London Free Press delighted by NIPPER

Nipper is a delight

London Free Press    |    Dan Brown    |    June 29, 2011

Doug Wright's comic-strip collection Nipper is an enchanting little book.
Not only is it ideal reading for lovers of gentle humour, it's also a fascinating document that recalls the birth of suburban culture in Canada.
The main characters - two round-headed little boys - are reminiscent of Peanuts; the premise - said boys raise hell and otherwise make life tough for their unnamed parents - prefigures Calvin and Hobbes.
Wright, an English transplant who landed in Montreal in 1938, took the stock elements of family-based newspaper strips and used simple, evocative lines to create a cartoon that still says a lot about the lives of Canadians in the early 1960s.
Even more impressively, he used no words.
The strips in this collection first appeared in Weekend magazine, a Saturday newspaper supplement, from 1963-1964. Using only red, white, black and grey, Wright created a world of couches, chairs, barbecues and maple trees; a typical strip consists of five panels.
Wright's work is gag-driven - one strip has the harried father slipping on ice as he pulls the boys on their sleds; another shows the father and elder son watching a thunderstorm as it passes through the neighbourhood - but there is also something deeper going at the margins.
My favourite strip has the brothers following a department-store Santa on break to find him relaxing with a flask and cigarette. One can only imagine what comes next - you might think the reaction to such an unmasking would be disillusionment, but Wright hints that it's joy.
In a rare moment of relaxation, the father makes a glass of lemonade before retiring to the backyard. It's inevitable the boys will knock it over, of course, but check out what the father is doing before his sanctuary is invaded- he's reading the weekend comics. This small detail makes for a moment of self-reflexivity that telegraphs a mountain of meaning to the reader; Wright didn't break the fourth wall outright, as later cartoonists would do, but he was definitely pushing up against it.
With touches like this, it's no wonder the Canadian comics intelligentsia- aided by publisher Drawn & Quarterly - deemed Wright worthy of reclaiming. The slender Nipper book follows on the heels of The Collected Doug Wright, an expansive volume of interest to readers who want to find out more about the comic creator's work and life (among the artists who count themselves as Wright devotees are Lynn Johnston and Seth).
Nipper is not philosophical in the same sense as the work of Charles Schulz. Regardless, attentive readers will find the strips here provoke thought not just about how families work, but also the trappings of Canadian society.
Take, for example, the evidence we find in the strips of the changing seasons. In the winter strips, we see the younger boy getting stuck in a snowbank; in the spring, he and his brother play road hockey; in summer, the family retreats to the lakeside cottage; in the fall, a football game messes up a piles of leaves. All told, it's a story as old as Canada itself, of humankind's struggle to master the elements.
And if you want to probe even deeper, Nipper would easily yield a bonanza of questions to those who are Canadian Studies majors.
For instance, did Wright understand the potent symbolism of the Habs jerseys the boys wear? What is it about Quebec that prompts silent humour (keep in mind, this is the same province that produced the dialogue-free Just For Laughs Gags television program)? And why does every Canadian cartoonist feel obliged to do at least one strip in their career about the long process of bundling children up in snowsuits?

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