THE COLLECTED DOUG WRIGHT reviewed by Publishers Weekly

Doug Wright: Rediscovering Canada’s Master Cartoonist

Publishers Weekly    |    Bill Kartalopoulos    |    June 23, 2009

Doug Wright was born in England in 1917. His father, a British soldier in World War I, died within a year. Wright’s mother raised Doug and his sister alone and strongly encouraged the boy’s native artistic skills and inclinations. At the age of twenty-one, intent on pursuing a career as a cartoonist, Wright immigrated to Montreal to pursue a job opportunity as a staff illustrator at the Sun Life insurance company. So began a career that would see Doug Wright eventually become a Canadian household name as the artist behind the weekly comic strip Nipper—later, Doug Wright’s Family—a quiet, constant presence for decades before the artist’s 1983 death.

Since that time, Wright’s work has largely vanished from public view, in part because the strip was never widely syndicated in the United States, in part because the strip was never heavily merchandised, and perhaps in part because Wright’s unassuming virtuosity was simply taken for granted, even by his regular readers.

The writer Brad Mackay and the cartoonist Seth are attempting to restore Wright’s life and work to the public memory. As co-founders of the Doug Wright Awards, an annual prize for Canadian cartooning, they have explicitly elevated Wright to patron saint status within that country’s comics art tradition. As co-editors of the first volume of The Collected Doug Wright (published by Montreal-based Drawn and Quarterly),they seek to restore Wright’s work to public view within a broader world of contemporary comics publishing that includes both ambitious new work and prominent reprint series devoted to acclaimed historical comics.

The deluxe first volume, designed by Seth, physically broadcasts great claims for Wright’s work. An 11 x 14” oversized hardcover, the book is case-wrapped in reflective red paper, like a permanent gift. A die-cut window reveals an image of Wright’s signature bald-headed-boy character embossed upon the ivory paper stock beneath. The effect is inviting and friendly, but unmistakably monumental.

Heavily illustrated with artifacts from Wright’s archives, Mackay’s introductory account of Wright’s early life tells the story of a meticulous and professional young artist who seems to have seamlessly acclimated to his new, Canadian environment. If Wright maintained an outsider’s perspective, it was in retaining fresh eyes carefully observant of a rapidly urbanizing post-War North American landscape. Indeed, his freelance illustration work frequently teems with detail. His swarming images, with their deep linear perspective and unconventional composition, recall the dense gag cartoons of Gluyas Williams, peppered with the local color of an H. T. Webster—especially in Wright’s first widely published comics work, continuing Jimmy Frise’s rural-themed Juniper Junction after that artist’s death. But Wright’s ultimate métier was strictly mid-twentieth century suburbia, as is deeply evident in the bulk of the work that comprises this volume.

While drawing Juniper Junction, Wright freelanced as an illustrator for the Standard Magazine, an offshoot of the Montreal Standard newspaper. Based on an indirect editorial suggestion, Wright, on a lark, produced a pantomime gag strip about a comically mischievous child. Striking a chord with the many baby boom parents then populating the nation, the strip was an immediate success and Wright found a new career as the weekly author of a kid-strip later named, by editorial decree, Nipper. When the Standard was reformatted into the Weekend and syndicated as a newspaper insert, Nipper found a wide audience of Canadian parents and bemused onlookers.

The assimilated Canadian immigrant was once again an outsider: an unmarried, childless man writing about a subject he wasn’t particularly invested in. But therein lay the seeds of the strip’s success. Lacking any sentimentality about children, Mackay’s text suggests, Wright felt free to depict his Nipper as totally, joyously, and heedlessly selfish in his pursuit of childish pleasure (largely, at first, of the manically slapstick variety, and, in Wright’s universe, mercifully exempt from grievous bodily harm).

The Nipper character, rendered as a collection of bold, curved strokes, bounded from panel to panel within a heavily constrained comic strip format. Except for sound effects, the strip was entirely pantomime, and was reproduced in black and white with one spot color (always red). For most of the years represented in this volume, the strip was vertically formatted. Eschewing panel borders, Wright’s consistent panel width provided a steady rhythm within which he would vary panel height to affect pacing and accommodate environmental detail.

The present book covers the years 1949 through 1962. Although this volume’s text suggests that Wright’s peak years as a cartoonist will be reprinted in a subsequent volume, this elaborate book with its provocative subtitle (“Canada’s Master Cartoonist”) begs the question of the re-emergent artist’s status in comics history. At the Toronto Comic Art Festival in May 2009, Canadian comics scholars Bart Beaty and Jeet Heer publicly took up this question. Beaty found in Wright a peer to Dennis the Menace’s Hank Ketcham: an appealing narrative stylist whose work fails to resonate in the manner of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. Heer agreed that Wright was no Schulz, but disagreed with Beaty’s estimation. “Ketcham’s housewives are always this stereotyped Fifties image of a housewife, and even when they’re vacuuming, they’re always wearing high heels,” he noted. “Which no woman does. But if you look at the housewives in the Doug Wright, they’re actually dressing like housewives… And that’s just one detail of hundreds where throughout his work, there’s a real attention to the actual lived experience of suburbia.”

Indeed, as Wright married and started his own family, Nipper became more well-rounded. As a suburban parent—an insider again—Wright fleshed out the strip’s environment and focused on somewhat less-broad, though still comical, incidents. And as he became more fully invested in his own comic, Wright reintroduced into his strip’s constrained format the graphic diversity and attention to detail that characterized his illustration work. While Doug Wright’s works may not be essential comics, they are a sure pleasure for lovers of elegant cartooning, and remain work worth preserving in a readily available format.
 



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