Thanks to an endless stream of superhero movies, comic books are more intertwined with mainstream culture than ever before. But not every comic character wears spandex or has superpowers; there’s an entire market of smaller comics, apart from giants like DC and Marvel, that offer grounded, thought-provoking narratives that push the boundaries of traditional storytelling.
One such comic is The Dregs, a four-issue standalone series from indie publisher Black Mask Studios that explores homelessness, drug addiction and gentrification in the downtown east side of Vancouver, British Columbia.
Written by Vice contributors Lonnie Nadler, 28, and Zac Thompson, 29, with illustrations by Eric Zawadzki and colors from Dee Cunniffe, The Dregs tackles real-life issues from a unique perspective. Readers explore a changing Vancouver through the eyes of a not-so-typical detective named Arnold, a homeless drug addict who is desperately trying to locate his missing friend.
But The Dregs isn’t just some detective comic that relies on tired tropes we’ve all seen countless times before in old films and hard-boiled fiction. As Nadler and Thompson recently explained to Mic over the phone, hours of research — including time spent walking the streets and speaking with the homeless — went into crafting an authentic world that not only captures Vancouver visually, but aims to shine a light on people dealing with serious problems like drug addiction.
Of course, The Dregs is a work of fiction, so there are creative liberties taken. Subplots like the wealthy elite eating the homeless in an upscale restaurant, Sweeney Todd-style, add a layer of awe to the story, as seen in gory detail below:
It’s Nadler and Thompson’s research that makes The Dregs feel almost like a work of graphic novel journalism, uncovering the stories of forgotten people who occupy a little-seen world. Anyone interested in visiting that world has an easy entry point: The entire series is being collected and released as a trade paperback on Wednesday. Ahead of the release, Mic spoke with Thompson and Nadler about The Dregs, their influences and the care they put into crafting this story.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mic: What inspired you to use the graphic novel medium to tell a story about homelessness, drug addiction and gentrification?
Zac Thompson: We wanted to do something that was a love letter to Vancouver and what was going on in the city — not necessarily a love letter to gentrification — but taking those themes of what we saw in the downtown east side and encapsulating them in a way that only comics can; in a way that we can embrace the weirdness that you see down there.
Lonnie Nadler: Zac and I, we write in a lot of different mediums, and it’s always about trying to find a way to allow these forms to complement the context as much as possible. Only the comic book medium would allow us to express certain things in the story like internal character states ... A lot of that comes down to our influences, people like Alan Moore and David Mazzucchelli — people who are really masters of the craft.
ZT: We set out from the beginning to make sure that The Dregs only exists as a comic. That’s why we tried to get really strange with some of our panel and page layouts. Eric fully embraced that and was amazing in terms of what he brought to the book.
Sarah Berman wrote a foreword that explained her initial concern about The Dregs chronicling real-life issues in Vancouver, and whether it would be exploitative. How cognizant were you of this while writing, and how did you navigate it?
ZT: That was one of the biggest things we were concerned with. Lonnie and I made sure that if we were going to do this we would do it right. We spent a lot of time doing research. We went to the downtown east side of Vancouver and talked to people who are down there and learned their stories and figured out what types of things they were up against on a daily basis. We learned why these people were on the street, what they do to pass the time, where their body aches [and] what parts of the neighborhood they find dangerous. By doing that we tried to capture as much authenticity as possible so that this was not exploitative at all.
Would you say Arnold is a composite of the people you spoke with? Is his story a common one based on the people in these areas of Vancouver?
LN: We wanted Arnold to be authentic, but also function as a demythologization of detective fiction. In order to do so, we specifically did not give him a concrete backstory, which a lot of people kept asking about. Zac and I sort of have an answer [to who he was before the streets], but we never wanted to fill that in, because it felt like we’d be pandering and pulling at heartstrings and trying to make people feel certain emotions. His narrative is currently taking place on the streets, and what is important is who he is now and where he’s going.
ZT: When talking to people in the downtown east side, they didn’t define themselves by who they were or where they used to be — they defined themselves by the situation they are currently in. Their reality is where they are and what they are struggling with.
Is there a particular reaction you hoped to elicit from readers as they experience Arnold’s story?
LN: I want people to see people who are displaced — or anyone — in a different light, and understand that everyone has their own story and is worthy of our attention, as opposed to seeing them as a part of the city that we get to walk by as if they were any other building. They are human beings. I hope it allows people to see them in a new light without feeling too preachy about it.
What were your inspirations while creating The Dregs?
ZT: Halfway through writing the first issue I think we realized we were writing Don Quixote in a lot of ways. Obviously, Raymond Chandler was a huge influence, his work, and the work of people like Dashiell Hammett. [We were] channeling that hard-boiled detective fiction that Arnold was very in love with and taking those tropes and things they would typically rely on, and finding ways to subvert them and change them a little bit.
LN: We also looked to a lot of post-modern literature and the way that they deconstruct themes and deal with serious themes, but in more of a bizarre or lightheaded sense. Like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, that sort of deconstruction of the detective narrative was a big influence — [and] the subsequent graphic novel adaptation by David Mazzucchelli.
We also looked to a lot of films, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice and the way that deals with an unreliable detective narrator who is fumbling his way through this case that he shouldn’t be solving but is —
ZT: Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.
LN: Yeah, Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, where he places Philip Marlowe in this strange ’70s L.A. setting that is not exactly what you would normally see in ’40s and ’50s film noir stuff. Honestly, there were so many influences that went into it that it was pretty crazy, but we’re glad it felt cohesive at the end.
How open-ended were you hoping to leave The Dregs so that the audience could come to their own conclusions about what’s going on in Arnold’s world?
LN: We wanted to leave it extremely open-ended. I don’t like narratives that sort of spoon-feed you. Like, “This is real and this is fake,” because it is all fiction in the end, and just seeing how those worlds blend together for someone who is not able to fully distinguish the difference was really interesting to us.
ZT: It puts the reader in an active place in the story, as they try to make their own conclusions about what’s going on. We’ve heard every theory under the sun about what is going on with Arnold, and it’s always fascinating to see what people actually see. They will go through all the issues and find patterns that we’ve never even considered before. That’s the whole purpose of The Dregs, that you can get lost in a story like Arnold’s.
Is there a plan, maybe not for Arnold, but for a follow-up to The Dregs? Maybe with other characters in this world?
LN: This is a tough question to answer because we are working on some stuff that we can’t fully talk about, but in terms of a direct sequel, not immediately. It was always meant to be self-contained. But Zac and I are working on a spiritual trilogy, so there is more stuff coming out, too.
ZT: We have also talked about insane ways to continue Arnold’s story, and we have one working theory that we may pitch at some point to see how batshit we can make it go.