OK. Listen: great art is a knife that cuts the material universe open, allowing truth to bleed through the gash. But in order to incorporate a vision of the unknowable into our prosaic world, in order to make it manageable, we have to restrict the flow. So our job as readers is to heal the wound, close the gap. In the magical exchange of storytelling, we are the spell-breakers. We kill the enchantments with our understanding and satisfaction. We close the portals that the great knives open. The scars that are left behind form topographies that we use to map our own artless lives.
This is why you can devour some airport pot-boiler with such immense pleasure and then never think of it again — the spell is simple, and you can unknot it in mere hours, drink up its easy magic like it were Jamba Juice. When it’s done, it’s gone without a trace. There’s plenty of value in that — the world needs easy magic. But the best art refuses to die. The greatest treasure is the riddle with no answer. There are worlds that only unbreakable horses will carry you to. There are wounds that will never heal — stories that we’ll come back to for the rest of our lives, trying in vain to decipher and define.
I cannot kill the magic of THE WRENCHIES, and not for lack of trying. After four readings it hasn’t stopped working its strange will on me. I still see the terrible light shining through its bloody cut. And so my task of explaining it to you is impossible. This book’s majesty is so humbling to me, so much greater than the sum of its ink-and-paper parts, that I cannot write about it without sounding like a manic off his meds. So consider this fair warning: here there be lunatic rantings from a baffled brain and a book-addled heart. That, and spoilers too.
Farel Dalrymple is a good friend, a collaborator and a regular contributor to Locust Moon Press projects, so I am biased in favor of his always-transcendent work. And I was moved by watching him struggle for years to finish THE WRENCHIES — to create, without compromise or cowardice, the exact mind-bending masterpiece that the clamoring synapses of his imagination were demanding of him. It wasn’t easy or pleasant, and there were times, long after every deadline had faded and vanished into the rearview mirror, when it loomed so big and dark and amorphous that it seemed like it might never be done. So while I admit that my enthralled love of this earth-shattering graphic novel is enriched by having watched my friend labor through its difficult, often painful birth, I don’t think I was privy to anything that isn’t etched into the story as plain as day.
Because THE WRENCHIES, behind the scrim of its impressively imagined universe, its byzantine plot and rich, complex mythology, is an act of excruciating love, an outpouring of obsession and honesty and damaged, wishful kindness. Beyond the blood and thunder, underneath its impenetrable genius and forbidding ambition, it’s a book about the longing for communion, the fear of being lost and alone. It’s a tender, achingly sincere story about the desire to connect, and a document of its own joyous & troubled creation. It’s the book where a great cartoonist becomes truly, spectacularly himself, and the book where you can watch him fall apart. THE WRENCHIES isn’t really a book at all. It’s an invocation. A transmission. It’s the best way that Farel Dalrymple knows how to love you.
But hey — I guess I should get around to telling you what the story’s about. Technically I suppose you’d say that it’s a fantastical dystopian YA adventure, that hottest and most zetigeisty of literary genres. At least it’s being marketed as one. In a wrecked future overrun by the demonic Shadowsmen, children are the sole survivors. They live in abandoned squats and underground lairs, banded into gangs, struggling and scraping to survive. The story follows The Wrenchies, the toughest and noblest ragtag kid-militia out there. We hop into their tale in media res, as they move through the desolation bickering, bonding, trying to keep their shit together and fighting for their lives.
Simple set-up. But the primary narrative is just a skim across the surface of a bottomless ocean. Like the rest of Farel’s books, THE WRENCHIES is packed to the gills with mini-plots that go nowhere, brilliant ideas thrown away into the gutters of panels, mysteries that are never solved, whole worlds of feeling, of triumph and tragedy and yearning, suddenly evoked and then immediately abandoned. And while this may be an aesthetic strategy — a calculated attempt to immerse the reader in a chaotic universe and rivet her with disorientation — I choose to view it as a built-in feature of Farel’s storytelling. I think that his worlds and mythologies are so real to him, so thoroughly developed and organically, alchemically alive that he’s not fully aware that we can’t see them too. These stories are unmarked maps: invitations to explore, to play, to root around in this marvelous wreckage. Farel doesn’t ask you to read; he urges you to dream.
Though the incredible care that goes into the artwork and the immersive thoroughness of its imagined universe are apparent from page one, its not until the third of the book’s six chapters that its breadth of scope and horizon-wide vision start to become clear. Hollis, the book’s most memorable and iconic character, doesn’t make his entrance until page 109, when a set piece of true bravura storytelling cuts abruptly away from the apocalyptic narrative to sweep us into the life of a kid from our recognizable, mundane modern world, and in thirty-six pages that rush by like a series of dreams, plunges us so deeply into his troubles and his naive, damaged hopefulness that he immediately takes over as the protagonist of the book.
You can’t help but love this chubby, blushing boy in his home-made superhero outfit, and you can’t help but pity him for his spiritual anxieties and his sweet, helpless brokenness. This weird left turn in the story, this little diversion into a strange kid’s normal life swings with exhilarating momentum and emotional verisimilitude through humiliation, triumph, and heartbreaking sadness, and by the end of the chapter you’re so fully absorbed in Hollis’ story that you’ve sort of forgotten about the apocalypse and the Shadowsmen.
So you’re hanging on for dear life when Hollis is transported (via the authorial portal of a comic book) into the terrible beauty of THE WRENCHIES’ futuristic hellscape, and embraced as a hero and brother-in-arms by The Wrenchies gang, who often murmur encouraging things like, “It’s OK Hollis. Everybody thinks you’re cool!”
Because the Wrenchies’ truest and most insidious enemy is despair itself. They huddle together (“I like the nights best because we sleep in a force field,” Hollis heartbreakingly narrates), a human outpost against the horror of isolation that the ruined world itself seems to embody. “The very air out here seems to imbue everything with failure,” one character says, and the moments of violence and terror seem an almost welcome respite from the vacant weariness and gathering quiet that begins to settle around our heroes like a blanket of ash, slowing their slogging quest nearly to a standstill.
And what is their quest? To kill a man named Sherwood Breadcoat, who proves to be the linchpin and Rosetta stone of this whole perplexing, shrouded mess of myth and magic.
Outside of his starring role in its opening sequence, Sherwood mostly haunts the corners of this story — in references from other characters, little bits of his history and relevance bubbling up here and there — through his strange music, crackling everywhere out of mysterious radios. You can tell that his significance is heavy, and that he’s somehow bound up in the DNA of THE WRENCHIES, but he’s always just off-page, lost in the panel gutters, another one of this book’s endlessly tantalizing hints and ciphers.
Until the final chapter, when he takes the story by storm in another sequence of stunning ambition and narrative energy, identical in length and similar in format to the Hollis sequence from chapter three.
Unstuck in time, we hurtle through the strange and tragic life of Sherwood Presley Breadcoat as it oscillates between the fantastical and the mundane — through stints as a space adventure, an art student, a junior spy, a government functionary, a warrior-priest of the arcanum… and finally, a cartoonist.
Sherwood seems to be a sort of personified sigil linking our reality to the multiverse of terror & beauty that spills out of every corner of this book, and his obligation to keep the world safe from the Shadowsmen weighs heavy and harrowing on his narrow shoulders. He tumbles, damaged and spiritually hungry, through the epic and the enervating alike, always looking for his long-vanished brother Orson, doubting and increasingly hating himself, trying in vain to keep his shit together. Concerns about the fate of the world are juxtaposed against petty, relatable worries and anxieties. (“Oh God, what a creep and an asshole,” he thinks about himself after an awkward encounter with a woman on the subway. He worries about wasting too much water in the shower.) Sherwood is where the obligations of the mythic hero meet the grating, frayed neuroses of a self-loathing modern man, and the confrontation is spectacular, bizarre and heartbreaking.
After decades of fighting & fleeing, hiding & plotting, a thirty-something Sherwood hits on his big plan. It’s an act that demands every ounce of magic that he can summon and then some, and as the breakneck narrative of his life twists and torques, we see the toll that it takes on him: how badly he gets lost on his quest, how horribly he hurts himself, how slowly and inexorably he gives in to the despair. “The protective spells around Sherwood’s apartment begin to weaken because of all the time he spends feeding his own concept of pain.” Yeah. That sounds familiar.
Worst of all, due to the head-spinningly asynchronous narrative structure of THE WRENCHIES, we know as we watch all of this that odd, brutal stuff that his furious efforts are doomed to failure, that the enchantments in his blood and the formidable powers of his imagination will become the dark engine that dooms the world. This is THE WRENCHIES in its purest form — a dangerous and worrisome collision of playful, childish fantasy with a hard-won adult knowledge of how hard and weird the world is, how deep the dark can be, how lost you can get. How far astray you can follow your own heart.
What we’re witnessing amounts to a desperate summoning, an act of sorcery beyond the wizard’s considerable means. THE WRENCHIES wants so badly to pull you into its world, even as its world is collapsing. By the time Sherwood reaches the end of his journey, haggard and drunk and disconnected, lost in a haze of drugs and booze and self-pity, having torn himself apart in a desperate attempt to perform one last great spell, he’s bereft of all perspective and hope.
The romance of his great sorcery has become a thwarted metastasis, a black magic of abjuration and annulment. As all the pipes and passageways of the obsessively diagrammed world of the Wrenchies plug back into one another, loop around and bite back down on their same old weary cycles, this huge and dizzying world begins to contract like a python around its prey.
Finally, as the stability of the story’s diegetic reality holds on by the thinnest of threads, it begins to feel that Sherwood is the source of everything — all pain, all hope, all magic, all beauty and hatred and decay. The many worlds of THE WRENCHIES are just a pile a broken glass, looking back in glinting shards at their creator and perceiver. Universes, real and fictional, are only mirrors. They reflect back exactly what you put in. Sherwood put in everything; so did Farel. And they both reaped the whirlwind.
This bizarre and brilliant book, at its ever-shifting center, is a flight from loneliness and despair. Its most heartbreaking ambiguity is that you never really find out whether Sherwood’s gambit worked, whether his obsessive mesmeric fixation on the beauty and value of this ruined world is an source of salvation or self-destruction. All you know is that this stunning, titanic work is there now, awe-inspiring, maddeningly incomplete, beckoning you back for a second, third, and hundredth reading, looking for the same indeterminate truth that its fictional and actual authors broke themselves trying to trans-substantiate.
Look: it doesn’t take the world’s closest reading or a profound knowledge of Farel’s favored sartorial choices to realize that Sherwood the sweater-clad cartoonist is some kind of authorial avatar. And it doesn’t take much knowledge of his religious upbringing to guess that the life of Hollis is memoir of a different sort.
Farel approaches the cryptic autobiography of the Sherwood & Hollis sections, the dual pillars of this story, with a devastating truthfulness, channeling the powerful currents of fear and faith and hubris and failure that went into the making of this, a book that took five and a half years to craft and swelled to double its intended size. I’m not psychoanalyzing here — Sherwood’s great magical struggle in this story is a struggle to finish drawing a comic book called THE WRENCHIES. It’s shamelessly, fearlessly on the nose. “The biggest flaw in Sherwood’s complicated plan was wasting years drawing a comic book. It took him too long to do all that drawing.”
You don’t expect, at the climax of this timey-wimey interdimensional sci-fi epic, to encounter this sort of unadorned self-exposure and emotional nudity, and you aren’t prepared for it. This brilliant cartoonist, in whose sure hands you’re carried, on whose ocean of vision you’re buoyed, is wondering what the fuck he’s even doing — if there’s any point to any of this. It hits you in the chest. In a fantastical story filled with well-executed tricks and brilliantly deployed tropes, you don’t expect the author to reach his hand through the page like a drowning man, begging to be pulled free.
I think that one of the reasons we read is to practice love. In the safety of our own private homes and our own private minds — both the mind that creates and the mind that receives — we can love without reservation, without fear, without filter through the complex defense mechanisms that protect us by governing our chaotic real-world interactions… the protective spells around our apartments. For a certain bookish sort, this is the truest way of showing who we are — through secret codes and marked-up maps, with sigils and cartoons and inkblots, with wordplay, encryptions, strange punchlines and silent music.
Which brings us back to where we started: to the other side of our role as readers. When we try to break the spell, like I’ve been doing here with relentlessly clumsy analysis and explaining, we are asserting our magic over a story’s, trying to subsume its spiritual energy. Our lust for stories is destructive, wild and hungry. When it swallows a work, the music dies. We cut our connection to its author, hang up the spectral telephone.
But when a story is huge and indestructible, when it draws from a depthless source of internal life and unutterable truth — when its creator hides nothing, sells you nothing, is willing let you ride along in his glorious vast lostness, his fear and confusion — it absorbs our little cantrips and counter-spells as easily as the ocean absorbs a skipped stone. To my awe-struck judgement, the spell easily holds. You can connect to this beautiful book with your whole heart, and yet its power persists. The Wrenchies’ paper universe is as real as ours. Realer, maybe. And we are the lucky readers, spell-breakers turned supplicants, who get to lend it its sustaining magic. That magic is called love, and it’s the only substance stronger than the despair.
It’s OK, Farel. We all think you’re cool.
– Josh O’Neill