Review – The Dregs #4 (Black Mask Studios)

Publisher: Black Mask Studios
Writer(s): Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler
Artwork: Eric Zawadzki, Dee Cunniffe (colours)
Release Date: 28th June 2017

“There’s no story so bad that it doesn’t have a little bit of good in it.”

The final chapter of Black Mask Studios’ The Dregs goes on sale next week, bringing crime novel-obsessed and listo-addicted homeless man Arnold’s investigation into the disappearance of his friend Manny to a close.

I’ve made no secret of my love for this series so far, so it’s with a mixture of apprehension, optimism and anxiety that I picked up this final chapter.  Arnold’s journey to this point has been an immensely powerful one, fighting against his own failing senses at times, but always acting with a sense of justice and literary direction, even though we as readers are fully aware that the city around him certainly doesn’t mirror his own internal narrative.

Well, I’m pleased to report that, as expected, the creative team have absolutely stuck the landing here, providing what could only be described as a perfect ending to a perfect series.  However, it’s worth mentioning that this is going to be a very difficult issue to review without providing any sort of spoilers, so I’ve decided that I’m going to focus less on the details themselves and more on the emotions they elicited in me.

Co-writers Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson do a terrific job once again with the pacing and dialogue, particularly with Arnold himself as his mixture of confusion, frustration and hard-boiled detective clichés keep the story surging forwards. He’s perhaps not a relatable protagonist in terms of his situation, although he certainly is in terms of his drive and determination, and it’s difficult not to find ourselves rooting for him as his investigation leads him straight to the door of La Mancha, the upmarket restaurant that has been killing and serving up the local homeless population to its high-rolling clientele.

However, as strong as Nadler and Thompson’s writing undoubtedly is, for me this final issue emphatically belongs to the artistic partnership of Eric Zawadski and Dee Cunniffe, who provide a visually striking denouement packed with emotion, creativity and a little dash of the unexpected thrown in for good measure.

Zawadski’s layouts have been truly sublime to this point, and that trend continues here as his mastery of the form leads us from panel to panel smoothly and evocatively, giving the story its heartbeat as we follow Arnold through his trip to La Mancha and beyond.  And, while The Dregs is undoubtedly pristine from a structural point of view, it’s the moments of expression on the face of Arnold that really sell this final issue.  The deflated look on his face as he realises that everything isn’t as clear-cut as it is in his beloved crime novels. The desperation as he tries to make others see his point of view.  It’s brilliant stuff, and Zawadski deserves all the credit in the world for packing so much emotion into his stylised, Mignola-esque pencils.

The colours from Cunniffee have also been a revelation to this point, but there are two particular moments in this final issue where he takes full control, guiding the story and shaping the mood with his impressive palette.  The first is an exterior scene where Arnold’s shock and despair is perfectly mirrored by the pale reds and oranges that Cuniffee opts to use, while the second happens during the final half-dozen pages of the issue – pages that I’m not even going to start to get into for fear of diminishing the impact of reading them for yourself.

There’s definitely an underlying message here, but it’s one that I can’t really dig into without spoiling the resolution of the story.  What I will say however is that Nadler and Thompson have managed to make Arnold’s journey feel logical and relatable throughout, never sugar-coating his story as they provide a conclusion filled with call-backs to the preceding three issues, each of which help to provide a real sense of growth for both the lead character and the city he inhabits.

And, for all of Arnold’s struggles, it’s perhaps the city itself that takes centre stage most of all in this final issue, particularly during the aforementioned final pages where it practically takes on a life of its own, but also in Arnold’s fear of being left behind as the world around him continues to evolve and grow.

Oh, and it’s probably worth mentioning that final page of the series is legitimately a work of art in every sense of the world, providing an emotional, poignant and deliciously ambiguous farewell to both the story and Arnold himself, and leaving us with a mixture of optimism and deflation as the words of Raymond Chandler serve as a perfectly-chosen sign-off.

The Dregs is gripping, powerful and through-provoking stuff, and – as I’ve been saying since the very first issue – is my runaway pick for the best comic of 2017.  Let’s just say that it’s going to take something truly special in the next six months to knock The Dregs off its perch. Hats off to everyone involved in helping to bring this series to life, and I can only hope that it reaches the level of audience that it clearly deserves.

Rating: 5/5.

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ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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  1. Talking To The Creators of “Homeless Meta Noir” Series THE DREGS [Interview] – BIG COMIC PAGE

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