KEITH SILVA: In The Wrenchies Farel Dalrymple means business; he's an artist after all.
Here there be monsters, dystopic landscapes and children bearing bloody swords, good throwing rocks and sci-fi shooting irons. Thick with themes and thoughts, imagination and demons (both fictional and personal) The Wrenchies grasps its reader and demands a blood oath and a pinky swear.
Like ideas, Wrenchies survive.
On its face, The Wrenchies offers up a story of redemption and atonement, but for whom is another story altogether. The framing narrative concerns a series of unfortunate events in the life (lives?) of motherless adventurer, cartoonist, narcissist, drug addict, demon-slayer, self-hating 'sellout government spook,' Sherwood Presley Breadcoat. The many aspects (yes, there are still others) of SPB's character speak to this complicated yet also straight-forward narrative writ large. Complicated because of how Breadcoat's story knits into the (at times very meta) adventures of a team of adolescent ass-kickers, the Wrenchies. Their whimsical and grotesque exploits get the reader so damn high as to want to slap on a Wrenchies patch and start decapitating snap brim fedora wearing demons (Dalrymple would clean up on the con circuit selling Wrenchie patches, if so, cut us in for 20% and we can all buy private islands).
To balance off all the decapitations, Dalrymple provides an analogue to Sherwood — who it could be argued is a stand-in for Dalrymple — in the character of Hollis. Another misfit, Hollis is familiar to readers of Dalrymple's Delusional. Here, Hollis embodies innocence and childlike wonder, the opposite of the Wrenchies post-apocalypse-survivalist-tedium. Hollis wears a superhero costume. He loves comics, his mom, Rich Little and television in equal measure. As a pudgy sweetheart of a nerd, Hollis stands as both author/audience surrogate. The Wrenchies would work without him, but to cut out such a darling seems cruel. Hollis is a prime example of the overcrowded nature of the narrative and yet (somehow) he is integral if only to give the reader something tangible, recognizable.
The combination of nostalgic childhood reverie and blood-pumping action distracts from Breadcoat's search for peace of mind and to feel like he fits, somewhere … anywhere. Or is it the other way around? Dalrymple can't seem to decide who's story he wants the reader to follow. Breadcoat's origin becomes the breadcrumb trail the reader follows and yes, it (eventually) leads to possible resolution(s), but in its rabbit-hole complexity something gets lost in the translation. The soul of The Wrenchies is the search for meaning and tranquility in the chaos of … well … everything. So, why so much complicated stuff?
One of the signatures of Dalrymple's cartooning is the inventory, a visual roll call that uses arrows and asides to introduce characters, plot points and gear. This approach puts him on par with Wes Anderson, another storyteller obsessed with stuff and its proximity to other stuff. Dalrymple and Anderson's use of inventories allows for character and world building while it also mirrors the way children construct meaning in order to make sense of the world around them. Whether it's a long box, a shoe box or a Darth Vader shaped case to carry Star Wars action figures, each of these items helps bring order to the chaos. For the reader the trick becomes dowsing what means the most in all the fetishized bric-a-brac.
For children (and adults), there is holiness to stuff, some stuff. Children hold certain items sacred. These sacred items are often kept side-by-side with the trivial and the mundane. A favorite toy (or comic book) rests side by side with a lollipop wrapper which abuts a third-place ribbon. Which is the sacred and which the forgettable? The only way to divine meaning is through trust, the kind of trust children show to one another. No one trusts like a child. The trust found between children is the acceptance of all things as they are because that's what they are. Dalrymple shows the same kind of trust with his readers, he hopes they will comb through the stuff of The Wrenchies and see (some of?) what he sees: the curtain (the partition), who's behind it and the sacred heart that beats beneath the surface(s). For the impatient or those unfamiliar or with Dalrymple this roundabout style of storytelling is demanding not to mention exhausting; however, for those in the Dalrymple Army it reinforces the faith, maybe.
Serialized storytelling and convolution go hand-in-hand especially when it comes to comic books. Dalrymple (like Anderson) never loses sight of why we read comics and watch movies in the first place: entertainment. So he couches his tale of a lonely misfit, Breadcoat, among other tales of lonely misfits, the Wrenchies and Hollis, in what else, a comic book.
In a bit of meta-non-ironic-eye-rolling-irony a member of the Wrenchies — the tacit Tad — finds a discarded copy of a comic book entitled, yep, The Wrenchies. This The Wrenchies is, of course, not a comic about the adventures of Tad and his fellow adolescent Wrenchies who live in a blasted dystopia (over)stuffed with trash, demons, illegal radios, pills, boffo underground clubhouses, Shadowsmen, zombies, wizards and wizard-demons, but an older adult version of Wrenchies who battle for the fate of humanity in a similar setting. In comic book pretzel logic that would make Jack Kirby beam with pride, these senior Wrenchies are the souls of five humans whom Sherwood magically embedded in a ''sub-atomic training world'' inside the amulet he finds in the cave where he kills his first demon and sets this frames-within-frames-Rube-Goldberg-like-contraption of a comic book in motion. Dalrymple offers up a story that's part action and adventure, part bildungsroman, part meta-narrative, part romance and part redemption. Who to follow (and why) gets displaced by the sheer manic energy of the whole. Dalrymple is hyper aware of his message and the medium (comics). Perhaps this is why he goes so far as to have one of the Wrenchies say, ''Well, they're [comics] not for everybody.'' Why make this statement? Maybe it's a kind of notice, a warning to unbelievers: KEEP OUT! Perhaps it's another layer in the stratum of The Wrenchies, comics as manifesto.
From a distance, all of this 'Wrenchies stuff,' some of it sacred, some of it cool because it's cool, some of it unnecessary is what Dalrymple asks the reader to place their trust in and pledge allegiance to. A covenant between Dalrymple (the artist, the creator) and the reader that says take from whatever is at hand, comic books with meta-overtones, science-fiction, quest narratives, laser pistols, swords and rocks, romance and demons and make something, anything, even if (and especially if) it doesn't work or seems cumbersome. Find the meaning.
Above all, create.
It's a hell of a thing to ask a reader? Does this invitation to invention make for a good a story or is it a collection of stuff set within a thin framework, coolness without context?
DAVID FAIRBANKS: The Wrenchies is all about truth, and the most important truths tend to resist simplicity. In the world Dalrymple has crafted, adults are virtually nonexistent. While our initial chapter introducing Breadcoat is clearly set in the past, the introduction of the young Wrenchies set in the future, Hollis set in some kind of present, and the senior Wrenchies living in some parallel fictional world, human adults exist almost solely on the periphery. And the non-human adults? They exist to corrupt the youth with a despair-inducing touch, adding to their ranks all but the lucky few teens who survive contact. Dalrymple brings us a classic warning against the pitfalls of adulthood through a string of different genres, and though I would agree that Breadcoat's narrative gets a bit lost in the story, I would say that the titular Wrenchies and their fight against their forthcoming adulthood represents the core of the book, with Breadcoat's story serving more as a framing device.
I greatly enjoyed what Dalrymple was laying down with The Wrenchies, and his style is perfect for this kind of post-apocalyptic world, so much so that there are a handful of pages that are filled with nothing but landscapes of the young Wrenchies' world that feel like Dalrymple just playing around. It reminds me quite a bit of what I expected from The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, except with greater depth and world building. I think my only real complaint about The Wrenchies comes in the form of Hollis; simultaneously a stand-in for the merits of the lighthearted superhero as savior and a potential fiction suit for Dalrymple (his soul torn between Hollis and Breadcoat), Hollis himself isn't the problem. Having an entire chapter dedicated to the character felt beyond excessive, though, and it was tough to slog through it.
And while I won't disagree with your point about Dalrymple's covenant with the reader, the inclusion of comic books, secret radio stations, and records played backward as a weapon against the adults struck a chord with me. These are the kinds of things a young Farel Dalrymple was likely told would pave the road to hell, and using them as the prime tools for informing and educating the youth on how to save themselves and the world feels incredibly appropriate. Punk rock, comic books, and happy thoughts can save you from the plague of adulthood; that's a thesis I can get behind.
SILVA: Truth, yes, but at what cost?
One of The Wrenchies more fanciful and undeveloped dangling threads is the notion, ''every spell has it's [sic.] cost.'' For example, Shakey loses the little finger on his right hand in order to fix his magical orbs and Tad has to cut off his own right hand to stave off corruption and (certainly) death. Each decision requires a sacrifice to survive. Then again, what choice did either boy have given that death is on the line (and I don't believe either of them is Sicilian)?
Where's the truth in this Logan's Run meets Peter Pan world of the Wrenchies where the teachers have left the classroom and the kids are left to pick through ''the piles'' to survive in order to, as you say, David, survive the 'plague of adulthood?' Is Dalrymple's point that the fight is worth fighting even if it's unwinnable? Perhaps Dalrymple's point is simple: as long as the Wrenchie-ness survives, that's enough.
Perhaps those artifacts (all that stuff) like comics, records and radios are present to remind the reader what was once cool, still is, even if you have to grow up. The Wrenchies remain (or survive) as children. They either end up on spaceships or time machines and almost all of them become ''space rocket jet pilots,'' a good gig if you can get it. In The Wrenchies it's (sorta') good to be a kid. And yet there's still more … like Sherwood and all those lives he lives and all those epilogues, all those ideas …
About those 'handful of pages,' you mention, David, filled with nothing [my emphasis], but landscapes. The plot may be unwieldy and imperfect in its intention, but those landscapes and all of Dalrymple's visual storytelling — his cartooning, colors and design — is sublime. There's a Miyazaki-quality to those landscapes. The kind of world-building that comes from water droplets slipping and dripping off leaves in My Friend Totoro or Princess Mononoke. In The Wrenchies these moments appear as staircases to nowhere, derelict robots and all those crows. Frames so full of stuff, beautiful, gorgeous stuff, it makes it tough to know where to start to look, what to leave behind and what to use going forward as the reader makes his or her way through the narrative.
The Wrenchies is very much about the importance of place; and even though all its narrative places don't meet at perfect right angles, the image of ''the Wrenchies secret underground base'' is a marvel of invention and that idea of the messiness of creation expressed throughout the book.
This cutaway image warms the soul of the inner-Hollis is all of us. Similar images of the S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters or the X-mansion or the Baxter building are indicative of the power comics have to elicit imagination. Sure the Wrenchies hideout comes complete with a target range, dormitories, an art studio, an obstacle course and a tree growing (underground) and up through the floor. It also has a jail cell, doors that lead to who-knows-where, a spiral staircase, a guitar, an aquarium and lots of wrenches scattered about. So much stuff. What it all means and how it fits together almost doesn't matter because … 'secret underground base.' For me, this image captures the beautiful chaos of The Wrenchies. It all looks so cool, even if it doesn't totally make sense … that's art and Dalrymple is a serious artist.
FAIRBANKS: That's one thing that I don't think anyone will dispute: Dalrymple is one of the most skilled artists working in comics, from the landscapes to the diagrams to his characters' outfits, and every page of The Wrenchies helps to build this wonderful world he's crafted. I also think we're both in agreement that as far as narrative is concerned, the book could use a little work. But what The Wrenchies lacks in narrative clarity it makes up for in consistency of theme, but I believe I may have misspoken a bit before. The Wrenchies is not a treatise on how to fight against the onset of adulthood –that's an inevitability after all — but rather on how to fight against the societal idea of adulthood.
The common view of adulthood is that it is a boring place filled with bills, a 9-to-5, and mundanity, where the interesting bits of the story end at finding “the one,” perhaps getting married, or at the very most having a child. Now, if you talk to actual adults who have actually gone through these and other major life events, you'll know this is only true for the boring ones. But the narrative persists. And in that narrative of white picket fences and children and dogs and practical four-door sedans, comic books are not allowed. Music is not allowed, aside from perhaps whatever is playing on the classic rock station. There is no fun, no soul, no adventure, just the slow steady march to oblivion.
And that idea of adulthood is such a tremendous problem, because it causes people to think ''well, I'm an adult now, I guess I should give up these childish things.'' The Wrenchies campaigns against that, giving the kids the power to become adults without succumbing to that plague of adulthood brought on by the men in fedoras. And it's because this feels like an important message that I give the book a bit of a pass on the narrative dragging on through the Hollis chapter as well as the general disorganized feel I had through most of the latter half of The Wrenchies. I wish it were better, though. It feels like Dalrymple's best work comes when he's collaborating and has someone to rein him in a bit.
SILVA: Art makes for a tricky business and understanding art makes fools of us all. Maybe what it means to be a Wrenchie — to Wrenchie or not to Wrenchie, sorry — is to understand, ''… they're not for everybody.'' Such a sentiment feels too absolute, too much of an all-or-nothing schoolyard dare. I choose to think of 'wrenchie' as a verb, not a thing, but an action. Take what's needed from experience, the good, the bad and the in between and act, do something. If a few screws are left over at the end and some of what you've built is still wonky, no worries; that's art, that's wrenchie.