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WYPR Arts

In 'Proxima Centauri,' A Teenager And His Creator Struggle To Grow Up

Farel Dalrymple is an excellent artist with an intriguing problem. He can't stop circling obsessively around the same theme: the difficulty of growing up and moving on. But while there's nothing fresh about feeling stuck, Dalrymple explores stuckness so compulsively — and illustrates it so memorably — that it gains new interest. Ironically, by being so good at what he does, Dalrymple makes arrested development all the more seductive.

He's been drawing the same basic universe for years, exploring it to its fullest extent in 2014's The Wrenchies. That sometimes-flummoxing book revolves around a gang of kids, the Wrenchies, who dwell in a postapocalyptic world. It also describes the exploits of one Sherwood Breadcoat, a teenager who's sucked into another dimension. Sherwood has been many things, we learn: a "junior spy/adventurer, art school student, secret agent" and eventually a comic-book author himself.

The Wrenchies made Sherwood's adventures sound like fun — at least, until he hit that pesky stage of adulthood and sank into "frustration, boredom and disillusionment." But the earlier book only outlined his history in passing. Now, in Proxima Centauri, the reader is ushered into a kind of pocket universe centered on Sherwood. He's trapped on Proxima Centauri, a space station 4.25 light years from Earth. "This crud stain of a world is just so confusing and stupid," he broods. "I can fly for, like, a whole hour in one direction only to end up at the exact place I started."

This isn't the first time Dalrymple has stranded characters in an alternate reality. Dimensions kept giving way to one another in The Wrenchies. It's easy to see why Dalrymple's drawn to the concept: It's another way to express his sense of stuckness. Escape one hostile dimension and you're plunked down in another, with its own trials and troubles. It's a pretty good metaphor for growing up — if you're feeling particularly bleak about it, that is. Kids endure their storms with the promise that life will get better in adulthood. Dalrymple can't decide whether it ever will.

This sense of doubt pervades Proxima Centauri. Sherwood isn't sure what he's doing on the station and often doesn't know what he's supposed to accomplish. He grapples with various trials, but they're all largely symbolic. Surrounding him there's an array of colorful characters: the Scientist, who's all-knowing yet strangely powerless to offer much in the way of aid; savvy Parasol, the object of Sherwood's desire; "space wizard" Shakey; and Dhog, a humanoid with the head of a horned beast. But they're barely fleshed out, so they feel mostly symbolic too.

Dalrymple's a phenomenal artist, combining luminous natural talent with canny skill.

Even while Sherwood's exploring the station, fighting the evil Bagman, beating back a wave of tiny blue robots or navigating through a swarm of scraggly-looking flies, he's absorbed in teenagerish ruminations. "Scientist tells me the reason I yell and complain is because I'm scared and anger is stronger than fear or something," he reflects. Such insights seem as important to Dalrymple as anything going on around Sherwood. There's little sense of narrative momentum; in fact, it's often hard to tell what's happening and why it should matter. The ending is a hasty, unconvincing deus ex machina.

To the extent that there's a sense of possibility here, it's expressed through the art. Dalrymple's a phenomenal artist, combining luminous natural talent with canny skill. Previously he's been a bit one-note, relying on familiar palettes and motifs in The Wrenchies and his Pop Gun War series. But he heads in all sorts of new directions here. He dances lightly between modes: one sequence may be rough-edged and sparse, while the next few panels are gently lyrical, and the page after that is wildly trippy.

The final effect is uneven, but fascinatingly so. Even as Sherwood wrestles with familiar demons, his creator seems to be looking beyond the claustrophobic world where they've both dwelled so long. Proxima Centauri may be ambivalent about the future, but it heralds exciting things to come.

Etelka Lehoczkyhas written about comics for The Atlantic and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

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