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INTERVIEW: 'The Dregs' Creators Discuss Integrating Social Issues in a Spellbinding Mystery

How do you address heady topics like the plight of the homeless, drug addiction and gentrification without being heavy-handed and preachy in a comic book? If you're Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler, and Eric Zawadzki you wrap these ideas within a compelling detective story with cannibalism thrown in for good measure and you get one of the year's best-limited series in 'The Dregs.'

THE DREGS Volume 1 Trade
In addition to collecting issues #1 - 4, the trade paperback also includes the Off Hours photography project, pinup art by some amazing artists, and an introduction to the series by VICE Editor, Sarah Berman. 
Writer: Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson
Artist: Eric Zawadzki
Colorist: Dee Cunniffe
Publisher: Black Mask Studios
Release Date: August 9, 2017

Such ambitious narratives usually come from outside the Big Two publishers leaving the more timely and thoughtful storytelling to independent publishers like Black Mask Studios. This is why it's so important to highlight important works like 'The Dregs' who don't have a high profile but deserve the readership of more mainstream titles. 

What separates this series from others is the meticulous research Nadler and Thompson did in writing about the homeless situation in the downtown east side area of Vancouver, British Columbia. By meeting with those personally affected by gentrification and drug abuse, the writers were able to portray their protagonist Arnold and others with respect and with hands-on understanding. Artists Zawadzki and colorist Dee Cunniffe both provide a sense of authenticity in an otherwise heightened reality to present the changing city as a character itself at times making Arnold feel lost or small at times. 

Having the lead be a homeless drug addict searching for his missing friend using inspiration from his pulpy detective books is a unique approach but the right one. Who better to see the effects of the homeless than your homeless amateur detective. It may seem like a gimmick but it's thought-provoking, smart, and engaging. 'The Dregs' is an immersive experience that will stick with you but it's also entertaining. 

The entire series has been collected and being released as a trade paperback on Wednesday. I was lucky enough to interview the writers via email about the process and their motivation behind this unique and moving series. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

‘The Dregs’ has gotten great reviews and rightfully so. It’s a great detective story with underlying social commentary. Was the intent always to draw attention to the plight of the homeless through your protagonist, the homeless sleuth Arnold?

ZT: Yeah that was always the intention but we wanted to make absolutely certain that we weren’t beating people over the head with that social commentary. For us, it was more important to show that Arnold is, above all else, a human. He has strange personality quirks like all of us. He’s driven to do the right thing out of friendship and comradery for the people of The Dregs. It was always the intention to show that homeless people aren’t just aimlessly drifting through the streets alone but that they take care of one another. The Downtown Eastside of Vancouver is a community of people who look out for one another. Above all else, Arnold is our gateway into that world and showing how it functions. Every ounce of research we did went into communicating the authenticity of that community.

LN: Before anything else, we knew we wanted to address gentrification and homelessness because they were issues we saw going on in our city every single day. These aren’t casual problems, but they are often treated as such because for most people, they’re simply not directly affected by it and that makes it easy to turn a blind eye. So we wanted to place readers in that world, to force them to confront the realities of life on the streets and to never turn the “camera” away. All of the detective elements and metafiction came in after the fact and were a natural extension of our initial goals. As Zac touched on, I think a lot of the time people deal with social issues in fiction it can across as preachy, and nobody ever wants to feel like they’re being taught a lesson. We wanted to make sure we were being authentic but also never wanted people to feel like they were in a lecture hall. This human aspect is also what initially attracted Eric to come on board for the project, and we wanted to make sure that came through at every turn. Eric brought a lot of this authenticity we’re talking about to the book. He went around the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver and took reference photos and did a lot of meticulous research himself to make sure the world he was putting on paper felt like Vancouver. I don’t think the social commentary would come through nearly as well as it does without his strict attention to detail.

Arnold loves Raymond Chandler mysteries, even using Marlowe as an alias named after the detective in those novels. How much did you draw from Chandler in shaping your story?

LN: I love Chandler’s work. I’m a huge fan of classic detective fiction, not just Chandler but other guys like Hammett and Spillane and Hughes. I studied literature in university I had classes dedicated to these guys. Stripping them down from an academic standpoint and really learning how these stories are crafted helped us a lot with The Dregs, not just in terms of abiding by the tropes these writers invented, but also in terms of when to break them for our narrative purposes. We mostly drew from Farewell, My Lovely, The Big Sleep, and The Long Goodbye. I think those are largely considered Chandler’s best works, and getting to re-read them for research was amazing. When we got stuck in a scene, we would often revert back to these novels and ask, “What would Marlowe do?” and that somehow made its way to be directly part of Arnold’s character.

ZT: Yeah as Lonnie mentioned we kept these old hard boiled detective novels as almost a road map. We had this saying during writing the series where we had to make things sound more “detective-y”. We were always trying to infuse our love for the genre with Arnold’s and play with that deep passion for fiction in really interesting ways. Often we’d look at the tropes just to see how much we could lean into them when it felt right and how far we could subvert them when appropriate. I think China’s character really embodies that in a lot of ways. She’s effectively a femme fatale without any of the sexual undercurrents and it’s not really ever clear if she’s helping or hurting Arnold. As with most things in The Dregs and Noir  – the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

‘The Dregs’ opened with a gruesome scene and you didn’t return to it right away. The story that unfolded was gripping in its own right, making that opening scene less a priority. Were you tempted to address the cannibalism sooner?

ZT: The opening scene was always meant to clearly establish the grim stakes of the world and show that we’re in a city that literally consumes the homeless. The cannibalism was just the perfect way to establish the stakes and one of the themes of the book. But we wanted it to be a clear way for readers to understand that Vancouver as it currently stands is pretty fucked up. No, we’re not dealing with cannibalism but gentrification is at the gates of the Downtown Eastside and the opioid crisis is picking apart our homeless community at an incredible rate. Somehow, using cannibalism as a lens to make sense of all this made a lot of sense.

LN: I think it would have been a really easy route for us to return to and rely on the cannibalism aspect, but doing so also would have felt pretty tawdry and too much like a bad B-movie. While we like things like Hobo With A Shotgun, we made a clear goal to steer clear of that exploitation, sensational style and to keep the cannibalism as a metaphor as opposed to set pieces that dictate the narrative. Cannibalism has a pretty rich history in literature with people like Oscar Wilde and Jonathan Swift and Poe employing it as a device to critique human behaviors and we wanted to go down that path. Not that I’d compare what we did to Oscar Wilde because that would be insane, but just borrowing the way in which cannibalism is used as a device. We’re not alone in this though, it was a big year for cannibalism with films like Raw and The Bad Batch. Good company to be in.

The city of Vancouver became a character in its own right. Arnold navigates a lot of the city in search for his friend. What was it about Vancouver that made it the perfect setting for this story?

LN: A common trope of film noir and the detective novel is the city itself being a character, and it being the ultimate villain in a sense because it’s too big to fight. We wanted to embrace that aspect fully. A lot of the time in these movies or books, the city is said to be a character, but we wanted to go full on to the point that it may or may not be a living, breathing entity that has some sort of agency. I feel like I’m saying too much right now and explaining the book too much, so I’ll stop talking about that. I also think the city comes across as a character because of the way Eric approaches backgrounds and exterior scenes. He fills them with detail, but he also loves to draw buildings and cityscapes. We tried to put a lot of that in the scripts for him to draw, but he just knows how to make the city feel real and ominous and alive, and he knows Vancouver intimately so the anthropomorphization really comes through.

ZT: Eric went out of his way to take photo references of the downtown Eastside of Vancouver. He studied the locations we’d mention in the scripts and layer them with detail. While we always intended for the city to become a character in the narrative Eric brought to life with a certain degree of grimy sincerity that you can’t help but get lost in. There’s so much lived in detail in Vancouver that you can’t help but want to run your finger through the grime and see how deep it goes. On top of that, once we approached the final chapter Eric really went above and beyond to showcase something we teased on the first page – an indifferent thriving metropolis that continues to grow upward and outward. The result is something that may go unnoticed but is easily one of the biggest aspects of the book.

How was it working as co-writers? The script seems to be in one voice which isn’t always the case when more than one writer is on board.

ZT: Lonnie and I have been writing together for a long time and I think we function very differently than most co-writers. We literally sit in the same room with Google Docs open and write and rewrite each other’s lines. We challenge one another to do better and we constantly ask questions about whether or not the narrative is working. It’s basically like having an editor in the room who wants you to tell the best version of the story possible. And for good measure, Lonnie and I really seem to understand where we’re coming from in terms of storytelling. It’s interesting because a lot of our influences are similar but we also consume different types of content that make us come at the story from different perspectives. We usually take that weird mix of influence and reduce it down until we get something purely in our unified voice. It’s a lot of work but it’s a total joy. There’s no judgment and every stupid idea is put down on paper.

LN: We’re very open with one another, and that allows for a safe creative space. I can’t tell you how many of my favorite scenes were born from shitty ideas that blossomed into something we both were in love with. That said, I wouldn’t recommend anyone to co-write with someone else unless you really know and trust that person. If you are trying to tell a different story than your co-writer, it’s a disaster and I’ve been in that situation myself with other collaborators. I suppose we’re fortunate to have found one another. That said, I’ll probably murder Zac someday while he’s soaking in the tub.

Artist Eric Zawadzki does an incredible job. How much of the art was the product of your directions and how much was it Eric going off and expanding on it? You guys seemed to be on the same wave length. 

LN: I hate to sound cliche, but I can’t say enough good things about Eric. I don’t think a lot of people understand how comic book artists, the good ones at least, are also storytellers and it’s not enough to just be good at drawing. Eric, like us, takes comics very seriously and is always finding ways to enhance the narrative and our scripts through form and art direction. This aspect was really essential for Zac and I because we write long, detailed scripts and try to direct as much as we can from the page to build a specific mood for the artist. Having an artist like Eric, who really understands sequential storytelling and the importance of nuance in the narrative, helped us to push ourselves. We tried to give him challenging scripts, and in turn, Eric would challenge us. It was this cycle of pushing each other to experiment and to elevate the narrative. So to answer your question it was a full collaboration between all of us. I also don’t want to leave Dee out of the equation here because his role cannot be overstated. He added a lot to this book through the color pallets chosen and repetition of colors and making sure each location had a distinct look and mood.

ZT: We met our match with Eric. He’s someone who aspires to make challenging and seamless storytelling comics that embrace the medium. Above all else, he puts sequential storytelling first and was really able to push our scripts into entirely new places because he saw opportunities to innovate. As Lonnie said, there was a constant back and forth where we were trying to build on the shoulders of the other. Our scripts are long and dense but Eric translated every detail seamlessly and with Dee on colors we were able to translate that detail in a moody undercurrent that guides the book firmly into the Noir territory. We couldn’t have been luckier to find people we work so well with. We owe everything in this book to Eric and Dee.

Homelessness, gentrification, and cannibalism, are all pretty significant topics on their own but in ‘The Dregs’ they all work together to make a complicated sobering detective story. What lessons if any should the reader draw from ‘The Dregs’?

ZT: Oh man, I just hope it allows you to see homeless people are people, not objects. You know we’re all trained to walk past people begging for change on the side of the road and to ignore them in order to feel comfortable. But, Lonnie and I went out of our way to talk to people on the streets and authentically understand their plight. There’s something deeply harrowing about that experience that’s definitely changed how I look at our homeless community and how the city responds to it. If that’s too heavy and you don’t want to think about those real world issues than I hope you at least walk away with the realization that we all have our own stories and stories are some of the most powerful things in the world. Everyone’s is worth hearing but you have to train yourself to listen. Be more attentive and listen to the stories around you, it might just change your world.

LN: I don’t want to tell people what they should take away from the book. There’s a lot in there to unpack, I think. I just hope it opens our readers’ eyes in some way and lingers after they’ve put the book away.