By Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe
“This isn’t how the story’s supposed to end,” Arnold laments when he’s reached that point of the tale where there are no neatly wrapped boxes and the chickens don’t ever really come home to roost. But then again, it’s the only way it could have. The Dregs stays true to its beautifully saturated noir core (though it is so much more than just a genre romp) and delivers the fatalism, paranoia, and sadism with aplomb; and yet, it’s the injection of a sliver of hope that makes it sing. The Dregs has been about the lies we tell ourselves and it’s been about the city which takes on a life of its own, and of course it’s also been about the ugly truths that run through the veins of all the above. Here, in its conclusion, The Dregs allots for the tiniest rays of acceptance and optimism to shine through the cracks of its well-worn cynical armor. Everyone has played the roles they were meant to play and Arnold faces all the truths that hit as hard as an entire city block falling down on you, but when the last page turns and you stand listening to footsteps long since faded, it’s about caring when nobody else does.
The first page of the first issue showed us the changing landscape of Vancouver, a city evolving like a living organism. Then, it took us into the back room of La Mancha where the metaphor for what fed the city’s transformation was laid bare in all its sanguine pulp glory. Here, in the final issue, we open on La Mancha once more. In its native tongue, “mancha” means “stain” and thus we have the affluent glitz of a stain on the city’s tapestry here where Arnold comes to meet all the ugly truths. Here, Nadler and Thompson’s script transcends the well-established socioeconomic commentary and ventures forth into more meta-contextual realms. The commentary, by design, hits with the subtlety of a hard boiled detective’s knuckles. Our hero, our archetype, confronts corruption face to face in the belly of the stained beast like so many of his predecessors and the heft of the gut punch he receives reverberates long after the ending.
A mania borne from narcotics, desperation, and instincts is proven to be heartbreakingly astute as the mayor confirms that they, the powers that be, started listening to the city and not the people. There it is. The heart of the problem at the heart of the beating city. Nadler and Thompson’s dialogue is as earnest and sobering as ever here, as the terse noir back-and-forths play out like a boxing match. A punch-drunk Arnold then witnesses and succumbs to a city that keeps changing as it literally changes to envelop him, and in turn, those he represents. Nadler and Thompson have structured a story within a story within an all too real-world story and the bold choice to have our would-be Marlowe realizes he’s drowning in the pages of the story is both surprising and absolutely the only way to close out the tale. It’s a beautiful blend of the poetic and the painful, a testament to Nadler and Thompson’s shrewd sense of balance and structure that we’ve witnessed from that first page of issue #1. We’ve seen the ghosts all along, read our narrators thoughts and manic suspicions, and now finally, the patterns converge together and the epicenter is all gray. Save for one shard of possibility. A chance. A choice. Hope.
If you want to understand the magic of comic book storytelling, don’t just look at these pages; study them. Examine one page at a time, noticing first the overall composition of the panels and their border construction, then appreciate the magic that occurs in the gutters. Zawadzki’s control of time and space, and specifically perspective in this issue, is masterful stuff. It starts right on page one where the top and bottom panels frame three stacked horizontal panels (note the hand drawn borders that tell us Arnold’s state of despair and anger) that manipulate time with a strobe light effect that slows time down to a devastating rhythm.
Turn the page and you get a gorgeous 13-panel sequence that’s just breathtakingly patient. Opening with a wide establishing shot that shows Arnold in the dark and his confronter, the restaurant bouncer, draped in white and in the light, it proceeds to build tension through the 4×4 grid below. Not only does time operate across the panels, but they interact vertically as well. The highlight is of course the meeting points in the middle where the 2nd, 3rd panels and 6th, and 7th panel exist in the same temporal moments (the stare down and the shoe cleaning, respectively), but take a look at what’s happening in the left stack of panels – Arnold’s face in those panels is playing out its own mini-tale of anger, surprise, and hesitant submission. Those same panels work to the same effect across their own rows in terms of setting up mood, but by themselves work as a vertical shorthand. It’s clever and effective storytelling that only comics can do and it’s only one page example and here’s the thing: every page is equally curated and crafted to this degree of quality. Heck, the next page features a moment where everything goes black behind Arnold after a revelation and it plays out less like a cinematic effect than it does a stage play.
Zawadzki really lets loose as panels are thrown by the wayside and the deluge of dimensional perspective is twisted round when Arnold works his way to the center of the patterns. We’ve seen some trippy and skewed pages in The Dregs already, but this sequence kicks it into high gear. Twisting, labyrinthine forms litter the pages while some maintain a disturbing symmetry, and Zawadzki only increases the velocity of the insanity the truth has wrought in Arnold with the way the images begin to feel like they’re swirling exponentially faster. It is as wild as it is effective and it culminates in a very rigid, ruler-lined panel bordered page that’s as sobering as it is wistful. Oh, and turning building columns into the book spines of The Continental Op, Kiss Me, Deadly, and The Long Goodbye? *Italian chef finger kiss* What Eric Zawadzki has done over the course of four issues isn’t just impressive, it’s exemplary craftsmanship. Want to know what makes comics special? Dive into the work Zawadzki has put forth in this series.
Dee Cunniffe has been far more than just a complementary component to the art and here in this issue he’s as much a storyteller as his collaborators. One sequence in particular is effective wholly because of Cunniffe’s palette flip: bathed in the crimson of an alley light and set atop a backdrop of the night’s cobalt sky, the figures aren’t just lit differently, they’re made alien. Arnold’s weathered and soiled palette completely transforms into a blood orange menagerie, heightening the sense of alarm to its apex. It’s a visceral sense of horror exaggerated in a manner we haven’t seen before and the contrast is seemingly as jarring as it is uncomfortably soothing with how it begins to blend into a more submissive world of purple by the end. That’s all Cunniffe and it’s a great example of how colors operate as a storytelling device. The palette pulls back as we enter the noir once again, with bold azures popping amidst ghostly grays until finally they evaporate into the world of grays Arnold finds he’s been living in all along. Cunniffe’s applications have been the exact amount of flat enough to really complement Zawadzki’s blockier and heavier styling and he ensures that the series goes out with the perfect emotional tone.
The Dregs comes to a close the only way it could have; with a lot of hard truths in an ever-changing city that eats its own. The dame’s vamoosed. The bad guys proving justice is more an idea than something actually practiced. The man in the center wondering what exactly has been accomplished. Nadler, Thompson, Zawadzki, and Cunniffe have produced what is easily one of the best comics of the past several years. Highlighting the plight of our society’s homeless through a metaphor so rich it should pay taxes, The Dregs is as smart and as nuanced as comic book storytelling gets. To cap it off, they injected that slight glimmer of ambiguous hope amidst a sea of important and pressing tragedy. In the end, it’s about finding those truths and deciding if you’re going to be one that cares when nobody else does. Remember the people that make up your city’s version of the dregs. Remember to listen. There are no happy endings, but there are perfect ones.
The Dregs #4 will be released this Wednesday, June 28th, from Black Mask Studios