Saturday, 24 April 2010

Review: The Playwright, Daren White & Eddie Campbell (Top Shelf, 2010)

By Daren White (writer) & Eddie Campbell (artist)
Format: 11" x 7" (Landscape), graphic novel, full colour
160 pages, Hardcover
Price: $14.95 (US)
Release: June 2010

The Playwright follows a moderately successful middle-aged English theatre and television writer through a passage of his life. Financially stable and critically well-received, he suffers from sexual anxiety fed by increasing isolation. Essentially estranged from the people around him due to his necessity to use them (and his experiences with them) as fodder for his work, the titular playwright goes through daily life largely as an observer and chronicler. Darkly comic in areas, genuinely poignant in others, writer Daren White (DeeVee, Batman: The Order of Beasts) and artist Eddie Campbell (Alec: The Years Have Pants, From Hell) create a detailed, sometimes touching insight into the small joys, sorrows and sexual desires of a man who has always been better at writing about life than living it.

Opening with the playwright riding home on a London transport bus, White’s detached narration gives an immediate and explicit insight into the mind of his chubby, sensibly-dressed subject. Shocking and more than a little creepy at first, the playwright surmises the life story of the busty woman opposite him, mentally undressing her before calming down and resolving to save the mental image “for later”. As his gaze moves around the bus,  it becomes apparent that the reader is privy to the playwright’s constantly active train of thought, his previously carnal thoughts dispersing into morose reflections on the diminishing chance of finding love in relation to his advancing age. This casts his attention to the depressing-looking middle aged women a few seats away from him, which in turn, leads to ruminations on his past failed relationships and unsuccessful sexual encounters.

Initially disconcerting, White and Campbell gradually assemble a more complex picture of the undersexed solitary scribe. Once the shocking revelation that balding, somewhat unattractive middle aged men have sex drives has passed, his thoughts are no worse than you would expect from the majority of other sexed-starved heterosexual males (well, almost). Here, the playwright becomes quite a sympathetic character; a victim of the processes and necessities that made him so successful in his craft in the first place. Stuck in a desolate Cartesian circle, his only hope would be to effect a change from within, thus freeing himself from the lonely obligations of his art.

Set in London, the sensibilities of The Playwright’s narrative owe something to the longstanding British literary and cinematic themes of sexual repression, self loathing and urban isolation. The book’s authentically British demeanour comes as no surprise, considering that Campbell and White are both UK expatriates. Perhaps due to the creators’ relocation to the sunnier, colonial climes of Australia, there’s a timeless element to the England of the book, with classic cars and genteel costumes co-existing alongside modern technology such as the internet and home PCs, all of which the playwright takes great pleasure in (except the cars, of course, as he's never learnt to drive).

Campbell's sketchy, wandering illustration breathes new life into the well-versed subjects of sexual anxiety, artistic detachment, and alienation, blending the real and imaginary together effortlessly. The fragile expressions of his line create the feeling that the playwright’s sex-starved imagination is straining against the walls of reality, at times threatening to break through entirely. Adding further structural integrity to the book is its format: with just three horizontally-spread panels to a page, its layout is somewhat outside the norms of North American comics publishing, but fits the rigid structure of White’s narration perfectly. Boxed above Campbell's evocative images, the narration mixes omnipresent and subjective statements that make it intriguing to wonder if the narrator is the playwright himself, facilitating his solitude by engaging reality with third-person prose rather than action.

Writers writing about writers (try saying that three times fast) is structurally reflexive by default, and White does so confidently and without pretension. It’s no small praise that this postmodern element, along with the profession of the central character and themes, made me recall the work of Dennis Potter. Best known for the seminal 1985 BBC series The Singing Detective¹, Potter's work was deconstructionist, frequently featuring sexual maladjustment and often blending the pain of existence with the sublimes of the imaginary. Just like the playwright, Potter's output was largely inspired by his own experience and, as his career went on he became increasingly isolated (in his case by psoriatic arthropathy).

Originally serialised (in part) in DeeVee, this expanded, collected edition of The Playwright succeeds on so many levels, and feels very much like a "complete package". Brilliant throughout, its throbbing anxiousness builds to a wholly appropriate and fulfilling ending. Structurally exceptional, the book acts as a reminder of  the legitimacy of the comic form by unifying prose and illustration to create the sort of narrative than can only exist in this medium. The most satisfying piece of fiction I've experienced this year of any format, I really can't recommend it highly enough. Almost definitely destined for many end-of-year best lists (even at this early stage of 2010), I'll stop writing now and just encourage you to check out the eleven-page preview on Top Shelf's website (linked below). You won't regret it.

¹ Savaged by Robert Downey Jr in the Hollywood remake, The Singing Detective was no doubt a warm-up for his recent defiling of another, even more beloved English crime-solver.


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