It’s possible that The Playwright might be the least appealing book I’ve ever picked up, at least on the surface. The back cover contains the description of the main character “He once saw a pigeon defecate onto a businessman’s shoulder.” which implies that this is a rather tedious book. On the contrary, it is a lovingly crafted book which contains a deceptively rich life, detailed over many years. Perceptive, occasionally disturbing and often oddly touching, this is an interesting piece of illustrated storytelling.
Eddie Campbell and Daren White’s strange, unconventionally-sized tome definitely piqued my interest when I first heard about it at San Diego Comic Con. Then I saw Greg Burgas’ talk of the book last month, but in an attempt to avoid spoilers, managed to completely forget about it again. This weekend I finally found myself passing the Top Shelf table at the Alternative Press Expo and I could no longer put off picking up the book. Getting a book directly from the publisher is a strange experience, particularly when you’re as tactless as I am (friends are nice and say that I’m a very direct person, but I suspect that the effect is more often that I’m blunt.)
I confessed to Leigh Walton at Top Shelf that I was dubious as to how interested anyone would be in this poor man’s story, but we also discussed the perverse pleasure that can only come from sharing an ostensibly off-putting book, which actually has a very rich interior. The story of The Playwright sounded sad even by my standards (and I like the grumpy old men), but the idea that the two authors were friends who are both British men living in Australia did appeal to me. As a fellow ex-patriot, I’m very aware that distance gives us a different view of our peers, particularly over the passage of time, and like them, I find myself in a country which is dramatically sunnier and more upbeat than our homeland. With that in mind, I’d like to recommend this strange, prettily-bound little book to you.
Eddie Campbell’s brightly colored watercolors illustrate Daren White’s book is about a middle-aged playwright’s life over a decade or so, as his relatives slowly die and he begins to re-evaluate his life choices and gradually make changes. Contrasting White’s starkly cool narrative with Campbell’s characteristically lively sketches breathes life into the story and then there is the watercolor which makes it all that much more beautiful. I’ve not seen Campbell do watercolors before and it’s an essential component to the story. If not for these sparkling, lively colors, the playwright’s life would have seemed empty and miserable to read about, but the addition of watercolor evokes so much fluidity and warmth that it made the whole work. It imparts an attitude of simple pleasure that the main character takes away from this daily interactions and passes that attitude on to us.
Dramatic events and the mundane passage of time are treated with the same style and tempo. Initially I was lulled into a false sense of security, as the first chapter comprised primarily of his tedious days writing and traveling, and the fantasies about women’s nudity that he entertains. Dull but understandable, and admittedly, reading about naked women might be more interesting for people who’re more interested in them than I am. The pace of the book is quite remarkable, flowing gently and steadily along, there is no interruption of the cadence whether the main character is on the bus, in the pub or dealing with major losses. I found this rhythm very descriptive of the man’s emotional state; slow and steady, there was no need for him to have an overt emotional language, and if he had it would have felt incongruous. After all, this is man is a product of a British public boarding school, and while his awareness of the damage this inflicted on him is only mentioned in passing, it’s effect is felt throughout the book.
Rather than dwelling on moments of weight and import with words, the art takes on this burden. When the playwright experiences a dramatic familial loss in the middle of the book, the simple pattern of three panels to a page is broken for a moment. One panel takes up two thirds of a page, showing only her funeral with no text. The impact of this is felt immediately, and is so much more subtle than words could be. It is an elegant and clever solution to conveying how the playwright feels without text, and it is a marvelous use of the medium by the authors.
These two ex-pat Britons both live in Australia and it is clear that their distance from Britain has given them an interesting perspective on their chosen character. While their treatment of the subject isn’t overtly forgiving, it also isn’t cruel either. They are simply brutally honest, much more so perhaps than if the main character where to tell his own story, but with the distance of a narrator we get the benefit of insights and knowledge that might otherwise be withheld. The book doesn’t use the current comic book convention of speech bubble overlays, but rather a more traditional prose technique of setting the imagery under each sentence like an illustration. However, Campbell’s years as a comic book artist mean that the drawings are able to do a lot of heavy lifting in the story telling department. Whether you’re a fan of his style or not, it is impossible to ignore the skill involved in creating this oddly compelling, unconventional book.
N.B. I’ve tried to explain why I find the book to be a compelling use of comic books and a valid addition to the medium without revealing anything about the actual story. For a detailed review of the story itself and why/how it works, I’d recommend that you reading Greg’s lovingly written review.