Eddie Campbell has been a major presence in independent comics since the 1970s, starting out with semi-autobiographical work like Alec and the fantastical Bacchus, and collaborating with such luminaries as Alan Moore with From Hell.
Daren White also has a background in indy comics, with his anthology series DeeVee, and he has also worked on mainstream titles such as Batman: The Order of the Beasts (on which he collaborated with . . . Eddie Campbell!).
The Playwright is the engrossing, sometimes cringe-worthy examination of a middle-aged man in London, a successful (albeit lonely) playwright who has an internal monologue that is shockingly filthy at times and sadly pathetic at others, but always fascinating.
TFAW.com: How did the concept for The Playwright come about?
Daren White: The original idea was for a short character study which would present a seemingly ordinary middle-aged man, sitting on a bus on a dreary Tuesday afternoon. However, the narration would be a very juicy, personal, and somewhat saucy, monologue whereby we realise that the kindly, inoffensive man in the corner is actually judging the other passengers sexually. The idea quickly grew beyond a short story, although obviously I didn’t point this out to Eddie at the time he agreed to illustrate it.
TFAW.com: What made you decide to expand it into its own graphic novel?
Daren: We’d published three chapters in black and white, and in a traditional comic book format, in my own DeeVee anthology, the last of which was published in 2008. Eddie had by then cottoned on to the fact that it was actually a work in progress and I came clean about the whole story being 10 chapters. We discussed how best to present it and arrived at the landscape format, to more closely resemble a classic newspaper strip. Because our story is so far removed, thematically, from the usual comic book content, it didn’t seem right that the book edition should resemble one.
TFAW.com: What do each of you think about the main character, the Playwright?
Daren: Hopefully he’s sympathetic to the reader. His personality could easily be repellent and I did try to balance this with a softer, self-deprecating side. I think he’s a more complex character than might appear on the surface and, obviously, much of his personality has been exaggerated for comedic effect. I always keep my eye out for him when I ride the bus.
Eddie Campbell: I wouldn’t want to get too close to him, which ironically is what I kept doing with those zoom/blow-ups of his face. I did a huge one recently for a magazine cover but it wasn’t used, where I replaced the inked eyes with ones from a photograph. So you can have the first showing of it here (see to the left). I figured this technique would fit with Daren’s idea of the ordinary inoffensive-looking man who upon closer inspection turns out to be a bit of a worry. So each time I zoomed in I’d trick up one of the details in a disconcerting way.
TFAW.com: His internal monologue is mainly obsessed with sex and the idea of finding a female companion. Do you think this is a realistic look into most guys’ heads?
Daren: It’s interesting that you mention his desire to find a female companion because, to me, that is the cause of the sexual obsession. A few reviews have missed the companionship part and focused solely on the sexual longing. I do think men of a certain age probably are obsessed with sex, although they’d usually be quite a bit younger than the Playwright. His problem is suffering a lean spell of such magnitude that it could hardly lead to anything other than obsession. Usually men of his age have replaced one obsession with another. Perhaps fine wine, career success, fame or money. I’m sure Eddie can provide insight into this.
Eddie: He’s a cheeky scamp, that Darren Wright. Note that if you want to aggravate him you just have to spell his name wrong. Put an extra “r” in Daren. You have no idea how often this has happened on our current publicity campaign, and other variations that beg explanation. He was “Daren Brown” in one review.
TFAW.com: Despite his constant thoughts about women, the Playwright is almost completely isolated from everyone around him–including his family, from which he is estranged after writing about his mentally disabled brother. Is this a commentary on how the creative process affects personal relationships, or is this specific to the Playwright?
Eddie: It is certainly one of the dangers of using real life for your source material. It can break up families, though it’s not nearly as effective as arguing about money. In the book I am currently working on I intend to use both techniques as the subject is money itself. I’ll say more about that below
TFAW.com: At one point, the Playwright wonders if his constant loneliness has been the source of his creativity. How do you two feel about that?
Eddie: In my own case I have always found it to be the opposite. I am more creative when life around me is teeming and chaotic, which you can see in my big Alec book. If I am left alone for an extended period I usually do a lot of reading, and thus my creative activities are diminished. But the great thing about art is that it works differently for everybody. For instance, many writers like to keep their connection to the real everyday world by doing regular things like a proper job and not having to risk losing their direction as a writer by having to balance their meaningful work with commercial jobs. I’m sure Daren would say that if he were doing it full time he would be driven insane. And he would probably posit me as an example.
Daren: I think for the Playwright this probably is true but doubt it’s a common occurrence. I suspect I’m not alone in expending a great deal of creative energy in wasting time, when left to my own devices.
TFAW.com: For a lonely guy, the Playwright is pretty brutal toward many of his romantic prospects–both real and imagined. Why is this?
Eddie: A defence mechanism?
Daren: He probably over thinks the eventual outcome of almost every scenario that features prospective female company. His lack of confidence will suggest a poor outcome is the most likely conclusion and he reacts accordingly. That said he is a romantic at heart.
TFAW.com: Both of you now live in Australia (with Daren a British expatriate and Eddie from Scotland), but the book reads as if it were set in England. Is this correct, and if so, why?
Eddie: Daren is from the south of England, and if he described himself as “British,” it was probably to head off any physical conflict as the Scots and the English have been bitter enemies for hundreds of years, ever since Braveheart.
Daren: Although we practise arguing on a regular basis, neither of us would want it to come to blows. Having said that, whilst Eddie is the taller man, I’m the heavier and would back myself if it ever turned nasty.
The book is set in London, but rather than the real London it’s the one that exists in Richard Curtis films. Having lived away from England for about sixteen years I have to acknowledge that nostalgia plays a big part of the London in my mind. I think the Playwright’s shyness and embarrassment is more prevalent in a certain kind of Englishman than perhaps other nationalities.
TFAW.com: Daren, what about Eddie’s style appealed to you for The Playwright?
Daren: I knew that Eddie would perfectly capture the odd moments within the script. He is strong with characters, locations, subtle behaviour and pacing. In fact Eddie brought a whole range of additional storytelling strengths to it that I hadn’t even considered. The use of water colours and digital textures, and the inventive use of repeated panels all make it a far better final product than I could have imagined at the outset.
TFAW.com: Eddie, what did you like best about drawing The Playwright?
Eddie: Daren was working with various different artists during the DeeVee era, but when he told me about The Playwright I figured I would have to illustrate it to avoid the situation of an Australian guy drawing a cockeyed version of London. And also the story had all those human subtleties that are the stuff I like to deal with. So I was working from my memory of London, which now goes back a few years, and some observers had noted that our London does look a little out of date. That’s deliberate, not only because we worked on the thing over a 10-year period, but we needed to have the character doing obligatory military service and that was a postwar/1950s thing. We also needed to have him ghost-writing seaside postcards in the era when they were charming rather than vulgar. Thus the latest we can be seeing the character is the 1990s, and if you look at his computer you’ll note it’s of that vintage. We thought a great deal about these details.
TFAW.com: Eddie, you’ve drawn both for your own stories, such as the Alec graphic novels, and for other writers, including Daren and Alan Moore, for From Hell. Can you tell us the differences between those experiences?
Eddie: My own work is the thing I want to be doing in the long run, and the work that I want to be remembered for, but it’s always good to get out of my own head and draw other people’s views of the world as well. It keeps the gene-pool of my ideas from getting stagnant. The magic books I did with Alan were very good for that. Knockabout of London should be releasing a softcover edition of A Disease of Language within the next month or two, so you should look out for that. I often say that From Hell isn’t my best work, and it isn’t Alan’s either. In fact it isn’t even the best thing we’ve done together. That would be the “Birth Caul,” which you can find in Disease.
TFAW.com: The Alec Omnibus, The Years Have Pants, has come out this year–a huge brick of a book. What’s it like to see all of that material in one place?
Eddie: It gratifying to see all the work collected in these huge tomes, From Hell and Alec and soon Bacchus, which is the biggest catalogue of the lot and will need two 500-page volumes. But when it’s done I always think, gee I was sure it was much more than that, these 30 years all boiled down to a two-inch thick book.
TFAW.com: When’s the last time you read through it all?
Eddie: I had to give it some close scrutiny in putting it all together. In fact, you’d have to assert that I am nuts if you had seen me completely recompose a layer of dot-tone one dot at a time, just to see if it could be done. There was a a particularly tricky moire pattern on one of the pages that I couldn’t get rid of. But I did in the end. So if anybody ever has to tackle that in an archival project, just give me a call and I’ll tell you all the tricks.
TFAW.com: Is there anything you would go back and change, if you could?
Eddie: In life or on the page? I hoped I could have more influence over the way comics have gone, but in the end the stuff that is popular now is even stupider than the stuff I was reacting against in the ’70s. I wouldn’t mind so much except that in mainstream press interviews I’m always being put in the position of having to explain and justify American comic books. What I would like to do is go back over my pages and expunge any reference to the comic book industry. But wait a minute, then I’d have to take out “Ouch!” (in Alec), my little tribute to Lee and Kirby and how I discovered them when I was in hospital with a broken head.
TFAW.com: What is it like for both of you to work with a company like Top Shelf?
Eddie: As you know, I’ve worked with a large number of different publishers over the years, but I have gravitated back to Top Shelf. Chris Staros is like part of my family. When my kids travelled to the US recently, they stayed with Chris’s parents. But more than that, Chris is an efficient guy who knows what he’s doing. And he has a great team there too, with Brett and Rob and Leigh. And let us not forget Knockabout, co-publishers of The Playwright and our UK publisher of From Hell.
Daren: I’ve had a relationship with Chris Staros, albeit at a geographical distance, since he, and subsequently Top Shelf, acted as stateside agents for DeeVee. When I finally met him in person, in 2005 in San Diego, he was more than generous with his time and support and it was clear that he very much treats all of his creators as part of an extended family. He and Brett could not have been more supportive of The Playwright. Having edited and published in Australia, I realise how well creators are treated at Top Shelf. Chris, Brett, Rob and Leigh are an excellent team with whom I hope to have a long relationship.
TFAW.com: Do you plan on working together again in the near future?
Eddie: At any given time Daren and I always have a few half-finished things on the shelf. For example we have been kicking around a book titled Uncle Clowny for so long that I think it has really become several different books and will demand a great deal of unravelling. Some of the things you’ll find on that shelf . . . there was a story about Batman’s paternity suit that we pitched to DC once. Oh, and there’s Johnny Calendar and His Date With Destiny.
Daren: Yes, although being fair, it’s partly to justify to our wives the importance in maintaining our weekly brainstorming sessions at the pub. I suspect Uncle Clowny may well take a fair while to develop but I’ll certainly be bugging Eddie to fit Johnny Calendar into his schedule because it’s a cracker. But then I suppose I would say that.
TFAW.com: Do either of you have anything coming down the pike that you would like to tell us about?
Eddie: Watch out for my new Alec-type book about money. It will be titled The Lovely Horrible Stuff.
Daren: I have a story in the EEEK! Collection that is due from Asylum Press in October. I’m also working on a historical piece that’s narrated by a sentient teapot. It’s slow going, but Chris Staros informs me that all worthy books take around 10 years to produce.
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