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The Wright Awards

Doug Wright
by Seth

When the idea of a new Canadian award for cartooning came along there were really only two names that immediately presented themselves as possible namesakes:  Jimmy Frise and Doug Wright.  I'm not entirely sure why Frise lost out.  I'd don't recall any debate on the matter.  Hands down it was Wright.  It's just possible that Wright is more a part of our world than Frise.   Frise was born in the 19th century and was dead by 1948.  He is simply a more distant figure.  Whatever the reasoning, it's no slight to either man.  They were both enormously talented.  They were the twin pillars of Canada's cartooning history before 1980.

Still, I'd venture a guess that neither name is overly familiar to many of you here tonight.  Canada has a short memory for its own creative people.  That's why I've been asked to come up here and give some information about Doug Wright to those of you who many not know of him or his work.To prepare this talk I dug out all the material I had on Mr. Wright. 20 years of painfully difficult collecting.  It's been an uphill battle to find his work. Nothing remains in print. Very few book collections were even printed to begin with.  Each individual strip had to be found in magazines gleaned from yard sales and church basements and goodwills.  Magazine dealers don't carry many of these magazines.  Nor do comic shops.  Each strip found was a triumph.  Anyhow, I looked through all this stuff.  I even looked through a box of strips lent to me by Mr. Wright's widow,Phyllis.  It was there, in that box of fading newsprint that I came across a single yellowed sheet of typewritten copy.  An artist's bio, obviously typed out by Wright himself.  Possibly to include with submissions.  Or maybe to hand out 
to the press.  Here's what he wrote:
 

"Doug Wright was born in England and arrived in Canada at the age of twenty one with a sister and mother, who longed to see him become a doctor.  Stationed at Rivers, Manitoba, during the war, he became a cartoonist by accident when fellow air force recruits began laughing at his doodlings. 

A cartoon strip, Doug Wright's Family, based on doings in his own household and the neighbourhood and a cartoon depicting the average man's preoccupation with potholes, taxes and other mundane problems, were published in Canada and syndicated all around the globe.  One doesn't find politicians and public figures in Wright's work, but in the sense that this artist deals with the dilemma of people in a troubled society, he is "political".

Like many successful cartoonists, doing both editorial and comic art, Doug Wright began as a "ghost", helping the late Jimmy Frise with the strip Juniper Junction, then stepped out to try several features of his own. 

"The thing about this profession is, it's creative and rewarding" says Wright.  "After all, in what other line, if a taxi driver cuts me off, could I get even with him in a drawing?"


Like most cartoonists, when forced to sit down and write about themselves and their work, Wright seems to have missed the point entirely.  He didn't get to the heart of it at all.  He's just trying to sound professional here. Businesslike.  He even ends it with a joke like a good business speech.  He brings up the political stuff to sound serious.  If anything, he sounds a bit embarrassed.  I even think he cribbed the middle part from John Muir's introduction to Wright's collection of Spectator cartoons.  Even the typing looks pained with it's careful borders and many whited-out errors.  Doug left out all the poetry.

But, since Wright started with the dry stuff, I'll start with the dry 
stuff.

Wright was born in 1917 in England.  His father died in the war before Doug even met him.  He came to Canada at the age of 18 to work as a commercial artist for the Sun Life Assurance Co. When the 2nd World War came along he joined the RCAF and that's where he had his first cartoons published.  In the station magazine.  The positive attention by those airmen changed his life.  He was now a cartoonist.  After the war he went to New York to try and break in but lucky for Canada they sent him back home to get some experience. 

In '48 he started a little strip about a toddler for the Montreal Standard Magazine.  A contest named the kid "Nipper" --a name Wright 
never cared much for. In I967 he switched magazines and changed the strips name to Doug Wright's Family.   Wright married Phyllis in 1952 and over the next eight years they had three children.  Three boys who would supply him with all the raw material he would need to churn out a weekly strip for over 30 years. 

Back in '48 he had also taken over Jimmy Frise's strip Juniper 
Junction when Jimmy died.  He drew this strip in the Family Herald magazine up until 1968 when the magazine folded.  On top of these two strips he drew large single panel cartoons for the Montreal Star and later the Hamilton Spectator.  And lots of illustrations too.  Complicated illustrations with scores of figures and highly detailed backgrounds.  He tried to syndicate two other strips during these years also.  They didn't pan out.

So you can see --Wright was a hard worker.  A real professional.  He slaved his life away in that studio as all real cartoonists do.  A lot of time alone at the drawing table.  But don't let that be his whole epitaph.  There is a lot about him that appears between the lines of that bio.  I don't know about the real stuff.  I never knew the man.  But I know the work and there is some poetry in the work.

Now, from all I know about the man, Wright was humble and not given much to pretensions --so I'm sure he'd shudder at any mention of poetry in connection to his work.  Still, for a comic strip without any words he did manage to get quite a bit of poetry in there.  A kind of poem to suburbia or to the middle class lifestyle.

Even though by the time I was reading the strip it was titled Doug Wright's family-it was never known as anything but "Nipper" in my house.  I remember wondering why my mother called it this but oddly, I never asked.  I just took her word for it.  His name was Nipper.  Both the magazines the strip had appeared in were newspaper supplements. They came with the weekend paper.  A huge section of the Canadian public read the strip.  These magazines were predominantly middlebrow in content and were pretty reflective of Canadian culture of the time.  They had articles on Hockey players and the Queen, Madame Benoit's recipes and lots of ads for curling sweaters and Kraft cheeses.  Like all magazines of the time they liked to have a cartoon in the back to give the reader something to chuckle at.  Something wholesome and family friendly.  If they had picked anyone else to do it --someone less talented and dedicated than Wright --then the strip would probably have been forgettable.  The fact that we are here tonight shows that something in the strip turned out to be memorable.  A lot of people do fondly remember the strip.  But, like Wright's son Ken once said to me --40 is the dividing line.  Over forty and they remember.  Under 40 and they don't. 

There is some truth to that.  However, even those over 40 often misremember the strip.   Often it is recalled as a sort of Canadian Family Circus.  This irritates me.  Wright's work had none of the 
flavour of that south-of-the-border baby strip.  In fact, his view of 
childhood was remarkably matter of fact.  Downright unsentimental.  Rather than showing childhood as precious he tended to focus on the petty conflicts between children.  There was a lot of minor bullying in the strip.  Nipper and his unnamed little brother were constantly at each other.  Wright wasn't looking back with rose coloured glasses-he was looking outside his window for something real. This probably says a lot about Wright.

It was a pantomime strip-told only with pictures.  This is a fact that 
people often forget.  That's a real testament to his story telling skills.  The strips were so well executed that you don't notice the lack of words.  I bet there were readers who never noticed.   The most recognizable feature of the comic was the two distinctive bald heads of the boys.  In the 1950's Wright had designed their round heads to emulate the buzz-cuts that were popular at the time.  However, by the 1970's the boys stood out oddly among their longhaired friends.  Younger readers always asked:  "why are those kids bald?"  I've read that Wright would have like to update his boys-to give them long 70's hair -but he knew that the reader's would be perplexed by the change.  Thanks God he resisted.  Now they can safely enter that 
pantheon of inexplicably bald cartoon children: the Yellow Kid, Henry
Barnaby, Sluggo, and of course, good ol' Charlie Brown.

For the first decade Wright's drawing was minimalist-focused on the figures. Backgrounds in the strip were sparse-often nonexistent.  However by the 60's his work had flourished.  His interest turned to those backgrounds and now they were richly detailed.  This love of detail was always there in his illustrations but not so much in his cartoons.  It was in this period that his amazing abilities as a draftsman came to the fore.  He often spent an entire day working out the complex settings for his cartoons in the Montreal Star and later the Hamilton Spectator.  This attention to detail found it's way into his comic strips too.  The panels became masterfully crafted examples of deep space and careful observation.  In one memorable panel he 
drew a large complicated vista of a strip mall, the parking lot , the street and the hills beyond, which perfectly captured the essence of just such a mid-20th century location.  Looking at this drawing is practically the same as visiting the place.

As his backgrounds grew in complexity so did their "sense of exactness."  The environment of the strip was, undoubtedly, his own house, his own neighbourhood and his own town.  Wright was drawing the very world that I grew up in-the south western Ontario of the 1960's and 70's.  Every carefully rendered detail is perfectly familiar to me: the ranch style homes, the school yards, the corner stores --even the little things like the screen doors. 

Wright's cartoons are like a catalogue of the period:  the clothes, the hairstyles, the furnishings, the streets.and especially the cars.  Wright obviously loved cars.  He lavished special care in the drawing of them.  And it shows.  He rendered them with both utter authenticity and a kind of vital inner life.  They jumped off the page.  Every kind of vehicle was lovingly drawn.  Go carts, race cars, station wagons, muscle cars, fire engines --even the garbage trucks.  The boys themselves were always tooling around in their famous hot-rod pedal cars.  A lot of the cartoonists of the mid 20th century were fascinated by the machines of progress-but usually this manifested itself  in a love of airplanes.  Wright is the only one I know that picked the automobile.  It's no surprise that when Wright took over Frise's Juniper Junction the focus of the strip rapidly narrowed from that of the various residents of the little town to just that of the town's garage and it's mechanics.

Earlier I used the term "sense of exactness" to describe Wright's drawings.  That sense was never more acute than in his drawings of the post-war suburban environment.  They evoke the very experience of being there.  I can think of nothing else, not even photographs,  that brings that world of my childhood back to me with such deeply felt longing.  As I peer into his strips I see the essence of an era that no longer exists.  The last breath of the early 20th century mixing with the new world that is to come.

On Occasion Wright would focus his great rendering skills on a small poetic moment of everyday life such as a snowy winter morning or a dusky evening of fireworks or a sudden sun shower.  These images never drew undue attention to themselves.  They never slowed the strips down.  Still, if you stopped and took the time to take them in you would feel their subtle beauty.  This brings up another of Wright's gifts-his wonderful ability to draw weather.  He's one of the very few cartoonists who can actually make you feel the temperature in a comic strip.  His sensitivity to weather was as integral to his work as his interest in detail. 

Sometimes it seems as if the comic was as much about place and atmosphere as it was about the family.But, of course, the family was the actual content of the strips. On the surface "Doug Wright's Family" seems to be a series of domestic gags but it doesn't seem right to label his work a gag-strip because he never seems to have really aimed for the big laugh.  It was more observational-more slice of life.  Wright's work played the chords of familiarity.  He let you in on 
the small events that you would recognize from your own family life. 

Don't get me wrong --the strip was humourous --but it was a wry humour.  It was the frustration of dealing with a little boy who keeps slamming the screen door no matter how many times you tell him to cut it out.  Or the childish embarrassment of an unexpected kiss from an adult.  Or the difficulties in trying to fly your kid's toy plane.  Each situation, hundreds of them, was played perfectly deadpan.  It was a simple record of the duties, quibbles, irritations and pleasures of family life.

Once a year the magazine would give him an entire page of full colour for a Christmas strip.  Even these strips were never sentimental.  They tended to stress the petty greed of childhood.  Or perhaps a social embarrassment.  Or other less typical Christmas themes.  For someone like myself, who tends toward sentimentality, I have always been impressed by Wrights ability to steer clear of this minefield --especially in a kid focused strip.  I have heard it said that having children of your own puts an end to any ideas of romanticized childhood.

As the 60's and 70's passed Wright watched the societal changes with a bemused attitude. Even though ostensively he was the father in the strip, Wright the artist always seemed to be an observer-univolved, detached.  He never seemed bothered by the changes in society-if anything he continued to find humour in them.  He love to gently mock the youth culture of the times. Especially in his big single panel cartoons for the Hamilton spectator.  In his comic strip the work became more and more focused on tiny events.  The amusement of blowing up a balloon or of getting stuck in a true.  Whether the cat should be in out of the house. 

I've noticed, in the very late 70's that his work began to dry up.  He started to recycle some old jokes that he'd used way back in the 1950's.  Sadly, these were drawn with less vigor and skill and they compare badly with the earlier ones. I had wondered about this decline when I first studied those cartoons, but I 've since learned that he suffered a small stroke around this time.  Being a cartoonist myself, I can understand that imposing dread of the work looming.  There is always some deadline coming down the pipeline- ideas needed.  He 
must have felt his abilities slipping away from him.  His great drawing 
powers weakening. 

The drawings are weaker at the very end. I think I can imagine some of that disappointment he must have felt, sitting in that studio.  That man who had so prided himself on his amazing creative abilities.
And so the strip came to an end in 1980.  Wright retired it.  I can only 
guess at his thoughts and feelings on the matter.  He'd drawn it for 32 
years.  As always, truth is stranger than fiction.  On the day that the last strip appeared, Doug Wright had the big stroke that closed off that amazing drawing ability forever.  Wright was dead within 3 years.

And since then, like so many artists who worked in the popular press, his name has grown dimmer with the passing of time.  He's in danger of being forgotten.  That's what brings us here tonight.  Yes-these awards were created to honour the artists of today but I'm hoping that The Wright Award will help to bring men like Doug Wright back again.  Artists like Jimmy Frise, Walter Ball, James Simpkins, Albert Chartier, Peter Whalley.  These men were the hard working cartoonists of Canada's past.  They stayed in Canada and published through the magazines and newspapers of their time. Canada's publishing industry was small and they had to struggle to make living but they were hard workers and their work changed the country.  They were part of the generations that defined Canada's identity and it's fledgling pop culture. 

I know these men never thought of themselves collectively.  They were each individual commercial artists working alone.  They probably didn't think of themselves as cartoonists with a big "C".  If anything they probably identified with the newspapermen, art directors and publishers they worked with.  Still, I'd like to bring them into the fold-to welcome them in after their long years in the wilderness.  I'm hoping that Doug Wright would've been happy to see that all these years later his work lives on and that young artists, who weren't even born during the years he was working, will know his name.

Thank you.


 © 2005 Seth

 Contents ©2005 CCAC
  Artwork ©2005 the various creators