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DOUG WRIGHT photo essay on CBC.ca

CBC Arts Photo Essay - Doug Wright

CBC News    |    Martin Morrow    |    April 17, 2009

If you want to get a sense of what suburban family life in Canada was like in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, you could do no better than to read Doug Wright. The popular cartoonist was a fixture in Canadian homes throughout those decades, thanks to his weekend comic strip Nipper, later known as Doug Wright’s Family. An indubitably Canadian comic, it eschewed sticky sentiment in favour of wry observations about parents and kids, and stands today as a humorous record of its era. In many ways, Wright was a documentarian disguised as a comic-strip artist.


“His real talent was rendering the world around him,” says Seth, the renowned Canadian graphic artist, who grew up reading Wright’s comics. “In his work you really get a much stronger feeling of the times than you’ll find in almost all commercial cartooning.” Seth is the designer and driving force behind The Collected Doug Wright, the first comprehensive collection of the late cartoonist’s work, which is being published in two volumes by Drawn & Quarterly. Volume 1, to be released in May, traces the birth and early years of Wright’s most famous strip and provides an overview of his prolific career.

“Being a working freelance artist in those days, you really had to work your ass off,” explains Seth (a.k.a. Gregory Gallant) during a phone interview from his Guelph, Ont., home. “The Canadian market was so small, you had to take whatever came your way.” The indefatigable Wright churned out countless illustrations for magazines, ads and brochures, as well as generating two weekly strips for the bulk of his career. It was as a hustling young artist looking to please his bosses that he first came up with his iconic creation – a bratty bald tot in a striped T-shirt. Nipper, as he was soon christened, made his debut in the Montreal Standard in 1949, and would evolve over the next 30 years into one of Canada’s most beloved comic-strip characters.

The roots of a cartoonist
Douglas Austin (Ozzie) Wright was born in 1917 in Dover, England. From early childhood he showed a talent for drawing and briefly attended art school. He was less interested in formal training, however, than in indulging his love of cartooning. He filled his sketchbooks with painstaking copies of Popeye, Dick Tracy and other popular comic-strip characters of the period.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Wright immigrated to Canada to take a job as a staff illustrator for the Sun Life insurance company in Montreal. He adapted quickly to his new country and his subsequent work showed little evidence of his roots.

“He really is very quintessentially Canadian, for an English immigrant,” Seth says. “He doesn’t have much British influence in his work. The only artist from Britain he seemed to have any great interest in was Giles, the newspaper strip cartoonist.”

In Montreal, Wright would find the outlet for his cartooning gifts and, at Sun Life, the woman who would turn the bachelor artist into a family man. Here, Wright is pictured at his Sun Life drawing board with fellow employee and future wife, Phyllis Sanford, in 1952.

Wartime funnies
Cartooning remained mostly a hobby for Wright until he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. It was while working as a RCAF navigation instructor that he began contributing comic strips to various service magazines. His novice efforts, with titles like Clewless McGoon, Slipperpuss and A. Body (a jauntily macabre strip about an armless soldier), were a chance to try out different styles and techniques. They also gave him his first taste of success.

Shortly after one of his cartoons was published, Wright came across an officer who was doubled over with laughter as he read it. “That just made him think immediately that he wanted more of that,” Seth says. “I think his desire to become a cartoonist wasn’t so much that he loved cartoons, but that he liked to get a laugh out of people.”

Juniper Junction
After the war, Wright began to carve out a freelance career as a cartoonist and illustrator, which eventually allowed him to quit his Sun Life job. Most of his work appeared in the Montreal Standard, the city’s major English-language weekly newspaper, which had a national circulation.

Nipper's debut
Early in 1949, Wright came across a Standard editor’s memo suggesting a comic strip about “the contrariness of kids.” Eager to oblige, Wright raced home and drew up the first Nipper comic, an untitled eight-panel gag based on an anecdote his mother had heard. Reader response was so positive that Wright was asked to create a regular strip.

Before long, his anonymous brat would acquire a name (via a readers’ contest), a couple of long-suffering parents as his foils and a distinctive milieu – suburbia.

“Juniper Junction had represented the kind of Canada that was just pre-war, when Canada was more rural in nature," Seth notes. "In the 1950s, you see a shift in Canadian culture from the rural to the urban and the suburban, and Nipper really captured that modern flavour. Even the way it was drawn, with very clean lines – it was very slick. Juniper Junction was of that earlier era in that it was a very finicky crosshatch style, which Wright carried on. When you see the two strips side by side, they do seem to be from two different time periods, even though they were produced at exactly the same time.”

It turned out Wright was on the cusp of a trend. In the next few years, two popular American strips about kids, Hank Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace and Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, would debut.

Silent slapstick
Wright began Nipper with a distinct disadvantage: he was a single man who had spent very little time around kids. As Brad Mackay writes in the excellent biographical essay that accompanies The Collected Doug Wright, the strip “was potentially a creative death sentence.” To keep it going, Wright relied heavily on violent slapstick gags, like the one pictured here.

“In the first seven or eight years you could practically put it down to just being a slapstick strip,” Seth says. “The early character of Nipper seems to be mostly a precocious brat – he’s kind of a Dennis the Menace type, except without all the cutesy talk, because there’s no dialogue. I’m kind of happy to see that fade away as time goes on in the strip.”

Thanks to the absence of word balloons, Nipper would later make an easy transition to Quebec’s French-speaking market, under the name Fiston.

A Nipper Christmas
However, even in those early comics, Wright revealed a softer side on occasion. In this, the first of Nipper’s annual full-page Christmas strips, the little fellow showed he wasn’t made entirely of mischief.

Distinctively Canadian
When Wright married Phyllis Sanford in 1952 and they moved to the Montreal suburb of Lachine, Nipper began to reflect their new surroundings. More and more, the strip also began to look distinctively Canadian. The gag pictured here, in which Nipper outfits his hot rod with chains, is a perfect example.

“I don’t think [Wright] was really striving to be particularly Canadian,” Seth says, “it’s just that since he was focusing so much on the immediate details of his own suburban life, the work really has a Canadian flavour to it. I never feel like he’s saying, ‘I should do a hockey gag because it’s a good Canadian thing.’ It’s just another element of that life.”

Sugar-free humour
Another Canadian attribute – shared by Wright’s successor, Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse fame – is the comic’s refusal to be excessively cute. In that respect, Nipper is a refreshing contrast to other contemporary strips like The Family Circus and Hi and Lois.

“My main complaint with all that stuff is that it’s really cloying and sugary,” Seth says. “It seems to be designed exclusively to go on the refrigerator. Wright isn’t entirely free of that, being a commercial artist, of course. But I do think as time goes on with Nipper, the amazing thing is that it gets much quieter. As the strip hits its real peak, often an instalment can be about practically nothing at all. A minor incident of a kid slamming the screen door too loudly, or what they’re doing with their guinea pig – it becomes really about the small incident, it has that ring of truth about it.

"You never really get that feeling with those American kid strips," he continues. "They always seem to be calculated for some sort of gag, which as far as I’m concerned is the death of commercial cartooning. Wright managed to transcend that, by getting away from trying to have a laugh at the end.”

Doug Wright the adman
Wright kept a logbook of his daily activities and Seth says the man’s workload was mind-boggling. “I’m a pretty busy artist myself, and he’s doing three times the amount of work I’m doing.” He says that having so much on your plate can be good for a commercial artist. “Your skills become really tight when you work that fast, you get over any fussing about. It’s obvious in his work that Wright had that ability.”

Occasionally, the world of Nipper bled into Wright’s other assignments. Illustrating a major advertising campaign by Simoniz floor wax in 1959, he came up with a red-haired, freckle-faced variant on his comic-strip imp. The ad pictured here was part of a series Wright did for Simoniz – Seth says he’s seen at least 10 different ones.

Doug Wright the illustrator
Wright's imagination wasn’t confined to kids and domestic subjects. His steady editorial work for the Standard, Weekend magazine and the Montreal Star had him drawing everything from hungover officer workers (for a post-New Year’s issue) to a flock of Stratford Festival patrons. This cover, from the Sept. 29, 1962, issue of the Star’s entertainment supplement, had Wright poking gentle fun at beatniks.

Nipper's baby brother
If the move to suburban Lachine had a big impact on Nipper, even more significant were the births of the Wrights’ three children (in 1953, 1956 and 1960, respectively). Sons Bill, Jim and Ken would provide their father with unlimited fodder for his strip.

“When you listen to cartoonists who do kid-oriented material – even someone like Charles Schulz, where the kids aren’t really kids – you find out there is a period where their children do supply a lot of inspiration to them,” Seth says. “Often it isn’t direct, but there’s something about being in contact with kids and how they think that opens up the door for you.”

When Phyllis was pregnant with Ken, Nipper took an autobiographical turn. Wright built the pregnancy and birth into the comic strip, so that Nipper ended up with a little brother. In the strip pictured here, Nipper experiences the classic jealousy of an older sibling.

Nipper times two
Seth says the introduction of Nipper’s kid brother was a major turning point in the strip’s development. “Instead of just trying to come up with another slapstick gag, Wright came to understand what the relationship between the boys would be about. That’s when the strip gets interesting. You lose a lot of that clichéd mayhem and you get into more of an unsentimental view of childhood, too, where it seems to be more about the conflict between the boys. And it’s not a very cute conflict; it does seem to have a basis in reality. You see that come up a lot more in the ‘60s and ‘70s material.”

Nipper's new format
In the early 1960s, Wright also began to alter the comic strip’s format. The single panel allowed him to devote even more space to depicting Nipper’s physical world.

From the Standard to the Star
The 1960s brought changes, both for the Wright family and for Nipper. In 1967, the Wrights left Montreal and resettled in Burlington, Ont. The strip made a comparable move, to the pages of the Toronto Star Weekly, and was retitled Doug Wright’s Family. The history of the strip from the ‘60s up to its demise in 1980 – its golden period – will be covered in the book’s second volume, likely to be published next year.

"A national treasure"
Wright died in 1983 and for a time his legacy suffered the fate of many commercial artists. “In Canada, we have a bad tendency not to pay attention to the work that was produced in the commercial vein,” Seth says. “Wright was a good example of that. When the work stopped appearing, people just forgot all about him.”

However, in recent years Wright has begun to receive some of the recognition due to him. The Doug Wright Awards, annual prizes for Canadian cartooning, were established in his honour in 2005. (Seth was an inaugural winner.)

Now, with The Collected Doug Wright, Seth wants to put the artist’s work back in the public eye. “I think he’s a national treasure,” he says. “I hope the book will spark the memory of people who are old enough to have read the strip, and let younger people who never saw the work in the first place appreciate it now.”


 

 



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