Let’s talk art. Drops mic.
By way of introduction, the copy on the flipside of Delusional by Farel Dalrymple says (Keats-like) all ye need know: ”A smattering of original sketchbook drawings and personal comic book short stories.” If words like ‘smattering,’ ‘sketchbook‘ and ‘personal‘ read like sausage-making or deep background on an unfamiliar cartoonist on or near the margins of whatever imaginary barrier demarcates the comic book mainstream, such ideas (doubtless delusions) would be false. Delusional kills.
Cut me out for hyperbole-and-a-half when I write Dalrymple is quicker than most and smarter than this humble narrator. I don’t care. My praise comes correct and is not some fanboy feint towards self-deprecation to disguise my inability to understand what Dalrymple lays down. I get it. My admiration stems from seeing a thing for what it is: Dalrymple is an Alpha-storyteller, an artist and writer of such originality and inventiveness he stands out from the more well-known, mundane and bootlicked.
What distinguishes Dalrymple from the field goes beyond mere craft. Yes, he draws pretty pictures and he writes and creates characters made of equal parts cleverness, humor and relevance. That’s his job after all. Too often criticism mistakes what’s expected for virtuosity. As critics we must do better. Beyond the doing-what-a-cartoonist-is-supposed-to-do stuff, Dalrymple saturates his work with meaning and a philosophy — it’s like an irritant in an oyster except the irritation becomes inspiration as it lodges deeper and deeper in one’s mind. Delusional holds import. So much so the reader becomes implicit in the creative act. Farel Dalrymple’s comics make a reader want to make comics.
Words plague comics. I won’t go so far as to write that words are fascist as to what it means to read a comic book; however, leave it at this: too often words distract from the page itself. As much as I might wish to decrease the surplus population of words in today’s (and yesterday’s) comics, the dialectic of comics remains a binary, a constant, text and image. If it takes ten minutes or less to read a twenty-two page comic book, something is very wrong. Cartoonists like Dalrymple prove there is another path and more than one way to flay this feline we call comics. Sometimes all it takes are pictures.
Every visual artist embeds narrative — intention is, perhaps, too strong a word — into each and every frame, pixel and square inch. It’s a devious plot to unlock a reaction in the viewer i.e. ‘feels.’ Commissions and pin-ups pepper Delusional, I’m fond of Dalrymple’s Fear Agent pin-up and the couple of posters he drew for the Midwest hip hop collective, Doom Tree. And then there is this:
In the index, Dalrymple doesn’t offer an explanation for these two images, which makes each all the more open, inviting and strikes the balance between what is known and unknown. Here be inspiration. The known: eight figures (some of them resemble characters from other stories in the book) walk across a blasted landscape, post-apocalypse hangs as heavy as the purplish clouds of sky. The upper half of a one-armed robot, its mouth agape and its innards exposed, straddles a fence. A tear on its right shoulder hints at possible flesh beneath. Below the robot’s (?) missing arm is a derelict car. Half-covered skulls, a frayed banner and leafless trees fill out the scene to reinforce some past conflict. The unknowns: Where are these people going? Do they know where they’re going? What happened here? Is the figure lying on the ground dead? Why does s/he point in an opposite direction the group is walking?
The image sticks. Dalrymple’s composition looks like a heartbeat reading on an EKG monitor with the robot being the biggest blip. The prone figure’s left arm extends out and points away from the line of people and towards the two children, a literal fingerpost that says, ‘recognize them?’ it’s as subtle as it is literal. If hung on a gallery wall this image would arrest visitors, elicit stares and demand conjecture. With its hints at a H.R. Giger-like future, it would be visionary if it was included in some making-of materials for a movie. So, in the context of ‘original sketchbook drawings‘ does it still carry the same power? Does the lack of a wordy exoskeleton make it quicker to gloss over? Does it not project a world?
The image at the bottom of the page is a close up (a study) of one of the figures above with the snake and the blood streaming from the character’s eyes added for effect. The black cloak, snake and staff combo and pale skin casts this character in the realm of fantasy, a ‘white walker’ of Dalrymple’s design. The lack of background detail in this close up allows the reader to focus on the details ‘under the hood,’ so to speak, and yet it’s still easy to miss the blood coming from the left eye, I did. Again the composition is shrewd in the way the hands mirror the rivulets of blood, genius. Why are his (?) eyes bleeding? Why so pale? And what’s with the snake? Does Dalrymple hint that this character is a wizard, some kind of sage, a doctor, perhaps, and the snake is a kind of one-hand-clapping caduceus?
These questions and others root in the — some would say ‘fecund’ — subsoil Dalrymple establishes, invention abounds and inquiry grows from within. What a novel idea. It’s a sketch yet it’s so much more. If it seems like I’m going out of my way to be pedantic (by Crom I hope not) or to say something that could be said about (almost) any image, I am. This isn’t some Rube Goldberg exercise to make the simple seem complex or vice versa. It’s the juxtaposition of these two images which allows for discussion. Panels and pictures are meant, deserve, to be read — they are (as much as words) departure points f
or imagination. Comics it’s all about: ‘put ’em together and what do you get?’
If this serious art talk sounds like some ‘Untitled Self-Portrait,’ curb that noise. Amid the smatters of brooding and darkness are stories about children with big ideas and bigger dreams. Take Hollis, the pudgy kid crime-fighter. Anyone who has ever used a towel as a cape or felt like an outsider will relate to Hollis faster than you can say ‘caped crusader.’ Then there are Gwen, Em and Alamendra, three girls who hang out in the best tree fort EVER (!), read spell books, swear blood oaths, play instruments and pick fights with boys and win. Read about their adventures and banish boredom forever. And damn if Dalrymple doesn’t make for one fine luthier when it comes to drawing guitars.
The strips and stories of the ‘Supermundane’ series starring Smith and Orson feel like Dalrymple’s most autobiographical work. In the index he says ”[supermundane] is a real word that I got from an old dictionary […] the word means something like: of or relating to what is transcending above earthly things; beyond the nature or character of the worldly or terrestrial; divine, celestial, supernatural.” This description/definition of ‘supermundane’ reads (perhaps) as Dalrymple’s personal politics as well as an affirmation for his oeuvre. Of all the Smith and Orson tales, ‘Madame Palmira,’ ‘Centillion’ and an untitled story about Orson hijacking an airship — a common form of public conveyance in his world — as a birthday present for Smith so they can ride off into the sunset like cowboys from a comic book are all standouts.
As he shows with his issues of Prophet, Dalrymple feels at home in space. Delusional contains a three page, eighteen panel story which originally ran on the Vice Magazine website. It features Almendra, a talking cat with a raccoon tail, some space bees and another character from Dalrymple’s upcoming book, The Wrenchies (her name (sort of) spoils a surprise, so best to not give it away). As Almendra floats through a tunnel she wonders, ”I’ve been so wrapped up in why, I should be figuring out how.” Good advice for space travelers and critics alike. The ‘how’ of comics is always more interesting — for me, more of a turn-on — than why. ‘How’ tilts at the ineffable where ‘why’ wants order and who needs that? Almendra’s adventure closes with a thought: ”This all just feels way too familiar, being an alien among weirdos.” Amen, sister, amen.
Comics need more cartoonists and more storytellers like Farel Dalrymple to fight the tyranny of disposability, to be sure, an inherent vice in the medium. It’s like the old saw: ‘If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.’ Delusional offers a lot of short letters, a lot of treasure, so take the time to read, page by page and panel by panel because sometimes even a simple three panel comic strip or a single image or sketch sparks the imagination and allows one to become Delusional.
Keith Silva writes for Comics Bulletin and twitter, @keithpmsilva.