“I don’t think the universe is clearly defined, the real one or the one I make up.”—Farel Dalrymple, in an interview with Matthew Meylikhov
The Wrenchies is a comic that's about a lot of things, all at once. It's about a post-apocalyptic, magic-imbued future where gangs of kids have to fight and destroy evil creatures called Shadowsmen, which have impossibly sharp teeth and corroded faces, and dress in suits. The comic specifically follows the five kids in the Wrenchies gang, who are notable not just because they're "brutal and wise" (p. 161), but because of their connections to a mysterious comic book, also called The Wrenchies. Bance, the de facto leader of the Wrenchies, named the gang after the comic book, but none of the other Wrenchies know about the comic until they discover a copy lying among the wastes of their world.
The story is about this comic book, too, and Sherwood Presley Breadcoat, the person from our own world who wrote it. It's also about Sherwood's life, his own encounters with the Shadowsmen, and his considerable influence on the Wrenchies' (the gang, not the comic book) dystopian future. Finally, it's also about Hollis, a lonely, nerdy kid also from our own world, whose only friend is Sherwood's astrally projected spirit. Hollis discovers the comic book and, with Sherwood's help, eventually enters it. He then helps the Wrenchies—again, the gang in the comic book—complete their newfound quest: to eradicate the Shadowsmen and the evil they feed on. This, for various reasons, means eradicating Sherwood, too.
But, in a way, none of that covers what The Wrenchies is actually about. The plot of The Wrenchies really doesn't matter much at all, even though it's intriguing and a lot of fun. Its primary role is to give the book's world a backbone. The plot's main points aren't that difficult to grasp, at least at first, so it acts as a pathway through the world that the comic creates. You can stay on the path if you want, for a while, but if you do that, you'll miss a lot. It becomes harder and harder not to stray, too—especially in the book's final two chapters, where the plot starts to fray. It's unclear what the characters' actions mean as far as advancing the plot goes, and it's unclear why certain events occur. But this isn't a weakness. It's the whole point. The Wrenchies is really about what it means to exist in a strange and frightening world, and how to grapple with that world. It's about realizing which parts of that world actually come from you, and dealing with those things you've made. It's about being a kid, both by yourself and around other kids, and what that means when you become an adult kid trying to navigate the world.
Farel Dalrymple is probably most well-known for his comic Pop-Gun War, and the few issues of Prophet he illustrated, but he's largely remained under the radar. The Wrenchies is, by far, the longest work he's done to date (304 pages). It takes place in the same world as “It Will All Hurt,” his ongoing webcomic, which is even sketchier and harder to pin down. That world doesn't always make sense, but it doesn't have to. You accept it anyway, because you feel that you're inside of it, and it's hard to understand everything about a world from the inside. This is what's so beautiful about the book. It has moments where its inconsistencies just can't be reconciled, but those moments don't destroy the world.
I've been reading “It Will All Hurt” since it began, and I've always loved it, which might mean that I'm more predisposed to accepting The Wrenchies' inconsistencies. But The Wrenchies, somehow, offers a world that feels alive and true, even though it's inconsistent; it isn't just hinting at such a world, like “It Will All Hurt” often does. Airtight worldbuilding isn't responsible for how vivid and real the world of The Wrenchies is. It's something else.
Most of the world comes from the type of information we get about it—the pieces of the world that the comic decides to show us. One of the best examples of how The Wrenchies does this comes in the book's second chapter, which introduces us to the members of the Wrenchies gang and the places they're from. After we see them beating up a few Shadowsmen and dealing with a rival gang, the comic abruptly switches to showing us scenes from the world. Each of these scenes takes up about half a page. One shows an abandoned gas station, another an empty armchair alone in an utterly dry desert, and a few of them show other gangs of kids. If there is an underlying meaning for the particular scenes—if they connect in some tidy way—I haven't yet found it. These scenes feel like someone's personal explanation of the place they come from, and what matters about it. (In a way, it's Sherwood's explanation; eventually, a black, ghostlike figure—later revealed to be his spirit—begins to wander through the scenes.) The art, like all of the art in the comic, is full of detail, and painted with watercolor that can be both vivid and murky, and evokes every place so that each is clearly individual, but located in the same universe. Each scene, even the ones that just show empty wasteland, asks you to linger and remember. The focus is on the nature of the scenes themselves, and the small piece of the world they reveal.
There are a lot of pieces like this in The Wrenchies, and, like in any real place, they all exist at once. The focus may be on one character or object, but there's often something else going on in the background of the panel, which may or may not be related to the main action. And, because The Wrenchies is a comic, the way the world appears, and where objects and people are situated, are always present, even when panels aren't specifically highlighting those things. It can be difficult to know which pieces to focus on, and the first time I read the book I just tried to gather as many pieces as possible. Dalrymple crowds the book with pieces, dropping them in, exploring them a little bit if he wants to, but rarely explaining them much. A lot remains unanswered. How exactly does magic work in the story? What are the other gangs of children like, and how do they find each other? Who, exactly, are the anthropomorphic rats chatting at the back of a nightclub where the Wrenchies hang out, and why do they even exist? There are no answers offered, just the knowledge that these are things that the world accepts to be true. This can be frustrating, at times, because the world is so rich with detail that it's difficult to accept leaving so much unexplored. But it never feels like a cop-out, or like Dalrymple just decided to hope we wouldn't notice the incomplete nature of his world. That incompleteness is as obvious as any of the world's other pieces—it's clear that some of the questions the world raises simply can't be answered. But we trust that the world holds together, anyway, logical consistency aside.
Our trust doesn't come immediately. It really begins to form in the second chapter of the book, where we're introduced to the Wrenchies and the place they live. This chapter acts sort of like a day-in-the-life of the Wrenchies, allowing us to begin to learn about who they are, how they interact with each other, and what about their world is considered "normal." The Wrenchies don't treat their world as an artificial, nonsensical construction, even though it becomes clear that there's a lot about it that is unknown to them. Instead, they accept it, and cope with what it throws at them in as methodical a way as they can. They don't have the means to understand everything about how the Shadowsmen work, or about how magic works, but they know how to fight the Shadowsmen and they know when magic is and isn't dangerous.
No matter how tough the Wrenchies are, they're still kids, and they understand the world as a kid might—with a sense that there's more to it than they can access. And, in a way, we all have to move through the world in the same way the Wrenchies do. Their knowledge is enough to move them through the world, and enough to give both them and the readers a sense that there's some kind of deeper truth to what's happening, but that we don't quite have the means to get at. The Wrenchies never point out that their world is inconsistent and strange, which would break us out of the story and make it difficult to accept. Instead, they engage with that strangeness and even become part of it, which allows us to follow their lead.
The Wrenchies teach you how to navigate the story's world, but navigating it really just means finding your own way to put it together. All of the book's threads—even those as important as the story of Sherwood Breadcoat's life—have to be pieced together from these small, scattered elements (bits of dialogue referring to things that are otherwise never explained, recurring imagery and phrases, characters who clearly resemble each other, and so on). At first brush, it seems like the book could be treated as a puzzle or maze that can be solved. If the book were like this, you could fit each reference to a strange creature and each inexplicable event into some hidden, overarching order that the book is built for you to find. But, as you examine these pieces further, thinking about what they are and where they come from, it becomes clear that there isn't one—at least not one that is self-contained, waiting for the reader to uncover. Instead, the different elements of the book become pieces for you to pick up and assemble as you see fit. You can follow the book as far as it takes you, but after a certain point, like the Wrenchies themselves, it's up to us to determine where we go and what we think.
This isn't to say that the pieces are trivial, that there's no point or meaning behind any of them. No piece stands in isolation—each is always shown in context with something else in the world. The “vortex flies,” for example, which release disgusting green goo, appear out of the bodies of dead Shadowsmen, out of a time machine, and in various other places. Different characters experiment with them, squash them, and, at one point, receive a message from them. The vortex flies don't have any backstory hidden in the book itself, but they connect different characters and places within the world. If you choose, you can pay attention to their effects, and think about what they might mean for the world, even if the story doesn't provide a clear answer. Rather than telling you that there is no answer, the book instead invites you to extrapolate from what the book gives you, and see if you can create an answer that you think fits into the world.
But none of this would matter if the characters, the people showing you the world, were simply there as an excuse for the world to exist. The Wrenchies needs both its world and its characters in order to succeed. The moments that belong to the characters, that take them beyond being inhabitants of a world and turn them into actual people who have to grapple with it, are some of the most important in the comic. Although not every character gets brought out like this, it feels like most of them could be.
Although the Wrenchies are the ones who help us through their world, Sherwood and Hollis, both from our own, are by far the most defined. Both characters must cope, at least partially, with the difference between being alone—not part of the world they're in—and being with other people, as equals, and fully part of their world. Sherwood's story begins when he (age ten) and his younger brother Orson (age eight) encounter a Shadowsman in a cave they're exploring. This is a story that's told over and over again, differently each time, and it's never clear what exactly happens. What is clear, though, is that Orson disappears, and that the rest of Sherwood's life is defined by Orson's absence just as much as it's defined by the Shadowsmen. Sherwood touches every part of The Wrenchies, but the closer he gets to the story, the less clear it becomes. This is because The Wrenchies really belongs to Sherwood. He is the one who writes the smaller Wrenchies comic, and it's his decisions that (somehow) lead to the state of the Wrenchies' world. The last chapter of The Wrenchies tells the somewhat-full story of Sherwood's life, as completely as is possible.
Parts of Sherwood's chapter feel poisonous, like the nastiest person possible is putting it together and analyzing his life. That nastiness is so stark that, at first, you believe it. The worst of it comes from a grown-up version of Marsi, one of the five Wrenchies, who repeatedly rejects Sherwood with incredible callousness. This version of Marsi is one of the few things about The Wrenchies that I genuinely disliked. The way she's portrayed and the way she portrays Sherwood both lack any sort of empathy or perspective. Marsi becomes an evil, distant bitch, and not a person at all. Sherwood becomes utterly pathetic, and it seems that the story is telling us to accept that without qualification or depth. The rest of the book shows a strange world that often doesn't quite make sense, and we are asked to follow and watch as characters make their way through it. The book never passes judgment on its characters as it does this; it allows them to make mistakes. But here, the story is very clearly passing judgment on Sherwood, and, in doing so, we lose any ability to empathize with Sherwood or to figure out how he sees things.
But it eventually becomes clear that this isn't some kind of objective judgment. The entire chapter is Sherwood's analysis of himself. He is trying to interpret his own world, standing outside of it and watching himself try to make a world out of feeling isolated and alone. The 10-year-old Sherwood, the one we meet first, floats through the entire chapter, hanging out on the bottom right corner of the page, watching. Eventually, the chapter ends with the Wrenchies completing their quest—to destroy Sherwood—but the chapter preceding somehow makes it feel that an injustice has been committed. I didn't come out of the chapter hating Sherwood and hoping for his destruction. I came out of it wishing that he had treated himself with the same sort of empathy and curiosity as he had the rest of the characters in the book. He can't do this, of course, and that's true to his character, but the lack of perspective still left me queasy because of how pervasive it was. This final chapter was my least favorite part of the book, because it provides no way out, no way to explore. Instead, the chapter gives us an explanation of what the story is supposed to mean, and what we're supposed to receive from it. We aren't allowed to put it together ourselves, and we aren't allowed a chance to create our own meaning from the story.
Hollis' story, meanwhile, is far less influential over the book as a whole, and acts as another piece of the world at large. But it's a piece unlike any of the others, because Hollis is from an entirely different place. Until he enters the world of the Wrenchies, Hollis is a latchkey kid who spends most of his time alone, reading comic books and hoping for a friend. When his mother is there, she seems to tolerate him without really understanding him, but Hollis still loves and relies on her.
His moments have a compassion that is the complete opposite of what Sherwood shows of himself. Like Sherwood, the way Hollis interprets the Wrenchies' world affects how we interpret it. He describes things about the Wrenchies' world as someone who is hopeful and curious, and who belongs, somehow, but who doesn't have the vocabulary to describe what he experiences. The point, though, is that nobody does—that's the way this particular world is. Each of the five Wrenchies has a distinct way of talking about their world, and specific pieces of it that they seem to understand best, but it is clear that they've all grown up in this place together, and that gives them a shared culture that Hollis isn't part of. There is a lot that they don't know, but they aren't discovering it anew in the same way that Hollis is. Hollis never feels like the sixth member of the Wrenchies, because he is literally from a different place. Nevertheless, Hollis's vocabulary is respected and accepted, and he is safe to think and explore in a way he absolutely is not in the place he comes from.
Even though Hollis is not one of the Wrenchies, who are five (still distinct) parts of one unit, he makes up another, different piece of the world. When Hollis finds himself inside the world of his comic book, he starts to cry, because he misses his mother. You could say that Hollis missing his mother is some kind of commentary on the absence of adults in the Wrenchies' world, or that it's there to make him more pathetic and small, or to differentiate him. But, really, it's just another piece of the world—just the part of it that means something to Hollis. The Wrenchies is trying to get us to understand why Hollis is upset and what that means to Hollis, not what it means to the larger structure of the comic. Like us, as readers, Hollis encounters and chooses pieces of the world that hold meaning for him, and has to use those to figure out the rest of the world as best as he can. The other characters comfort him, sort of, but Hollis really has to resolve this sadness for himself. He's the only person there who understands what that loss means to him. It is never quite verbalized, because it isn't necessary for us to strip apart and analyze, but we can feel it and take it in. And the sadness is just a truth about the world that we encounter. It doesn't come with a meaning attached, or an immediate place in the story where it belongs. It's there to contemplate, and to somehow use, but it seems to be up to the reader to determine how to use that truth.
The Wrenchies wants us to remember the pieces we decide to pick up, whatever they may be. It provides a lush environment where these pieces can live, and it lets us get to know characters who are also faced with making sense of the world. Hollis interprets the world in one particular way, since he is there almost by accident and must try to make sense of it through what he has inside himself. Sherwood interprets it in another. He essentially created the world, but it seems to have grown far beyond his knowledge and control, so his understanding of it also comes from trying to understand himself—how could the world be this way? Each of the Wrenchies interprets it in their own way, too, since their post-apocalyptic, fantastic world is the only one they know. The characters help us pick up pieces—not just because they start to order things around themselves, but because they give us a sense of what our role is, as readers and explorers. And, as readers, we must also each find our own way to interpret their world. Usually, and with the sole exception perhaps of Sherwood’s story, The Wrenchies gives us more than enough freedom to do this, and just enough signposts for us to have some clues about where to go. This is a book to read many times, for many reasons: The Wrenchies is stunning.
- Source: http://multiversitycomics.com/reviews/reading-and-deciphering-the-madness-behind-the-wrenchies-with-farel-dalrymple-interviewreview/[return]
- This creates a miniature flipbook, which is wonderful.[return]
Phoebe Salzman-Cohen is an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where she reads a lot of fantasy, a lot of comics, and a lot of Homeric Greek. She likes writing weird stories about fireworks and magical taco trucks, and is in charge of making up storylines for UChicago's games of Humans versus Zombies. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.