Farel Dalrymple occupies a curious place in contemporary comics. Anyone who’s heard of him tends to praise his work quite lavishly, and with good reason; but he’s neither so decorated nor so ubiquitous that he’s a household name, so there’s plenty of people whose initial response to hearing his name is “Who?” I first encountered his work over a decade ago, when he illustrated the Omega the Unknown mini-series for Marvel; it was a strong enough piece of work that he somehow managed to overshadow the writer, no mean feat given that it was celebrated novelist Jonathan Lethem. Since then, he’s been all over the map, taking on whatever project catches his fancy, from continuing his pleasurably idiosyncratic work with the big publishers to pursuing his own quirky and reliably inventive projects.
Proxima Centauri is a bit of both, coming out under the clout-packed aegis of Image Comics but much more similar in tone and feel to his work on The Wrenchies and It Will All Hurt. Like many of his best efforts, it combines a lot of elements that really shouldn’t work together – or, in this case, should work together badly – and manages to keep them in perfect proportion and total control until such time as it serves his story to completely fall apart. It’s a blend of adolescent fantasy, hard-leaning science fiction, psychological study, and psychedelic journey, all firmly in the YA idiom while wandering all over the place and making emotional and narrative leaps that are rarely seen by creators who play it safe in that space.
The story, such as it is, follows the adventures of surly teen wizard Sherwood Breadcoat, stuck on the artificial world of Proxima Centauri and longing for his brother Orson, left behind on Earth, and his sort-of girlfriend, M. Parasol. Aided by “Scientist” Duke Herzog, a dead ringer for Cornel West by way of Albert Einstein, he tries to make decisions and find his way through a surreal environment, letting guided meditations shape his focus but still falling prey to the kind of snotty outbursts you would expect from a perpetually annoyed post-adolescent. One of the book’s true pleasures is the characterization of Sherwood, who never stops being believable even as the action never starts being plausible; he’s a peevish, arty teen who’s in love with a ghost, and boy, does he act like it.
It’s not all that necessary, or even useful, to dwell on Proxima Centauri’s plot; just knowing the bare-bones elements will suffice. Not that there aren’t many unexpected pleasures to be had in the story; Dalrymple lays out seemingly random bits and pieces of narrative that often come together in unexpected ways, forging the kind of connections that make you gasp in the way that only a really good high can. (I won’t speculate as to the creator’s habits, but this is a book that’s psychedelic in the best and truest way; its incredible imaginative elements burble up in unpredictable ways and then link together in a manner that seems almost inevitable.) It’s just that the real golden ticket here is the way he takes so many different genre elements and threads them together with his astonishing art as the common factor.
Like the work of a truly creative chef (and it’s no coincidence that “Scientist” is forever telling Sherwood to harness his creativity), Proxima Centauri recalls the familiar while piecing its elements together into something truly new. The naming conventions and complex interweave of story strings recall the mad genius of Harry Stephen Keeler; I suppose it’s natural to tell stories with characters named Dr. EXT the Time Traveler and Shaky Zeke, Space Wizard when you’ve had to live 40+ years as Farel Dalrymple. The art is both strange and evocative, and the choice to switch between busy, milling detail and lots of poetically open space works well. Sometimes Dalrymple settles on simple pencil linework that creates a sense of wideness and welcoming, while other times his compositions are busy and crowded, but with the kind of burrowed-down detail you used to see in Heavy Metal and some of the more inventive Euro-comics of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The covers, reproduced here in full, are particularly spectacular, and it’s through the magical, bewildering use of unexpected shifts and forms in the art that the whole thing manages to cohere.
Dalrymple snatches a handful of tropes from several different genres here: the blend of space opera and low fantasy world-building is pretty familiar no matter how skillfully executed, and the teen romance, gaming references, and adolescent angst shouldn't surprise anyone who has been exploring the outer edges of young adult comics the last few years. Even the metafictional elements, the way the text turns in on itself, the stoned surreality of the narrative, doesn't come out of nowhere. The kick here is how natural and effortless it all seems, the way these all blend together without seeming calculated, without the suspicion that the author's hard work consisted of ticking required elements off a box. Of course, a talented creator can make the most difficult effort seem easy, and the fact that it's so hard to tell if any given note was intentional or accidental is a testament to why the whole thing works so well. Is the underlying metaphor philosophically complex or pure bafflegab? Do the traditional narrative elements benefit from Proxima Centauri's lampshading of them or does the meta stuff work because it has a strong base to work from? After multiple readings, I still can't tell if I've been fooled into neglecting some of the weaker elements (the abrupt ending, for example) because it's a strong story, or if I've really witnessed someone making a giant artistic leap. Of course, Dalrymple seems to be playing along with that ambiguity throughout the book, which just adds to this off-kilter sensibility that makes it work for me.
If I’ve made it seem that this is a book that’s constantly calling attention to itself, that’s my error, for like a dream or a good trip, Proxima Centauri manages to feel perfectly natural no matter how bizarre it gets. It’s a book that lets you work at your own pace and take in its pleasures comfortably, but it’s also a book that never lets you forget one of its central metaphors: even when something is incredibly close (as Proxima Centauri is to Earth), it can still be an unaccountable distance away. It’s that space – between places and between people – that gives the book an emotional core that all its strange charms only enhance.