By Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe
“I’m just looking for town hall…” Arnold exclaims to an indifferent populace. He’s deep into his case and getting deeper, but the world around him keeps rewriting the roads he walks on. They’re looking to pave over the inconvenient truths below their feet. Three issues into The Dregs and we’ve delved deep into the city, deep into the lies, and now we’re dealing with the truth. It’s that ugly truth below the layers of insecurities we’ve built up around our lives to make ourselves feel better, regardless of which end of the political spectrum we’ve built a cozy nest for ourselves in. Arnold may be getting ever closer to the truth behind what’s happened to his pal Manny, but the creators behind this book aren’t letting you the reader forget the real truth behind so much of what’s been going on under the surface this whole time. Those homeless folks out there? Those one’s who you might feel sorry for but turn a blind eye to or shudder at or feel unsafe around once they permeate your bubble of whatever paper-thin trendy castle wall you’ve built up? They’re people. And each and every one of them has a story. We take the pages of their lives and chew them up, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading. The story of The Dregs? Well, it’s been about the city. It’s been about the lies. Now, it’s about time for it to get into those ugly truths. Fortunately, they’re packaged in one of the best comics of the year.
There’s a reason the credit page doesn’t hit until about seven pages deep into this issue. Even though this whole creative team wears their noir influences on their sleeve like a bright shining Maltese falcon cufflink, they do a remarkable job of injecting real world humanity into their story. That’s what those opening seven pages do with aplomb; beyond the inner madness of Arnold’s rationalizing, we see how the world outside of him operates. It’s tinged with familiarity and as such, a humbling sadness. Arnold isn’t a person to the urban denizens that avoid making eye contact, he’s an inconvenience. He’s a nasty reminder. Nadler and Thompson’s captions and dialogue are dripping with that curt noir style, but they’re subtlety commenting on the sociological reasons cities develop into what they are. The first two issues of The Dregs hit you with the cannibal metaphor pretty hard, as they absolutely should, but here the mirror turns back on us with a far sharper edge: “Without judgment, we wouldn’t know what to think of ourselves.” The truth hurts, doesn’t it?
The plot continues to reveal itself in a tightly controlled pace, as the cards get turned over one by one, and even though the reader is way ahead of Arnold in terms of putting all the pieces together, it doesn’t matter. Arnold is the real mystery of The Dregs, not the plot, and that’s the brilliant part. Keeping to noir tradition, Arnold largely stumbles (and only occasionally bumbles) into the circumstances surrounding the mystery. He’s driven, however, and admirably dedicated to helping his friend while not giving a shit what anyone thinks of him – “I’m not supposed to do listo either, but here we are” he earnestly admits while grilling a clerk for info. His mind is always working, fluttering between the fugue state caused by drugs and the fugue state that’s just the reality of being society’s unwanted leftovers. But, who was Arnold? That’s the fun question that’s been under the surface this whole time. Nadler and Thompson have dropped some breadcrumbs about Arnold’s past life, but not many. We will likely not get a full reveal, and that’s apt because the story here is that Arnold has a story. Was he a writer? A teacher? A mathematician? His story’s had pages ripped out, but he still has a story, it’s just that now it’s intertwined in conversations with himself as a lead character trying to put the missing pieces of his life back together. Nadler and Thompson’s combination of a hard-boiled noir book meets social commentary is at its strongest here in this issue and the result is hugely affecting. Arnold is a hero. He’s also a tragedy. Heart meets grit, and it’s impossible to look away.
Zawadzki and Cunniffe put on an absolute clinic on visual storytelling in this issue. The layouts throughout the series have been consistently impressive and inventive, but Zawadzki’s control of time and motion this issue is breathtaking. Opening with a stunning 12-panel quasi-mosaic that instills a sense of mania and pain, you know you’re in for a ride. Go ahead, take your time on that first page; see how panels 1, 3, 6, 8, 9, and 11 all connect to make one image? Now look at how panels 4 and 12 can be placed into panels 6 and 7 to complete that same larger image. Now, notice how those same panels that can be swapped in to have the eyes looking in opposite directions? Fun composition like this amplifies the paranoia and is reminiscent of something out of Requiem for A Dream. The next page has four stacked panels that have the perspective go completely around Arnold on the street 360 degrees, giving both a scope to his isolation in a crowded place and presenting the way people react to him. Zawadzki uses hand drawn borders when things are askew in Arnold’s mind and ruled borders when things become clearer. Nowhere is this more creatively applied than how the borders work in a coffee shop scene where they literally move in a blocky serpentine pattern to make sure that Arnold’s imaginary dame is always enclosed in them to highlight how she’s not a part of the real world. One could go on at length about the decisions made on every page of this book by Zawadzki, but the point is he’s displaying a level of control of craft that’s deserving of awe, praise, and, most importantly, your attention.
There’s a panel in this issue that Cunniffe just absolutely owns. It’s a scene where we’re seeing Arnold through a car window on a rainy night and it’s surprisingly beautiful, largely because it’s a departure from the flatter application Cunniffe’s utilized throughout the series up to this point. While certainly a digital effect, it’s handled with such grace that the moment reads cinematically. The chromatic glare couples with pixellated drops to create a tangible sensation of both serenity and sadness. It was a bold choice and a successful one given how it contrasts with everything occurring around it. Cunniffe’s palette here is probably the most varied it’s been in a single issue and it’s a hell of a ride. The sickly green of the coffee shop is intentionally harsh and permeates everything in those scenes in a manner that highlights both Arnold’s state of mind, a certain real-world green associated coffee chain, and the sour reactions of the patrons’ attitudes towards this intruder of their space. It transitions to an amethyst and mauve layered sunset and then to a cobalt night sky in the rain and on and on. Cunniffe is a tremendous complement to Zawadzki and his knack for layering and smooth gradients adds both the dinge and dirt required for this tale as well as moments of surprising tranquility.
To correct an oversight in past reviews (#1 and #2), it’s important to take a moment to comment on the striking photo series, Off Hours, contributed by Thanh Nguyen that’s been running as back matter. In each issue, Nguyen has captured a facet of life on Vancouver streets through the leisure activities of its homeless population and in turn, telling just a small portion of the stories that go unread by most of us every day. Be sure to take the time to look at the photo, read the description, and close your eyes to imagine what that life must be like and how you might cope in a similar situation.
The Dregs #3 is one of the best genre books you’ll find and it’s also one of the best comics you’ll read period. It’s not because it nails the genre so well (even though it does), it’s because of the level of craft that flows through every page and the humbling humanity that stares back at you as you read it. Gentrification. The discarded. The walls we build and the reasons we build them. The way we forget that everyone, even the dregs, has a story.