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
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
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
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:
Yellow Kid, Henry,
and of course, good ol' Charlie
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
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
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.
must have felt his abilities slipping away from
him. His great drawing
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
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,
Ball, James Simpkins,
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.
© 2005 Seth
Contents ©2005 CCAC
Artwork ©2005 the various creators