Review: The Playwright

Title: The Playwright
Writer: Daren White
Artist: Eddie Campbell
Publisher: Top Shelf Productions
Published: 2010

Review by Jason Azzopardi

I have a real soft spot for the oddballs in this world, and the beautiful way social cues just pass them by, or how they struggle to fit their ever-so-rounded thoughts into the harsh angular lines of modern society.  This suits me fine because the world is too angular as it is.

But what if you’re an oddball from the most rigid of societies, where, at every turn, there is royalty, tea and crumpets and fencing?  How do you account for being lonely in all that staunch propriety, or having dirty thoughts, or needing to defecate, or even just being filled with self-loathing?

Daren White and Eddie Campbell’s deliciously uncomfortable (and very British) graphic novel, The Playwright, chronicles the physical and emotional minutia of a Dennis Potterish author’s middle age.  Finding financial and artistic success early in his career, the title character has also wedged himself into a sadly hermitic life by poaching emotional conflict from those closest to him, all for the sake of his art.  The Playwright, we discover, may be a keen observer of the human condition (and all its foibles), but he’s not a particularly astute practitioner of it.  He has a concrete set of ideas of what his identity and gender role are supposed be as an upper-middle class heterosexual male, but after a series of tragedies forces him to actually interact with the people passing through his existence, he finds that the foundation he has built this identity on is not as solid as he once thought.  Life simply happens whether you partake in it or not.

The Playwright’s authors delight in poking fun at the British stiff-upper-lip and class hierarchies, and they relish in showing the consequences of a frightened, closed mind.  Daren White writes from a delicate, intimate distance.  He lulls us into laughing at our unnamed protagonist’s quirks and neurotic obsessions in the opening chapters, but it’s an uncomfortable, fidgety laughter escaping from our lips.  By the book’s genuinely touching end, we begin to root for The Playwright’s happiness because we recognize ourselves in his behavior.  He begins as an aging caricature and evolves into living tissue.

Eddie Campbell paints with nervous, evocative gesture lines and a gasping, slightly garish polyester palette, suggesting, as he does in From Hell, that all the British cherrios and tally-hos are merely set dressing; that the prim and proper traditions are really just ridiculous façades for the elite to cushion themselves against the harsh blows of a confusing world.  But buried beneath their privileged layers are the same receding hairlines, wrinkles, social anxieties, terminal illnesses and sagging flesh that make us all human.

The Playwright is a story for grown-ups.  It worms his way into your own notions of aging and loneliness until you realize that this oddball of a book is not just a graphic novel, but also a mirror – a mirror that laughs and cries and needs to feel loved, and also one that shits and fucks, just like the rest of us.