By Jarrod Jones. Despite what you may have read, social issues and comic books were made for each other. Comics have been trouncing slumlords and abusive domestic partners and shifty-eyed politicians for so long that it’s transcended cliche. Simply put, societal ills are embedded within comics’ DNA.
When a comics creator feels strongly about certain social issues and feels compelled to address them, they have a platform. And the best part about comic books is that sometimes to properly convey those ideas it takes a team to realize them. When it comes to addressing homelessness and the economic disparity inside one of North America’s most expensive cities in the world in terms of housing, there is no team working in the industry I’d trust more to tackle the issue than Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki, and Dee Cunniffe. The first issue of their book The Dregs, published by industry iconoclasts Black Mask Studios, is available in stores now. Stop reading this intro, run out to your nearest comic book store, and grab a copy. Then come back, finish this interview, and it’s likely you may come to the same conclusion.
In order to make some noise about a problem too many people are willing to ignore you have to be cruel with the details. The Dregs is a book that understands that. It’s satire, but it’s incredibly thoughtful satire; as a detective story it wears its influences on its sleeve so there’s plenty of Chandler and Hammett. And if you’ve already done that math and came up with Cervantes or Pynchon or both, well guess what. There’s plenty of them in there too. But it’s a slippery slope, satire. If you grasp too wildly, you run the risk of falling flat on your ass. And all your critics and peers will be watching. This is something Mr. Nadler is all too aware of. “We’re not out to change the world because we’re not naive enough to believe a comic book can do that,” Lonnie tells me. “But we do hope to offer a somewhat authentic look at life on the streets, and get at some sort of truth through our bizarre fiction.”
Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson made time to talk to me about The Dregs, their artistic team of Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe, economic disparity, and the labors of Sisyphus, if you can believe it.
1. ‘The Dregs’ is a satirical commentary on the current state of Vancouver’s homeless epidemic and a plain-faced dig at how the city has failed to address the problem in a substantial way. (A sobering 2012 Metro Vancouver study reported that the overall homeless population of the city had dropped a mere 0.4% — or just 10 people — between 2008 and 2011.) How have you personally experienced this social issue, and how did that experience inform your approach to ‘The Dregs’?
Lonnie Nadler: And as far as I understand it that study only accounts for the homeless people who partook in the census, which I imagine does not accurately represent the actual amount of people living on the streets. It seems like a tough task to census people with no home address, so I don’t blame them. Neither Zac nor myself are originally from Vancouver, and part of what intrigues us about the city is the complete discrepancy between affluence and poverty and how close they are to one another, geographically speaking. In my experience the average Vancouverite is able to ignore the problem on a daily basis because they are so used to seeing homeless people around the downtown area that they just blend into the background of the city. They disappear, so to speak. But for Zac and I, having gone to school and worked very close to the Downtown Eastside, this reality was a real shock. It’s scary to see so many displaced people in such a limited space, yet there’s also clearly a community. We make efforts to interact with people living on the streets, to hear their stories, and to learn who they are. They have such amazing lives and we wanted to represent them while also bringing awareness to the issues that plague the city. We’re not out to change the world because we’re not naive enough to believe a comic book can do that, but we do hope to offer a somewhat authentic look at life on the streets, and get at some sort of truth through our bizarre fiction.
Zac Thompson: I’m from the smallest province in Canada. So when I moved to Vancouver I was stunned to see the homeless population here. As Lonnie mentioned going to school near the Downtown Eastside was an incredibly eye opening experience. I had never experienced that sort of poverty. I found it very fascinating that Vancouver had pretty much pushed all of these people into one area of the city. It’s the type of thing that I wasn’t hard wired to avoid. My innocent island eyes weren’t fully adjusted to the typical apathetic setting. So I spent time walking that area and learning about it. I suppose that’s what’s unique about us as a writing team, we’re both outsiders looking in. We’re not saying “hey this needs to change!” even though it does, we’re just pointing a lens at that unique community in the effort to communicate an authentic human story.
2. ‘The Dregs’ begins with the ever-evolving city of Vancouver. The first frame, at morning, is Vancouver as it was in 1950. The second panel, set at mid-day, is the city at 1990. Then, at night, Vancouver as it stands today. This single page tells an entire story all on its own — a city at the pinnacle of its growth, with the day soon coming to an end. How did you decide that this was how you’d begin your story?
ZT: The first shot of anything is an incredibly difficult decision to make. Yet, Lonnie and I knew from the beginning that this was a story about the city of Vancouver. We wanted to show that city’s growth and change. That over time they evolve, they become these living monuments to the people that dwell beneath the high rises. It’s also a convention of the noir genre to have the city as a character. We tried to twist that in our own way by showing a few different faces of the city; it’s a distinct effort to showcase that this growth never really stops. That cities will build to the absolute edge of their aspirations. Vancouver is a relatively small city and it’s only begun to grow but that growth comes at a real human cost. That first page perfectly sets the stage for the story that follows.
LN: Yeah, Zac pretty much covered it. We realized that as storytellers we’re interested in the anthropomorphization of places, and this is something that stems from the noir genre, or going back to German expressionism and the sets they created for films in the early 20th century. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is a perfect example. We wanted to push this idea to the absolute limits and explore what it would be like if the city became a living, breathing entity of sorts, one that was hungry to consume and happy to continue growing. I don’t want to give too much away, but this comes up throughout the series.
3. Tell me about Arnold, the Marlowe-esque anti-hero of ‘The Dregs’. He talks about having two lives: the life before, and the life now. We know so little about his life before The Dregs, and yet he arrives fully realized. There’s a bigger picture resting behind his eyes, that much is certain. How did you go about constructing Arnold’s story without trivializing the very real plight of the homeless?
LN: Like I said before, we are trying really hard to represent people who live on the streets, the reality of their struggles, and their humanity. Of course all of this is done through the lens of genre and fiction, but I don’t think that makes it any less real or impactful, at least hopefully. Zac and I put a lot of research into what living on the streets can be like through speaking with homeless people, watching documentaries, and reading articles written by these people. Arnold’s character was interesting to tackle for us because he had to represent the realities of homelessness while simultaneously reflecting the traits of a classic hard-boiled detective. He is as real as we could make him without sacrificing certain archetypal traits that come with writing an homage to classic crime fiction.
But those two things work together so well because Arnold, as a homeless man, is the epitome of the classic private-I. He’s down on his luck, he knows the horrors of the city, he’s got vices, just like Marlowe and Sam Spade. But his other traits, like his paranoia and lack of experience, are what allow us to play with the noir genre and subvert tropes. As for his backstory, we have one all laid out, but we never want to give too much to the reader. We want them to work, to fill in the blanks on their own, to create their own version of Arnold, just like people had to do with Marlowe.
ZT: Yeah, to echo Lonnie’s point for a moment, I think it was really important to us from the onset that Arnold as a character stands on his own. We made every effort to show his character and who he was “before” through his interactions with other characters and through his personality traits. For us, it was important that the reader gets to imprint some of their own answers on his backstory. It’s incredibly interesting to us to see how people reason Arnold’s love for detective fiction, for example. You don’t get that if you spell it all out. It was also important that Arnold wasn’t some sort of homeless savant type character. We wanted his character to reflect the reality of his situation and his inner monologue to reflect his drug-addled mind. We went to great lengths to ensure this came across as authentically and organically as possible.
4. How did the artistic team of Eric Zawadski and Dee Cunniffe come to ‘The Dregs? What did you talk about when you were putting together Arnold’s story?
ZT: We knew Eric for a while before this project came together. We had all met at Emerald City a few years back and had always talked about doing a project together. When it came time for Lonnie and I to find an artist for The Dregs, Eric was our first choice. We initially met in person to discuss the story, presenting Eric with a very flimsy outline. We talked and collaborated on what the heart of the story was going to be and how we would approach the different elements of detective fiction, world building, and everything in between. We put together the pitch and waited about a year. Eventually when the book got picked up we looked everywhere for a colorist who could really adapt their style to noir and the different times of day that the script called for. We were lucky to find Dee, and even luckier to have him accept our offer to join the book. Once he came on, there were a few discussions about how to color the book as a whole and Dee pretty much killed it out of the gate.
5. I want to talk about two authors who have influenced ‘The Dregs’, Cervantes and Chandler. Arnold soldiers through the narrative with a driven purpose, but it’s a self-imposed purpose. He’s surrounded by characters who either encourage the role he’s taken on — that of a self-identified private eye — or people who treat him as a cracked vagrant. Chandler gives Arnold his inner strength (you don’t need to see his dog-eared copy of “The Long Goodbye” to see that), while Cervantes’ kaleidoscopic reality puts the truth just out of Arnold’s reach. When you were putting ‘The Dregs’ together, how much of each author did you want in your story?
LN: To be completely honest, The Dregs has so many influences that it’s tough to say. When we were initially conceiving the characters and plotting it out, we wanted a lot of the crime elements in there. I have a particular affinity for American crime novels so Chandler and Hammett and Spillane were in there from the start. But I also love postmodern fiction, and when we realized we didn’t want to tell a straight crime story we turned to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Once we had the rough outline completed we realized we were doing a weird re-write of Don Quixote, which also happens to be one of my favorite books. It just seeped into the story subconsciously and I love how that can happen. Once we came to that revelation Zac and I embraced it wholeheartedly.
As we moved on to scripting, both of those authors became more and more instrumental to the point that we decided to reference them directly throughout the book in an attempt to deconstruct the mythology, using those self-referential postmodern sensibilities. We have dog-eared copies of Chandler’s books by us every time we sit down to write and refer to them all the time when we get stuck in a scene. There are so many hidden homages and references to Cervantes and Chandler, among other authors, throughout the book that it’s a little insane. I’d be surprised if anyone caught them all, but it’s important for us that we know they are in there, that we’re playing with the history of fiction within our own story.
ZT: Yeah, the whole book is supposed to be this love letter to fiction in general. Our comic book influences are many but they’re not as instrumental to the story as the works of the two authors you mentioned. There’s something palpable about Don Quixote as a homeless man that we just couldn’t resist leaning into once we noticed it fit the story. Yet, we also wanted to tell the story of a character who loves fiction just as much as we do. We made every effort to include those nods that Lonnie mentioned but also just to take the things we know and love about Chandler and reverse them as often as we could. We’ve been pretty adamant about playing with the tropes of the genre in ways that make sense and service the story while also keeping things inherently noir. It’s been a lot fun because it’s allowed us to do this revisionist take on Chandler and Hammett, ideas that at its core isn’t incredibly different.
6. ‘The Dregs’ reminds me of another “private dick trapped in a world he never made” story, Thomas Pynchon’s “Inherent Vice”, where Arnold’s in the Doc Sportello role surrounded by these colorful characters. They’re all meant to obscure the bigger picture around him, and yet Arnold is also very unreliable as a narrator. We’re halfway through this story. Do you intend on dwelling in the zeitgeist of Vancouver as it’s depicted in ‘The Dregs’, or will your story have a more navigable path through its own phantasmagoria?
ZT: It’s funny you should mention “Inherent Vice” as Lonnie and I really relied on moments from PT Anderson’s film to communicate some of the paranoia and strangeness that Arnold’s stuck in. The Dregs is both a deconstruction of the zeitgeist of Vancouver and noir fiction. The path forward is strange and full of symbols. It’s still a tightly crafted detective story but we definitely take the long way toward our conclusion. There’s a real gritty aspect to the upcoming chapters that showcases just how ill-equipped Arnold is to handle this “case” and yet it all builds to something totally and wonderfully unique. I’m not sure we want to spoil anything but the answer is a little bit of both.
LN: “Inherent Vice” was a big influence on this book as well. I shamefully haven’t read Pynchon’s novel, but the film has that same postmodern approach that we’re talking about and it works so well because it’s presenting something familiar in a completely new way, which recontextualizes and allows you to realize new things about what was previously familiar. Arnold is very much like Doc in the way that he’s so dedicated to solving this thing, yet his toolset and functionality are obscured by his many vices. That said we take things quite a bit further in The Dregs, and the world and its characters begin to shift as the mystery progresses.
7. There’s this really interesting thing that happens to Arnold in issue #2 of ‘The Dregs’. Beaten, bloody, and broken, Arnold makes his way back to this mysterious woman at the lowest we’ve seen him yet. She takes him in, cleans him up, gives him a pair of leather shoes, and sends him back out into the world. Yet you place him outside of this moment — we watch Arnold create a typical image found in typical detective yarns: our brow-beaten anti-hero heals in the shadows cast by a window’s blinds, exchanging matter-of-fact dialogue with a woman about where the story lies in that moment. Only it doesn’t feel real.
If you were using this sequence to “de-mythologize” the private detective archetype, then mission accomplished. Without giving too much away, how would you go one further in grounding this archetype?
LN: That’s exactly what we were trying to do with that scene, so I’m glad it came across. We were worried people would be confused by this moment, but it’s what the scene demanded so we just went for it. Thankfully Eric was able to translate our crazy idea perfectly with his art.
Without giving too much away, the idea is that over the course of Arnold’s journey he will have moments where he feels exactly like those detectives he romanticizes, contrasted with moments where he is the complete antithesis to their way of being. What we’re dealing with is a character who loves fiction, and will begin to question his own existence as a result of finding himself inside one of the narratives he loves so dearly.
ZT: It’s very much about taking a step back and showing you that Arnold’s love for fiction runs deep. It’s also a moment where you begin to question just how firm his grasp on reality really is. We wanted to take a moment to bask in something oozing with noir tropes but let Arnold experience along with the reader. The Dregs has roots in this world of noir fiction that run deep and we wanted Arnold to be tugging at those roots asking the right questions and perhaps unsettling the reader a little while we’re at it.
8. Then there’s Sisyphus. The king punished for his hubris with an endless loop of self-made failure. The labor of Sisyphus is a pretty standard metaphor for any daunting task, but here you give it an added dimension by applying it directly to Arnold, when it would be easier just to throw it at Vancouver and its societal ills. Is this your commentary on man versus power, man versus self, man versus change, society versus man, or all of the above?
ZT: I suppose it’s a combination of those things. The sequence you’re referencing was the image that came to define [issue #2]. It’s something we had built into our earliest outlines of the story. A commentary on how the hell you would solve a case in a largely apathetic environment where people die on a regular basis. You’re not exactly set up for success in The Dregs. Arnold’s obsession with Manny’s disappearance drives him in a circle that he can’t make sense but can’t resist either. He is indeed struggling against his lack of power in this environment, against the changing environment of The Dregs, against his own mind, and the struggle that this is a self-assigned task. He’s solving a mystery that no one asked him to solve. It’s a culmination of his refusal to yield.
LN: To build on what Zac was saying, while the in-your-face theme of the story is obviously gentrification as an unsolvable issue, the less-pronounced theme is that of a man struggling to accomplish his dreams despite the constant rejection of the society around him. It is his struggle to attribute meaning — to solve a case — to a world that inherently rejects him and the meaning he tries to impose on things, which is exactly the existential struggle Camus used Sisyphus to explain. Sisyphus is every man, but he is embodied by character like Arnold and Don Quixote. In that sense, I suppose it is man versus everything. It’s bleak, but oddly inspiring at the same time.
9. “Off Hours” is a post-issue feature by photographer Thanh Nguyen that captures a moment of levity for the real-life homeless population in Vancouver. It’s a single image, with a small description giving that image an added poignancy. How did you come across Thanh? Was this a project that was always meant for ‘The Dregs’?
LN: Thanh is actually my girlfriend, and I know when I say that it sounds like some serious nepotism, but the truth is I didn’t even know she was working on this new photography project until much after we’d started writing The Dregs. She was originally intending her work to be collected in a book and for gallery showing, but once I saw it, I sent if off to Eric and Zac and we all agreed it had a place in The Dregs. It’s funny, neither of us realized we were both working on projects about alternative representations of homelessness, but once she showed me it was just one of those serendipitous things.
I think it’s a perfect accent to The Dregs because while our book has elements of reality it is ultimately fictional and fantastical, and it could be easy for people to brush off as such, but “Off Hours” allows us to end each issue by bringing the reader back to reality.
ZT: I really can’t say enough good things about “Off Hours”. It was truly a gift to have Thanh’s work featured in the book. It not only has perfect thematic resonance but also allows readers to put a face to the story. While living in this city these are the people you see every single day. They are not faceless and they have dreams, aspirations, and pastimes. Thanh perfectly encapsulates the reality of homelessness in her work. It’s the type of backup we always dreamed of having in this book, we just didn’t know it would come from someone so close to us.
10. Favorite detective story, please. It could be from film, prose, comics, radio, whatever.
ZT: Wow. Shit. There’s more than I can really bear to mention here so let me make a rapid fire list: “Red Harvest” by Dashiell Hammett, “White Jazz” by James Ellroy, Rian Johnson’s Brick, Chinatown, and Gotham Central.
LN: Oh god, there are so many. I’ll list my top five in no particular order: “City of Glass” by Paul Auster, The Long Goodbye (the Robert Altman film), “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler, Blue Velvet, and Vertigo.
‘The Dregs’ #2 hits stores March 1.