It’s Eddie Campbell! Who doesn’t love Eddie Campbell? Commies, that’s who. Don’t be a Commie!
The Playwright is the latest artistic endeavor by Mr. Campbell, ably assisted by Daren White, who writes it. The book is published by Top Shelf and Knockabout Comics, printed in that caning-loving haven Singapore, and costs $14.95. Or £9.95, if you want to get all English up in here.
About halfway through The Playwright I was prepared to hate it.
Okay, Campbell’s quiet, naturalistic, occasionally uncomfortable art was good, but White’s story just seemed like it was going nowhere. There’s a playwright (we learn his last name, but not his first name). He sits around obsessing about women a lot. A LOT. He’s terrified of making an actual commitment to women, so he never actually talks to any of them. He just … notices them. Fantasizes about them (the fantasies are fairly normal, with a tiny bit of S-M thrown in, but nothing that makes your eyes bleed). Goes home and does nothing. White doesn’t seem to be going anywhere with the story at all. It’s actually boring.
But! If you do get The Playwright and feel the same way I do, I would encourage you to stick with it. White takes his time getting somewhere, but he does get somewhere, and the book becomes worthwhile. The way White establishes the playwright as a character doesn’t really make us like him, but it does make us wonder what he will do when different elements enter his life.
They do, in the form of his mentally challenged older brother, whom he takes in after his mother dies, and the brother’s nurse, whom he hires to provide care. The presence of a woman so close to the playwright means he must actually interact with one, and White slowly turns this comic into a mature love story and also a meditation on creation and what drives people to make art. The playwright is a successful writer with a long career, a fact which becomes more important as the book moves along. As creepy as the playwright is early on in the book, as White takes us through the story, we begin to see him in a different light. Is he really creepy, or does he have other reasons for his lack of social interaction? What happens when he’s forced to interact socially? It’s clever how White manages to change our perception of the playwright while keeping many of his anxieties intact. He doesn’t deal with them, really, but he does figure out how to get around them.
As I mentioned, this is also a book about creation. We learn about how the playwright became interested in the inner world of creation and how he was able to survive without a job while he wrote early in his career. White drops in references to his many works throughout the book, and shows how his art parallels his inner demons. White raises questions about the desire to create art and the desire to have a “normal” life and whether those two are compatible, and as we move further into the book, this becomes a bigger and bigger theme.
This is another reason to stick with the book – White isn’t being self-indulgent with the descriptions of the playwright’s pretentious works, he’s giving us insight into the playwright’s state of mind. And it pays off nicely in the book’s final act.
Campbell is good as always. I’ve never loved his lettering, but I’ve learned to read it, so it no longer bothers me as much as it used to, but that’s a minor point. He does such a good job of showing the quiet despair of a man cut off from the people around him, as the playwright simply feels isolated throughout the book even when he’s in a crowd. Campbell has always been good at drawing realistic looking people, so when the playwright fantasizes about women, he doesn’t idealize them, instead showing them as natural women, and when the playwright finally embarks on socializing of his own, it feels like two actual people taking tentative steps toward something rather than two beautiful people diving right in. White’s deliberate scripting (which, as I pointed out, is slow-building but also features no actual dialogue, relying instead on a strong third-person narrator) means the Campbell’s panels are uncluttered, and he grounds the story in rich details of setting and objects you would find there.
I don’t mean to get too skeevy, but Campbell does a very good job with naked women, as well (there are quite a few naked women in this book). Their breasts aren’t popping off their chests like balloons, and they often have thick, black pubic hair. Campbell shows humanity in all its ugly glory, which makes every person in this book more beautiful.
The Playwright gets better and better as you move toward the end, which is nice. White gives us a character who has an epiphany late in life, but perhaps not too late. It’s a very interesting meditation on what inspires people and what can change that inspiration. It might be a bit dull to start with, but it’s a rewarding reading experience when you get through it. That’s not a bad thing, is it?
Tomorrow: Greek mythology goes haywire!