Presenting Doug Wright
In the future, when books on the comics reclamation process are as common as Scandinavian crime novels, our current Golden Age of Reprints won't be seen as the flooding four-color deluge it seems like to us now. No, once people can look back and actually take the time to study the why and how of the rafts of old-comics books hitting the stands every week, they'll see the one big thing is really two things, two driving forces that simply both happen to end up as creamy paper between hard covers. The first and more obvious of these forces is the march toward an available comics canon, the rescue and reinstitution of classic material like Krazy Kat or the Fourth World saga. Getting the books everyone should know to a place where people actually have a chance to become acquainted with them. But the other, more interesting side of the Golden Age is one that didn't really make itself evident until the canonical stuff was a proven success and people started casting around a little for more gems the comics world could (re-)use. That's when an element of the visionary started to creep into the reprint game. When the names on the spines were no longer ones the average Comics Journal reader would be apt to recognize. When the books stopped being obvious (if necessary) museum-collection pieces and started turning into curated gallery showings, exhibitions for works no one had seen before, based less on duty to comics study and history -- not to mention the chance that some money could be made -- and more on passion for the work, conviction that the stuff inside the books was worth shoving back at a culture that'd ignored it the first time.
A surprising number of the "passion projects" have been unqualified successes. That's what happens when people care about the comics they're making, whether it's drawing the lines themselves or scanning and color correcting and designing and picking the right paper stock. So when I say last year's Complete Doug Wright hardcover, masterminded by Seth and published by Drawn & Quarterly, is the best of the lot, it's not for lack of competition. Above all, the book is a scorched-earth treatise on monograph making. If ever a single volume defined its artist -- and not only defined, but redefined, vindicated, glorified -- it's this thing, 15 by 12 inches of painstakingly presented biography, ad art, historical delving, fine art, photographs, magazine art, reprint-process details, sketchbook art. And comics, and comics, and comics. The Complete Wright is the only reprint book I've ever seen that would function effectively -- beautifully -- if the comics themselves were stripped away, such is the strength of the 75 page context-salvo that opens it. That said, the comics themselves are what justify the time spent on Wright the man and illustration artist, and justify they do. The book's main event, a decade-long suite of Wright's family newspaper strip Nipper, is comics as intoxicant, a seemingly endless flow of virtuoso linework, eye-poppingly spotted color, beautifully paced gag cartooning, and utterly charming period detail.
The book got a follow-up with last month's Nipper: 1963-1964 collection, and the two could not be less similar. The titles signify pretty well for the difference: while the Complete Wright was expansive and monolithic, the Nipper book is intimate, understated. A slim 8 by 5 inch softcover, about the only thread it retains from the Wright monograph (beside the material itself) is Seth's elegant design. Even that, though, is pared back to a nifty cover and a few mannered endpapers. Ditto Brad Mackay's biographical notes, which run a concise two pages after spreading the man's entire life out for all to see in the hardcover. After that, it's the comics alone, one to a page, panels fit together in snug units as opposed to scrolling lazily down from skyscraper heights.
If that sounds reductive, well, maybe it is. The nature of the new Nipper book itself is a bit reductive, paring Wright's work back from the Olympian canvas of the first book and literally fitting it in the reader's hands. (It's also handy in pockets if you've got a long subway ride or something ahead of you.) But I'd hesitate to pronounce it inferior. After all, what we're here for is the comics, and somehow the panels on the pages turn up the same size in both books. What's missing from the Nipper book is only the ancillary, the delicious hoopla that trumpeted Wright's introduction to an American comics market that hadn't even caught his existence when he was actually doing the stuff. And what's left is the stuff itself, one of the very best newspaper strips I've ever read. Nipper.
Nipper is incredibly populist at first glance, a sequence of low calorie runs through lightly farcical family drama drawn in springy, kinetic cartoon figures and consummately crafted light-realist environments. But beneath the candied peppermint swirl of the surface, Wright's artistic individuality -- and even occasionally his human psychology -- are given full rein to exhibit themselves. The distant backgrounds of almost every panel are easily as interesting as the action. Filled right up (though never crammed) with yarns of anecdotal detail, they exhibit what one suspects Wright's heart of hearts was in it for: aching, loosely limned Canadian landscapes, neat cookie-box rows of suburban lanes and houses in the spring and fall strips, mellow, untamed wilds for summer vacation, pastoral snow-fields over the cold winters. You can learn a lot about an artist by paying attention to his backgrounds, and Wright is a perfect object lesson. One begins to sense that these endless landscapes, often terminating in the pure expression of scuffled pen lines that no longer represent anything but a feeling, were as much an internal environment for Wright as any observed scenes. There is a golden, nostalgic weight they carry that few life drawings match.
None of this is to say that the action in Nipper isn't worth following, however. What starts a a pretty typical (if always beautifully drawn) cute-kid strip in the first half of the Complete Wright book's run has morphed into an uncompromisingly hilarious battleground by the time the Nipper book begins. While an abiding warmth and sentimentality -- even a traditionalism -- is always floating somewhere in the background with Wright's beautiful Canada, the violence and sarcasm with which the artist details sibling rivalry, schoolyard fights, social embarrassment, and childhood injuries both physical and psychological, is almost always outre and occasionally downright shocking.
Much of it is down to Wright's incredible artwork, which ratchets simple gags up to shattering force with dense, crisp waves of linework, a fluid sense of motion, and intuitive, note-perfect action blocking. The final panels of these strips almost always carry some elaborately hysterical expression of physical anguish, extreme awkwardness, total rage. As punchlines they're very effective; so much so, in fact, that it's easy to overlook just how much craft and line and effort, how much passion Wright obviously puts into drawing them. These overheated family meltdowns were clearly a preoccupation of his, if not an out and out obsession. Presented as the inevitable endpoint of kids' antics or husbands and wives' best intentions, in Nipper, knife-sharp aggravation is all families' destiny. It never hits Charles Schulz cold or nihilistic, however. There's too much care put into the details of the drawing, too much happiness and contentment in the quiet moments that are always jarringly interrupted by the strips' ends. The family that wars together stays together, apparently, and Wright's family very obviously loves each other. It's a great template for violent gag cartooning: we can laugh as much as we want to at the mishaps with hockey sticks and thrown rocks and scalding cups of coffee, knowing it'll all be forgotten by the next page.
These broader themes add a great deal to Nipper that goes beyond simple awe at Wright's facility with pen and ink, and they're what really jump out of the new smaller book. With all the beautiful context and the incredible design taken out of the equation, the material steps up to fill the void, amplified by the lack of anything else. Doug Wright comics are nothing to sneeze at by themselves, and the '63-'64 collection is prime stuff, continuing the cresting rise in quality that was so fascinating to chart across the strip's first dozen years in the Complete Wright book's exhibition. As comics, the two books stand shoulder to shoulder, not to mention heads above just about anything else out there.
I've still got some quibbles about the smaller book: Wright's annual extra-sized Christmas strips are just left out, and the minimal packaging dilutes the power of single-panel strips like the one above. But overall -- strangely -- the casual, charming little Nipper collection feels like a good progression from the overpowering extravaganza of the Complete Wright. Drop Nipper: 1963-1964 on the general public and the reaction would be a mumbled "so?" But the Complete Wright does the best job of any book about comics I've seen in convincing us of its subject's importance. That first towering tombstone of a book was the most convincing introduction the man and his work could have hoped for. But after that there's nowhere to go but the work, the incredible comics the monumental figure made. And those weren't so loud, those weren't such rarefied things. They were revealing and intimate and laugh out loud funny. They got put on the breakfast table with the rest of the paper. They should be right there for you, they should fit in your pocket. The warm, personal setting suits Nipper quite well. I'm hoping we'll get a lot more.