Farel Dalrymple is treated as an eccentric within the mainstream comics industry. His most high-profile work within the realm of work-for-hire was illustrating Jonathan Lethem’s revival of Omega the Unknown for Marvel Comics. His style telegraphs traces of the 1970s house style of John Buscema’s How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way while still having enough arthouse quirk that it can be sold to a New Yorker-reading audience interested in learning more about graphic novels. He also drew a few issues of Brandon Graham’s revival of the Rob Liefeld character Prophet: When prevailed upon, his work is capable of maximalist detail, and can conjure up the same drawing-centered approach to science fiction found in the pages of a vintage issue of Heavy Metal. These disparate skills are all on display in the comics that Dalrymple writes for himself, which do not fit nearly as neatly into any preexisting box. They are nuts. They are busy with ideas and activity, maximalist with kitchen sink detail and clutter, alive with consciousness.
In Dalrymple’s comics, incidental characters drawn in the background are given thought balloons providing glances at an inner life. This technique actively works against a reader’s identification with the protagonist in any given scene. It presents the reader with more information than the POV character would have access to. In Pop Gun War: Chain Letter, for instance, a framing device has much of what we are presented with being viewed on television by a girl named Emily, but we are still able to see the thought balloons of many figures being observed. The stories Emily sees mostly follow one or two characters, but digressions are so common it is unfair to think of them as digressions. Throughout, there is a polyphony of voices talking both to each other and to themselves. Self-doubt plagues most of them.
There are too many characters, and too many plotlines, for Dalrymple to mingle genre narrative and emotional grounding so that the plot corresponds to a character’s emotional arc. The adventures are not metaphors, and they don’t even really enable personal growth. The thoughts and feelings characters have are a separate thread, operating independently from the business of adventure narratives. These elements don’t correspond with each other; they’re all on the same page. The comic functions as a journal, a sketchbook, a work of fiction, and an assortment of notes-to-self. It’s an exploding garbage bag filled with pop culture detritus and anxieties, coping mechanisms and self-assurances. Normally with a work of fiction, a reader follows along with the story while connecting dots to incidents or emotional realities within her own life, but the pages of Dalrymple’s comic remove a step, so that, at best, you are recognizing your own thoughts, written down plainly, while reading about something else entirely.
The visual storytelling is as all over the place as the decisions of what the story focuses on. Black-and-white drawings are mixed with painted color, layouts go from straightforward grids to something more design-heavy, pages heavy on detail alternate with those wide open with negative space, a short sequence early on uses a page full of small wordless panels. It feels exploratory, like every few pages Dalrymple is attempting to do something he is unsure he can pull off.
Many characters are children, and look like children, framed so they appear small, dwarfed by a world larger than them. If in a typical superhero comic, the reader is assumed to be a child, fantasizing and projecting their way into the character of the superhero, a Dalrymple character is a conflation of that reader and who they aspire to be, somehow put in a position wherein they feel vulnerable with their thoughts on display, uncomfortable with the idea of having a reader’s expectations to behave heroically placed onto them. Adults receive similar treatment, wandering through these architectural spaces.
Perspective is placed at a premium. The drawings are designed to show off as much of their world as possible within a given moment, via the depth of field within a composition, while in the story being told, perspective shifts from character to character, and from reality to reality. It is not just that these characters are small within their world, but that their world exists at the same time as other worlds they’re unaware of, populated by people who feel similarly small within them. This is what make the stories genre stories: These shifts make everything mysterious, horrific, or science-fictional by turns. In turn, they’re given an empathetic literary grounding: These worlds remain populated by nervous people who will never fully understand what’s happening.
Pop Gun War: Chain Letter is the best comic Dalrymple has yet authored. Partly this is because the structure makes enough sense to guide you through it. The main character, Emily, wanders off from her band and ends up in a secret place where TV monitors show her things happening in the past, present, and future. The stuff happening in the present mostly follows her brother (focus of the earlier Pop Gun War book, The Gift) and the stuff in the future includes a character readers might remember from Dalrymple’s 2014 graphic novel, The Wrenchies. A separate character in the future is able to communicate with Emily owing to technology she possesses, and despite the television conceit, the narrative techniques are particular to comics: At one point a narration box even refers to turning the page. It feels as if Dalrymple is drawing whatever he wants to draw, and writing what he has to in order to keep up. Here the things he wants to draw are approached from enough angles that the reader gets to see most major narrative threads resolve. The framing story focusing on Emily has enough going on that it works on its own as a story, even if, taken literally, the way the individual stories are told contradicts the framing device’s premise.
Within the story taking place in the past, there is an extended flashback. The story begins, essentially, in the middle of a panic attack: A private investigator lamenting the fact that he has gone blind, and needing to hide his condition. Over the course of his story, it’s told that he fell into some robot bugs which are now on his glasses, and cleaning his glasses makes everything okay. Also in the course of this story, two other characters introduced end up disappearing into a narrative thread Emily follows on a monitor showing the future, and ensuing in deep space.
Dalrymple’s comics feel like they’re in conversation with the history of the medium, but saying weird shit to everyone. When talking to Marvel comics of the ’60s and ’70s, Dalrymple’s comics start saying that the most moving music is twee pop. Talking to makers of manga, they are all about the architecture of New York City. Talking to people who draw autobiographical minicomics, the conversation slowly transitions to astronauts. His closest contemporaries are the people he once appeared alongside in the Meathaus anthologies, like Tom Herpich, whose work similarly balances genre tropes with therapeutic intent, and who now finds an outlet working on Adventure Time. With the people he shares a wavelength with, he just starts sputtering and spitting through his teeth and imitating bird calls, because he can, and they can’t.
His work seems to desire a very specific relationship with the reader. It is that given by the obsessive child, that rereads a comic and puzzles over it. The density is meant to reward attention, the fact that it doesn’t quite make sense suggests there are connections to be made. The collected book form, while it helps the book make more sense, does not lend itself to the sort of rereading of each chapter individually, followed by reading the whole thing at once, that serialization does. The book wants to be puzzled over; it doesn’t want to be breezed through.
He’s not particularly good with action scenes. Dalrymple’s desire for narrative density can get in his way in moments where it might be more important to let a beat breathe. The reader trips on the mechanisms the narrative is using to make itself. There is an extended cyborg boxing match that doesn’t really work as a fight scene. One character’s thought balloons indicate that his opponent is cheating, but there’s no way to tell that, it’s just another example of characters addressing their fears and insecurities.
At the same time as these action scenes don’t necessarily read well, it can be similarly difficult to get a read on how Dalrymple feels about his characters and their beliefs. Hollis, the kid dressed in a superhero outfit who appears in both Pop Gun War: Chain Letter and The Wrenchies, is explicitly Christian. He states his faith plainly and confidently. There is nothing to suggest his beliefs are meant to be satirized; he’s not a hypocrite. At the same time, the book isn’t about his faith. He’s not really mocked. It’s just the sort of thing he says and everyone vaguely ignores, or moves on from, in a way that essentially implies disagreement but not worth arguing over. “Someone says something, and then everyone moves on” is basically how the whole of the book operates.
If the book has a theme, it’s in the traits that multiple characters share: This anxiety about appearing stupid or uncool, and the need to reassure each other that they are doing ok. This thread of earnestness distinguishes Dalrymple’s work as much as his approach to narrative digression does. This willingness to fully occupy a moment, but with very little fluctuation in overall mood, suggests a sensibility similar to the films of Richard Linklater, although perhaps a version of Linklater that made more movies in the vein of his adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
Dalrymple’s comics are metatextual and layered and do not obey the rules of the waking world. In a dream you can watch a movie and simultaneously star in it, but this sort of thing is why telling dreams to other people is often boring and confusing. Dalrymple’s a compelling enough storyteller, and his drawings are appealing enough, that even if one wonders “where is he going with this, does this mean anything,” the visual texture of the page convinces you why the teller was compelled to tell it. The working of the unconscious mind is itself a fascinating thing to behold, if it can be captured the way Dalrymple does.