by Alex Dueben
Farel Dalrymple made a splash in 2003 when Dark Horse Comics published Pop Gun War. Before that, Darymple had self-published five issues of the series. He received a Xeric Grant to publish the first issue and was later awarded a Gold Medal by the Society of Illustrators. Many fans were hoping for more Pop Gun War, but it never materialized.
However, in the years since Pop Gun War’s initial publication, Dalrymple has had an incredibly successful career. He drew Omega the Unknown, written by Jonathan Lethem, at Marvel. He wrote and drew the successful graphic novel The Wrenchies from :01 Books. In addition, he was one of Brandon Graham’s collaborators on Prophet. More recently Dalrymple has published It Will All Hurt, which was published in three issues by Study Group Comics, and Palefire, a collaboration with writer MK Reed. Much of his illustrations and short comics have been collected in Delusional: The Graphic and Sequential Work of Farel Dalrymple.
In the Image Comics anthology Island, Dalrymple is currently serializing Pop Gun War: Chain Letter, and earlier this month Image published a new edition of Pop Gun War: Gift. Dalrymple was kind enough to talk about the work and returning to the project after many years away.
Alex Dueben: I know this is going back, but do you remember where the idea of Pop Gun War came from?
Farel Dalrymple: I had just had some drawings in my sketchbook that I had done of the main character, Sinclair. At the time I was doing a lot of on location drawing in New York. When I was in art school the year previous, I had taken a lot of art classes where we would go around and draw buildings and inside of Starbucks and things like that. I had that in mind when I wanted to do this comic. I wanted it to be set in an urban environment like New York. I had it in my head that I wanted to draw these backgrounds from life or take pictures of the city and use those photographs to inform the story. I wanted it to be magical, set in this urban setting, and then I pulled a lot of scenes that I had written down in my sketchbook little moments that I liked that I compiled into a cohesive story. I wasn’t sure how I was going to publish it. I figured I would self-publish it and then a friend of mine told me about the Xeric Grant. I applied for that when I was done with the book and got it. Then, I made each issue after that on my own schedule.
Dueben: You were also a member of the Meathaus collection– which some people might remember– was that about the same time you were working on Pop Gun War?
Dalrymple: Yeah. I had been making comics since I was a little kid, but I was learning how to actually go from concept to finished product to publishing a book around that time. Me and some buddies from art school and people we knew started Meathaus. That was us learning how to put out a comic book, basically–the production, scanning pages, photoshopping, laying it all out, dealing with Diamond. A few of us went to San Diego Comic Con and a few other shows where we would just give out issues of Meathaus and meet creators. I did Pop Gun War around the same time as we were doing the first couple issues.
Dueben: It’s not set in New York, as the map you have makes clear, but I’ve always thought it as like New York, or at least inspired by New York.
Dalrymple: I wanted it to be this dense urban environment. As far as the stuff that I was directly referencing there’s a building in there that features prominently called The Doll Factory which is pretty much the Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg. I would see that on my commute every day and it’s a cool, weird-looking building. It looks like Gotham City or something like that. When I was doing that map and I was thinking about this city space with a 100 Acre Woods-A.A. Milne vibe to it. [laughs] If you pull back it’s this weird little bubble, but if you zoom in, it’s a modern city, the building look like they could old, but there are not really very many people populating the city which is a huge contrast from New York where it’s like so many people running around everywhere. I wanted it to be a little desolate as far as people go.
Dueben: In a lot of ways Pop Gun War set the stage for your career because not long after that, you drew Omega the Unknown. That book is set in a New York which is fantastic but also very grounded and plays on some similar ideas.
Dalrymple: That book was very specifically New York City. I don’t think too much happened outside of Inwood and Washington Heights except for the placement of the base on Roosevelt Island. Those are real places. Lethem wanted that specific neighborhood, I think he liked the Inwood-Washington Heights area because there are some really dense woods up there at the top of Manhattan and there’s a bald eagle habitat. I never saw any bald eagles when I lived on the East coast, but he wanted to incorporate that into the story. We actually went around that area and I took a bunch of photographs and he had taken a bunch of photographs previously and sent them to me. He would write in the script that they’re on this corner and I had reference for that so I would draw that exact street corner. Pop Gun War is fantasy where I walk around and look at the tops of buildings, I want to put that in the comic. I don’t even have a name for the Pop Gun War city– it’s just “The City.”
Dueben: Did you always intend to make more Pop Gun War?
Dalrymple: That was the idea. After I finished the first book I actually wrote out a script for more–which I’m still using right now. I drew the first 20 pages over ten years ago but I couldn’t really work on it full time. In my 20s, I could work at a restaurant and go home and stay up all night and do pages, but I’m in my 40s now. I can’t do that anymore. When I decided to be a cartoonist/illustrator full time, I quit my restaurant and coffee shop jobs, but I knew that if I was going to do art then I had to make a living doing it.
It’s taken me a while to get pages done on Pop Gun War because there was nothing to facilitate me paying rent and bills. I got this gig for Island, doing the sequel in this comics anthology that Brandon Graham edits and he got me a page rate so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to finally do it. That’s why Image is doing the reprint. It’s been out of print for a while and it seemed like a good fit.
Dueben: You knew Brandon because you worked together on Prophet.
Dalrymple: I actually knew Brandon from New York back when I was doing Pop Gun War. We used to work at this flash animation company called Urban Box Office back during the dot com era. I have no idea how that company ever thought it was going to make money but they had a bunch of employees. Becky Cloonan worked there and I knew her from SVA. Brandon just showed up in my office and started talking to me about comics.
He has such a different way of thinking about comics and a different way of thinking about art and his life. I feel like he’s been a big influence on me as far as just someone who just lives and breathes comics. He got the Prophet gig at Image and asked me if I was interested in doing anything for it. I’m really glad he did because that was a great experience. I really liked working on that book. I wish I could have done more but I have this desperate urge to get my own books done and not necessarily a book for Rob Liefeld. Nothing against him, but I want to do my own books.
Dueben: I don’t know what it was like making the book, but reading it, I couldn’t help but think that everyone was having a good time.
Dalrymple: Oh yeah. Definitely. It was a blast. It was great getting introduced to Simon Roy. He’s such a good artist and a good cartoonist. I always have a blast hanging out with him and Brandon. It was no pressure other than my own self-imposed pressure. It was a fun, good experience. I felt like too that book in particular filled some kind of hole that was just missing in American comic books. There’s not enough space barbarians in American comics. [laughs]
Brandon was like, okay, you’re going to be in the next issue, what do you want to draw? I went up to Vancouver where he lives. At the time I was living in Portland, Oregon so it wasn’t that hard for me to take the train and get up there. I hung out in his apartment and worked on sketches based off Simon’s guy. Brandon was like, you can draw any kind of Prophet character you want. The premise of the series was that there was all these different clones of this Prophet character so it was neat to be able to design your own character that you’re going to draw. I started doing these sketches and was like, what if I gave him a tail? So from there we talked back and forth on the phone about some ideas and then at that point after we broke down an issue Marvel-style, but we both worked on the plot. I thumbnailed the whole thing and then we went through the thumbnails over the phone page by page and he had some suggestions like what if this panel came before this or it might work better like this. It was an easy, fun way of working, and then it was just a matter of me pencilling and inking the pages. [laughs] Which took way too long. Especially the second issue, which took me months. I’m not a very fast artist, unfortunately. But it was fun. I still want to do more on it. We’ll see.
Dueben: It feels like with Island that Brandon had this idea and then approached people and said, what do you think?
Dalrymple: I think he basically approached people he knew or people whose art he liked and said, what do you want to do? How many pages do you think it’s going to be? I don’t know if it’s worked out 100% like he envisioned but I know that one of the stipulations was that he wanted all the people in the book to be writer-artist types, not teams. I don’t know how tight he’s stuck to that. I like the style of it. I notice the books have gotten a little skinnier. I think that was coming down from Image because each issue was basically a whole graphic novel’s worth of content even though it was many creators in each issue. Now I think they’re a little shorter but still jam packed fun of good stuff. Simon’s story Habitat is great. Matt and Malachi’s stuff is awesome. I haven’t read every single story in there yet, but I like it and I’m proud to be a part of it.
Dueben: So he said you can do whatever you want and you thought about continuing Pop Gun War?
Dalrymple: Like I said I had about 20 pages that were drawn. I didn’t have them colored yet so I just said “can I use these pages?” He was really supportive. He actually told me–before I even mentioned that I wanted to do Pop Gun War, “I want you to do something like Pop Gun War for it because that feels like the most you of anything you’ve done. That’s the most Farel comic.” I was like, I could just run Pop Gun War? The book was out of print at Dark Horse and I had been thinking about taking it somewhere else anyway, so it seemed serendipitous that it happened like that. I love what Image has been doing for the past couple years and it feels like a really good fit for me. I felt like I was floundering around with different publishers and I just feel like the model at Image is the best out of all the publishers I’ve worked for.
Dueben: You’re not the same artist you were 10-15 years ago, when you sit down, are you thinking, “I need to draw this in my current style? I need this to look like the first book?”
Dalrymple: There were definitely some weird moments coloring those pages where I was like, oh wow I probably wouldn’t have drawn it like this now, but for the most part I was pretty stoked about the drawings still. I thought there would be more stuff that I’d have to change and tweak, but I’ve been following the script pretty closely. There were a couple art revisions that I did here and there, but for the most part I was like, “this is the way I drew it.” I would have published this as is if I had finished it back in the day. Typos I don’t mind changing, but with the art, I felt like this is the purest that it was ever going to be. I’m using the same script but there have been little details that I’ve changed here and there. For the most part it’s the same ending that I had in mind and I’m following it pretty tightly as far as the way the pacing goes. It does feel a little funny–a time machine to my thirty year old self. It’s a little weird but now that I’m actually drawing original work for it, it feels good, it feels right.
Dueben: Do you think about trying to draw in a particular style, or in a Pop Gun War style, or do you not think about it in those terms?
Dalrymple: I try not to think too much about how someone is going to perceive it or think about it. When I was working on The Wrenchies I had in mind that from start to finish, I’m going to change as an artist. With that book from chapter to chapter I tried to change up certain things with the art. With Pop Gun War, the beautiful thing about it for me is that I intentionally had different color schemes when I wrote the book. My idea for it was the opening and closing sections, which feature Emily, are black and white. She’s in this small town and she goes underground in these tunnels and finds these three video monitors underground and each one is a story of people that she knows in her life but one’s set in the present, which is Sinclair’s story, one’s set in the past, and one’s set in the future.
My idea was that I was going to watercolor the stuff in the present. The next section, which I’ve already completed and some of it has run in Island, I wanted to be grayscale. I changed that a little, but it’s still fairly monochromatic. The final section, which I’m working on now, is the future and from the get-go I planned on coloring that digitally. My original idea was to have it be one color because of budget limitations. I wasn’t sure if Dark Horse wanted to let me do a full color book, so I was thinking it would be cheaper, but none of that stuff matters anymore. They just send all that stuff to China to get printed full color. [laughs] I’ve already digitally colored some of the third section, but it’s not one color anymore, it’s just full digital color. As far as my style changing, I think it’s pretty evident that my drawing style has changed. I was never worried, I have to make this look consistent, because I knew that from chapter to chapter it’s going to be different anyway.
Dueben: So you’re serializing the entire book in Island?
Dalrymple: Hopefully around this time next year we should have Volume 2 ready to go. I might wait a year or two but then have Volume 3 out, because I’m going to get right to work on that as soon as I’m done with Volume 2.
Dueben: You know what comes next?
Dalrymple: I sat on Volume 2 for so long because I was doing other things. Whenever I would get an idea for it I would throw it into a text file on my computer and I had a bunch of sketches I put in a folder. I kept getting different ideas, like, I want a story about Sinclair being older. There’s a lot of material I’m ready to plug into a script.
Dueben: Now the new edition of Pop Gun War: Gift is out. Have you seen the book?
Dalrymple: It looks good. I’m stoked about the way it printed. The paper was a little different from what I was imagining. They gave me two options of paper and I chose the matte one, but it’s very thin so even though the book has eight extra pages than the old edition it looks a little thinner. It’s bigger, standard comics size. Having it be smaller was Diana Schutz’s idea which I wasn’t opposed to, it was just weird for me because I was doing them as standard sized issues so I had that in my head. Now that it’s printed the actual size it was intended for I’m pretty happy about that.
Dueben: So you’re in Island for a couple more issues to finish the book.
Dalrymple: My next installment, which I have about 30 pages done for is in Island #9, I think.
Dueben: Is there anything else you want to mention or have coming out?
Dalrymple: Study Group Comics put out a slip case of It Will All Hurt. You can order this fancy edition where you get all the issues, some stickers, a print, and things like that. I had a book come out the end of last year called Palefire that MK Reed wrote from Secret Acres. I’m planning on doing another sketchbook and illustration collection. A few years ago I had a book come out from AdHouse called Delusional. I want to do another one of those. I have all the material for it, it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
Pop Gun War: Gift is out now. You can find Pop Gun War: Chain Letter stories in Island #4.