It’s nice to see Farel Dalrymple flying again. Pop Gun War, the serial comic he wrote back in the early 2000s, revolved around Sinclair, a young boy who got a pair of wings that let him soar through an urban dreamscape — a city known only as “The City.” Though grungy and often sad, The City was full of quirky possibilities. A dwarf in a tux and top hat grew taller than the skyscrapers. A large, floating, bespectacled goldfish hung around. A lonely man labeled everything in his apartment, even his own pants, “because people don’t always know what things are.”
Drawing Pop Gun War, Dalrymple established themes and a style that would stay with him for a decade and a half, all the way up to The Wrenchies, the 300-plus-page opus he published in 2014. Dalrymple is interested in dream visions and the floaty feeling you get in dreams — the way you’re always a bit detached from what’s happening, even when what’s happening is terrible, and it’s happening to you. He’s also interested in the way children approach life, especially their surprising resilience. But Dalrymple has no truck with the saccharine emotions that usually pollute such topics. He grounds his dreams and his children in a cluttered, dingy world drawn in tight lines and colored with lots of gray. The resulting contrasts make for a striking, unique vision.
Now Dalrymple is revisiting Pop Gun War — though, actually, he never really left it behind. The Wrenchies, especially, put a dark spin on the Pop Gun world with similar kids and similar landscapes. Remarkable though The Wrenchies was, the comparative warmth of this book comes as a nice leavener; The Wrenchies, though full of wonder, was also weighty. Solid. The characters had heavy problems. In The City, things are more carefree. If the denizens aren’t quite asking, “Hello, lamppost, whatcha knowing?” their problems don’t keep them from dwelling in the moment. At the sinister Doll Factory, for instance, the Frankenstein-like doll builder gives one of his minions a five-foot-long, prehensile lizard tail. The minion exults in his tail, dancing with it, waving it and admiring it in the mirror. All too soon he’ll lose it, but at least he will have had a few moments of joy.
The minion’s grief over his lost tail is actually rather poignant, but it’s also played for, if not laughs, then for a wry smile. People’s hang-ups always seem a bit ridiculous in The City. Falling from the sky in his capsule, an astronaut in a bulbous spacesuit winds up helping Sinclair and Addison, a friendly bum, rescue some kids from a burning building. “Hey, we make a good team!” the astronaut says happily. “Right, guys? High fives?” When nobody obliges him, he starts stewing. “Those guys were being snobs back there when I asked for a high five. What’s their problem? I just wanted to celebrate. I mean, I just fell from space. They could at least be cool with that.” Moments later he’s abducted by the Doll Factory, soon to be turned into a cyborg prizefighter. That’s just the way it goes in The City.
Dalrymple’s raw artistic skill is phenomenal — precise, flexible and strangely sumptuous, given that the main color he deploys is gray. (But gray isn’t just gray in Dalrymple’s world — it’s gorgeous layers of different hues, from graphite to blond with bits of everything else added in.) And he’s always happy to let images lead words, something even the best artists often have trouble doing.
These characters aren’t deep, true, but that’s really only a problem when it comes to the girls. 12-year-old Emily, Sinclair’s sister, is ostensibly the center of this book, but she winds up watching everyone else’s stories on TV. When she has a brief adventure of her own, it doesn’t shake her composure for a moment. She shows nothing, even to herself. That detachment marks one of the invisible limits of Dalrymple’s world: Even when dreaming of flight, it’s still hard for him to let go of the ground. Fortunately, that ground is the weird, complicated and surprising cement of The City.