Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

In Conversation with Seth about Doug Wright

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In Conversation with Seth about Doug Wright

This Saturday night at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto the annual Doug Wright Awards, which recognize excellence in Canadian cartooning, will be handed out as part of the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. The free event will also serve as the launch of The Collected Doug Wright, the first of two volumes that will collect the works of the late cartoonist Doug Wright, whose comic strips “Nipper” and “Doug Wright’s Family” appeared in Canadian newspapers in the 1950s, 60s and 70s.

Cartoonist Seth, who is the new book’s designer and co-editor, talked to YA novelist Shaun Smith about Doug Wright, the new book, and what it means to be a comics artist in Canada.

Shaun:

When did you start to re-discover Doug Wright’s work?

Seth:

I’ve been a collector all my life and at some point in the late 1980s I was in an antique market and came across some old copies of Canadian magazine from the 1970s, the newspaper supplement, and I saw the Doug Wright comics in there. It’s not like I’d forgotten about Wright, but I guess you’d put it into the category of something you’d not given any thought to for a long time. As soon as I saw it, it reminded me of something that was ubiquitous in my childhood. I had enjoyed the work. The spark of it was that the work looked better to me than I remembered.

A lot of things in childhood you put a great deal of emphasis on and you carry them into adulthood with you, while other things sort of come and go. Wright had fallen into the latter category. To some degree “Peanuts” had fallen into that category too, for me, which I had re-discovered a couple of years earlier. Re-discovered is a funny word to use when you’re talking about “Peanuts” because it is so out in the culture, but in my early twenties I sort of returned to it with an adult eye. I went through the same process with Doug Wright as well.

Shaun:

What were Wright’s distinctive skills as a cartoonist?

Seth:

There were two great things that he brought to cartooning. He had an incredible ability to realize what he saw in the world around him. He was a real draftsman. What’s always interesting about cartoonists of his era is that they were working in a field that had little positive feedback. You’d hear little about what you were doing, especially in Canada. I mean, Wright worked for decades with very little attention. Not the kind of attention you get these days where you can get immediate feedback from an audience and you can feel that your work is connecting with people. To a great deal, Wright worked somewhat in isolation and what amazes me with those kinds of cartoonists is that they really cared about what they were doing. He never got lazy. He never cranked it out just because the job had to be done. He put the effort in on each strip and that really shows in the amount of observation that’s in the work. If he had to draw a corner store, he’d put the effort in to go out and actually draw it to get the real details, not just plug in something that would be an easy answer. He obviously took great delight in replicating the real world and that is one of the most remarkable things you see in looking at his work, especially as it grows through the 60s and 70s. You can really look at it as almost a record of the times. It is a record of the mundane details of the times. If you grew up in that period, looking at Wright’s work now you go, “Oh yes, I know exactly what kind of street they are standing on here,” or, “I recognize this kind of gas station in the background. That’s what they looked like back then.” He had a marvelous eye for capturing the real world.

The other quality that’s really interesting is that “Nipper” started out as a kind of gag strip, not much different from “Dennis the Menace”, really — a precocious kid who gets in a lot of trouble. Through a good portion of the 50s that was really the focus, but as Wright started to have children of his own he shifted away from that straight-forward gag strip, and more and more, throughout the early 60s and into the 70s, you see the strip becomes very much about what I would call the “small incident”. They aren’t really jokes any more, but rather are just about little things that happen. They have a humorous edge to them, of course, because he was working in a commercial field and was required to make it entertaining, but a lot of the time the strips aren’t really about much except some small thing that happens in the house, as small as a kid knocking over a glass of juice. I think that makes the strip really interesting because it sort of heads in a different direction than something like “Family Circus”, which decided to approach children with that kind of sickening, cloying sentimentality. Wright really doesn’t have any of that sentimentality after around 1958. In fact his view of childhood seems almost harsh sometimes. The children are very cruel to each other. He almost never focuses on a cute moment. If anything, in our modern eyes, the father comes off terribly in the strips because he’s always angry and aggressive.

Shaun:

It is also very Canadian.

Seth:

Yes, very Canadian. That’s one of the things I love about Wright’s work. So often in our own culture, even when things are great, you don’t get a strong sense of Canada in them, and Wrights work is exceedingly Canadian.

Shaun:

How so? How does that manifest itself in the work?

Seth:

I think it comes out in the simple fact that it is clearly set in Canada. The details are Canadian. It is not Canadian in the sense that he focused on Canadian issues. You certainly do see some Canadian work where it is all about, I don’t know, lumberjacks or something and it is clearly meant to put forward some image of Canada’s identity, but Wright’s work is incidentally Canadian just because it is set here. It’s the same as how most American cartoons are American just because they are set in America. They don’t think about making it American work. That’s why Wright’s work just feels like Canada from a specific era. Sure, sometimes he has some strips in there about hockey, but that’s just incidental, it doesn’t matter any more than another one where they might be playing soccer. I think what really makes it Canadian is that when you look at it, it really feels like Canada from that era. It is all just in the small details. He wasn’t trying to make it Canadian, but he also wasn’t trying to make it American, which is nice.

Shaun:

In comparison to strips like “Peanuts” and “Dennis the Menace”, why do you think strips like “Nipper” and “Doug Wright’s Family” fell into obscurity?

Seth:

I think the biggest reason why Wright’s work fell into obscurity is because he was here in Canada. If he’d been in the States I don’t know what kind of reception his strips would have received, but I do know that the fact that he was in Canada almost guaranteed obscurity for them, because I think Canadians have a bad habit of not giving much credence to things that are created in their own country. The mass media of the States is so overwhelming that our tendency is often to view anything Canadian as second rate. We also didn’t have much of a system of re-publishing cartoons here. Canadian publishers are a bit conservative. There were a couple of small Wright books published, but they were issued by the newspaper syndicate more as almost give-away items. In the States, typically, if a cartoonist is successful, there are a couple of companies that focus on re-publishing the work. That really builds toward keeping something in the public eye. Without that, I think Wright just sort of vanished naturally as any kind of ephemeral, syndicated work does when it ceases to be published. Nobody thought about it anymore and it just vanished.

Shaun:

You collected Wrights old strips for about fifteen years. At what point did you decide you wanted to make a book out of this material?

Seth:

It was fairly quick. Probably within a few years of starting collecting I thought a book would have to be done, but at that point in my own career it wasn’t as clear to me that I could get a book of that type going. There’s been several significant changes in the market since then. The rise of the graphic novel has changed publishing a bit. Back in the early 1990s I would think, who could I even find to publish a book like this? That seems less of a worry now. There’s a lot of re-publishing of comics going on right now. It may not last, but for example, right now “Peanuts” is being republished, “Nancy”, “Dick Tracy” and a whole flurry of activity from the States with all kids of 1930s strips. “Popeye” is back in print. I bet there are twenty series going right now of reprint volumes. There’s a lot attention being paid to them, with really scholarly interest, putting them together properly, with great production values. So it is a big shift. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have expected to get colour in the book and it would probably be a paperback. But I did think there had to be a book at one point and I was collecting Wright’s old strips with that in mind, thinking that if I don’t collect this stuff up there’ll be no material to publish it from.

Shaun:

And then you hit the archives and the family.

Seth:

Yeah, exactly. I’m not a journalist, so the idea seeking out Wright’s family was something that I certainly knew would eventually have to be done, but I was not anxious to do it. I just don’t have that kind of quality. I think anybody else would have called the family to see if they have the work. My response as more of a collector type is that I’ll find the work myself. It is easier for me to deal with pieces of paper than with people.

Shaun:

When did you come in touch with Wright’s family?

Seth:

That was the book’s co-editor Brad MacKay. He was the one who got in touch with the family. I’m not sure exactly when that was — around 2000 maybe. They had a huge pile of material in their home. Wright’s sons were showing us personal material that they kept and I would have been excited just to have seen those piles, but that’s when we found out they’d actually donated most of his work to the National Archives. It had been sitting there for quite a few years uncatalogued. I think basically it was our interest in it that got the archives to move it up on the priority list to be catalogued. It took about a year I think. We went down to the archives to visit it and that was an amazing trip. It was so great, as one cartoonist to another, it was great to look through Wright’s original art.

Seth is the creator of such comics and graphic novels as PALOOKAVILLE, CLYDE FANS, IT'S A GOOD LIFE IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, WIMBLEDON GREEN, and the illustrated memoir of his father, BANNOCK, BEANS AND BLACK TEA. As an illustrator, Seth has produced commercial works for numerous major Canadian and American magazines. His work frequently appears inside and on the cover of The New Yorker. In 2007, Seth serialized the story GEORGE SPROTT (1894-1975) in the New York Times Magazine. An expanded edition will appear in book form from Drawn & Quarterly in Spring 2009.

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group. As a journalist he has published over 200 articles in such publications as the Toronto Star, Toronto Life, CBC Arts Online, Chatelaine, The Globe & Mail, Quill & Quire, Toro and LCBO’s Food & Drink. In October 2005, NOW magazine voted him the Canadian publishing industry’s “Most Valuable Player” in their Best of Toronto edition. His website is shaunsmith.ca and he writes a weekly column for Open Book: Shaun Smith’s Sunday Sundries.

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