Proxima Centauri: Farel Dalrymple Warps Teenage Alienation into a Stunning Sci-Fi Fantasy

Farel Dalrymple doesn’t create imagery that can be easily ignored.

Throughout his history of crafting surreal genre comics, the Portland-based cartoonist has remained responsible for the following moments: a child donning a pair of angel’s wings in an urban latticework of buildings; a suited, demonic figure dissolving into smoke as it dies; travelers through space and time grappling with the same existential questions as those of us residing on Earth in 2018. Dalrymple’s work as an artist and writer simply eludes classification. His characters are just as likely to launch into philosophical soliloquies as they are to charge into epic battle against fairy-tale monstrosities. If his first major work, the melancholy, punk-infused Pop Gun War, represents his take on magical realism, and The Wrenchies serves as his riff on superheroes (with a tincture of horror and a fair amount of moral ambiguity), his new project, Proxima Centauri, ventures into what’s arguably the next logical realm for Dalrymple to visit: science fiction.

In a manner of speaking, anyway. The first line of the debut issue begins, “I started doing that meditation shit.” The narration comes from a young man named Sherwood Breadcoat, traveling through space in a “stupid planet or space-station or whatever it is,” and wondering about the whereabouts of his lost brother, Orson. That blend of irreverence and mystery is just one more way that makes Proxima Centauri difficult to categorize.

“I don’t consider this real science fiction—more like a teen-drama space opera,” Dalrymple explains. “I usually call it psychedelic space fantasy, or science fantasy, as mostly I’m dealing with wizards and talking animals.”

The titular Proxima Centauri is a vessel traveling through space and across dimensions, carrying a host of eccentric personalities, not all of them human in the strictest sense: scientist Duke Herzog, time traveler Dr. Ext, and fellow adolescent explorer Parasol—a floating, transparent girl who’s also the object of Sherwood’s teenage affection. Visually, the book blends eras into a kaleidoscope of styles. Sherwood’s attire falls somewhere between a NASA spacesuit and the dragon-slaying gear of a fantasy hero, while Duke Herzog sports the classic white lab coat of an archetypal ‘50s scientist, and Dr. Ext, bound in an olive-green unitard, looks like he could have stepped out of a Jack Kirby fever dream.

The book was also influenced by one of the handful of comics for which Dalrymple solely handled art duties: writer Brandon Graham and a host of creators’ acclaimed run on Prophet, the Euro-flavored cosmic opera that transplants Rob Liefeld’s 20th-century soldier into an interstellar war. “[Proxima Centauri] does resemble my work on Prophet aesthetically and is inspired by Brandon Graham and company’s work on that series for sure,” he says. “I wanted to draw an environment with spaceships, flying bicycles, floating crystals, and all sorts of creatures wearing jumpsuits.”

The names Sherwood and Orson should sound familiar to readers of Dalrymple’s work: the brothers also appear in the 2014 graphic novel The Wrenchies, published by First Second, but Proxima Centauri doesn’t so much continue that tale of post-apocalyptic kid gangs as much as it branches from it. “It’s not really a sequel to The Wrenchies—more like a follow up,” Dalrymple clarifies. “Even though that book jumped around a lot, Sherwood was the main character in The Wrenchies. Though he was younger and older in the beginning, we see him and his brother Orson go into this evil elf cave that changes their lives. Proxima Centauri takes place years later. The brothers have become separated, and teenage Sherwood is stuck in this weird spectral zone on the dimensional nexus sphere, Proxima Centauri. He’s still battling some of the same demons while adjusting to life on Proxima Centauri.”

The two brothers aren’t the only characters from Dalrymple’s oeuvre to show up in Proxima Centauri. “Hollis from The Wrenchies and Pop Gun War: Chain Letter shows up in the story, as well as a bunch of other characters from both those comics—all a little older,” he says. “But most of them have no interaction with Sherwood at all, as they are all on the other side of the sphere. I like jumping back into all the characters’ lives in different settings. How did they get there, and how has it changed them?”

Dalrymple is structuring the odyssey through a series of story arcs, each assuming a shift to more bizarre and dream-like scenarios. “This [first] arc of the series will be six issues, and I’d like to do at least two more volumes of Sherwood and his space-faring adventures,” the cartoonist says. “If you’ve read The Wrenchies, then you know he does eventually make it off of Proxima Centauri and back to Earth, so I am not spoiler-ising anything by saying so.”

From Sherwood’s all-too-realistic teenage angst to the bizarre creatures he encounters, the setting of Proxima Centauri is a variable place, encompassing everything from a coming-of-age story to forays into violent cosmic corners. And if the confines of this dreamworld seem both familiar and alien, evolving with threads back to Dalrymple’s previous adventures, that experimentation is echoed in its creator’s approach.

“Most of the characters came from stuff I have been doing in my sketchbooks for years,” Dalrymple explains. “I don’t make model sheets, though I probably should because I have a hard time making characters have consistent costumes or ages.”

“I explain it away in The Wrenchies because a lot of the book is a quest where people have changed clothes or gotten older as the days go on. In Proxima Centauri, I think it is just the Spectral Zone’s dreamy nature. There was also that kind of magic in The Wrenchies. There is a process of refinement that happens over time, and I don’t usually mind that being visible or exposed.”

One of the more subtle ways in which Dalrymple evokes a constantly changing space is through his use of color, with the palette changing from page to page and, sometimes, from panel to panel. “I didn’t want the color to overwhelm the line art,” Dalrymples says. “I wanted it to look light, muted, icy, and sterile on the surface, but there’s a lot of grit and grime everywhere. Plus, there are shifts depending on Sherwood’s mood or the location or for punctuation purposes.”

Dalrymple’s characters frequently pause to consider their relationship with their surroundings. One such moment occurs early on as Sherwood ponders, "What happened to my sense of wonder?" It’s an almost metafictional question: he is, after all, in the midst of a journey that would ignite a sense of wonder in the most jaded cynic. The concept of wonder, or a lack thereof, is essential in Proxima Centauri, Dalrymple says. “I am trying to illustrate a sense of loneliness and confusion—all the conflicting emotions and weird feelings of being a teenager. Not wonder so much, but the loss of it when you can do whatever you want whenever you want.”

And if Sherwood’s behavior can sometimes be frustrating, that’s the point: “He is this super powerful teenager who complains and doesn’t appreciate anything because he has seen it all. There is not a lot of structure or authority in his life,” Dalrymple says. “He’s a shitty teenage brat, kind of how I feel I was at that age. Sometimes it feels like my 40s are a regression to how I was as a teenager.”

That blend of wisdom and irreverence, science fiction and fantasy, action and philosophy—all is central to the bewildering, undefinable, and intoxicating art of Farel Dalrymple. Proxima Centauri builds deftly on the creator’s library—sometimes literally—but it also finds Dalrymple pushing himself in striking directions.

Proxima Centauri #1 is out now.