Welcome back to our countdown to the Small Press Expo (SPX) this weekend, where we talk to some of the many unique creators who’ll be at the show. Today, we talk to the mind behind one of the year’s most acclaimed – and surreal – new graphic novels.
The Wrenchies are a kid gang in a post-apocalyptic future where adults have been turned into children-hunting monsters. Years ago, they were in a comic written by Sherwood, who was forever traumatized when he and his brother discovered evil magical beings in a cave. The comic was read by Hollis, a young boy in NYC who tends to dress as a superhero, and finds himself drawn through time and space to join his heroes. And somehow, this will all make sense in the end.
That’s the world of The Wrenchies, the new graphic novel from First Second that’s been an intensely personal labor of love for writer/artist Farel Dalrymple (Image’s Prophet, Marvel’s Omega the Unknown, the webcomic It Will All Hurt). The Wrenchies represents his most elaborate project yet – one that combines the surreal, dreamlike quality of his other works with multiple genres of story and a tale that uniquely reflects his own fears, hopes and dreams. You can read a short story set in its world here.
With The Wrenchies out this week in comic shops and available at SPX, we talked to Dalrymple about his work.
Newsarama: Farel, congratulations on getting The Wrenchies out there – you’ve been talking about this book and posting pages online for several years now. How long did it ultimately take you to do the complete 300+ written, penciled, inked, lettered and colored pages, and what was the most challenging part of putting the story together?
Farel Dalrymple: About five years, not counting some preliminary sketches and the plot and pitch stuff. The most challenging part was deciding what to leave out, also not getting overwhelmed by the amount of work I had to do, and how behind on everything I was.
Nrama: And it's an interesting format -- I was curious about your experience working with First Second on this, because that color scheme, the heavier paper, that's a key part of the feel of the story with the use of negative space throughout.
Dalrymple: Yeah, I knew from the get-go I wanted The Wrenchies to be on nice matte paper and not shiny glossy stuff. First Second has a standard size that most of their books are printed at, which is cool with me because previous books of mine (Pop Gun War and Delusional) have been around that size.
So I knew that going in, and worked on the pages with that knowledge. The negative space thing is something I think about quite a bit – the logical design part of my brain knowing a good amount of negative space is arresting and refreshing, but the obsessive and fun part of my brain wanting to fill every square panel with a lot of detail and slow people down.
I try to get a good balance, but I am afraid the art comes off a little too busy for even my own sensibilities. I am always telling myself to “simplify.” I should listen to myself more.
Nrama: I'm curious about the painted colors – I’ve seen your work in color on other projects, but there's a very meticulous quality to the work here that gives it a unique perspective. It's a darker pallet, giving everything this faded quality, but it's also clear that it's new work.
Dalrymple: Yeah, my colors get a little muddy at times, but I usually try to keep them generally subdued and not too intense so I can control the reader’s focus a little. That is all just from painting so much, and trying to look at other artists and re-learn things over the years.
Some of the brighter pages printed a little darker than I would have liked but I was warned that probably might happen. I tried to keep a lot of them light, but I didn’t want to start messing with them too much in Photoshop. I thought it was better that they stay in as raw of a state as I could get them.
But watercolors and printing are a tricky mix. I am not a production expert by any means, but I scanned all the pages myself, and as tedious as that sort of thing can be, I am glad I was the only person really messing with them. I was stoked on the matte paper though, so if the guts came out a little dark because of that, then that is an okay price to pay for me.
Plus, the dark tone of the book fits decently with the murkier palette, I think.
Nrama: The book has such a unique perspective, in that the events of it could be happening, or could be in the heads of these different characters, but the main importance is just that these nightmarish events ARE playing out, and we want to see what happens.
Is there, to your way of thinking, one "right" way to put together the story? Because I look at the different parts, and to get pretentious, it's like the more I learn, the less I know.
Dalrymple: The metatextual aspect to the story is something that developed a lot more as I was working on it, especially as I was getting closer to the end.
I knew from the get-go how the story would end, and that I wanted to play with time and the standard comics form, but most of the “what is reality?” stuff came out me being so immersed in this bizarre world and the scarier places of my own ego. Sherwood’s struggle with making a comic book and his anxieties came directly from my own and challenges on finishing the darn book.
I am very interested in perspective, dreams, and philosophy, and the different ways people perceive reality, and movies and books that have those things as an aspect to the story. I love work of the director David Lynch, who conveys atmosphere and feeling very well, I think.
The brilliant cartoonist Al Columbia created some deeply disturbing work that I couldn’t get out of my head. The Biologic Show bothered me so much when I first read it, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kind of wanted to have that effect on readers without alienating anyone too much. Dave Cooper’s Dan and Larry book felt like that to me as well. I love everything about that book.
Nrama: And the Wrenchies are kind of interesting in that they're a kid gang, but one that's trying to live up to the IDEA of a kid gang -- this version from the comics, and almost what's expected of a violent group of survivors in this type of world.
Dalrymple: Yeah, they are just kids trying to get by in their own weird world of violence and no grown-ups. They just happen to be “the best there is at what they do.” Sorry to paraphrase Wolverine and Chris Claremont.
Mostly though, the way those kids interact with each other and their world is all directly influenced by the 1979 film Over the Edge. That movie is a big reason I started drawing that particular gang. The old Star Trek episode “Miri” (one of my favorites) was also a springboard of their development.
Nrama: In one sequence, comics are spoken of as a sort of spell. Is this something you believe in, and if so, could you elaborate on this?
Dalrymple: Not a “sort-of” a spell – that was supposed to be straight up magic and Sherwood is a full-on hard-core wizard. Making a comic book was just one way he weaved spells. I don’t really believe in magic or any metaphysical stuff at all but all that was supposed to be metaphors for growing up, regret, loneliness, and the transformative power of art and comic books.
I grew up very religious, like praying in tongues and stuff like the Hollis character deals with, so a lot of “magic” in there was also a way of exorcising those weird demons for me. There is one part where Hollis does a rap and the Scientist calls it “real magic.” Everyone is moved by Hollis’s performance and in turn make him feel elated with their appreciation. It is like the Holy Ghost making him speak in tongues of angels.
It is one of the most positive and un-cynical moments in the story. If any sort of magic does exist, I think it is that sort of thing.
Nrama: I could ask about your influences, but it's tricky -- there's aspects of childhood growing up in the '80s, for example, there's the Time Tunnel, D&D, the X-Men, Frankenstein's monster/the Golem, things like KISS mixing their blood in with their comics' ink...what are some things people might not recognize as homage in the story that are particularly unique and meaningful to you?
Dalrymple: Not that any KISS fan would care what I think, but I thought that blood thing was sort of lame because they just put it in the printing ink, and I think it wasn’t for the whole print run. I even heard a rumor that it went to some other book by mistake or something. It was sort of B.S. too that it didn’t cost them anything of import. I admire the thought behind it but in the end it was just a publicity stunt.
You should have to pay more of price in a magic spell than just dumping a tiny vial of blood on someone else’s hard work. They didn’t have to freaking draw that comic. Sherwood wrote and drew and sweated and bled all over his book. That is real blood sacrifice.
The Time Tunnel, however, was a straight-up rip-off by me. I was fascinated with that show as a kid and “the vortex” was modeled right off of there.
There are so many weird little pop culture references in The Wrenchies, some more obvious than others I hope, but I am glad you got that one.
X-Men and D&D were big deals to me a little guy for very different reasons. I loved the former and was terrified of the later. My childhood self was very afraid of being possessed by the devil, so I didn’t really play D&D proper until I was older. MY best buddy and I used to play the Marvel Superheroes RPG, Star Wars, and a bunch of G.U.R.P.S. modules.
There are so many things in that book that were really personal to me that it is hard to pick and choose which ones I hoped people would get or not. I could go through it page-by-page with someone and point out all the hidden things, but then might the spell lose some of its power?
Nrama: What's also interesting to me about the story is it's about the anxieties of adulthood intruding on the world of childhood fantasy, in ways that are both literal and metaphorical. What's meaningful to you about that theme?
Dalrymple: Anxiety, depression, and fear are things I live very close with, so most of that stuff is very literal. A few years ago a friend of mine introduced me to the books and philosophy of Eckhart Tolle, and that helped me deal with a lot of that sort of thing, and it still does when I remember to use it.
I know it isn’t for everyone though; I don’t try to preach to people about it. We all have our own journey, but one thing I struggle with is over-thinking everything. It is nice to remind myself not to think so much. It helps sooth my brain and not get all worked up over meaningless stuff.
Stuff like the Shadowsmen Sherwood always has to deal with is probably one of the more obvious metaphors about the troubles and evils of this world, and those problems we create for ourselves with just our cluttered brains.
Nrama: I was also curious about some of the wide/cutaway shots you use for establishing different locations throughout the story -- do you have a favorite, and which was the most challenging to draw/plan?
Dalrymple: I got to say, none of those were difficult for me. That was easily the most fun stuff to work on. I like that they offer a break from the text, and help build that odd world without using feeble words to have to describe it.
Some of them were inspired by different artists like Moebius, some from photographs and landscapes, some just out of my head. My favorite is probably the garbage can panel, the last panel on page 215, which came from my dreams.
Nrama: I was also interested in the Shadowmen. They're very adult in their look and feel, and it's creepy how they literally get into the kids' heads. What was the biggest inspiration for them?
Dalrymple: I called them “ShadowSmen” with an “S” in the middle. I figured “Shadowmen” was so generic that there had to be something somewhere already called that, and I didn’t want to rip anyone off. My girlfriend reads a lot of sci-fi and fantasy stuff. About halfway through my story she was reading a book, a Terry Brooks novel, I believe, where there were creatures very similar to mine called “shadowmen.” So it was good I added that middle “s,” I guess. I have never read any of his stuff, and their name really wasn’t all that important to me.
Call them “demons,” or “dark elves”, or “night creeps”…whatever. It was more important to me what they represented, rather than whatever their silly label is. They aren’t supposed to have an identity, really.
The looks of the night creeps, though, I did pretty much steal from the movie Dark City, which is one of my favorite weird fantasy films.
Nrama: I'm curious about the book being marketed as YA -- not so much for darkness and violence, but do you feel teens will be able to connect to it on a psychological level? Dalrymple: Yeah, that was a bit strange for me not having thought about it at all while I was working on the book. I did wonder if anyone was going to like the book, struggled with a lot of doubt and insecurity, but it was just a story I needed to tell, you know?
First Second knows what they are doing with marketing and distribution and all that, so I trust their judgment, but there was the “I don’t like labels, man” part of me that was thinking The Wrenchies is nothing like teen vampire romance or whatever thing I have judgments about.
But then I realized that some of my favorite books, like Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War, are YA books. Human beings brains work by comparison and analogy, so I understand the desire to label something to market it easier, but yeah, sometimes it is difficult for me to be put in a category.
I tend to freak out a little over the fear of being misrepresented, but Gina at First Second helped me out a lot with that and it seems like calling that is a good way to get people to look at The Wrenchies.
This is the first book I made with swearing in it. There is some gory violence and even some drug use stuff I was afraid that more uptight parental units might have some problems with, even though most kids have seen way worse on TV, movies and the Internet.
My sister let her kids read it, and she said they really enjoyed it. My Christian mom probably doesn’t care for some of the more secular parts of the story, but I think even she realizes that it all comes out of honesty and from a deep place and can’t deny that the Bible has a lot of screwed up stuff in it, way worse than anything I put down on paper.
As far as connecting with some of the more crazy aspects of Sherwood’s psychosis, good lord I hope no teenager connects with that too much. But hopefully the visual elements will excite people of all ages to keep turning the pages and not be put off the intensity.
Most of my favorite things I watched as a young person I didn’t really “get,” but it didn’t matter. I never got too deep on why liked stuff, just knew I liked what I liked. I can’t let myself worry about it too much. I can easily spiral downward into some stressful territory if I let myself.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Dalrymple: Working on three things right now:
I am drawing/lettering/coloring The Earfarmer, a sci-fi romance for DHP with writer Chris Stevens.
I am serializing the Pop Gun War sequel in Brandon Graham’s Image Comics Island anthology.
And I need to get back to wrapping up my web series, It Will All Hurt on Study Group comics.
Farel Dalrymple will be at table G1 at SPX with The Wrenchies and his other works.
Next: Cartooning legend Jules Feiffer does his first graphic novel with Kill My Mother! And later: Eleanor Davis shows us How to Be Happy!