’s partly inspired by real-life reflections. Oliveros has been refining this particular tale for years, working and reworking it in various forms. Although the story is set in '60s Montreal, it was inspired, he’s told reporters, by an envelope supplier he used to deal with in the early '90s, his early publishing days, although the tale as it spins out pursues a narrative of his own devising. ("All in good time, Chris Oliveros", by Ian McGillis, Montreal Gazette, 7 January 2016)

It’s fitting he’d return to it in 2016. Oliveros, in addition to being an aspiring comics artist in his own right, was the founder and for over 25 years publisher of Drawn and Quarterly, the venerable Montreal-based publisher of comic art and graphic novels, which under his direction grew to be one of the most widely respected independent comics publishers in the world -- a true success story. Oliveros has now stepped down as publisher and handed the company on to a new generation, so it’s fitting to be revisiting his roots as he returns to what started him down that path in the first place: making comics.

While his own company became a success story, one wonders whether that elderly envelope supplier who inspired the tale survived those intervening years as handily. Neoliberal capitalism and the sinuous tentacles of global supply chains have strangled countless local independent businesses throughout North America (and the world), and Oliveros offers a perceptive insight into the system which produces such casual injustice. He depicts with depth and feeling the desperate final gasps of a small business that is well into its final death throes and living on denial. There’s also a marriage on the rocks, a murky and surreal suicide that may or may not happen, and other strange and surreal tangents, but fundamentally this is a tale about alienation and capitalism. Its key characters are introduced to us only briefly, yet in a mere few, sparse words they develop a cloak of personality more human than their inchoate corporate competition.

It’s a grim tale, bleak with futility and hopelessness, and the minimalistic line art complements the thematic content perfectly. It manages to be spare yet expressive simultaneously; even the black-and-white shading is used to powerful effect, providing sometimes surreal adornment to a host of anonymous background characters. The simplicity of the line art echoes the simplicity of the hopelessly naïve characters who can’t see the writing on the wall, even when creditors arrive to appropriate their sputtering, unreliable equipment.

They know the ways of machine belts and adhesive strips better than anyone, but all their years of expertise is obsolete in the face of mass corporate competition. The competitors never appear on the page, so complete and sweeping is their victory. The message is clear: hard-working experts are superfluous in a system where the competition is so powerful that it doesn't even need to show its face.

There’s a gloominess to the tale, but it has the feel of a tale that needs to be told; needs to be told again and again until its universality is soaked into the skin.

The Envelope Manufacturer is a short read but a worthy addition to Drawn and Quarterly’s repertoire, and there’s something oddly comforting in this futile tale. Perhaps it’s the defiant struggle of the independent businessman even in the face of his looming demise. Perhaps it’s the sharing of a story for which many of us feel a subtle resonance; an innate solidarity against the brutality of a system against which we feel a collective helplessness. Perhaps it’s the warm comfort of line-drawn comics depicting the harsh reality of a world we must live with whether we like it or not; sketching in tones of black and white a shared shrug at the whimsical hand of fate. It’s the sign of a true artist that even a tale as hopeless and bleak as this one can touch the pulse of a reader with its tone of heartfelt authenticity.

Comics lovers no doubt shuddered when Oliveros stepped down from the helm of Drawn and Quarterly. The publishing company he started has grown to play a key role in the publication and distribution of comics in this continent, and although he’s stayed on as a consulting editor there must be some nervousness at the prospect of change at the heart of such a beloved institution. Yet sometimes change means returning to one’s roots, and comics lovers can rejoice that Oliveros now has the free time to pursue his own creative contributions to the comics genre which he has spent so many years working to ensure readers have access to.

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