Eddie Campbell needs little introduction by this point. He’s the artist of “From Hell,” the cartoonist behind “Alec: The Years Have Pants,” the recently collected volume of his Alec stories out from Top Shelf just a few months ago, and the man behind “Bacchus,” which will be collected into two omnibus volumes next year. For his newest book, “The Playwright,” he illustrated a story by Daren White, with whom he’s collaborated on a number of other projects.
White was the editor behind “DeeVee,” an Australian-based anthology comic where early chapters of “The Playwright” initially saw print. Among White’s other writing credits include co-writing “Batman: Order of the Beasts,” an Elseworlds tale from DC which was also illustrated by Campbell. The two spoke with CBR about their partnership over the years and “The Playwright,” out now from Top Shelf.
You’ve worked together on a number of projects over the years, but how did the two of you initially meet?
Eddie Campbell: It was away back in 1993. Daren was in Brisbane, took a notion to meet me, ostensibly to buy some of my harder-to-find books, I think, and got my number from the local comic shop. I wasn’t self-publishing at that stage, but did so shortly after that. Daren was part of a bunch of new people I found myself in contact with around that time, which led to the publishing of the “DeeVee” comic book, but I’m sure he’ll fill you in on that.
Daren White: The usual way. Beer and comics.
Shortly after moving to Brisbane in the early nineties, I tried to buy a couple of Eddie’s books from a local comic store. They put me in contact with him directly and we ended up meeting for an afternoon drink. We kept in touch, and within a short period of time, a regular Saturday afternoon meet up at one of the local pubs, started. That’s where I met the other blokes who were involved with “Bacchus,” to various degrees, and the idea for “DeeVee” germinated.
Daren, where did this character, the lead in “The Playwright,” come from?
White: The initial image was of a respectable business man sitting on a bus staring at the other passengers, while his internal monologue was analyzing them in a quite explicit, probably wrong, yet hopefully funny way. I quickly realized that he was worth more than the short story I originally had in mind and so merged a few other personality traits that I’d been intending to mine for other short character pieces.
I approached the story by taking what could be everyday thoughts and feelings and exaggerating them until they border on caricature. I think the book sometime makes people uncomfortable or squirm, because, while the exact scenarios in the book are relentless and farcical, they have that grain of familiarity.
Eddie, you’re incredibly busy, working on numerous projects. What is it about “The Playwright” that made you want to illustrate it, and how much say did you have in the writing and the shape of the final book?
Campbell: “The Playwright” was just one of a bunch of stories that sprung up when we were churning out the “DeeVee” bi-monthly and “Bacchus” monthly, to which Daren contributed a few stories, some illustrated by different artists and some which I illustrated myself. His first chapter of “The Playwright” was so good that I couldn’t bear to see somebody else ruin it, because it had so many peculiarities about Britain and none of his other artists had lived there. So i wound up as the artist on it. Â But I never interfered with the writing except in a proofreading capacity.
“The Playwright” began in “DeeVee,” an anthology which Daren edited. How much of the story was published there over the years and how is the content and format different here?
White: Yes. “DeeVee” was a quarterly anthology edited and published by myself, Michael Evans and Marcus Moore at the same time Eddie was publishing the monthly “Bacchus.” We struck a cunning deal with Eddie to provide stories for “Bacchus” in exchange for publishing his “Alec” book, “How to be an Artist,” in “DeeVee.” “DeeVee” eventually became annual, three issues, of which, were distributed in the US. Each of these featured a Playwright scene, in black and white and in a traditional comic book format. When we came to continue and complete the bulk of the material, Eddie re-formatted the pages to larger, single tiers, and fully painted the artwork. He added considerable background detail and finessed the overall look. The hardcover edition is the definitive version. The vibrancy of the color became integral to the storytelling by contrast to what initially might appear to be rather dull and grey subject matter.
Campbell: Three chapters appeared in “DeeVee” over three years, and the finished work has ten chapters, so you can see that less than a third of it has been seen before. Furthermore, I have gone in and reworked those three chapters for the new color presentation. Once I had watercolored pages scanned and in the computer, I did just as much work all over again, intensifying the colors and adding digital stuff. For example, all the interiors now have wallpapered walls which I added using patterns and fitting them to the perspectives of the compositions. That was a lot of work, and it’s really made for a fresh look to the whole thing. All of this is ironic since Daren designed the stories so that I could use a lot of repeated images to save time since there hasn’t been any money in it up till now. I turned the repeats into a feature, zooming in ultra close so that the ink lines became big rough hairy things, and then adding odd little delicate details completely out of scale to the base drawing. Of course,e each panel was then colored separately, so the idea of the repeats is buried under all of that. It does give the book its own individual look and rhythm
Daren, what does Eddie bring to the story and why was he the perfect illustrator for the book?
White: Eddie has an observational style which is highly authentic in capturing a particular expression or setting, yet still spontaneous and alive. He also has an attention to detail that supports the subtle storytelling that was essential for this particular story. The panic mode of publishing we operated under for “Bacchus” and “DeeVee” meant that I presented him with the opportunity to save time on “The Playwright” artwork, by using repeated panels. In fact, he did the exact opposite and raised the visuals to a whole new level.
The story is told through a series of wordless panels without direct dialogue. What was the challenge in illustrating the book in such a way that it wasn’t mere illustration and really interacted and complemented the text?
Campbell: Firstly there is nothing “mere” about illustration. It is a craft that has for some reason fallen into disregard. I always thought I was diligently and honestly illustrating the text to the best of my ability. I didn’t add anything that wasn’t in Daren’s script. I simply used all the skills at my disposal to bring out exactly what he was telling us in the story, and I added nothing in the way of diversions or tangents or adornments. I wouldn’t presume to think I could improve upon the narrative.
I say this as an American, but the book felt very British, and I’m curious how intentional that was and how you feel about that as an Australian?
White: I’m actually a British expat, coincidentally from the same part of Essex where many of Eddie’s early “Alec” stories take place. The British sensibility was deliberate and aimed to exaggerate the stuffy, self conscious embarrassment that underpins a certain type of Englishman. I’ve lived in Australia for almost sixteen years now and so have to acknowledge that my fondness for Britain is partially nostalgic. I think there is a sense of longing within the story which comes from this, and I was happy to milk it.
What was behind your decision to tell the story as a series of vignettes without word balloons or direct dialogue?
White: Nothing more cunning than at the time I was writing another story told solely with dialogue. Once I’d written the first few chapters, I realized that I’d stumbled onto something that worked very effectively for this particular story. The art for the first scene was produced before any further scripts were written. Once I’d seen what Eddie was doing with the magnification on the repeated panels, I could see how the narrative text could work, both with and against some of the imagery. There are times where the narrative tells one story, the images a second and the contrast between the two, a third. It’s very satisfying when it works.
The relationship between artist and subject, which is at the heart of the book, emphasizes the idea that it is about unhappiness, estrangement. Do you agree with this a theory of how creators function?
White: As I said before, this book is very much a work of fiction which relies on exaggeration. I’m sure many creators suffer for their art but let’s hope not at the level of “The Playwright.”
Campbell: It’s an idea that exists, but I don’t think I would agree with it being an absolute or a universal paradigm, that the artist must exchange common happiness for success in his art. It would be more true to say that the artist often tends to be a sensitive individual who is prone to unconsciously sabotage his own ambitions. This is the source of the humor in “The Playwright.”
So what’s next for the two of you, now that you’ve wrapped “The Playwright?”
White: I’m working another human condition story which starts in London during the Second World War, moves through the decades to Australia and is narrated by a sentient tea pot. I’ve also written a one page graphic novel titled “Johnny Calendar and his Date with Destiny” which is currently with Eddie. I’m waiting to catch him when his guard is down. Also, I’m hoping that DC bring back “Wednesday Comics” as I’d love to have a crack at that. I also have a couple of short stories in the Australian comic “EEEK!” I think a collection is due in the US later this year.
Eddie, I know you’re working on the “Bacchus” collections for next year. How are they coming along and what else are you working on?
Campbell: The first volume of “Bacchus” is wrapped up and ready to go, and at the moment I’m working on a new autobiographical book about me and money. It will be titled “The Lovely Horrible Stuff.” I’m at the halfway mark, so it could be out next year.