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Farel Dalrymple’s The Wrenchies saves the world with the magic of comics

Comics visionary hits a career high point with new graphic novel

Each week, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance. This week, it’s The Wrenchies. Written and illustrated by Farel Dalrymple (Pop Gun War, Omega The Unknown), this graphic novel from First Second is a magical, metafictional exploration of comic-book creation, the pressures of adulthood, and the resilience of youth. Note: This review reveals major plot points.

In Farel Dalrymple’s new graphic novel, The Wrenchies, the pages of a comic book contain a magic spell that summons a group of heroes to save a dystopian Earth. That in-story comic book shares a name with the graphic novel, and in addition to its mystical properties, The Wrenchies #1 also serves as inspiration for a gang of kids and teenagers living in the planet’s decimated future. The Wrenchies is a graphic novel. The Wrenchies is a comic book in the world of that graphic novel. And The Wrenchies are the people who will save humanity if they can reach the source of Earth’s suffering.

Dalrymple’s story operates on multiple levels, building a rich science-fiction world while exploring the emotional turmoil of that process on a comic-book creator as well as the impact that piece of art has on others. The plot is primarily focused on two key characters: Sherwood Breadcoat, the former child adventurer who creates The Wrenchies after his life takes increasingly destructive turns, and Hollis, a young Wrenchies fan who gets sucked into the world of the comic when he catches a magical amulet. Their narratives become more entwined over the course of the graphic novel, and Dalrymple uses these two figures to detail different aspects of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

The story begins with a young Sherwood entering a mysterious cave with his brother Orson and encountering a demon that will change the course of his life from that point forward. That cave represents the adolescent transition from childhood to adulthood, forcefully removing Sherwood’s innocence and introducing him to the despair that will only become more prevalent as he grows older. Sherwood’s adolescence isn’t completely horrible, though, and Dalrymple highlights the thrill of being a teenager through Sherwood’s adventurer phase, which sees him traveling to outer space aboard an alien vessel. Upon his return to Earth, Sherwood has a brief stint as a junior spy, but everything changes once he goes to art school and becomes familiar with how the real world functions.

Through Sherwood, Dalrymple examines the fears and motivations of an artist through a fantastic lens, making one man’s existential crisis an event that has cataclysmic consequences for the entire planet. Sherwood’s struggles as an adult are instantly recognizable: He’s unsure of his talent as an artist, stuck in a soul-crushing job of endless repetition, and afraid of his potential to negatively impact the rest of the world. These issues have a direct impact on his personal relationships, but he’s able to tackle his problems by devoting himself to his comic-book creation, using The Wrenchies as a way to work through his struggles. “Making comics books can be sort of like killing dark elves,” Sherwood thinks while at his drawing board. “Die, bastards.”

There’s an autobiographical element to Sherwood’s story, and in an interview at Multiversity Comics, Dalrymple details how his own time creating The Wrenchies reflected Sherwood’s experience:

My working/writing process is not pretty, a lot of me rolling around on the floor and pulling out my hair whining about how hard making a book is. Towards the end, when Sherwood is having his breakdown, it got very hard on me emotionally and took a toll on my personal life. I try to do some meditating every day and I am aware of how emotionally reactive I can be, but just trying to re-read The Wrenchies… It is hard for me to keep from tearing up. Maybe I put too much of myself in there but hopefully the more fantastic aspects of the story will be diverting to most readers?

The creator’s personal stress is evident in the bleak chapter detailing the events that lead to Sherwood’s fall, but that emotional commitment from Dalrymple is what makes the story so effective. The fantastic aspects of the story don’t necessarily divert attention away from that heaviness, they just dress it up in a way that is more dynamic and riveting than simply detailing the everyday struggle of an adult cartoonist. It helps that Sherwood’s fate is left a mystery for most of the book; after being introduced in the first chapter, Sherwood drifts into the background as Hollis becomes the focal point, allowing the story to embrace a more fun and youthful tone.

Sherwood is a stand-in for the creator, but Hollis is the audience surrogate in this story, an ordinary person who finds himself suddenly transported into the overwhelming sensory experience that is Dalrymple’s interpretation of Earth’s ruined future. Hollis wants to be like the characters he reads about in comics, going so far as to wear a superhero costume as his daily uniform, but neighborhood bullies and his religious upbringing get in the way of Hollis realizing his true heroic potential. When he finds himself in the world of The Wrenchies, he finally has the opportunity to live the life he dreams of, but remnants of his past continue to haunt him, particularly the doubts instilled in him by Christianity.

Just like how Sherwood’s story heightens the feelings of an adult on the verge of a breakdown with its use of fantastic elements, the sensations of childhood are exaggerated in Hollis’ experience. The alienation of being different, the delight of finding a group of people that share your passions, the wonder and confusion of entering a strange new world are all interpreted on a grand scale that combines extraordinary spectacle with intimate emotion. And this spectacle is truly incredible.

Dalrymple is an exquisite visual storyteller, creating immersive environments and hugely expressive characters with imaginative designs that immediately draw the reader into the story. Although they are the central characters, Sherwood and Hollis aren’t always in spotlight, and in the space between introducing Sherwood and introducing Hollis, Dalrymple spends considerable time fleshing out the post-apocalyptic setting that is the stage for most of the book’s action. The atmosphere is immediately unsettling with a barren, dilapidated landscape under a sky that alternates between shades of mustard yellow and bloody orange, but Dalrymple’s world-building skills are showcased in an eight-page sequence primarily composed of silent panels offering evocative snapshots of different locations in this environment. Each image tells its own story through visual details and color, creating an expansive world that will hopefully be further developed in the book’s two planned sequels.

The second chapter is dedicated to The Wrenchies, establishing their ongoing struggle in a world dominated by demonic Shadowsmen and building up the personalities of each member of the gang to ground the plot in relatable human characters. The chapter break shows gang’s lineup, and the first thing that stands out about Dalrymple’s design is just how young these kids look. It can be difficult to draw children who don’t just look like little adults, but Dalrymple’s understanding of anatomy and facial bone structure firmly places The Wrenchies in the preteen age range, and that youth is further highlighted by the characters’ body language and facial expressions.

Capturing the age of The Wrenchies is essential to Dalrymple’s story, a tale about the resilience of youth in a world where adulthood means the sacrifice of individual identity. A comic book plays an essential part in building that resistance, inspiring children to fight before literally giving them the means to turn the tide against the forces of evil through a magic spell hidden in the combination of words and art. The Wrenchies graphic novel may not contain the mystical solution to all of the world’s present-day problems, but it definitely provides a lot of inspiration. As current events take a turn for the worse, the absorption and creation of art becomes a key way of processing troubling emotions, and The Wrenchies is a prime example of how comic books can be used as a therapeutic medium.