Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Unprecedented collection of Nipper creator's work

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The Collected Doug Wright

Canada's Master Cartoonist

Drawn and Quarterly, 240 pages, $40

The first of a planned two-volume set, this is an unprecedented collection, focusing on a Canadian whose impact on the national culture demands recognition.

Cartoonist Doug Wright (1917-1983) was the author of the daily strip Nipper -- later known as Doug Wright's Family -- which ran for more than 35 years in 41 newspapers across the country, including the Winnipeg Free Press.

With a readership of two million, the strip was a fixture of Canadian life at the time. Today, the Doug Wright Awards recognize the best in Canadian comics art.

The book is thus an incomparable piece of coffee table Canadiana. Designed by the celebrated Guelph-based cartoonist Seth, it's a beautiful piece of work, both to look at and to handle.

It's so well crafted that it's a joy simply to turn the pages, with the ever-so-rough paper surface retaining a sense of the material's newsprint origins.

Of course, the book wouldn't look this good were it not for the handsomeness of Wright's art itself. On the level of draftsmanship, the work is marvellous. Clear of line, clean and sharp-eyed in detail, often powerful in perspective, the art brilliantly showcases the often-minimalist nature of cartoon art.

Wright was especially good at reducing scenes to their essences, emphasizing the most striking or characteristic details of architecture, streetscapes and interiors.

He was also adept at tricky, cramped compositions, such as two characters sitting in the back of a bus -- no easy feat in the small format that is the comic strip panel.

Wright also made ingenious use of his allotted space on the page. The vast majority of his comics work was done in vertical format, in contrast to the more commonplace horizontal strip.

Wright sometimes used it for visual gags that, horizontally, would have been impossible. He used the format with equal invention for some delightful newspaper ads.

Indeed, Wright's commercial work is just as admirable, sometimes evoking the art in early Mad magazine by such artists as Will Elder and Jack Davis.

One particularly Elder-esque touch is to be found on a cover for the Montreal Standard, which depicts a newsstand displaying a wide assortment of magazines; among titles such as "Men Only" and "Women Only," one can also spot "Morons Only."

It must be said, however, that Wright's most famous creation, Nipper, is a charming, well-drawn but not especially outstanding comic strip.

What is noteworthy is the total absence of dialogue, making Nipper an often highly creative exercise in pure visual storytelling.

Another way in which Wright's work captivates is as a time capsule from the mid-20th century, from the clothes to the architecture to the cars to such habits as smoking in a house with children.

One disconcerting detail, however, is the sometimes rageaholic nature of Nipper's father. In one strip the dad chases Nipper with a belt; in another, he actually gives Nipper the back of his hand. As a reflection of the times, this is both telling and disturbing.

The Collected Doug Wright is of considerable value, both culturally and esthetically. It should please Canadian culture buffs, art lovers and fine-book collectors alike.

Kenton Smith is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer, critic and comics enthusiast. He is the former co-host of Eat Your Arts and Vegetables on CKUW 95.9 FM.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 7, 2009 D3

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