Canadian cartoonists honoured in Toronto

The first annual Doug Wright Awards for cartoonists were handed out during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival over the weekend.

Canadian cartooning was in the spotlight this weekend with the presentation of the first Doug Wright Awards during the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Established cartoonist Seth won the best book honour Saturday evening for 2004's Clyde Fans, Book One, his nostalgic drama about an elderly electric fan salesman looking back on his life and that of his brother.

"I was kind of hoping I wouldn't win," the Guelph, Ont.-based Seth told CBC Arts Online. "I'm very happy to win, of course, but being the guy who designed the trophy, it looks kind of bad, like I designed the trophy to give to myself."

Up-and-coming cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley took the best emerging talent prize for his Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, the first in a six-book series about a 23-year-old guy ambling through his life "between jobs," playing in a rock band and dating a cute high school girl, until a mysterious new woman turns his life upside-down.

"It's an honour," a timid O'Malley said Saturday, the second day of the three-day Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which is held every two years. "It's my first award."

Named after one of Canada's most prolific cartoonists, the awards were established to honour excellence in artistic or alternative comics. Another new prize for cartoonists, the Shuster Awards, presented for the first time last month, recognized the more mainstream, superhero-type genre.

The Halifax-based O'Malley said he felt the Wright Awards were "more about cartooning, craft, that sort of thing."

Seth echoed O'Malley's sentiment, saying he was glad there are now two awards to celebrate the Canadian comics industry.

"I was glad we had another awards going on at the same time that would be more focused on the Canadian industry and more focused on what I think of as the art industry. People who are actually trying to create art in comics rather than more commercial product," he said.

While the Shusters were decided by fan-vote, the Wrights – which Seth helped organize in the early stages – are selected by a jury. This year's jurors were cartoonist Chester Brown, filmmakers Don McKellar and Jerry Ciccoritti, Globe and Mail books reporter Rebecca Caldwell and writer and CBC broadcaster Nora Young.

"I like the way it's structured," Seth said. "There's a panel of judges who are not necessarily comics people, so you get a vote that's not based on popularity, not based on any sense of obligation, just based on whether they enjoyed the book."

Wright's family was on hand for the inaugural ceremony. His widow, Phyllis Thomas-Wright, presented the trophies. Organizers also inducted Wright and four other cartoonists into a hall of fame entitled Giants of the North.

Born in England in 1917, Wright immigrated to Canada in 1938 to work as a commercial artist. After a stint of wartime service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, he developed a career drawing comic strips and editorial cartoons, which ran from the 1940s through the 1980s in magazines and newspapers such as the Montreal Standard and the Hamilton Spectator.

In 1948, he created Nipper, which later became Doug Wright's Family. Based on his home life and experiences with his three sons, the internationally syndicated pantomime strip (no dialogue) featured expressive panels depicting childhood, domestic life and everyday preoccupations. Wright died in 1983.