Dividends of 2010: Nipper Gazing

Posted by on January 18th, 2011 at 1:09 AM

Like last year’s expansive The Collected Doug Wright, the diminutive and dapper Nipper 1963-1964 confronts the reader with that ineffable thing, Canadian identity.  Or confronts the reader from below the 48th parallel, anyway.  (The Canadian reader I imagine is confronted with exactly where he is, 50 years ago.)  From the moment the Mountie gets done checking your car for smuggled cigarettes (which is a trip in itself, a little like having your drinks served by a ballerina, until you remind yourself that they are, in fact, policemen) there is no mistaking that you are in another country, but how you know this is not always easy to put your finger on.  Unlike Mexico, where you are instantly aware of a strong cultural countercurrent, in Canada there seems to be a surface tension at the border that holds back the emanations of the behemoth to the south.  It took me no little bit of gazing upon the wordless antics of Wright’s ménage to realize the source of this sense of otherness, and I must apologize for the Yank-o-centric way in which I define it:  Americans are slobs.  When an American depicts himself in his home in a comic strip it is in a state of dishevelment, like an unmade bed.  In the countryside and the cityscape the American militantly exercise his cherished right to despoil his own property.  In Canada you get a sense of tidiness which a sympathetic observer might interpret as a sign of self-respect.  In the homes and the streets depicted in Nipper there is an elegance that you would not see in an equivalent American domestic comic.  Whether this represents something aspirational in the readers of the paper Wright drew for or simply the sophistication of Montreal, no American cartoonist would dare depict a home in this way for fear of giving his reader the high hat.  Even when the House Beautiful is depicted in an American magazine of the time it’s not depicted in a way that would put on any airs, the kitchen a source of apple pies and casseroles, the den nothing fancy.  Depicted in this March 1964 is the encroachment of Yank slobisme, with the teenager as vector:

The elegance of Nipper is also an effect of the naturalism of Wright’s drawing.  Wright’s comic strips take place just this side of the mirror through which the cartoon people live.  The children being not yet fully formed are like creatures straying over from the other side.  Of them there is an older one who is at least half housebroken and a little one who is a savage pure and simple.  Whether it is merely mordant satire or social observation, the American kid strip typically depicts a world surrendered to the children, where the adults are rendered into a forlorn and fading predecessor race, like the Kanakas of Hawaii.  In the world of Nipper the grownups remain in command, like a beleaguered but resilient colonial authority determined to keep order regardless of the cost.

Nipper held my eye about as well as anything I looked at in 2010, but as with The Collected Doug Wright I couldn’t shake the feeling that if you plumbed the musty stacks of Collier’s or The Saturday Evening Post you’d find a dozen or more cartoonists of similar skill, and the reason no one bothers to unearth them is that no one feels the need to find a native American cartoonist who remained to work in his home country.  One expects most of the great Canadian cartoonists of the last century found it was no more difficult to get to New York or Hollywood where the money was from Nova Scotia than it was from Minnesota.  Whether any of that phantom dozen would be better than Wright is an open question, and what would distinguish him is that extra bit of elegance his circumstances allowed him and the equipment he had at his disposal to exploit it.

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