on February 3, 2016
The Envelope Manufacturer, Chris Oliveros
I can’t remember the last time I bought envelopes. The only envelopes most of us encounter now contain bills and financial statements. Email and texting have made envelopes almost obsolete. It is no surprize therefore that the company in Chris Oliveros’, eponymously titled graphic novel, The Envelope Manufacturer, is facing hard times.
The Envelope Manufacturer opens with a pages-long establishing sequence of word balloons floating over a city that resembles Montreal (Oliveros’ home town) with the sound of a machine operating somewhere out of sight. The word balloons eventually lead to a single machine at the envelope company that is causing the noise, which changes from “Ta –tlak, Ta –tlak” to “Phssss” as the machine breaks down, precipitating the string of events that fill the rest of the book.
One of the firm’s employees, Hershel, an overweight middle-aged man with a “pencil thin moustache,” stands arms akimbo and proclaims the hopelessness of trying to repair the machine for a fourth time. He proposes buying a replacement part on credit. “What other choice do we have?” he asks. Once the firm’s owner, Jack Cluthers arrives and learns of the equipment breakdown, he wrestles with some of the remaining machinery and suggests they can keep the company going by being more efficient. Meanwhile, Patsy, the other employee is on the phone to the bank trying to negotiate deferred loan payments. One wonders if similar scenarios occasionally plagued Drawn & Quarterly, the graphic novel publishing company that Oliveros founded in Montreal in 1989.
What seems at first reading to be a fairly simple story of a business in decline becomes more complex with the unfolding of certain sequences that challenge our sense of time, our sense of coherent narrative and our identification of individual characters. For example, Oliveros has scenes where characters don’t hear what other characters have said, forcing them to repeat themselves, disrupting and recycling the flow of time. Word balloons also drift around, so a character that is outside the panels sometimes talks to another who is situated within the panels. This strategy mixes up who is speaking and who is being spoken to, increasing the tension between company employees. In another long sequence on a bus, word balloons from a conversation between two people who are not shown drift through the panels. During the same sequence, one character mistakes the identify of another character and confronts him off-panel so that we can’t see for ourselves what is happening. Finally, several sequences appear to take place either after death or in the imagination of the Jack Cluthers character.
All these devices serve to reinforce the fruitlessness of the actions Cluthers and his employees propose to save the company—repairing the broken down machine, postponing payments on their bank debt, drumming up new orders—suggestions they reiterate throughout the book in a fruitless Waiting for Godot optimism.
In another conflation of characters, a window jumper, Mr. Dershowitz owner of a rubber stamp business in the same building, threatens to throw himself off a tenth-floor window ledge. Presumably, his rubber stamp business—like the envelope company that has succumbed to the dwindling world of paper—is also teetering on bankruptcy. Anonymous bystanders chant “Jump.” “Jump.” as if in taunting encouragement or to try to bring an action to completion. One bystander quips: “He won’t jump. They never do.” Indeed, Dershowitz is eventually rescued by the fire department after he falls to a lower fire escape balcony.
But later in the book Cluthers appears to carry out his own window-jumper suicide. As he flies through the air, he carries on a long dialogue with his secretary, Patsy, about the insurance policy that will return the company to solvency. Apparently however, the policy was never mailed. His long fall ends with the word “Thud” alone in a black panel. Shortly after this episode, Cluthers, seemingly still alive, runs back home to search for his wife. The sequence is extended for pages with word balloons that say only “Huff” “Huff” as he struggles to make it home. This sequence conveys the feeling of running in a dream in which supreme effort results in negligible progress.
Oliveros’ drawing style is sketchy, perhaps done with fine felt markers rather than the traditional cartoonist’s brush or pen. There is no shading, only black hatching to suggest shadows. The style evokes black and white newspaper comics from the 1940s. The machines are like Rube Goldberg devices with no recognisable function while the drawing style suggests the influence of George Herriman and Krazy Kat. This sketchiness at times causes confusion about characters’ identities and the actions associated with them. The initial telltale differences between Cluthers and Hershel is sometimes not maintained so it is easy to mistake one for the other. If this is not intentional, then it is Oliveros’ relatively recent foray into cartooning that is to blame.
Meanwhile, at the envelope company, amidst the slim hopes of keeping the company afloat, men arrive and begin hauling off machines, presumably to settle the debt owed to the bank, even while Cluthers and Hershel try to repair one machine to keep the company going. Sure enough, the machine kicks in again, starts rumbling “Ta-tlak, ta-tlak” as Hershel assures Cluthers that “Things are going to get better.” A final establishing sequence shows buildings, clouds and the staircase to Cluthers’ apartment, but this time, bereft of people, leaving us in doubt about the certainty of Hershel’s optimistic outlook. Perhaps, as similar sequences throughout the book demonstrate, life will go on, other things will happen, new plans will be implemented, including perhaps, a whole new kind of envelope.