D&Q Classics, Part III: Nipper, 1963-1964

Posted by on February 5th, 2011 at 5:28 AM

Rob concludes his look at Drawn & Quarterly’s reprints of classic comic books and strips with Doug Wright’s Nipper (1963-1964).

I love that Drawn & Quarterly will occasionally remind its readers that it is still a fundamentally Canadian comics publisher.  It’s the home of Seth, Chester Brown and David Collier, who have all extensively incorporated Canadiana into their work.  The publisher is now dipping into Canada’s extensive cartooning history to bring to light the careers of its most popular talents.  Doug Wright got the full hardback treatment a couple of years ago (this is a book still on my review pile) in a book that ended 20+ years after his career started.  His weekly strip, Nipper (later Doug Wright’s Family), became a cultural touchstone and D&Q decided to publish the complete strips from around the peak of his career 1963 and 1964.  I’m not crazy about the size of this book (landscaped, 8×5″), especially after the lush, huge pages of the hardcover.  Wright used a fairly detailed line with a lot of subtle nuances, and that subtlety was lost on many a page in this format.  That said, this couldn’t have been a cheap book to produce, given the frequent splashes of red seen in every strip.

The most commonly-cited American equivalent to the strip is Hank Ketcham’s Dennis The Menace.  I found Nipper to be greatly superior to that strip (even in its earlier, more fractious days) for a number of reasons.  First, Wright is a superior draftsman, mixing naturalism (often densely portrayed with hatching and cross-hatching so intense that the eye marvels) with the simple cartooniness of the nameless boys in the strip.  With bald, bulbous heads, the younger and older brother are iconic and expressive, yet still very much of this lived-in environment that Wright lovingly and vividly portrays.  The splashes of red that Wright uses draw the eye across the page in an ingenious fashion, acting both as a decorative flourish and narrative device.  The biggest difference, and the reason why the strip is so much more accomplished than Ketcham’s, is that Wright’s strip is almost entirely silent.  There’s the occasional sound effect and object label, but Wright tells his story through careful visual set-up and powerful depiction of motion and emotion.  Going back to the Canadian aspects of the strip, I wonder if that was a conscious decision so as to attract French-speaking readers.

Another difference is that while the boys are mostly twin engines of ineffable destruction (their parents are frequently at a loss in trying to understand them), Wright allows small moments of affection to slip through, like when the father is sitting with his son watching a thunderstorm.  The boys are crazy, the mother put-upon and the father constantly aggravated, but this is still a real family struggling to adapt and survive.  Wright truly had a talent for depicting the frequently psychotic (but hilarious) nature of children in a way that’s remarkably true-to-life.  After watching my own niece literally bounce her younger brother’s head on the floor in a fit of range, only to play quietly with him ten minutes later, I laughed knowingly at Wright’s depiction of similar events with the boys.  Wright saves some of his best shots at the father figure who often went off the handle–both in terms of the messes his boys left and his own occasional hubris.  If this is the start of his peak period as a cartoonist, I will eagerly await future volumes of this strip.

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