Review: The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist, 1949-1962
The Collected Doug Wright: Canada’s Master Cartoonist, 1949-1962
Edited by Seth and Brad Mackay
Drawn & Quarterly, May 2009, $39.95
Some claims come with the seeds of their own mocking built right in, and I’m afraid that “[[[Canada’s Master Cartoonist]]]” is right up there with “the premier crimefighting vigilante of the Quad Cities area” – it sounds impressive briefly, and then there’s a lull while we all wait for the punch line. Doug Wright is indeed an excellent cartoonist, and also Canadian – quintessentially Canadian, even, having spent his entire career in Montreal working on strips for purely Canadian markets – but this book’s glowing surety that Canada has precisely one “master cartoonist” and Wright is it comes across as the stereotypical Canadian fresh-faced naïveté that exists only to be foiled.
(I mean, what about such widely disparate names as Dave Sim, John Byrne, Hal Foster, Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, and Lynn Johnston? Is every other Canadian cartoonist eternally a journeyman? These are the kinds of questions I ponder, late at night, with my face turned north towards Canada.)
[[[The Collected Doug Wright]]] is a gorgeous book – no online photos do justice to its shiny red cover and the oval die-cut that reveals an embossed image of Wright most famous character, the boy scamp Nipper – and Wright was nearly as gorgeous a cartoonist in his prime. The early strips reprinted here are uneven: the drawing is good but not as strong as it would become, and Wright mostly used his red accent color to frame each panel – often too tightly and not well – rather than as the accent he later evolved it into. But from the mid-’50s his drawings are energetic – they have to be, being focused on a hellion like Nipper – and filled with closely-observed scenes drawn from life. (And then turned into slapstick comedy, of course – Wright was a mid-century gag cartoonist, and he knew what his audience wanted.)
The main problem with The Collected Doug Wright starts with the title – this book is really [[[The Collected Nipper]]]. The long, useful introduction by Mackay goes into exhaustive depth on Wright’s life and work, with some examples on those pages, and then there’s a twenty-some page section called “Portfolio,” with samples of Wright’s illustrative work, which is impressive. But then the bulk of the book is a reprinting – complete, or nearly so – of the weekly Nipper strip from January of 1949 through December of 1962. And the Nipper strips are fine in ones or twos, but they start to pall in phalanxes and divisions.
[[[Nipper]]] is a wordless family strip – Nipper himself is a bald little boy, apparently about five or six. He has a father and a mother, and they live somewhere unspecified in Canadian suburbia. (The then-new, just post-war kind of suburbia, with small houses close together in new developments.) There are other children in the neighborhood, including, eventually, a little brother for Nipper. And all of the strips are about what a little troublemaker Nipper is: he makes messes, tears around the house and the neighborhood at high speed, torments the adult neighbors and their children and animals, is demanding and intractable, and in general makes life very interesting for his mother and father.
Those of us who have had boys of that age know very well what they’re like, and each individual strip can raise a quick smile. (And that’s what Nipper was designed to do: it appeared singly in the weekly magazine Montreal Standard.) But with two strips to a page, and over a hundred and fifty pages, the boy rapidly turns into a hellish brat. There’s just no other way to put it. He comes across as horribly badly behaved, the kind of kid that the neighbors of that era would mutter darkly should be “thrashed” for his own good.
The Nipper strips are just too much of a kind to work well all run together, as they are here. The reader turns pages, his eyes glazing over as he looks at yet another final panel of Nipper running away with that fixed, wide-mouthed grin on his hideous skull. I finished reading Collected Doug Wright a couple of weeks ago, and I can still see that grin. It may haunt my dreams for years to come.
Doug Wright is a fine cartoonist, and if Canada wants to declare him their absolute best, they’ll get no serious argument from me. But if Drawn & Quarterly wants to rest his fame purely on Nipper, I think they’ll have great difficulty; Nipper is just not a strip that gains anything at all from being collected – indeed, it’s one of those unfortunate strips that becomes less and less interesting the more of them one reads in a row. D&Q have promised a second volume of Wright’s work – I hope it’s as gorgeous and well-designed as this book, which really is a magnificent work. And I hope that it has many more pages of fine Doug Wright artwork. But, most of all, I hope that satanic grinning imp Nipper is kept to a much smaller budget of pages, and Wright’s other comics work allowed to show its virtues as well.
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He¹s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
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