DOUG WRIGHT reviewed by The Montreal Gazette

The Collected Doug Wright, Vol. 1: Canada's Master Cartoonist

The Gazette    |    Terry Mosher (Aislin)    |    May 30, 2009

My godfather, the Montreal painter John Little, is a very funny raconteur. John tells stories about trying to get established as an illustrator here in the late 1940s. Living in the Town of Mount Royal, he borrowed his father's car one day to drive downtown to see Dick Hersey, the legendary art director at the Standard, one of the best weekly publications in Canada at that time. After a quick look at John's portfolio, Hersey asked John to drive him and Mavis Gallant, then a featured writer at the Standard, to a bar in the West End where the three of them drank away the afternoon.

This wasn't unusual behaviour for those times - or for Hersey. There was a tavern around the corner from the Standard where Hersey's stable of illustrators would gather. The art director was known to send back to the office for the occasional cash advance for an illustrator who drank his way through his pocket money.

What illustrators Hersey had at his beck and call back then: Among others were Ed McNally, who would become the editorial-page cartoonist for the Montreal Star in the 1960s, the very funny and sly gag cartoonist Peter Whalley - and Doug Wright.

Wright, born in England, had arrived in Montreal in late 1938. Joining the RCAF, he drew several comic strips during the Second World War to entertain Canadian troops. On the strength of that, Wright returned to Montreal to become one of the country's most prolific illustrators over the next 30 years. An excellent draftsman, his first major assignment was a challenging one: having to replace the recently deceased Jimmy Frise, the most popular Canadian cartoonist of the day, in drawing the comic strip Juniper Junction.

In addition, Wright drew many illustrations for a variety of English-language publications that existed at that time in Montreal. But Doug's best-known effort began in 1949 with a weekly comic strip titled Nipper. It first appeared in the Standard and then the publication's successor, Weekend magazine. When Weekend folded, the strip began appearing in Canadian magazine, a weekly newspaper insert. With that, the name of the strip also changed from Nipper to Doug Wright's Family.

Nipper was an imp - a small, hairless boy continually running around getting himself into all sorts of mischief. In the 1950s, Doug Wright and his wife, Phyllis, began raising a family in a modest, brand-new suburban home on 54th Ave. in Lachine. The neighbourhood could have been in any suburb, really, partly explaining the comic strip's popularity. Apparently, all Doug Wright had to do to get inspiration for Nipper was to watch the shenanigans of the local kids through his front window.

Drawn & Quarterly has published a lavish tribute to Wright that has been lovingly assembled by celebrated illustrator and cartoonist Gregory Gallant (a.k.a. Seth) and Ottawa-based journalist Brad MacKay. The text is not only an interesting record of Wright's life and experiences as a professional cartoonist, but also a record of the thriving Montreal publishing industry in the 1940s and 1950s, when Wright worked here.

A second volume is planned that will cover Wright's later working years after he moved from Montreal to Burlington, Ont., right up until his death in 1983. Nervous about Quebec politics, Wright had moved down the 401 earlier than others in 1966, well before the highway was even finished! The authors tell an interesting anecdote that I had not heard before: Wright became upset with Perspectives, the French-language equivalent of Weekend magazine, when the publication began printing his translated comic-strip - and started dropping his English signature.

Seth and MacKay watched Wright's work when they were growing up, as had the cartoonist Lynn Johnston of For Better or For Worse fame.

Johnston has written an introduction to this first volume where she also mentions another cartoonist who had an influence on her: Len Norris, who worked for the Vancouver Sun. It was, in fact, a rich period for Canadian illustration and cartooning.

Drawn & Quarterly, under the stewardship of Chris Oliveros, is a Montreal publishing house that is now world-famous for specializing in graphic novels and other forms of cartooning. The publisher should be congratulated here for taking a chance in remembering the talents of Doug Wright. In a perfect world, D&Q would eventually do the same for some of the equivalent Canadian talents of the day like George Feyer, Oscar Cahen, James Simpkins, Duncan Macpherson, Bruce Johnson and others already mentioned above.

In the meantime, cartoon buffs have this excellent first volume of Wright's to pore over. The illustrations give a visual record of the fashion and artifacts of the time: the suburbs, the emergence of television and, in particular, automobiles. Wright sometimes filled in as the editorial page cartoonist at the Montreal Star (and, after moving to Ontario, at the Hamilton Spectator), and was notorious in the business for always sticking a car or truck somewhere in his drawing.

Over half of this first volume is taken up with reproductions of the comic strip featuring the rascalities of Nipper. The authors point out that the strip started publishing even before the popular Charlie Brown, a comic strip that also featured a bald-headed tyke. However, on re-examination, I find that there is a realism about Wright's strips that is far superior to many of the efforts created in his day. Nipper, a jolly little anarchist at heart, is always getting into gleeful trouble. So, a comparison with the blander Charlie Brown doesn't seem a match. It would be more apt to see Nipper as a precursor of another troublesome youngster: Bart Simpson.

Terry Mosher (Aislin) is editorial-page cartoonist at The Gazette.

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