(Above: An excerpt from an interview for Powells in which Eddie Campbell in self-portrait discusses his favorite Simpsons Futurama episode, which also happens to be my favorite Simpsons Futurama episode, which I watched for the first time with fellow blogger Ben Owen, although I can't watch it without sobbing hysterically)
Questions about the human cost of creating Great Art are nothing new. We like our geniuses tortured, our painters one-eared, our muses drunk and discarded when they outgrow their usefulness. We make films about Oscar Wilde’s downfall, but not his rise, and we invent hatred and rivalry between Solieri and a giggling, girlish Mozart. And let’s not even get started on the drug addicts, the suicides, the divorces, the friendships ruined, the money troubles. “It’s like I have a loaded gun in my mouth,” Robert Downey Junior says, and we wonder if that’s the cost of being a Great Actor, while forgetting all the Great Actors who lead functional lives with wives and children and the occasional joint or glass of chardonnay on the back porches of their houses.
The myth of the damaged artist is a dangerous one to those who create or appreciate art, but like all myths it springs from a place of truth. Many artists are damaged; many great ones are or were mentally ill. And creation can have its human costs.
Two new releases from Top Shelf ponder this issue from different- and refreshing- angles, the first by focusing on a second-tier playwright and the second by approaching the issue slantwise through a science fiction satire of Hollywood beauty culture. By avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist, both are able to actually try to puzzle through the issues attendant to creating art out of life. I’ll discuss the first of these, Eddie Campbell and Daren White’s The Playwright after the jump. I’ll discuss Will Dinsky’s Fingerprints later on this week (maybe even tomorrow). And for Full FTC Compliance, Parabasis is now on Top Shelf’s press list, so I received both of these (and any future Top Shelf books reviewed here) for free.
(As always, more after the jump!)
In Daren White and Eddie Campbell’s The Playwright, we follow the titular (never named) hero through ten episodes from his middle-to-late life. We first meet The Playwright on a bus, as he leers at and fantasizes about the woman across from him. She appears before him, ample bosom and yellow underwear before the playwright cuts the fantasy off. “The playwright’s first impulse is to head straight home and lock himself in the bathroom for five minutes,” the narrators informs us as he sits impassively on the bus, “But he calms himself and makes a mental note to save her for later.”
Creepy, right? Well, yes, although we eventually come to figure out that “save her for later” means “use her in a script” rather than in a mental porno mag for an all night wankathon. On the next page, we see the fantasy of sex give way to the fantasy of finding an “available life partner” as a sketchy, not fully colored image of the playwright holding a baby next to a hospital bed occupied by his unseen fantasy wife. Repeated throughout the first chapter are identical images of the playwright sitting, impassive on the bus, his facial expression unchanged, his body language frozen in place.
This opening chapter sets the tone of a lot of the book, in which hidden depths lurk below Daren White’s arch, detached, perhaps even cold authorial voice. The repeated image of the playwright not reacting while we learn the neurotic thoughts underneath reinforces the playwright’s detachment from the everyday world. Sex is used in the book as a signal for this detachment. As much as he years for a wife and child, it is hinted throughout the book that he is a virgin, and every chance he gets—including a comely divorcee he meets on holiday who is a fan of his work—he sabotages for one reason or another. He looks at the introduction screens of porn sites, but cannot bring himself to actually purchase a membership to one, and while there’s talk of masturbation, it’s unclear whether or not he ever actually does.
As the book progresses, we learn that his detachment from the world is essential to his work. In order to make the well-liked, award winning plays and screenplays that have given him a comfortable middle class life, he has forsworn the world without even really realizing or growing comfortable with that choice. The playwright remains a witness to other’s lives, his robust capacity for fantasy is his gift, and his way to engage that gift is to remain distant from the world, emotionally, intellectually and sexually. An early successful screenplay about his mentally disabled older brother destroyed his relationship to his family (we learn he hasn’t spoken to his mother since the 1970s), he has no friends, and he uses his romantic and sexual longings as the subject matter for his scripts.
Luckily for the reader, rather than just being one of the bleaker character sketches to come along in awhile, something does eventually happen to the playwright. As readers like not to have anything spoiled, I won’t give much of the plot away, except to say that soon, he has no choice but to engage at least somewhat in the world, and in so doing he finds himself unable to write.
One of the paradoxes of being a writer is that we are social creatures, and writing is a form of engagement with the world, and yet writing itself is a lonely task. Writers are cautioned not to talk about a project until at least a draft is finished, for fear of never completing it, and the art of writing involves sitting with a book and a pen or a computer and going further into oneself. If we don’t engage with the world, however, our work stultifies in solipsism. The Playwright takes this idea and expands it into a character, letting us see the sadness and loneliness that underlies the creation of art.
As a graphic novel, the tension between White’s words and Campbell’s art is essential. Each page has three panels on it. Above most panels is a sentence or two of distanced, cold-blooded narration, while Eddie Campbell’s trademark fussy-sketchy art answers it with lush color and suggests emotion underneath the glacial oh-so-British detachment:
It is the imagery that’s key to The Playwright’s success. An early press copy I received was in black and white, and the result was too distancing, too alienated, too similar to the Eleanor Rigby section of the film Yellow Submarine for me to approach it. In full color, we see the world that the Playwright is denying himself, we understand his yearning for it, we see the cost his career has had on him and understand his deliberations over whether to leave it behind or not.
Of course, The Playwright (both the book and the character) is a bit of a construct. White and Campbell are delving into the deep end of one particular aspect of the artistic experience. To do this, they have created a character that suits their thematic needs, rather than the other way around. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Most writers and artists I know are functional, well-adjusted adults with normal lives and fears and dreams and neuroses and families. Few artists actually turn into Emily Dickinson, afraid of leaving her house and scrawling rhythmically identical poems about a Liquor Never Brewed and how much she loved a life she was not actually living. Still, loneliness is an inescapable part of creation. At some point, the actor has to eschew human contact and do the out of rehearsal work to create the character, the writer must retreat into herself at a desk and channel the words from her head onto the screen, the director has to distance herself from the cast in order to lead them, the painter must stand apart from the world long enough to see it and so on. This is because art is not a 1:1 recreation of the world, it’s not quite a mirror up to nature, but neither do we perceive through a glass darkly. Instead, we filter the world through our subconscious, through our histories, through our identities and cultural contexts and influences and other art works. The distance and the moments of loneliness are essential for this process.
I can’t help but think they’re especially essential for comic book artists, which is why there are a lot of comic books out with a basically lonely, misanthropic and/or self-loathing perspective. The amount of time it takes to get a page “just so” is so disproportionately huge to the amount of time a reader spends on it. Footnotes in Gaza, perhaps the greatest comic of the last decade, took almost that entire decade to make. It can be read in under six hours. The reader in a comic book has a lot more power over how long they spend on each page than, say, an audience member in a theater. You can dwell on the images, or you can skip over to the next panel. You can read The Playwright in half an hour, just getting a sense of what’s happening on each page, or you can luxuriate in Campbell’s jerky lines and watercoloring, and live in the distance between the words and the images.
My recommendation is you do the latter. There you’ll find a deeply felt and melancholy (though neither depressive nor misanthropic) rumination on the artist’s life and mindset.