A young Black girl with an electric guitar stands on the cover of Pop Gun War: Chain Letter. She holds the guitar like a hero holds a sword. She’s composed but sad-looking, as if she bears an unseen weight. She is Emily. Her brother Sinclair is a boy with angel wings, and they’re arguably the main characters in Farel Dalrymple’s surreal and poetic Pop Gun War (PGW). Dalrymple created the comic series in the early 2000s following his graduation from art school, and it’s here that we first glimpsed the complicated, fantastic universe he would go on to explore in his later works It Will All Hurt and The Wrenchies.
PGW’s original run was re-released last year as Pop Gun War: Gift in a short print run by Floating World Comics, then in wider release by Image Comics. I say Emily and Sinclair are its main subjects, but it’s hard to tell. The story of Gift follows no single person and is instead passed—baton race-style—between characters as they go about mystic and mundane errands in a magical realist Brooklyn. It’s an ensemble cast, including a shrinking/growing man in a top hat, a disembodied head in a bowling bag, a nefarious ghoul wearing flannel, and many other unique archetypes that expose conflicting life philosophies. It’s very post-art school.
A running gag of self-conscious lack of objectivity threads though many of the recurring characters—including Hollis, everyone’s favorite chubby kid in a homemade superhero costume from The Wrenchies—but there’s a noticeable jump in quality. Dalrymple’s ability to play with visual perspective is several levels above where he was 15 years ago. For example, a conversation between Sinclair and his friend in a park turns the view of the reader in circles above them before suddenly focusing on a micro-level interaction between bugs and tiny robots without ever breaking the dialogue flow. And it works.
Chain Letter exists somewhere between a funny sketchbook and a sci-fi action story. Magic kids break the fourth wall while boxing with cyborgs, falling down space station airshafts, and engaging in laser fights. It’s tempting to try to keep up as they hurtle into the fray, but remember: This is a comic, not a movie. It’s completely fine to slow down and admire the huge crowd scenes and lush cityscapes. I won’t promise that Chain Letter will be easy to follow, but the images within it are more than worth your time.