The Playwright by Daren White and Eddie Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The latest from artist Eddie Campbell is a collaboration with writer Daren White, and it's a wonderful, bittersweet melding of pictures and words that is formalist in its construction but charming for being so concise.
The Playwright is the story of a middle-aged English gentleman who has enjoyed some success as a writer, with much of his most successful work being for television. Over the years, he has become rather set in his ways, and his artistic and financial success is offset by an increasing isolation. He is not close to his family due to his mining their lives for material. In fact, many of his prior human connections have become grist for his typewriter. Employing a humorous and matter-of-fact tone, White details the sexual hang-ups and perpetual embarrassments the playwright suffers, gently mocking the man while still remaining utterly fascinated by him.
Campbell has painted the book in his usual sketchy, evocative manner, but the page layout is more like a newspaper comic strip than your traditional comic book. Printed at a rectangular size, each page has 3 or 4 panels, no more. There are also no word balloons or any narration within the panels, White's narrative is presented outside of the picture boxes, and the effect is something akin to voiceover in a silent film. The words serve as commentary, but yet are detached, coming from an omniscient narrator. This allows a break from "reality," and gives Campbell room to roam from presenting what is being said and abstract the material. Some sequences are shown as the playwright's fantasies instead of his actions, and others take on a life of their own, Campbell's expressionistic style morphing and changing what we see until it becomes something else entirely.
The Playwright ends up being more than a portrait of a man and his quirks, however; a story arc develops the deeper we go into the book and things begin to change. The man that was initially greeted with an arched eyebrow and skepticism is given room to grow, and he does so quite naturally. Perhaps it's the simplicity of the storytelling, that a few well-placed lines allow for the kind of character development that is so often lacking in other, more effusive tales. It's not that the playwright has to struggle or earn his happiness, but that by finally meeting life as it comes to him, it affects him at last.
Somewhat ironically, this changes his relationship with his art, and White and Campbell, it turns out, have been crafting a good-natured parody of many cliches about creative life. Must authors be miserable bastards to write? Some think so. In The Playwright we are asked if this being true means it's better to ignore happiness for a little notoriety. Then again, how we perceive the change is also going to be altered to how much we buy into the titular writer being an artist and not some hack. Is he who he is because he bought the cliche? And are Daren White and Eddie Campbell able to be who they are, and to create a comic as blithe as The Playwright, because they haven't?
The Playwright is being published by Top Shelf in June. Order your copy now!
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