Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly released the first volume of The Collected Doug Wright, billing the artist’s as “Canada’s master cartoonist” comparing him with Charles Schulz, the creator of the comic strip Peanuts. Reporter Brad Mackay worked on the compilation and the archival research needed to assemble the book. The first volume collecting the body of work Wright did in comic strips and print advertising from 1949 to 1962.
Doug Wright was born in the United Kingdom in 1917 and immigrated to Canada in 1938 to work as an illustrator for the Sun Life insurance company, then, headquartered in Montreal, Quebec. Wright’s claim to fame is based on Nipper a family-oriented comic strip that was first published in the weekly newspaper, The Montreal Standard.
Publisher Chris Oliveros and writer Brad Mackay are making bold claims about Doug Wright being Canada’s master cartoonist and the Canadian equivalent of Charles Schulz, which unfortunately do not stand up to closer scrutiny. What Wright had going for him was a sure pen, and fluid storytelling skills allowing him to eschew written captions in his comic strips. But in terms of spirit, Wright’s work is nowhere near Charles Schulz or other celebrated cartoonists like Walt Kelly. As for being Canada’s master cartoonist, this is another brave claim that is more akin to chest beating than reality. At best, Wright was a good cartoonist, but not the foundation of comic strips as an art form in Canada. His work speaks for itself.
Oliveros and Mackay, both English Canadians seem to forget that any claim to be a master Canadian anything means that the person to whom the title is assigned to must be a stellar performer that is critically acclaimed in both of Canada’s solitudes. Publisher Chris Oliveros, though he lives in Montreal, should know better about the reality of Canada’s culture. However, his and Mackay’s claims are only symptomatic of the natural tendency of English Canadian elites to think of English Canada as the “real” Canada, while anything French or from First Nations is tolerated as exotic additions that spice up the Canadian makeup. On that score alone, Oliveros and Mackay’s claim that Doug Wright’s work somehow transcends Canada by being the ultimate the country can offer is a ludicrous claim at best, and publicity jingoism at worse.
Wright lived during the most important years that would define Canada as a nation and Quebec, as a province which was the center of Francophone society in the Americas. Looking at the strips contained in this volume, it is almost impossible to feel any influence of the Great Darkness and the Quiet Revolution that were affecting Montreal and Quebec, while Wright was churning a pile of comic strips every day.
What one can feel about Wright’s work is that he upheld a strict Anglo-Saxon White Protestant culture which was existent in the Montreal he lived in, but was continually encroaching and confronting the emerging nationalism of the French majority which was treated as an underclass not worth treating with dignity.
As Gabrielle Roy’s novel about the period, Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute) shows, Montreal was a segregated city where the rich and dominating English upper class blocked the economic prospect of the French-speaking majority. Like Germinal a century before, Bonheur d’occasion forced the French-speaking majority to look at the sad state of its fabric where basic health care services, higher education outside the liberal arts and economic mastership of its fate was controlled by a minority for which Doug Wright drew self congratulatory comic strips daily. Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s was an Anglophone city. All services were offered in English only. Store clerks and restaurant waiters attended clients in English only, even if the majority of the people who lived in the city were French-speaking.
The almost complete absence of any flavour of the multilingual state of Montreal is more a conceited attempt by Wright to ignore the reality of the city whose night life he so much enjoyed. To this day, Anglophones from across Canada think of Montreal as nothing but a cheap Paris, with bars and booze every second street. Montreal was the original Sin City, and from Mackay’s introduction, it seemed that Wright loved that part of the cosmopolitan city, while furiously ignoring the underclass that made it work.
If Wright’s work deserved to be labelled as the best Canada has to offer, it needs the same breath of ideas and humanism of the work of some its contemporaries. The work of Mordecai Richler, a contemporary of Wright is a good example of what Wright lacks in grandeur. Richler was born from a Jewish family in Montreal. A writer, his work, although based on Jewish characters, exudes the flavour of the city he lived in. Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz could not be mistaken for occurring in any other city but Montreal. Looking at Wright’s beautiful pantomimes, this reviewer could not tell whether the stories occurred in Mount-Royal, the small English enclave in the middle of Montreal, or in the Mount-Royal neighbourhood of Alberta-based Calgary. When a master’s work is bland, lacks humanism and could have occurred anywhere, should it be considered the best a country has to offer? If so, Canadians really are boring.
Wright also drew for the rest of Canada. His work was not just meant for the local Montreal English establishment. English Canadians across the country were also treated to Wright’s Nipper and other advertising cartoon. Nipper, the story of a toddler constantly involved in mischief was also translated for the Francophone market where it was called Fiston (Son). But some of Wright’s onomatopoeia had to be translated for the French audience and according to Mackay, Wright was less supportive of that and grew continually angry at the evolving social revolution of the 1960s that witnessed French Canadians, assert themselves as Québécois and masters of their own fate in their own land.
To compare Wright to Schulz, the former would have had to maintain a propos, a body of work that challenged its readers. Schulz, a contemporary, did not ignore the changes happening in American society, like Wright ignored what was happening just outside the window of his downtown office. Schulz introduced a black character in his comic strip at a time when blacks were still controversial figures only good for comic relief. Schulz had strong female characters and his philosophical musings did show concerns for other realities than the status quo. Although not a leading figure of change, Schulz was far from being a reactionary standout like Wright. Schulz was a master wordsmith that with but a few words could create a complex and profound short story, while Wright relied on his aesthetic skills only.
Wright’s office was located in the Sun Life Building, a symbol of Montreal’s economic might as Canada’s metropolis. At the time of its construction in 1931, it was the largest building in all of the British Empire. Its construction was a direct challenge to Cathedral Marie-Reine du monde, a replica of Saint Peter’s Basilica of Rome. The cathedral had been built by the French Canadian Catholic Church in what was seen as prime WASP real estate decades earlier to exhibit the power of the French population of Montreal. Well-read natives of Montreal and good historians would not ignore the symbolic importance of such things in their research. None of that insight is available in Mackay’s introduction. As an Ontarian, he does not understand what it meant to work in the Sun Life Building for a man like Doug Wright. He does not understand the ascendancy Wright automatically had over 90% of the population of Montreal and how he was elevated as an elite and mouthpiece for the English-speaking establishment. His publisher, Oliveros although a Montrealer, seems to have lacked the proper knowledge to guide Mackay's research.
Wright, like 700,000 thousands of English-speaking Montrealers, eventually left Montreal and transplanted themselves to Ontario where their numbers and economic might was sufficient to tip the balance in favour of the Great Lakes upstart and its Queen city. Toronto became the new metropolis of Canada, while Montreal was punished for affirming the reality of its nature as a city inhabited by a French Canadian majority. Sun Life and the majority of the financial industry that was headquartered in Montreal moved to Toronto. Wright chose no other day to move his family and himself out of the province of Quebec but Saint John Baptist Day, the religious and national holiday of all French Canadians and the patron saint of French-speaking Canada.
Uncleaned scans of Nipper
The editors used many archives that were not cleaned up properly before being printed. For the price of this book, you would think the publisher would provide cleaned up artwork without newspaper ridges. That’s a sign of poor editing. God made Adobe Photoshop so dirty newspapers comic strips scans could be cleaned up.
What is most interesting about Doug Wright’s work is its visual aesthetics. Given his lack of ideas and context, his penmanship is impressive. Wright uses curt lines that he fails to close in many of his drawings, suggesting more than a form, but not a totally rounded figure. This approach is quite useful at displaying the quick gestures and movements that populated his work. His lines are sometimes stark, sometimes shaky, suggesting a cartoonist more interested in an overall picture than details. It forces the reader to complete much of the information provided in the comic strip mentally and is in tone with the pantomime aspect of the work. Readers are asked to fill-in the blanks.
This reviewer believes that it is the charming nature of the pantomime and their extensive reliance on storytelling that propelled Mackay and Oliveros to elevate Doug Wright as Canada’s master cartoonist. However, the stories contained in this volume had little to say and are not memorable. However, what is revealed by omission in Wright’s work, is the elitism and contempt English Canadians felt for their fellow French Canadian brothers. This contempt continues to this day in the Doug Wright Awards that Mackay established in 2004 as a prize for the best Canadian cartoonists. In Mackay and his associates’ world, French Canada only exists if it’s translated. The apple rarely falls far from the tree.
Rating: 6 /10
Last Updated: Jan 1, 2015 - 15:08 Join the discussion:
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Hervé, it's a book of cartoons, not a political take on the universe. Take a deep breath and publish your own book on who you believe is Canada's master cartoonist. Hopefully your work won't run into an english speaking reviewer who's your equivalent.
When a bold claim is made about a new comic book, I believe that you need to take that into acount when reviewing it. I have also come to believe that if it is not done here, it will not be done elsewhere.
@Jean: you might not like Herve's opinion, but his article is well written and argumented. It is definitely different from what you would expect from an english-canadian but what would be the point of a culture without diversity? As long as the dialog remains healthy everything is fine by me.
Herve St. Louis presents some very interesting historical points in relation to Anglo-Franco points of view in Montreal during the '50s and '60s but the review seems to carry too much gravitas when one is discussing the creator of "Nipper".
I would agree that to call Wright 'Canada's master cartoonist' would be an exaggeration soley on the fact that I never heard of him until this week. (I'm 45, born and raised in Vancouver, BC.)
I had a long browse of this book this week and enjoyed the work. It reminded me of the post-war suburban life of my parents' generation. It could of been set in Vancouver.
I was looking at the book in Indigo on the weekend and I must say, design-wise, this is a snappy-looking book. The interior cartoons are well-crafted and charming, and definitely the work of a masterful cartoonist. But I'll confess, I'm not much of collector/reader of short form strip cartoons, so I'll probably wait to add this to my library. There really isn't much debate that Wright was a Canadian master strip cartoonist, however, he's one of many talented strip cartoonists who fit that bill (Albert Chartier, Jimmy Frise, Lynn Johnston, Palmer Cox and on different levels Hal Foster and Joe Shuster) but with, as Herve rightly points out, Canada's two solitudes pretty much prevent any single individual belonging to but one of those solitudes from being a national icon. I suspect the title was meant to be more than a little bombastic, probably with the hope of encouraging discussion, as it is, at least here.
As I Yankee, I have to say that calling Hal Foster and Joe Shuster Canadian is like calling Michael Ondaatje English or Sri Lankan, calling William Gibson America, calling John MacDonald Scottish or calling Barack Obama Indonesian. Spending a fraction of your life somewhere doesn't have much sway in terms of nationality. Hal and Shuster did all their work in America for American companies as American citizens, making them American cartoonists. Likewise, Ondaatje and William Gibson are Canadian writers because they've spent their whole careers writing in Canada as Canadians. The records show Joe spent 9 years in Canada and 70 in the US and Hal spent 27 in Canada and 53 in the US (and didn't start making art til he moved to Chicago) --- it's pretty cut and dry.
As for Wright, there's no evidence in biographical information on the artist that he was a member of the 'elite.' Wright himself was an immigrant to Canada, like Foster and Shuster were to America, and all three had to be hardworking, decent men to get their big breaks. There was definitely a bigoted, anglophone upper class in Montreal up to the 1960s who deserve to be reviled in history, but your accusation that Wright was a part of it is plucked out of thin air. His strips don't have a language and he wasn't a man of means.
As for the book itself, it's hit and miss. The linework by Wright is gorgeous, but there are some glaring typos in the intro essay (at one point I think the second half of a sentence is just dropped--- and I checked multiple books to make sure I didn't get a missprint) and whatever font they are using for notes by the strips looks horrible. The cover material was a bad decision. Within three minutes of picking up the book, it's got fingerprint markings all over it. I would argue that Wright's a very talented strip cartoonist whose work here has been hampered by some poor execution on the part of the publisher.
Hello Alex, you obviously know little about Montreal's history and it's British influence. I know a lot about that and have done lots of research in that area.
Anyone who had an office in the Sun Life building - no less, at the time, could not be considered a person of modest means. I don't need biographical data from the Doug Wright book to make assumptions like that, when I've researched this period extensively. I stand by what I wrote above.
I've studied Montreal's history, its architecture. I've researched its economic decline, written about it extensively. I've read tons of sources - primary, and secondary in both English and French on Montreal's history. This is a topic I know inside out.
While I appreciated your comments, they show a clear lack of understanding. Based on what I wrote above alone, you should have been careful about saying that Wright was but a meagre immigrant of low means.
The fact that a British man was hired as a cartoonist in Montreal, while other local artists were more than available for the job is also based on the class system that existed in Montreal at the time whereby Montreal was more a British city than any other city in North America. Toronto was always more American.
Go in Montreal, look at its architecture. its the most British city you'll ever see In North America - more so than Victoria in British Columbia. The British had a tremendous influence over the city, and a so called British "immigrant" certainly was not treated the way Polish, Irish, Chinese or Portuguese immigrants of the time were. By default, many English/Scottish immigrants were accepted in an upper class system, where they dominated the city with natives elites.
Herve's contemptuous rhetorical style betrays the very nature in himself that he criticizes in others. And this carries through even to his nasty replies to people who would engage him in discussion. Using dismissive phrases -- such as "You obviously know little..." which states opinion as fact and attempts to discredit Alex from the opening salvo -- do little to raise the level of discourse on this page.
I realize that many commentators do not like the opinions above. I also understand that many of them, without admitting it clearly, are affiliated with the Doug Wright guys.
I'm sorry guys. My opinion is a valid one. Not a popular one, but one that will not be dismissed. A few of you, unable to attack the article itself, have attacked me instead. That won't get you anywhere.
The fact that many of you are annoyed by my take on Doug Wright means I'm doing something right here.
Sure, most of you want him to be remembered as a Canadian genius. It doesn't mean that alternate takes on the man and his work cannot exist - should not be published.
And like Patrick wrote above, if it's not done here, it won't be done anywhere else, given how news and the media operate and how opinions critical of Canadian issues are often buried in much of Canadian media.
Unfortunately for you, I publish The Comic Book Bin, and I don't buy into the dominant Kool-aid about Canadian culture.
Further attacks on my person or other writers and commentators here will be edited out.
And people posting under multiple made up names will see their comments edited out and or removed. I'm fully aware that there's a pack of attack dogs sent to discredit the article above. It's annoying and childish that people won't post comments under their real name or leave real emails behind acting as if there were many people commenting on this. Using an IP blocker is a dead giveaway.
One of the reasons why I said, "to a different degree Hal Foster and Joe Shuster". Both Foster and Shuster lived and worked in the US because that's where the job kept them. At that time in the business, you couldn't Fedex off your artwork to New York or email a scan to your publisher in California. You had to physically deliver the artwork to the publisher which necessitated relocation.
The Canadian Government itself - through Collections' Canada and the Canadian Mint, recognize Shuster as a Canadian cartoonist. I don't think creators like Shuster or even Foster should be exclusively Canadians or Americans.
Hemingway left the US and wrote his body of work in Paris and Cuba. Is he less American? I can't imagine anyone arguing he was more French and Cuban than American.
You've actually got me agreeing with you now. I don't know quite enough about MTL history (American) and was definitely making assumptions. In which case, I pretty much agree with your review. I think there were some bad design decisions and that Wright is a great draftsman, but maybe there wasn't enough exploration of the work in a broader context.
You should write more about this so that those of us down South get a better picture of the scene in the city at the time. I know I'd be interested in that article, and so would most readers.
I mentioned that because I know folks from Cleveland who know his legacy because it was a part of the history of that city. Everyone in the US knows the story of Superman as being one of two boys from Cleveland. It's a great American story and a great Cleveland story. Cleveland, like most midwestern cities clings to all of its native success stories from Devo to Harvey Pekar to Pere Ubu to Superman.
It just seems weird, as an American, that Shuster and Foster would be lumped in as Canadians. William Gibson is considered a Canadian writer and M.G. Vassangi is considered a Canadian writer--- but they're both world famous and have roots in other countries. It's their place as an artist that is determined by the country they chose to work in and the primary national culture to which their work belongs.
Canadians have a reputation for being more open and tolerant than we are, so you probably got us on this one, too. Didn't mean to pry wounds, but it did seem strange. I didn't even know there was an award named after Shuster, which is actually pretty cool (and I bet everyone in Cleveland would really love that).
Bottom line is Shuster and Foster were two of the greatest of all time, no matter what flag they stood under.
I bought the book even though I doubted the byline. Never heard of the guy before.
I really do like his work, but after reading this I also wonder what type of artist can ignore his or her larger surroundings so thoroughly in their work. Perhaps he was an elitist, perhaps he was simply trying to keep his job. We might never know.
There's a lot of interpretation regarding Wright's true thoughts both in your article and in the book's editorial, but I like the context you have placed his work in. The book's editorial kind of felt overly earnest to me. I thought it was odd that for someone who's work was so well-loved and influential would drop almost completely out of print. I applaud their effort to pop his work into the light again nontheless, and thank you for balancing things out!