March 17th, 2011
Being: both a short postscript to my previous three posts AND a review of one of the best comics of 2010.
This series of posts is supposed to have been all about mirrors and vanity, so what better way to start this than by going on another weird tangent? I’ve probably written enough on this site now for readers to know that everything reminds me of something else. As such, it should come as no surprise when I say that I thought about Eddie Campbell and Daren White‘s excellent comic The Playwright yesterday while I was at an exhibition of the photography of John Thomson.
Dating back to the 1870s , the photographs Thomson took in China are a strange and striking mix of gorgeous detail and grainy noise. The photos themselves are beautifully composed, of course, and they range from the intimate to the respectfully traditional. More than any of this it was the scratchy, broken, physical texture of the images that arrested me. Each tiny abstract marking on Thomson’s glass negatives carries over a century’s worth of context, and each warped corner ruptures the illusion that you could feel fabric that’s in front of your face if only you could reach inside one of the pictures.
Some of the descriptive captions at the Burrell’s exhibition of Thomson’s work hint at the dodgier readings Thomson had of his own material – a stunning image of two Buddhist monks comes with a quote from the photographer about how no visitor to China could look at these men and decide to trust them with their loose change, never mind their eternal souls. The abundance of jigsaw puzzle cracks and scribbled notes can’t help but prepare the viewer for this prejudiced statement – the imperfections of age and reproduction haunt these pictures, ghosts of the photographer’s intentions, inescapable evidence of the fact that you’re seeing all of this through the mind of an adventurous outsider.
But what does all of this have to do with The Playwright?
Well, more than any comic I’ve read since Campbell‘s The Fate of the Artist, The Playwright is all about the cost of observation to the observer. Indeed, thinking about the difference between The Playwright and The Fate of The Artist, I’m reminded of something Brother Yawn once said on Barbelith about the relationship between Grant Morrison’s work on Zenith and The Invisibles:
zenith = gm worldview – euclidian geometry style
invisibles = gm view world fractal geometry style.
You could almost make the same claim here – certainly The Playwright would be a lot easier to plot on a graph than The Fate of the Artist, which took Campbell’s earlier experiments with fractal storytelling structures to their natural conclusion.
All of which is to say that the plot of The Playwright is very familiar, at least on the level of the outline. It’s “a dark comedy about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man”, as those wags White and Campbell like to put it – and is there any more typical subject for an alternative comic book than the sexual frustrations of an ageing male artist?
Thankfully, White and Campbell take the time to blow these broad strokes up into strange new shapes:
I’m being quite literal here, as you will hopefully be able to tell from the images above. You can imagine how amused I was to see Campbell emphasising and playing around with the physicality of his images, given that I once wrote a post about how Campbell makes recognisable stories out of abstract fragments. This process is reversed here, with perfectly poised figures being magnified to the point of distortion.
According to the authors, this technique was originally intended to allow Campbell to save time by making repeated use of the same images, but it’s obvious from the final results that it quickly developed into a crucial part of the story. White’s comments from this excellent interview with Tom Spurgeon are particularly revealing in this regard:
The panel repetition was also scripted from the start of the first chapter. This was intended to save time as the page rates offered by DeeVee were a bit rubbish, and I thought he’d photocopy the panels and paste them down. Instead he enlarged them, often very much so, and redrew fine details to contrast the thick chunky photocopy lines. When he came to paint the pages he often added even more detail and so my cunning plan to save time actually had the opposite effect.
The mix of fine detail and blown out linework in The Playwright serves the same purpose as the scratchy anomalies in Thomson’s pictures, by making it impossible to ignore the fact that you’re seeing all of this through The Playwright’s wandering eyes.
Most of the reviews of The Playwright has received have focused on the technical aspects of the book, often praising Campbell’s artwork while being mildly enthusiastic about White’s script at best – indeed, of all the articles I’ve read, only Ng Suat Tong’s review has focussed on theme rather than form. This makes for a welcome corrective to so many other comics reviews, most of mine included, but it also has the side-effect of underplaying the ways in which White and Campbell are working together here.
The words and images, while always clearly separated on the page (no speech balloons or thought bubbles in this comic!) are definitely working with each other, like two instruments playing a slightly different tune in a deceptively simple arrangement.
Isolated from Campbell’s illustrations, the narration has a fussy sort of irony to it that’s almost impossible to escape:
Contrary to the above, there is no ”break” to be found in these pages. Or at least, not until the end of the story. Everything that happens in The Playwright is placed in careful boxes and everyone is defined by their place in the story, almost as if they were characters in one of The Playwright’s creations – ‘The Playwright the Brother his Nurse and her Mother’, perhaps.
Still, despite the character’s best efforts, even his most commonplace fantasies refuse to become just so much bad wallpaper:
Campbell being Campbell, there’s always too much vibrancy in the colours, and too much grace and humour in the characters, for us to ever find ourselves in the state of mind that the narrator implies. Campbell and White, both British expats, seem to be having far too much fun with the details, almost – even when Campbell does draw bad wallpaper, he draws it enthusiastically, as an explosion of odd patterns and colours. For a book about a withdrawn artist, it’s a joy to read, and despite The Playwright’s best effors, characters like the ones above have too much life to them to be reduced to mere fantasy objects or “missed opportunities”.
This leads us to the biggest irony of the book, the best joke, the proof that Campbell and White are working wonderfully together here. The narration would have us believe that The Playwright is in this world but not of it – that like the narration itself, he is distanced from the events he sees, capable of turning them into successful stories but not of fully living in them. As such, it’s hardly surprising that the ending sees The Playwright abandon storytelling in favour of life.
And yet, the attentive reader will notice that we are reading a story about the limits of storytelling, one that might just possibly have been written by The Playwright himself. Which is only fitting, really. You can try to move beyond your own severely distorted view of reality, but when you do, don’t be surprised if you find that the world’s made of stories all the way down.
Best to live a good life then, and to try to stay attentive to the stories that other people are telling all around you…