Nothing that Farel Dalrymple has ever done feels complete. From the oddball sci-fi drama of OMEGA THE UNKNOWN to the sweet-hearted downbeat whimsy of POP GUN WAR to the inverted stream-of-consciousness high fantasy of IT WILL ALL HURT, it all seems like a glimpse, a skim across the surface. Beneath the warmly inviting illustration style, the raw childlike whimsy tempered by flawless internal storytelling rhythms, each of these books contains undepicted depths and a spectacularly detailed private universe. Farel’s worlds are icebergs, and the comics themselves are just the bit that juts out of the water, the part that sailors can see.
One of his constant visual motifs is connection – his settings tend to crawl with plugs, pipes, wires, tunnels, speakers, drains, cables. And every portal – every manhole, every powerline, every side-door and burrow and off ramp, these conduits and byzantine pathways with which his work is compulsively filled – leads somewhere into some new story, some undiscovered country: a dirty joke, a harrowing secret, a hidden community, another world containing rituals and hieroglyphs and pocket dimensions of its own. Like in a Robert Altman movie or an Thomas Pynchon novel, it’s sometimes hard to follow the central narrative – your attention is always running off in seven directions, chasing some glimmer of questionable magic that flickers across the page and flits out of view.
DELUSIONAL, then, while theoretically a book of ancillary material, the bits & bobs of a career’s worth of restlessly inventive cartooning, seems to me to be the genuine article, the thing itself – what we talk about when we talk about Farel Dalrymple. It’s his back streets and back pages – his messy, teeming imagination, given outlet over time in sketches and illustrations and strips. The margins, the gutters between the panels – that’s where Farel really lives. And while we can’t really go there with him, we can chart his progress and receive his reports. We can eagerly await his postcards from the edge, which sometimes arrive in art books like this.
As anyone who follows this site is probably aware, whatever minor success Locust Moon has had is largely due to Farel, who has been a friend and collaborator since day one. From his gorgeous ONCE UPON A TIME MACHINE cover to his sketchbook pages in QUARTER MOON to his back cover blurb in Rob Woods’ 36 LESSONS IN SELF DESTRUCTION, he has been involved in some capacity in every single book we have ever produced. He is a blood brother and feels like as much a part of Locust Moon as my own partners.
When I think of Farel, I always think of the brutally hot Philadelphia summer of 2011, and the first book ever published by Locust Moon. Farel was visiting from Portland, and we (Farel, Chris Stevens, Rob Woods, Jimmy Comey and myself) spent two weeks locked in a huddle in our failing comic shop with its broken AC, blissfully undisturbed by our as-yet-nonexistent customer base, working til all hours of the night on what we creatively entitled THE LOCUST MOON COMIC, a purposeless but joyful tribute to the imaginations of two little girls.
To be camped out with these brilliant, passionate people breaking down stories, thumbnailing pages, watching a 22 page comic come together before our very eyes – it was not my first experience making comics, but it was the first time I realized that the only way to do it properly was to throw yourself at it, body and soul. It was my first great high – that incandescent thing that addicts always talk about – and I’ve been chasing it ever since.
Ever since those nights watching Farel blearily sling watercolors on the couch until 6am, I have been constantly inspired by the full investment with which he approaches his work – giving himself to it completely, refusing to compromise on his bizarre, brilliant vision, sometimes to the detriment of his career, but always to the benefit of his readers and friends. He’s never tried to bring his enormous skills to the marketplace – he’s just tried to find ways to get paid for his inscrutable impulses. The mountain will come to Mohammed. And he’s found an audience that will follow him, marching to the off-beat rhythms of his weird old drum, down alleyways and obscure channels, hoping to trace every wire to its mysterious but self-sustaining power source, searching to see where it all leads.
DELUSIONAL is a guided tour of this strange & extraordinary imaginative machinery, and we are privileged to watch it work and worry over more than a decade, knotting and unknotting, stringing and contorting itself along ideas and tensions that are never resolved, but return in new forms, speaking with new voices, adapting, vanishing and reappearing down those outlets and burrows that connect page after page. It sometimes reads as compulsion, not intention: there’s an imbalance – too much is going on in this brain and spirit, and it needs release. Farel’s characters aren’t sock puppets that he uses to tell stories, they’re not slotted into plot points – they’re organic, evolving creatures, and sometimes they need to be taken out for some light and air.
And that, maybe, is the delusion of the title – Farel thinks these people are real. Orson & Smith, Barch & Belf, Almendra Clementine, the Regular – Hollis the pudgy sad-sack superhero, Percival the bespectacled goldfish, Emily the cool-tempered rocker – the space-suited kids with detachable hands, the robotic mice and virtual reality cats, the dorks in helmets, the barbarians with broadaxes, the astronauts in trouble – the creeping Shadowsmen that seem to slither their way into story after story – these and so many others keep returning, swimming into view, weaving in and out of the pages of this book freely, without the strictures of master narrative to pin them in place, changing forms, swapping personalities, appearing in various versions. There is no playing-pretend in these comics about flying fish and talking rats – there is just giving voice to these singular characters and their urgent, muddled messages.
The sensitivity of this exploration and cartography, the absolute obedience to the internal voices and their various ways of expressing themselves, the willingness to follow rather than lead – that’s the true negative capability required of great artists. Above all, Farel listens, watches, thinks – lets the wind blow through him.
And I’ll be damned if this snazzy little casebound hardcover – appealingly designed by Chris Pitzer with subtly shifting colored paper and a vibrant sky-blue cover – this collection of by-definition non-essential material might not be the best place yet to see Farel’s remarkable imagination at work, absorbing everything, observing itself, processing the world into strange, moving comics and drawings.
Or, as Farel more simply puts it in his detailed, conversational index, “Most of the stuff in this book is stuff that came up out of my own brain.”