The Burlington Post | The Burlington Post Staff | August 12, 2009
THE COLLECTED DOUG WRIGHT reviewed by The Burlington Post
This cartoonist was all about the Wright stuff City names park and street in honour of artist’s impressive 40-year career
It’s the kind of honour the family of renowned syndicated cartoonist Doug Wright wished the former Burlingtonian was here to appreciate.
Based on the thousands of drawings he amassed over his 40-year career, it’s something he probably would have chronicled with the use of his trusty pencil and never-ending wit.
First, the talented and beloved artist, famous for his comic strips Nipper and Doug Wright’s Family, had a park and street named for him by the City of Burlington in the growing Alton community.
Second, the family has so many special memories and stories about the man who was revered for his simple, yet inspiring depictions. that they helped compile a special 240-page hardcover, tribute book of his works.
The family sat down with the Post recently to talk about these honours and the husband, father and artist who spent most of his life capturing the gentler side of Burlington and much of his family in cartoons, particularly from the late 1960s and 1970s.
For many in Burlington, perhaps Wright’s best-known artwork is the logo of the Burlington Teen Tour Band — still used to this day.
Born in England, Doug Wright came to Canada in 1938. His cartooning career flourished when he landed a job as an editorial cartoonist for the Montreal Standard.
Wright created Nipper for the Standard in 1949. It became Doug Wright’s Family in 1967 when Wright moved from Montreal to Ontario. The strip enjoyed an impressive run until Wright drew it to a close in 1980. It was a comic strip that inspired so many others to follow in his footsteps.
The artist, who had moved to Burlington in 1966, passed away in 1983 at the age of 66, following complications of a stroke that essentially robbed him of the skills he needed to craft his unique comics.
If you look at Wright’s work, you’ll notice something that made his cartoons special — there is no dialogue.
He skillfully drew his characters using different techniques to evoke emotion.
For example, one strip from March 12, 1949 shows a father using a broomstick to knock on the ceiling to tell his young son to stop pounding the floor with a mallet. The father grows more irritated when each time he hits the ceiling, his little boy smacks the floor thinking it’s a fun game.
Wright’s son, Ken, a Peel police officer and one of three children, recalls his dad hiding away in his bedroom office, thinking and creating his strip.
“I remember running upstairs to see what the next cartoon was.”
More often than not, Wright’s subject matter was kindled simply by looking out his window and documenting life on Rankin Drive.
His inspiration for the comics could be found in almost anything, the family says.
His wife Phyllis Wright-Thomas recalls a time when her husband saw a neighbour’s daughter sneak out a top bedroom window of her parent’s home.
It made its way into a cartoon.
Wright-Thomas said she could have a conversation with the letter carrier and something as simple as that exchange would make its way into a cartoon.
But it was all done in good fun and equally good humour.
The homes in Wright’s cartoons were very similar to real life as well.
“The houses looked like that in the cartoon strips,” Wright-Thomas says with a smile.
Wright would often head over to the former Brant Street train station and sketch away a few hours of the day.
His work touched Canadians from coast to coast and to have a park and street named after him is so exciting, the family said.
“It’s just too bad my dad wasn’t around to see this,” Ken said.
What has made the family even more proud of their patriarch is an awards night that is held every year in his name.
This past spring, the family attended the 5th Annual Doug Wright Awards in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It has become an impressive affair that inspires cartoonists and artists.
What a change from the first time the awards were held in an upstairs room of a restaurant in Toronto, Wright-Thomas recalls.
“I’m just overwhelmed with the responses to these awards,” she says.
The new book, entitled The Collected -Doug Wright, Canada’s Master Cartoonist, was unveiled at the ceremony before being released to the public through most bookstores. It covers roughly the first half of his career. Another book could be forthcoming in a few years.
The annual awards night is organized by co-editor of the book, Brad MacKay.
Wright-Thomas says her husband — who also loved making model airplanes and trucks — took great care in creating each and every cartoon. He thought long and hard about what he would draw and what it would be about.
It was all about detail, she says. He was that way when he did house projects. He didn’t want to paint but would embrace installing intricate wainscotting.
“He did a lot of work and lot of erasing to get that picture,” she explains.
Ken says when he was growing up, he never thought much of how much effort the cartoons took.
“I didn’t recognize it then, but I see it now,” he says.
Another thing the family remembers about Wright is his dedication to his craft. He never missed a week of work unless for vacations. Yet, on holiday, he would find himself doodling a cartoon or two.
Teen Tour Band logo
Ken was in awe of his father’s cartoons, drawings and journals he came across when helping co-editors MacKay and Seth (cartoonist Gregory Gallant) compile The Collected book. It keeps his dad’s memory alive, he says.
With a large Rubbermaid bin full of artwork beside him — and even more memories in his head — the 48-year-old Ken describes the excitement of poring over his dad’s work.
The cartoons are still amazing, he said.
“It’s Canadian history,” he explains. “(My dad) was very humble.”
The work is also certainly some Burlington history, too.
The Teen Tour Band logo was first crafted on Ken’s cast on his left leg. A member of the band himself for six years, he says his dad doodled the logo of a clarinet-playing kid. It became the band’s logo in the mid-1970s and it still used today.
The Nip cartoons are something Ken certainly remembers, for several reasons.
For one, some people called him Nipper.
“There are some who don’t even know my real name,” Ken said.
But many know his dad’s name and he’s just fine with that.
According to a 2001 Hamilton Spectator article, Lynn Johnston, creator of the family-centered comic strip For Better Or For Worse, said that while she was growing up in British Columbia, she and her family were great admirers of Wright’s work and owned some of his books.
Johnston named Wright as one of the two most influential cartoonists on her own work.
She called Wright “just one of the best, a real hero.”
Johnston wrote the introduction to The Collected.
“He was smart, vulnerable, thoughtful, conscientious, observant, happy and kind. That was a given,” wrote the popular cartoonist, who was thrilled Wright enjoyed her comic strip.
“He could have not done the work he did if had not been profoundly sensitive and able to see things from another’s point of view.
“His gentle and caring depiction of family life endeared his characters to everyone — and perhaps taught some parents to be just a bit more tolerant, to laugh at themselves a little more.
“I don’t think I’d have had the basics needed to do a syndicated comic strip had it not been for Doug Wright,” said Johnston.
CBC thought there was enough interest in Wright that a crew filmed A Day in the Life of the Wright Family in 1968.
So special are Wright’s works, a collection is kept at the National Archives in Ottawa.
It includes precisely-rendered reproductions of trains and automobiles, sketchbooks, Nipper colouring books — Ken still has some of his own colouring books he doodled on as a youngster — and log books from Wright’s time in the 1940s in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with the originals for Doug Wright’s Family and his editorial cartoons.
“It was a shame that they were sitting there, packed up in cardboard boxes,” Ken said at the time to the Spectator.
“This is a man’s life — years of his work, sitting packed and nobody was enjoying them. The thought was let them go (to the archives) and be properly taken care of.”
Telling the Post: “If Burlington had a museum (for art), my dad’s stuff would be forefront.”