Interview with Farel Dalrymple, Creator of Pop Gun War: Gift

For the most part, I prefer my comics fast and hard-hitting: Good defeating evil in physical combat or gruff antiheroes solving their problems by shooting them in the face. There’s nothing like that vicarious adrenal spike I feel when the Punisher, bleeding from shrapnel wounds that would kill anyone who wasn’t the Punisher, rounds a corner and opens fire on an entire elite strike force.

But there’s always a space in my heart for comics with a softer touch. Reading a Farel Dalrymple comic provides the sensation of being guided through a dream, where a little girl in the city can find a self-help book written by a wizard, or where a robot rubs shoulders with a talking cat and a shapeshifter; where the stories and art carry me through worlds that linger, that ask for exploration.

Dalrymple’s latest release is a collection of his comic Pop Gun War: Gift from Image Comics, which follows the adventures of a young boy who finds a pair of angel wings and with them discovers new, strange things about his city.

PopGunWar_Gift-1What’s the relationship between this edition of Pop Gun War: Gift and the original?

It’s actually a reprint. Originally I did five [black-and-white] issues that were independently published, and Dark Horse collected them in 2003 as the same book, pretty much. The Image edition has eight additional pages, and there’s a few color pages, the covers are reproduced in color. So there’s a couple of extra things. It’s a little bigger, at least, it’s standard comic book size format, but the paper that was used, it looks a little thinner even though there’s more pages.

Did you draw the additional pages between the first printing and now, or were they meant to be in the original?

The only thing added for the book is the cover—I did a new cover for it—and I didn’t really want to add new art in the interior, so I just included a lot of the stuff that was in the individual issues that’s never been printed in a collection before. Kind of like unreleased tracks.

Why did you decide to reprint this with Image rather than sticking with Dark Horse?

I did reprinting through Dark Horse and then it was kind of going out of print. Then I was supposed to do a sequel with Dark Horse, but we couldn’t really work out a good way for me to actually finish the book, because, at least with the status I had, at Dark Horse I wasn’t getting any kind of advance or anything like that. That was kind of part of the problem; I wasn’t able to keep working on that book without any sort of compensation.

So my friend Brandon Graham was doing this anthology with Image called Island—he’s still doing it—and he asked me if I wanted to do anything for it, and they were giving page rates. And I said, “Well, I kind of have this Pop Gun War sequel that I’ve been working on for the last ten years, and I just haven’t been able to work on it because I need to make a living, unfortunately, pay bills and stuff,” and he was like, “Oh, well, we’ll pay you to do it if you want to do it, I love Pop Gun War,” and then he said, “Do you want to have Image do a reprint?” because he knew it had been out of print for a couple years. So it just seemed like really good timing for Image to do it.

I didn’t have a bunch of issues with Dark Horse or anything; I get along with those guys and I really like my editor there, who doesn’t work at Dark Horse anymore—Diana Schutz—but I kind of feel like the model that Dark Horse follows is similar to Marvel and DC’s kind of thing, but without the page rates. It’s a creator-owned book, so why would they give a page rate? But it just seemed like, if I’m doing all the work anyway and the promotion and all that stuff, Image seemed to make more sense to me, because they’re more all about the creator. Whereas Dark Horse kind of fell in this weird middle ground where there’s a lot of franchise and corporate stuff, then a few independent books that don’t seem to get as much—I don’t know, it just seemed to work out better with Image as far as getting paid and getting my book to the audience that I was going for, I guess. I like having a person who’s sort of on the inside; Brandon seems to be pretty tight with all the Image dudes and stuff.

You mentioned a sequel to Pop Gun War: Gift. What’s that going to be about? Will it still focus on Sinclair [the protagonist of Pop Gun War: Gift], or is it going to be someone else’s story?

The sequel I’m doing is called Pop Gun War: Chain Letter. Sinclair’s in it, but the way I have it set up is—I guess the main character of the book is Emily, Sinclair’s sister. She was one of the main characters in Gift. The way it’s set up from the script that I wrote a long time ago is that the surrounding story, which is Emily’s, is told in black and white, kind of like the original series. So she’s in this small town, and she goes into these tunnels underground and sees these television monitors, these video screens, and each video screen is a different story.

The first one she goes to is Sinclair, her brother, and that’s done in watercolor; I watercolored the whole section, and those thirty-five or forty pages are just his story. Most of that whole section takes place in the issue of Island I’m in, which is issue #4. Then in issue #5 it continues, and Emily goes to the next video monitor and that’s in grayscale—the first one’s the present, and the second one’s the past, and the last one’s the future, so I wanted a color scheme to reflect that. So the first one is full watercolor, like “Real life! Present!” The second one is the past so it’s a little murkier and grayer and a little more monochromatic; I kind of wanted that to be a little more fuzzy, sort of dreamlike. The third section, which is what I’m working on right now, and isn’t going to be out until Island #9, that’s going to be all computer-colored. And I have 20 pages or so of that done. So I think I have 60-ish pages left of the whole book, and so yeah, once I’m done with that, Image will collect it, hopefully around this time next year, they’ll have another trade out which will be Chain Letter.

The narrative within the narrative, as represented by the video screens—this theme seems to come up a lot in your work. For instance, in The Wrenchies, you have Hollis, the kid who finds a comic about the title characters, which is also called The Wrenchies. Is this something you consciously want to address in your comics?

WrenchiesYeah, totally. With The Wrenchies, there was a lot of meta-textual stuff, not so much about watching television monitors or screens, although that’s part of it. I pulled a lot from my own childhood for Hollis, and I grew up watching television and reading comic books and all that stuff, because I spent a lot of time by myself. But that story seemed to deal more with these different levels of reality, the reader also being the creator, also being the viewer. In Pop Gun War: Chain Letter, there’s a theme throughout the whole book of just watching screens, like television screens. I mean, no one watches television anymore, but video monitors, video screens, or whatever. So in each of the stories there’s some kind of reference to that—probably the most in the second one, the past. Throughout the whole thing there’s this guy who feels like he’s kind of watching himself on a screen, and then it seems like he keeps coming up to these different video monitors that are actually doorways into other realms; there are paintings on the walls that are actually not paintings, that you can kind of go into and end up in some different reality.

Have you created a universe for your solo/creator-owned comics to operate in—and is there going to be more Wrenchies?

In all my stuff there’s crossovers with the characters. Growing up I was a big fan of Madeline L’Engle’s writing, and I remember reading—I think it was Many Waters, and in the beginning of that there was a chart that she had for, “Okay, these stories take place in my more magical world,” like A Wrinkle In Time, “and these stories are my young adult fiction.” And in the middle there were a few characters who kind of went between both worlds, who popped up here and there in the books. Something about that just resonated with me as a young person. So I don’t think it was very conscious at first, but it turned into a thing, I guess, where I kind of have to reference other stories and tie them all together with each thing that I’ve done. In Pop Gun War: Chain Letter there’s actually a couple of characters from The Wrenchies, and in the future section Hollis is a big character. There’s even a couple shots of Robot Todd from It Will All Hurt in the background, and I haven’t drawn this part yet but the main character of It Will All Hurt is going to pop up in a few panels and interact with the characters.

So the Wrenchies sequel—I am doing one—has a lot of notes and drawings and kind of a rough plot. It’s not as formulated as the Pop Gun War sequel, but it’s going to be mostly about the character Sherwood from the first book as a young person on this space station world, which is kind of like the size of a star, a Death Star-type thing; I don’t know if you’re familiar with Moebius’ airtight garage stuff, but it’s something similar where there’s different worlds and dimensions inside of this spaceship, like a tesseract. So most of the story is going to be concerned with Sherwood on the ship, which is also where the stuff I’m drawing for Pop Gun War: Chain Letter is taking place. And on the third monitor, which is the future, there’s this character I’ve used in a few stories, Gwen—she’s friends with Emily and the girl from It Will All Hurt, Almendra. She’s in this kind of future world; there’s these cyborg robot fights that she’s watching, and I don’t want to spoil the ending, but there’s a tie-in to the next Wrenchies, which will hopefully tie back in to the next Pop Gun War book I do, and then if I do a third Wrenchies … I’ve kind of been playing with the idea, but I want to get some of these other projects done before I nail that down.

I should have asked this earlier, but where does the title “Pop Gun War” come from?

That came from Herman Melville’s first published fiction book, which I guess was a really big seller at the time, called Typee. It’s a semi-autobiographical story of him and this other character on a ship, and they jump ship and just hang out with these natives on this island in the Caribbean or somewhere like that. They’re sort of held captive there on this island, so it’s about him interacting with these natives; he doesn’t speak the language or anything, but he’s describing all this stuff that’s going on. At one point he makes a pop gun for one of the villagers and pretty soon the whole village wants him to make pop guns, so there’s a line that’s something like, “All day I could hear the sounds of their pop gun war.” I thought, I really like that. That’s a neat-sounding phrase; I’m going to use that somewhere. And I ended up using it for that book. I liked the way it fit; you can get some different images in your head when you think about it, especially with the whole idea of childhood and there’s some conflict, a lot of surprises, twists and turns, but nothing necessarily dangerous. There’s some people who get beat up in here, but that’s more all-ages sort of fun, as opposed to The Wrenchies, which is a little darker and scarier.

It’s really interesting that you bring up that aspect of Typee, because the way that you describe the main character’s experience is reminiscent of the experience I’ve had reading your work—like being a stranger in a strange land, but it’s not a strange land to the people who are in it. They have their own rules and their own language, and you can see that those are there; you just have to figure out what they are.

It’s definitely that kind of vibe, for sure.

How do you plan out those kinds of narratives, and how tightly planned are they before you start?

My process is different for every story I’ve made. Most of my ideas just come from things I’ve written down or drawn in my sketchbook, and it’s usually while I’m drawing or writing something I’m thinking, “This is more science fiction/fantasy,” or “This is more of a whimsical, urban Pop Gun War-type world.” I feel like the ideas just come from years of experiences and watching a lot of television and movies and reading a lot of books and comic books. I’m really fascinated with that childhood experience that I had and maybe a lot of other kids had of how you don’t know anything. I feel like I don’t really know anything at this point in my forties, either, but when you’re a kid, everything’s weird, but because everything’s weird you just accept the way reality is. Everything’s a new experience. I like that kind of dreamlike, fuzzy, atmospheric quality that memories have—“How did I even get here? What’s going on? Oh, we’re at a field trip at a bread factory,” or whatever. I don’t know if I was just a really spacey kid or if that’s a normal thing for children, but I’m really fascinated with whatever that is. I think that’s why I can get away with putting kids with wings or giants wearing top hats or anthropomorphic duck creatures into my comics, and everyone just sort of accepts that that’s the way things are.

Wait, did the field trip at the bread factory happen in real life?

Yeah—I don’t think it’s there anymore; I’ve driven by it a couple times—but it was the Rainbow Bread factory. I just remember us going there on a field trip when I was a kid, and it was like Willy Wonka. “Why are we getting on the bus? What are we doing? Oh, okay …” It felt like something you’d see on Mister Rogers or Teletubbies. “Today we’re going to see how bread is made!”

Omega the UnknownAlthough a lot of your comics are solo creator-owned stuff, you’ve also done some work for mainstream publishers, like Omega the Unknown with Jonathan Lethem for Marvel. What’s that been like?

It was cool, because Jonathan Lethem was one of my favorite writers before I got that gig. I mean, I hadn’t read a lot of his stuff, but right before I moved to Portland, I was visiting and went to Powell’s [the bookstore], and one of my friends handed me Motherless Brooklyn and said, “You should buy this book. It’s really good.” And I read it while I was there, and it was like, “This is amazing!” Then I went back to New York for a bit, and I got an email from Jonathan Lethem saying, “Hey, do you want to do a book for Marvel?” Uh, yeah. That’s awesome!

It turns out that the reason he contacted me in the first place was—someone at Marvel read The Fortress of Solitude, and he talks about Marvel Comics in there a lot, so they contacted him to ask if he wanted to do a book for them and he was like, “Sure, but I want to do this kind of obscure character from the 70s and I want to pick my own creative team,” and all that stuff. He wanted Adrian Tomine to do it, but I guess he didn’t want to do it because he said he was too slow. Then he went to Bob Fingerman, who he was pals with as well, and asked him if he knew any artists who would be good for this, and he [Fingerman] said, “I have this Bizarro World anthology that has a bunch of indie guys doing superhero stuff.”

So I think they looked through that and Jonathan saw my pages in there; I did a Flash story with Dylan Horrocks and Paul Hornschemeier, who was the colorist on Omega the Unknown, colored it. And I had taken a bunch of reference pictures when I was living in Carroll Gardens [in Brooklyn], and I guess that’s the area that Lethem grew up in. He saw that story and saw the backgrounds and stuff, and he wanted an artist who could do that. It was a really weird bunch of coincidences; I don’t think under normal circumstances that I would ever have been able to do a book for Marvel, just because my own quirky style isn’t necessarily their house style—even though I totally grew up reading Marvel comics and How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way was a big influence on me, I don’t think it’s readily apparent to the powers that be there. But it was a really good experience and I liked doing it, and it was nice getting paid to work with one of my personal heroes.

Speaking of personal heroes, who would you say is your least visible influence, i.e. the influence on your work that people would be most unlikely to guess?

Right off the bat I would probably say John Buscema. The kind of stuff I draw in my sketchbook or day-to-day, or if I’m designing a character, generally those look more like Moebius or Taiyo Matsumoto or someone like that. But there was a page in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way that I was always fascinated with, with Spider-Man fighting Silver Surfer. Later I found the comic that the finished panels appeared in, and they were in a different order and on different pages, but there was something about them in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way that always stuck out to me, like, “Why would those guys be fighting? What are they fighting about?” So I did this four-page story based on it, and I copied that page. I mean, I didn’t trace it, but I drew that page and added dialogue and colored it and stuff. The story ended up just being about my feelings about New York City and a lot of my neurosis and anxiety about living there. But the Buscema thing—I reference that guy all the time in my head. There’s something really naturalistic about the way he draws. Even though he drew these kind of generalized figures, they were so well-proportioned, and there was an energy and loose quality to them. To me, he’s the superhero Marvel artist of all time.

Final question: any other projects you’re working on that we should be looking out for?

Right now I’m pretty much just working on Pop Gun War: Chain Letter, which is coming out in Island. There’s a slipcase edition of It Will All Hurt that came out where you can collect all three issues—I don’t know if we’re eventually going to do a trade of that—and I want to do another sketchbook or art book down the road. Yeah, I have a bunch of ideas.

Kelly Kanayama

Kelly Kanayama

Staff Writer Kelly was born and raised in Honolulu but now lives in Scotland. She has has an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing, and is currently pursuing a PhD (look! There it goes!) on transatlantic narratives in contemporary comics. As a half-Japanese, half-Filipina woman, she believes that white vinegar is the answer to most of life's problems.