Sunday, March 6, 2011

Comics Review: The Playwright, Eddie Campbell & Daren White

This review was originally published at Pol Culture.

Eddie Campbell brings his extraordinary cartooning prowess to Daren White's slight though witty portrait of a writer whose professional success walks hand-in-hand with his private defeats.

At first glance, The Playwright, written by Daren White and illustrated by Eddie Campbell, is a witty character study. The protagonist is a writer for the stage, film, and television. He is defined by an irony: his professional success is directly inverse to his private inadequacies. Socially and sexually, his life is a failure, but these personal shortfalls are what drive the creativity that gives him a living and a measure of renown. Amusingly, his dilemma is also a two-way street: the more fulfilled the playwright is in his personal life, the more blocked he is creatively. This clever conceit is all but played out to perfection.

I have to admit the story isn’t quite to my taste, but The Playwright overcomes all misgivings. It’s an extraordinary piece of cartooning. Eddie Campbell is one of the most accomplished visual stylists in modern comics, and he’s in peak form. His cool, contemplative tone is firmly in place. The dramatization maintains an elegant emotional reserve. Campbell never rubs one’s nose in the sadness of the protagonist’s life. One has to feel one’s way into the character’s psyche, and the story is all the more effective for it. The amount of social detail in Campbell’s panels is just astounding; visually, The Playwright is almost as rich a portrait of London in the present day as Alan Moore and Campbell’s masterwork From Hell is of the city in the 1880s. Campbell’s talent for visual tropes is also in full flower; he presents pitch-perfect metaphors for the protagonist’s sexual anxieties and plays them for slapstick to boot. White all but certainly originated them, but the √©lan of their execution is Campbell's own.

And Campbell being Campbell, he expands the range of comics’ expressive possibilities as well. The Playwright was originally serialized as a black-and-white strip in the periodical comics anthology DeeVee. Among the revisions for book publication was the addition of color. Campbell, though, doesn’t use the colors in a banally descriptive way. He creates a new set of tropes out of the various combinations to inflect and dramatically enhance the scenes. One has the juxtaposition of yellow and red, which signifies sex-as-lust and sex-as-fun. There is also the juxtaposition of red and green, which is the vehicle for the tenor of longing for romance and family-life happiness. And there is the juxtaposition of green and yellow, which carries associations of sexual and romantic defeat. Purple plays an important role as well, but I won't give that one away. The color effects are rooted in metonymy, which Campbell then builds into continuing metaphors. They add a whole new dimension to the narrative. It’s one of the most imaginative uses of color that I can remember seeing in comics.

To give one an idea of how the color strategies work, let’s examine Campbell’s juxtapositions of red and yellow. He introduces it in the opening scene, which shows the title character ogling a young woman sitting across from him on a bus. The protagonist’s focus is on the woman’s breasts, but the most striking element of the panels featuring the woman is her ascot, which is bright yellow and red. When the visuals take the reader completely inside the protagonist’s sexual fantasy, the woman’s colors apart from those of her hair and skin are the red of her nipples and the yellow of her panties. The image is framed by the bus window, which is shown contained by the bright red of the bus exterior. The red-yellow juxtaposition appears whenever the fun of sex is on the protagonist’s mind. In a scene where he’s surfing Internet porn, a red-and-yellow ball is shown bouncing around the panels. When he’s imagining “some potential young wife” jumping his bones, he pictures her as a shapely brunette in a red bikini and yellow-hued skin. And when he sits down to a first date with a woman with whom he ends up having a fulfilling relationship, red and yellow are of course the color scheme of her dress.

But Campbell doesn’t just use the color juxtapositions to create decorative metaphors; he also uses them to enhance the story's drama and suspense. In one scene, the protagonist finds a rapport with an attractive woman at a resort. The colors render the scene ambiguous. The woman is shown wearing a yellow swimsuit and hat, her hat band is red, and the two sit and talk underneath yellow and red sun-umbrellas. The ambiguity, though, comes from their sitting on green chaise lounges. What does that green mean? Will it join with the red to signify romantic longing, or will it join with the yellow to bring romantic defeat? Campbell builds the suspense in the next scene, in which the woman retains the yellow and red hat but wears a green dress. As things progress, the protagonist imagines inviting her to accompany him out-of-town to an awards ceremony. He sees their hotel room in his mind’s eye, and it’s the rich red and green of romantic longing. He also imagines them in the hotel hallway after the ceremony, and one can tell what’s on his mind: her red dress is juxtaposed with the yellow walls. The green of ambiguity depicts the floor, and is all but overwhelmed by the other colors. But yellow and green dominate the next panel, which includes the narration, “And so he will reserve the adjoining suite to accommodate all potential outcomes.” The color shift visually alerts one to his insecurities asserting themselves. The reader almost doesn’t need the text to anticipate that things will ultimately fall apart. On the next page, the protagonist abandons his interest in the woman after overhearing some gossip about her. As he listens to the scuttlebutt, his glasses are colored yellow, and green is shown taking over the red hues in his face. Sex-as-lust, sex-as-fun gives way to romantic and sexual defeat.

Campbell orchestrates the colors in this manner throughout the story, and he leaves one in awe of the variety and inventiveness of his cartooning arsenal. For him, every element of word and picture exists to create meaning and enrich the material, and he constantly finds new ways to achieve these ends. At his best, he can take a slight though clever script like Daren White’s and turn it into a bravura formal exercise that has one applauding. No matter what one thinks of the libretto, the score is a marvel.

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