Last Friday, I attended the Doug Wright Awards for Canadian cartooning at the Toronto Reference Library. Rather than inaugurating this blog with a post detailing a vague statement of intent I probably won’t stick to, I figure dishing about the Wright Awards will serve that introductory purpose just as well. This year, the Wrights helped spotlight everything from long-form comics created over half a century ago, to one of the last good strips in your daily paper, to a burgeoning avant-garde, with many other bright points in between. In other words, the awards share with my plans for this blog a similarly catholic interest in comics — mindful of history, with an eye to the future — as well as a preoccupation with trends and traditions in Canadian cartooning. Well, that’s vague enough, anyway—on with the awards…
Now enjoying their fourth anniversary, the Doug Wright Awards—named for the Canadian cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Doug Wright’s Family—recognize excellence in Canadian cartooning published each year. Rather than pamphlets or strips or short stories, the awards tend to focus on book-length works, which tightens their sense of purpose, and lessens the dilution of the similarly themed Shuster Awards (which stretch their bounds in order to accommodate, for example, an “Outstanding Cover by a Canadian Comic Book Artist,” or an “Outstanding Achievement by a Canadian Related to Comic Books” [sic]).
This focus on books can sometimes lead to great work being overlooked—my favourite Canadian comics last year, for instance, were Chester Brown’s weekly zombie strips in NOW (sadly unavailable online). But that’s just my own selfish kvetch—Chester Brown doesn’t need many more laurels, and the good an award might do for a book still in print and in stores far outweighs what such recognition might do for a now-defunct weekly strip like Brown’s, or a single issue of a comic book, or a story in an anthology, and so on. One area where the Shusters trump the Wrights, however, is in the attention they pay to this country’s non-anglophone cartooning—even if that attention is still nominal. With the Wrights, though, francophone cartoonists must wait til they are dead or, worse, translated, before garnering attention. (I exempt other awards like the Prix Bédélys and Prix Bédéis Causa from my harrumphing if only because they don’t claim to be Canadian in the same all-encompassing way, content instead with being Québécois.)
Ah, well, complaining about awards can be fun, but so is watching them being given out. In this case, a jury of Can-arts notables decides the final recipient of each award, which in previous years was limited to the categories Best Book and Best Emerging Talent. Joining them this year is the Pigskin Peters Award, for experimental and non-narrative cartooning, and named after a nonconformist character in Jimmy Frise‘s strip Birdseye Center. (OK, one more kvetch: I’m all for seeing avant-garde work receive its due, but I also think it’s more than able to hold its own with the big boys, without having to be ghettoized into its own category. The nomination for Julie Doucet‘s collage/diary/sketchbook 365 Days as Best Book gives me hope the Wright Award organizers are wary of this too.)
The actual physical award, as designed by Seth, comprises a bowler hat much like the Pigskin character’s, fitted to the winner’s head, decked out with a medallion, and accompanied by a plaque which also serves as a hook to hang the hat from, all of which of course comes in a genuine hatbox. The first Pigskin Peters winner was Julie Morstad for her book of cartoon-based illustrative works, Milk Teeth. Delivering an appreciation of her work, Chester Brown maintained that she goes even beyond “her aesthetic uncle,” Edward Gorey, in the realms of the dark and foreboding. He also noted that surrealism demands damn good draughtsmanship of its practitioners, and suggested that Morstad thus keeps company with the likes of Max Ernst and Winsor McCay.
The Best Emerging Talent award went to Jeff Lemire, for the first two books in his “Essex County” trilogy, Tales from the Farm and Ghost Stories. Jury member Helena Reckitt praised the books’ maturity of construction and of outlook. Her further remarks about Lemire’s insight into the role of hockey in the national consciousness and his ability to capture nuance in his snowy and rural landscapes, combined with emcee Brad Mackay’s assertion that Pierre Berton would approve of these books, also made this the Most Canadian Award Ever Awarded. I mean that in the best and most excellent possible way—following this line of thinking, future talents would be well advised to look to the donut, the Mountie, and the Group of Seven for inspiration. I am not joking. I would love to read that comic.
Before the Best Book winner was announced, the jury accorded an Honourable Mention to Laurence Hyde’s wordless 1951 woodcut novel, Southern Cross. Hyde’s son Anthony accepted, and spoke of his father’s friendship with leftist political cartoonist Avrom Yanovsky and Jasper the Bear creator James Simpkins, as well as Alfred Knopf’s refusal to publish Southern Cross – bare glimpses of historical personages rubbing elbows with each other, and of the professional comics world at mid-century. The trophy for Best Book was then awarded to Ann Marie Fleming‘s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, a biography of her vaudevillian great-grandfather, illustrated both by hand and with all manner of photographs, handbills, and other historical documents. Jury member Marc Glassman commended Fleming, who seemed genuinely surprised, for her talent at finding what she requires in each different form at her disposal, then making the resulting combination entirely her own.
But the real draw of the evening was the induction of For Better or for Worse cartoonist Lynn Johnston into the Wright Awards’ Canadian cartooning hall of fame, the Giants of the North. Johnston—gregarious, unpretentious, and funny—sat in conversation with Mackay and fielded questions from the audience. Unafraid to talk shop at least a little, Johnston began by lauding Doug Wright, classing him alongside her other inspirations, Len Norris and Charles Schulz, and calling him one of her “absolute heroes”—probably because his wordless strips meant the five-year-old Johnston didn’t have to read anything, she said.
Johnston then spoke candidly about working with her syndicate (who she says give her greater editorial licence than that enjoyed by cartoonists in tonier positions at the New Yorker or on page four), about the controversies surrounding her strip in the ’90s, and of course about the future of For Better or for Worse. Asked by a young audience member whether April will become a musician or a veterinarian, Johnston replied that the larger FBorFW story will wrap up at the end of August, and the final new Sunday strip will reveal what the characters get up to in the years to come (though she also said that the University of Guelph has actually contacted Johnston to say that they’ve accepted April into their veterinary program).
The strip—which has been in various stages of ending and rebooting for the past year or more—will then, in September, be reprinted from its very beginnings, with Johnston retouching the drawing, and inserting newly produced strips into the continuity of those old storylines in order to clarify and deepen character development and old storylines. Also on the horizon is a children’s book about Farley the dog—and, when prodded about the possibility of using the graphic novel format to see what the future holds for the Patterson family, Johnston replied, “Could be.”
As is often the case in her strip —which refreshingly only reveals its Canadianness when characters do things like drink from bags of milk or use the word “cheque”—Johnston had little to say about comics scholar Jeet Heer’s introductory claim that her work is “distinctly Canadian.” “Nice to live in Canada, and nice to live up north [in northern Ontario],” she said when asked if she was scared by any of the reader reactions to the storyline in which a gay character comes out. What affected her more, she said, was actually the position in which editors in small towns in the southern US found themselves wanting to run the strips but reluctant to do so as public figures in their communities. In such cases, “You can see how outrageous, scary people have their effect,” she said, before turning the focus back to cartooning. “Garry Trudeau got away with it [having a gay character],” she said, “but I was nailed to the wall!”
Johnston had anecdotes not just about Trudeau, but also about teasing Charles Schulz for possessing the key to San Francisco and still having to pay the bridge toll, about legacy strips destroying families, and about meeting for beers with one of the men responsible for Blondie to laugh about the war waged by their respective syndicates over newspaper “real estate.” Professional newspaper cartoonists drinking together makes for the best kind of story—it seems like such a weirdly nostalgic, outmoded occurrence to hear of, like someone flying in a dirigible. Johnston, too, seems to look fondly on old-fashioned cartooning, though in her case it’s the work ethic she misses. Questioned about the future of newspaper comics, she said that modern strips seem to shine for three years before the young new artists realize they can’t handle the pace. “This is a job no one can teach you,” she said of cartooning. “It comes from within. You have to be a sucker for punishment.”
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Wright Awards images from www.wrightawards.ca, except the Lynn Johnston image from www.drawnandquarterly.com
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Next: a Q&A with Seth, and reviews of the Doug Wright Award winners.