“We’re sold out of Pop Gun War,” the comics retailer told me. “They’re teaching it at Portland State University.”
“They’re using it in a graphic novel class.”
I went to the fourth floor of Neuberger Hall and stepped into the English department office. The guy at the desk and a middle-aged woman were laughing about Moby Dick. My presence must have signaled back-to-work because she stepped out and the guy looked up brightly and supplied all the information about contacting Michael Ward, the teacher who had chosen Farel Dalrymple’s book, Pop Gun War.
At 12:45 on Friday, I walked in Shattuck Hall and sat down next to a girl near the door. A group of 35 students spread out among four stepped rows of desks, each with a copy of Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. I asked the girl next to me if Pop Gun War was on the syllabus.
“We already read it.”
She told me some people liked that the story was so open to interpretation, and other people didn’t like it for those same reasons. “We can’t analyze it because it’s so surreal, and there’s no plot.” She said the class tried to figure out the point, and some social implications of Addison’s story–-the way we treat the homeless.
“Did the class talk about the author?”
The author was compared to the puppet master character and she said, “That was the most the author was touched on.” Before the professor arrived I asked one last question, “Where did you buy the book?”
Amazon quotes Farel on Pop Gun War, “If you wanted to get literal, it is about an inner city boy, Sinclair, who discovers a pair of discarded angel wings. With these wings, Sinclair flies around the city and gets into adventures.”
I got in touch with Dalrymple through a mutual friend and called him on Sunday at noon. I mentioned the classroom, and the author answered that he had once visited a graphic novel class that had read his work, but the students’ response had faded from memory. When I asked what he wanted to communicate to the younger generation, he said he just wanted to tell stories. “I have stories in me that I want to get out.” Dalrymple wrote Pop Gun War using his intuition, one issue at a time, thinking about the next one while drawing, but each chapter is self-contained.
Now, he’s working on a story that will extend over more than 300 pages, and he just finished the first chapter at 30 pages. “The Wrenchies script took a long time,” Dalrymple told me. “It’s not a super tight script: it’s a plot.” He thinks of the characters first and then come ideas for stories and scenes. “The Wrenchies characters are fun for me. . . Sherwood is the funnest, and Hollis.”
First Second will publish The Wrenchies in 2009. “Bernadette Baker got me the book deal,” Farel said, referring to his agent. “I don’t know if I could have got the book sold without her. She had the relationships with First Second.” As a graphic novel imprint of Roaring Brook Press in New York City, First Second is more established in the literary world than the three major comics publishers. An independent comic book artist can get lost amid the franchising deals of Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse. Not that independent comic books don’t see the light of the screen, but video games? “I was looking for a publisher that wants to do books, quality books.”
Working from Jonathan Lethem’s scripts to create Omega The Unknown, a ten issue series for Marvel comics, Dalrymple had to draw smaller. “He is a very dense writer, very specific about panel layout–-how many on each page. The challenge affected the way I drew. . . I’ve worked with a handful of other writers. I make an effort to try to get exactly what they want on a page.”
“I drew small, drew the characters really small. Now, I noticed doing that with Wrenchies, and it’s something I might have started doing anyway, but maybe not.” And to get the setting of the high school, Farel adds, “I had to use so much reference.”
I remembered picking up Omega from the “local” rack at Bridge City Comics. I liked the book’s realism. I recognized the world. The illusion on the page filters the world through a stylized shorthand; it’s real cartooning.
Jason Levian at Floating World Comics said that Dalrymple is pretty modest about his achievements, but to other cartoonists in Portland he is a hero of independent comics. From his small press comic being collected into a graphic novel published by Dark Horse, to a book with Jonathan Lethem for Marvel, and onto his own epic for a company that represents artists in the U.S. and Europe .
Dalrymple went to the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France and seen the French edition of Pop Gun War. He admired the European aesthetic applied to his work. “The Italian edition is hardcover. It’s really pretty; it looked better than the graphic novel published here.”
“When I first went to Angoulême, I met some guys from Belgium doing an anthology, an issue a week. It was rushed, but immediate . . . a cool attitude. It really impressed me.” Dalrymple went to that comics festival in 2000 with James Jean and Tomer Hanuka. “So when we got back to New York, we got together with Chris McDonnell and decided to put this anthology together to show our work.” They called themselves the Meathaus Collective and published an anthology. This year, they released the eighth edition of Meathaus.
“People tend to look at a color book more,” Dalrymple concedes. He doesn’t necessary prefer color to black-and-white comics, but he has an illustrious brush. He uses watercolor and guache and says they’re the best medium for coloring comics. “I’m more proficient with hand coloring,” Dalrymple says; gauging that for him, it’s faster than using a computer. “I like the happy accidents.” Only a couple of his students are familiar with comics, but if you want to study with Farel Dalrymple, he teaches an experimental painting class at the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
I caught up with Michael Ward as students disembarked from his graphic novel class on Wednesday. “I inherited the syllabus from a previous professor who taught the class,” Ward explained, adding that he started reading Pop Gun War before it was released as a graphic novel.
“I was drawn to the surrealism,” Ward elaborated. “I wanted to know, is this narrative going anywhere, because there’s always this desire for the narrative to go somewhere . . . I don’t want to keep using the word ‘surrealism’. The metaphorical art. The symbolism of the images. A piece that has meaning beyond the strictly narrative. You look at sections and see if they combine.” I noticed the students each had a copy of Fun House, and Ward added, “The meaning is a gestalt of the whole.”
He explained that the class is set up to be a giant discussion; when presenting Pop Gun War to the class, Ward wanted them to think about this work in comparison with the other work that is narrative. “To consider if this is a graphic novel,”Ward told me, “there was some debate. You can’t define the category. We couldn’t come up with one definition. People working in this medium are constantly redefining what’s a graphic novel, and Farel’s book does explore that.”