[21 July 2009]
Doug Wright was one of Canada’s most well-known cartoonists and is often compared to the likes of Charles Schulz. Though born and raised in England, Wright become an important fixture in Canadian pop culture. After flunking out of high school and dropping out of an art program after three weeks because his instructors were encroaching on his style, Wright moved to Montreal and got his humble start in the industry by taking a job as an illustrator for the Sun Life insurance company.
The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist doesn’t begin quite as humbly. The book opens with a brief introduction from Lynn Johnston, creator of For Better or Worse, which praises Wright for his mastery of his craft and for the profound influence his work had on her. She identifies a few reasons for Wright’s widespread appeal: “His images sequences always had just enough information, just enough expression and just enough slapstick to make them truly believable and therefore truly funny. We identified with every situation from all points of view. There were no perpetual heroes, no perpetual villains, just real people”.
Wright’s most popular series, Nipper (later renamed Doug Wright’s Family), comprises the bulk of the book. The series focuses on the eponymous young boy who is frequently causing mischief in his suburban Canadian hometown. imilarities might be drawn between Nipper and Dennis the Menace or Calvin and Hobbes. As Johnston’s quote points out, however, Nipper encourages viewers to see its stories from the points of view of several of the characters, not just the protagonist.
The slapstick may not be any more subtle than it would be in a series like Dennis the Menace, but the emphasis in Nipper tends to be on the realization of an opportunity to create mischief (usually involving a creative use of a commonplace item) and the ensuing reactions from characters (typically outrage from the parents and innocent amusement from Nipper). Unlike Calvin and Hobbes, Nipper lacks a consistent foil to his character and, though he is certainly imaginative, he has no imaginary sidekick to pull him into the realm of fantasy.
While one might not call the series “realistic”, it would be closer to realism than fantasy as it relies on the depiction of a believable, ordinary suburban society and Nipper’s blatant violations of that society’s norms. The depiction of such a society, where nearly every character functions as a sort of Canadian Everyman (or woman), is one of the most interesting aspects of the series as a whole.
Narrative arcs do not tend to carry over from one strip to another and even Nipper’s character traits fluctuate (most notably, he has the tendency to drop his typical trickster ways and transform into an angel for a couple of strips around the winter holidays). Despite such differences, the backdrop of ‘50s suburban Canada remains constant.
The setting is important for other reasons as well. This book is the first part of a two-part collection of Wright’s work and it primarily covers the work he was doing while living in Montreal, Quebec. Wright was a native English speaker and accordingly Nipper appeared in English language magazines: The Standard and later in Weekend. Though Nipper does not generally have any dialogue or captioning, any storefront signage, labels, and sounds appear in English. His work was eventually translated into French and published in Perspectives.
The Francophone magazine translated the strip’s title as Fiston and, in a move that understandably upset Wright, removed his obviously English signature. One might argue that reaching out to Anglophone and Francophone audiences alike through the pantomime format of Nipper helped bridge the cultural divide between the two groups (in fact, Brad Mackay makes exactly that point in the 10,000 word biographical essay on Wright that begins the book).
On the other hand, the society Wright portrayed in the strip was an English-Canadian one and seems to have been much more representative of his own life experiences that those of the Francophone majority in the city and throughout the province (indeed, the essay reveals that several of the slapstick routines featured in Nipper were directly inspired by claims Wright would have dealt with while working at Sun Life insurance). Wright eventually left Montreal and moved to Toronto in 1966, after the Quiet Revolution had begun, but one year before Charles de Gaulle’s famous “Vive le Québec libre” remarks and the escalation of the nationalist movement.
While it would be interesting to further explore such issues related to the roles of Anglophone artists working in Quebec and the cultural significance of their work to Francophone audiences, such an endeavor is well beyond the scope and purpose of this book. Rather, it seeks to collect and canonize the works of a talented artist whose comics, though widely beloved during their heyday, have since been overlooked or ignored.
Wright’s work is exceptional and it holds a special, though occasionally contentious place in Canadian popular culture. The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist succeeds at collecting and displaying Wright’s work in an accessible way and helping readers to understand more about the artist’s life, cultural significance, and place in Canadian history.