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The Dregs #1-2 (Review)

The Dregs #1-2 
Black Mask Studios
Writers: Zach Thompson and Lonnie Nadler

Many US comic books feature a “Letters to the Editor” section or an “Afterword” by the writer. This comic does not. In place of these communicative conventions that readers have come to expect, the issue instead concludes with a black-and-white photo of a man blowing bubbles.

This is part of a photo series called “Off Hours” by Thanh Nguyen which documents how those living on the streets of Vancouver enjoy themselves. In the words of the artist, the project’s “hope is to reveal a commonality: the desire to escape the grind of daily life through small acts of enjoyment.” Through this connection, the artist hopes the medium can engage the viewer on a social issue.

Like this photo series, creators Zach Thompson, Lonnie Nadler, and Eric Zawadzki have similar hopes for “The Dregs,” a comic that features the growing homeless population of Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada. This notion of art as societal engagement also drives Black Mask Studios, the American Publisher behind the new series. As detailed on their website, the publisher aspires to bring a “punk-rock ethic to comics” and invites work with a political, often anti-establishment bent.

Black Mask Studio’s line-up of books reveals this ethos. The current-running “Black,” a series about an African-American victim of police brutality who develops superpowers, has clear parallels to the controversial 2014 shooting of American teenager Michael Brown and similar acts of violence across the country. There’s also the forthcoming “Calexit”, written by Black Mask Studio founder Matteo Pizzolo, with a portmanteau premise combining the UK’s exit from the European Union and current American protests against newly-instated President Donald Trump.

As one of the newer books released by Black Mask, “The Dregs” is no less grounded in reality. According to Metro News, a task force in Vancouver has recently determined that over 4,000 residents are in need of immediate housing. Explanations for this increasing population range from a multitude of factors, including ratcheting costs of living, pricier housing and the city’s mismanagement of release efforts.

While officials push responsibility in varying directions, the first issue of “The Dregs” presents the problem simply. The opening page shows the city’s skyline as it appeared in 1950, 1990, and how it towers currently. Together, the panels suggest a city that has grown too quickly and perhaps in the wrong direction.

The series tells its story within this city, specifically the five-block radius known as “The Dregs”. For over a decade, Arnold has lived on the streets of Vancouver, possessing only a few paperback detective novels and a regular supply of Listo, the drug of choice within this block.  The trouble begins when Arnold hears that Manny, another regular, has disappeared.

At first, he is hesitant to get involved. “Nobody goes missing in The Dregs,” Arnold often channels The Big Sleep, his favorite mystery story. Like Raymond Chandler’s detective, Arnold cannot help himself and begins a search for Manny that spans the city. His odyssey through Vancouver brings him from poorly equipped shelters to the city’s upper crust surrounding Town Hall. As Arnold experiences worsening hallucinations and withdrawals from a new batch of Listo, he retreats further into film noir delusions, what he calls his “Private-I.” Arnold begins to see answers for Manny’s disappearance in the pages of his book and in geometric patterns that convince him of a city-wide conspiracy.

Though Arnold’s search for the truth puts him in odd directions, readers are given the mystery’s solution in the start of the first issue. A high-end restaurant on the encroaching edge of The Dregs is abducting those living on the street and using them as meat for yuppy patrons. The grotesque metaphor is clear. The rich literally eat the poor.

While the restaurant, La Mancha (Spanish for “The Stain”), brutalizes the consumption of the homeless through gentrification, the series shows these attitudes as prevailing problems even among those trying to help. Arnold avoids shelters when he can, citing them as “Run by people who say they want to help but just look down on you.” The souring mix of compassion and condescension is felt at all turns as Arnold encounters police officers, paramedics, and politicians. They are all smiles, but no substance.

Though the series has much to say about the treatment of the homeless, its greatest success is that it never crosses into pontification. The story is never sidelined by easy answers or moral posturing. Issues read like detective fiction with an inventive angle and the writers are playful with these conventions. Particularly satisfying are instances where Arnold attempts to recreate staples of the hard-nosed detective only to have them fall cleverly flat. There are not enough compliments for Mr Zawadzki, whose art is blunt with blood and violence, yet keeps Arnold gently expressive even when his face is obscured beneath a bushy beard and long hair. A page in the second issue shows the creative team’s suitability in a complex, swirling layout as Arnold navigates the labyrinthine city while pushing a Sisyphean stone along the outside of the page.

Somewhere in the battered copy of The Big Sleep Arnold carries on his journey, detective Philllip Marlowe considers death a great equalizer:

“What did it matter where you lay once you were dead? In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill? You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that.”

The writers of this series would argue that there’s a difference between those who die in towers and those who die in sumps. In “The Dregs,” it is a difference worth being bothered by.