Daren White has been been a big part of the burgeoning Australian comics scene for several years, as a writer and as one of the creative forces behind the influential anthology DeeVee. White’s latest book, The Playwright, was recently published by Top Shelf Books. Illustrated by Eddie Campbell, whose interview we published last week, this book is the tale of… well, let’s let Daren describe the book to us…
Jason Sacks: Your latest book, The Playwright, is one of those sorts of comics that defy easy description. It’s kind of the story of a very lonely man accidentally… well, that would be telling. How would you describe the book?
Daren White: It took us ages to come up with the blurb describing it as a dark comedy concerning the sex life of a celibate, middle-aged man. I still can’t come up with anything better. Obviously it’s a character study that’s laced with black comedy and more than its fair share of sex. It also has a feel-good side.
Sacks: The writing in this book keeps the character of the playwright at a strange sort of distance. We even only have his name revealed almost by accident. Why did you choose that rather detached technique?
White: I was writing another story in DeeVee at the time, which was told wholly with dialogue. I arrived at the strict narration approach for no more cunning a reason than to contrast the other story. However, I did want to evoke a 1950s BBC newsreader accent. It needed to be quite formal in tone, which is consistent with the Playwright’s character. I wasn’t convinced, at the start, that the whole book should have that strict narration style, but the further I got through it, the more appropriate it seemed. I now can’t imagine it being told differently.
Sacks: As I read The Playwright, I found my attitude towards the character transform from a kind of dislike to a real kind of empathy for him. How did you approach writing this story in a way that would bring some diametrically opposed reader attitudes towards the character?
White: Overall I wanted him to be sympathetic rather than repellant, but wanted his monologue to have a compulsive edge. Once I’d arrived at how the book would conclude, it gave me freedom to ramp up the cringe factor at the start. I probably made the first half more sexual and reveling than I might have, knowing that things would change half way through the story. I’m glad that you changed attitude towards him because that was the intention. It’s a difficult trick to pull off at times.
Sacks: There’s an intriguing tension between the words and pictures in this book. Eddie Campbell uses a very lush palette of colors, though his images are often static. It’s an interesting contrast to the words, which seem much more closed. Were you looking to create a kind of interior/exterior contrast between the words and the pictures?
White: We wanted to avoid merely duplicating the narration with the illustration. The contrast hopefully mirrors the Playwright’s dual lives. Those being his mundane and lonely real life compared to the explicit and sexual fantasy life. I always thought Eddie captured girls in a realistic and sexy way, and so made sure there were plenty of sexy fantasy scenes. The male nudity was Eddie’s idea. He also made the decision to fully paint the art in water colour. Having no part in the illustrating I magnanimously agreed.
White: I attempted a version of the book myself which is best described as naive. Eddie read the script for the first chapter and offered to illustrate, more I think as a thank you for the few Bacchus stories that I’d written for him. I’m sure the fact that we were drinking at the time, did not impact his decision. The first three chapters appeared in DeeVee over a number of years. Eventually I had to come clean and admit that there were ten chapters in all. At that point we decided to complete the whole job and release it as an original book.
Sacks: Campbell is a strong artist with a very idiosyncratic approach to his work. How do you approach working with him while preserving his own quirky approach to his work?
White: Eddie was on board as artist by the time I wrote the bulk of the story and so I did tailor it to his style. Eddie is familiar with the English setting, is very strong with pacing and body language, and captures the beauty in everyday things. The Playwright was never going to feature larger than life elements, although ironically the last book we worked on was Batman: Order of Beasts which was full of super-heroic stuff.
The zoom effects which became a characteristic of this book were Eddie’s idea. I included a few panel repetitions because the rates in DeeVee were a bit rubbish, actually non-existent, and I thought it would save him time. Instead he made it a real feature that was brilliant for the book, but probably took more time than a fresh image would have taken. Eddie has always assured me that The Playwright material is his kind of material, although he might just have been being nice to me because it was my round.
Sacks: What was it like coordinating work for a comic like DeeVee over the years? How did you get involved in DeeVee, and what is some of your favorite work you ran in that comic?
White: I was involved with DeeVee from inception. I was co-publisher with Michael Evans and Marcus Moore, and co-edited with Marcus during the initial run of fourteen issues. I edited the three annuals. We were all helping out with Eddie’s Bacchus magazine, to various degrees, and started DeeVee as an anthology to promote Australian creators in the US. We now nostalgically refer to it as panic publishing because everything always seemed rushed. We’ve all got kids now and don’t have the stomach for it any more, but it was great funs at the time. Never boring. Most of the creators came from Brisbane and we all remain close friends.
Sacks: So in a strip in The Years Have Pants, Campbell referred to you as "chalky" and told a story about how you walked out of a restaurant without paying because the restaurant messed up your cheeseburger. For all of us who only know you from that anecdote, do you have any response to Eddie’s story about you?
White: I’m ashamed to say that Eddie’s version is reasonably accurate. We were younger and more impulsive in those days. I’m just glad that he hasn’t chosen to tell the more embarrassing stories from some of our pub sessions.
Sacks: What else would you like Comics Bulletin’s readers to know about you and your work?
White: Keep asking for mine and Eddie’s Johhny Calendar and his Date with Destiny. Eddie’s got the script and I need to pressure him to illustrate it.