By Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe
It’s all about the lies. Sometimes it’s the lies we tell ourselves that we willingly and knowingly give into and sometimes it’s the lies that we refuse to acknowledge for what they are. The roles we play in society, the little boxes that we’ve lied about really mattering, those are the ones that build us up lest we see the ugly truths. In The Dregs #2, our ersatz private eye, Arnold, dances between all these lies especially as he lets us know right at the beginning, “Sometimes you have to play the role people expect you to play. Even if it makes you do things that don’t feel right.” The Dregs continues to impress, both by its intricately thoughtful construction and by its unrelenting socio psychological spelunking. Raw noir intertwines its tendrils into everything as the lies build and enrapture towards the hard inescapable truth of what it means to really exists inside and outside those delusional boxes.
When reading The Dregs, make a point to take your time with each page and step back to look at how they’re each constructed. This is the Eric Zawadzki show, folks. Moving in lockstep unison to the thematic notes of the script, the pacing is impeccable. Part director, part architect, Zawadzki assembles nine or twelve-panel grids not in order to cram as much in as possible, but to instead cleverly mirror the mental state of the point of view character. Overlaid panels, stacked panels, hand drawn borders, ruled borders – it’s all about building the literal and metaphorical structure of Arnold’s reality. The order and chaos balances itself on the page the same way they do inside his psyche. The hard edges and blocked inked shadows that are innate to the noir genre lend themselves as well to the harsh lines of society’s acceptable and unacceptable established structures. When Arnold’s not in control of the situation, or at least when he’s not fully buying into the lie that he’s in control, the page structures reflect that in their fast pace and wobbly borders; when he’s seemingly buying into his escapist belief that he’s back on the trail of investigating the mystery, the page slows its roll and rigidly rights itself. When he goes in too deep, it culminates in a whirling dervish of a two-page splash that spirals itself in a shamanistic fury with Arnold at all points of the gyre – moving along the exterior in a Sisyphean dilemma and mystically aware at its center. It’s all absolutely gorgeous and immensely aware. Zawadzki constructs the madness within the order, and its inverse, with aplomb.
The noir aesthetic continues to be the lifeblood of The Dregs, most noticeably in the terse back and forth rhythm of the dialogue and the inner narration of our Marlowe stand-in. Nadler and Thompson aren’t simply resting on the obvious laurels of their noir inspirations, however, and instead inject a harsh melancholy of the all to real tragedy in which the tale is superimposed. Even if you think noir isn’t “your thing” there’s plenty of depth here to appreciate how noir as a vehicle is used to examine the inescapable plight of being an inconvenient truth. Naddler and Thompson present a character at the bottom bobbing for air between the sea of madness and the necessary mental footing of an unobtainable land. There’s a murkiness to how real anything is, again appropriately mirroring Arnold’s state of mind, where scenes from novels and films unfurl in front of him where he alternates between spectator and participant. The unreality births odd realities, like where he came by a pair of shoes that only moments earlier seemed to exist solely in the ether of fantasy. It’s never played as supernatural or magical realism, but as an undercurrent of how blurry the lines are for all of us behind the lies.
It’s often uncomfortable watching Arnold struggle even when he’s succeeding, albeit briefly. The insincerity and the façade of the city above the bottom rung that the habitants of The Dregs are separated by the lies we tell ourselves about how they got there and we got here. We say the shelters built are good solution and move on. Politicians stand in front of cameras and express their platitudes and good intentions. We live in our tall ordered building, as Arnold bluntly yet correctly calls it, “where people have the luxury of pretending they’re okay.” Naddler and Thompson do all this examination subtly so that the noir instrument gets to blare its loudest. That way, we don’t get to see the lies of the roles we’ve set up and wind up wearing a dunce cap, one that looks just like an upside down ice cream cone.
Of note is that this all unfolds in a primarily white populated world, save for one or two characters of Pacific West indigenous ethnicity. While this may very well be intentional, perhaps this is indeed an accurate depiction of this particular region of Vancouver, it’s noticeable. A greater implementation of diverse representation could strengthen the resolve of the overall commentary on both sides of the socioeconomic divide.
Dee Cunniffe is the one who really makes The Dregs brutal. Zawadzki sculpts the world and Cunniffe makes it palpable. It’s soiled and blotted and unquestionably alive. The application is just flat enough, existing as seemingly two layers – the base and then the one or two textured muck atop that. It all pairs beautifully with Zawadzki’s blocky style rife with strong angles. Yet, for all the grit and fester, the palette still instills serenity with the warmth and eerie glows of the deftly curated attention to the sun’s position throughout the passing days. It is both a sickly world rife with the carob muck and the seaweed hue, and a comforting world with its marigold rays and violet glimmers. In other words, Cunniffe makes it our world; for all its ills and glories.
The degree of craft on display in The Dregs #2 is remarkable. Permeating from the thematic structuring of both the art and the script, the consciousness of care that each creative participant plays is harmonic. Operating not solely as a familiar genre romp, the narrative drives itself on the momentum of each preceding thrust while the undercurrent of tragedy both fictional and reflective hums as one throughout both these first two issues. As the surface layer mystery continues to twist and turn, the most nefarious aspect of it all is that there is no mystery. It’s all just the lies that we tell ourselves.
The Dregs #2 will be released this Wednesday, March 1st, from Black Mask Studios.