Growing up, one of my favourite comics was Doug Wright's Family, a weekly two-colour pantomime strip that graced the back pages of the long-departed Canadian Magazine. For most of us, Wright so accurately reflected changing suburban Canadian family life that we simply didn't realize we were looking into a mirror. The Wright kids not only played hockey and watched Victoria Day fireworks, they had a real father who drank beer and sometimes didn't shave and a mother who cussed her brood and burned with shame at their antics. I never questioned that Wright was drawing from real life. If he wasn't, I don't need to know about it.
Thinking back, the cartoon image that stuck with me the most was Dad, patiently packing his kids and a passel of hockey equipment into the back of a huge station wagon -- not a hatchback, but the kind with a rear door that opened sideways -- on a frozen Canadian landscape before dawn. I'm not sure I actually saw a strip like that, but I can see the way Wright might have drawn it, with special attention to the wagon's wood veneer panelling.
I recently got my hands on the first of a two-volume set, The Collected Doug Wright, Volume One. The book covers not only the Doug Wright's Family strips but also Wright's enormous output as an illustrator for hire. I can see where I might have gotten such strong impressions of that bruiser of a station wagon. Wright must have loved cars -- or at least loved to draw them. Editors Seth and Brad McKay note Wright's "great passion for the motor vehicle -- and his remarkable skill in cartooning them."
That's almost an understatement. Even the kiddy cars in the strips are rendered with an attention to detail usually reserved for adult-sized vehicles.
The book could almost pass as a history of the Canadian automobile experience from the early 1940s until 1962, where this volume leaves off. Vehicles ranging from family sedans to beaten-down pickup trucks and giant 18-wheelers are rendered in loving detail all out of proportion to their importance in the narrative.
What's also fascinating is the fact that all of them seem to be made up out of whole cloth -- an amalgam of fine detail cobbled together in perfectly harmonious fashion to deliver car brands and models as they might have been. There's a canary yellow 1962 Astrojet locking its brakes as a squabbling family in a grey something-or-other pulls a crazy U-turn in the middle of traffic. I'm almost fooled into thinking a two-toned pink-and-white model called a Satellite is the real thing, until I realize the illustration precedes the introduction of the Plymouth Satellite by three years.
Landscapes are littered with automotive minutiae: gas at 35¢ an Imperial gallon, advertisements for Guck Oil, delivery vehicles for Provincial Pork Packers and independent roadside coffee shops from a time before Tim Hortons (though not Tim Horton).
A lot of it is simply timeless Canadiana. A 1962 Christmas cover for a Montreal Star Saturday supplement shows a fine, fin-laden automotive specimen nestled cozily under a thick blanket of snow. A mid-'50s illustration shows a richly detailed sedan, its driver hidden in shadows, plying a rural winter road at sunset. The depicted drivers are similarly timeless --fuming parent huddled angrily over the steering wheel, cussing cabbie and juvenile hot rodder.
Still, it's the family strips that speak to me the loudest. I first experienced them at an age when I was only a passenger in my father's car. As a driver and dad, they're far more meaningful. A helpful child assists his father by sandpapering the car. (My car?!!!) Two kids hail a streetcar, only to run away after exercising control over a stream of vehicles that stops suddenly behind its open door --only I'm no longer the cheeky kid but the guy who's stuck in traffic. It gets worse. Dad tells a Canada Customs agent he has nothing to declare, until his blabby kid points to a giant-sized carton of cigarettes stashed under the front seat. In a water gun fight, one of the boys sprays his pals with radiator fluid he finds in the garage.
I didn't see the station wagon with the faux wood panelling in this volume, but I'll wait for it in the next one. In the meantime, I'll settle for the giant 1962 Astrojet -- running on 35¢-a-gallon gas.