The nightmarish vision of our planet’s future offered in veteran illustrator Farel Dalrymple’s THE WRENCHIES is one that feels, despite its fantastic and allegorical elements, eerily accurate. Children, the only humans clever and adaptable enough to survive, wander across a wasted world heaped with trash, forced to learn to scavenge for food and to fight for their lives against the “shadowsmen,” demon-like creatures whose very bodies are composed of thousands of evil-looking insects. Splitting into tribes or gangs, the children live a vicious and desperate existence, learning to wield whatever weapons they happen upon and to eat poison-filled wild animals and demon-created vending machine snacks, all the while popping pills that somehow protect them from the noxious atmosphere.
Among these pint-sized squadrons, no group is more able or noble than the Wrenchies, whose five members --- six, if you count the group’s pet, seemingly a genetic descendent of a cross-bred wolf and lemur --- guard an underground lair that they use to shelter weaker children, from which they often foray to slay as many of the shadowsmen (also called dark elves) as possible. Until, inevitably, they stumble upon a higher calling: ending the horrific reign of the dark elves by destroying the source of their power.
"The true wonder here, though, is Dalrymple’s art. Panel after panel, Dalrymple portrays a crumbling world filled with garbage and reeking of evil that, despite it all, holds an ethereal beauty."
That source is a human named Sherwood Presley Breadcoat, a child who, along with his brother Orson, discovered the first dark elf what may be hundreds of years before --- and by doing so allowed the world to descend slowly into madness. The madness itself, it seems, comes from Sherwood, now an adult, whose depression and obsessive narcissism make him unable to distinguish his reality from that of the rest of the world, and provides him with innumerable potential futures. In one, he is kidnapped by aliens and meets the Scientist --- who also serves as an eventual spirit-guide for the Wrenchies --- and falls in love with an alternate dimension’s version of the Wrenchie known as Marsi. In another, he and a different Marsi serve as superheroes employed by the government.
In yet another world --- perhaps the most important --- Sherwood is a sorcerer and comics artist who creates a graphic novel called, of course, The Wrenchies, starring a wholly separate superhero team of the same name. These original Wrenchies are, in fact, low-lives Sherwood convinced to leave their true lives and become imprisoned in a crystal, to be woken when the world needed them to help save it. He also wills this crystal to a lonely, nerdy child, Hollis, who discovers the world of the child Wrenchies through it, and must help them to save Sherwood --- who, after an alcohol-fueled descent into regret and madness, was captured by the shadowsmen and now serves as their source of power.
Confused yet? You’re likely not alone. Sherwood’s multiple realities pop in and out of the story, which is told in a style utterly doing away with any linear sense of time. In a way, this serves the book well --- the unsettling effect it has certainly seems to be much of the point, and parallels Sherwood’s hallucinatory depression and the excessive drug use throughout. The book clearly rewards re-reads, and often pokes fun of its own labyrinthine nature; early in the book, a child named Fortune makes a brief appearance or two in the world of the child Wrenchies, only to appear later as adult Sherwood’s best friend. A hint, perhaps, that this world is all just a dream of one of Sherwood’s many potential lives.
While these pieces are fascinating, they aren’t always rewarding. The story tends to get lost in its own twists and turns, and occasionally seems to grasp desperately for explanation. This explains excessively dialogue-laden chapters like the fourth, in which the Scientist details to the best of his ability the anti-reason behind this multiverse’s mad happenings. The story also follows more than a dozen characters who are ostensibly central to the plot, yet only a few are developed, and even those in a way that is only partially satisfying. Perhaps the perfect example here is Tad of the child Wrenchies, who is one of only the few characters featured on the cover — and who does not speak a word throughout the entire work.
Although the story can frustrate, the world-building is too complex not to impress. The true wonder here, though, is Dalrymple’s art. Panel after panel, Dalrymple portrays a crumbling world filled with garbage and reeking of evil that, despite it all, holds an ethereal beauty. His range, too, is astounding. The numerous realities involved in the work require a gentle blurring of lines between one world and the next, and there are just the right number of visual cues allowing the reader to see how the pieces fit. His characters, too, tend to change visually from panel to panel, an inconsistency that seems deliberate. It hammers home the uncertainty that fills this world and ours, mirroring the bizarre uncertainty of childhood and the mixed blessing that is growing up.
Reviewed by John Maher on July 23, 2014