By Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe
There are many ways to look at a city. A living, breathing organism. A jungle. A collage. A melting pot. A bustling metropolis of ideals. Well, sometimes, a city’s nothing more than a meat grinder. And all that chuck left behind on those streets that everyone forgot about until that hip new coffee place with the single-origin beans opened up? Those are people out there. Some of those people got some vices, sure, but that just means they need help. They’re people that no one chooses to see until they’re chewed up for good. Welcome to The Dregs, a gentrification repudiation by way of the hardest of hard boiled noir. A tightly written, deftly aware mystery tale in an intricate and finely crafted visual package, The Dregs #1 takes a look at trying to escape the inescapable. For those that get ground down, you’re either waiting to get eaten or you retreat into another world until you do.
Nadler and Thompson’s script is inescapably, unabashedly noir and unlike the legions of genre mash-ups titles out there touting their premises as space noir or time travel noir or fantasy noir, this one isn’t some derelict noir or itinerant noir. No, Nadler and Thompson wear their influences proudly and present us with some richly concentrated noir in the tradition of Hammett, Spillane, and, of course, Chandler. It is just dripping in that succinct internal dialogue, shaggy dog trail, mystery woman in a haze of smoke, vice laden, shadowy goodness. The Dregs #1 is eminently self-aware of its references and its reverence for them (it’s last line literally says “The big sleep” for instance), which typically runs the risk of becoming grating or trite, but Thompson and Nadler inject a refreshing sincerity via the larger social commentary at work.
Vancouver’s East Hastings neighborhood is all too real and tragic (read about it for yourself), so setting a fictional story in these environs (nicknamed “The Dregs” in the comic) is a delicate task, lest it read as exploitative or insensitive to actual suffering. Nadler and Thompson navigate those streets well, however, and The Dregs #1 blends the harsh reality, evoking empathy and reflection in several instances, with a compelling detective yarn and a particularly blunt and gruesome metaphor.
Arnold, our homeless detective protagonist is given depth via his contrasts. Like many from the archetype he’s molded after, he’s 1) not a particularly good detective and 2) an amalgam of cynicism and idealism. While attempting to discover what happened to his missing friend he stumbles into a far larger conspiracy where the ripples of gentrification have dire consequences. Yet Arnold, ever trapped in between worlds, can’t escape the reality of being ground up and eaten by an insatiable process, so he escapes via drugs and his novels. The drugs are his cynical approach to the circumstances, meeting society’s expectations and the novels an idealistic drive towards fulfillment and purpose. He dithers from one aspect to the next, thinking, “I’ll never be one of them. Can’t…cause I got a problem I don’t wanna solve” only to push forward again driven by “If I read and walk a lot, I’ll go far and learn a lot.” His favorite novel, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye includes the line, “The average man is tired and scared, and a tired, scared man can’t afford ideals” which is about as cynical as it gets. Except Arnold is no average man, he’s been ground up and he’s ground himself up, and even still, he maintains a sense of wonder.
Eric Zawadzki is the realest of deals. The script is tightly written and the premise intriguing, but that wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world if not for the beautiful and clever layouts crafted by Zawadzki. There’s a distinct cinematic flair to the proceedings, from the double-page spread title card lighting to the sharp perspective flutters of upshots and downshots. Zawadski’s rendering style dictates the tone wonderfully with its stocky figures, blocky shadows, and attentive texturing, but it’s his storytelling that really impress. This issue is loaded with details (there’s nearly always great background business happening, like an overdose victim being removed by EMTs over the course of a page) and the innovative layouts constantly delight. Incorporating the panel grid onto a city street map works far better than it has any right to and the inspired choice to alternate between ruled and hand drawn panel lines mirrors the uneasy existence between two very distinct walks of life to great effect. But most importantly, Zawadzki makes the city feel alive. It’s a character as much as any other in this book and a fundamental element of both the commentary and the mystery. The harsh glow of neon signs, the serpentine pipes, the unavoidable debris, the graded slope of an alley floor, all of it adds the din of a living city. Props to Zawadzki for also lettering the issue and extra props to him for those hand lettered signs found throughout.
A significant portion of that sense of life given to the city is attributable to Dee Cunniffe’s coloring. Sponging on grime and grit to every wall (and many of the book’s populace) and utilizing a slightly muted palette adrift in daytime rusts, evening mauves, and nighttime azures, Cunniffe is as much a storyteller as his collaborators. It is a soiled world we’re in as the colors constantly remind without ever being overwrought and lets for moments like the porcelain skinned mystery woman’s appearance to hit the perfect note when contrasted with the pocked and blotchy Arnold. The noir aesthetic is so reliant on lighting and Cunniffe permeates several scenes with those distinct crisp shadow lines and small patches of intense light in satisfying fashion.
The Dregs is where you can find the city’s chaff while texting on your phone on your way to that new Bikram yoga spot right across from the crack den. It’s where the forgotten people got displaced to begin with but now we need to displace them somewhere else, but there is nowhere else. Hell, we’ve already ground ‘em up, might as well move on to the next logical step of the meal. Nadler, Thompson, Zawadzki, and Cunniffe have a meticulously crafted book from top to bottom that invites you into a thoroughly realized world, grimy though it may be. The Dregs #1 is a potent debut that’s steeped in noir and layered with turmoil both internal and external, fictional and all too real.
The Dregs #1 will be release January 25th from Black Mask Studios