Talking To The Creators of “Homeless Meta Noir” Series THE DREGS [Interview]

If you’ve spoken to me at all over the last six months, you’ll likely have heard me singing the praises of The Dregs, a “homeless meta noir” series from Black Mask Studios.

Written by Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler, illustrated by Eric Zawadzki and coloured by Dee Cunniffe, The Dregs hooked me from the very first page with its intelligent narrative, striking artwork and truly unique protagonist.

In my ongoing praise of the series, I called it “a truly unique twist on an established genre”, “beautiful, poignant and utterly unique”, “hands-down one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time”, and, in a move that will surprise nobody, named it “my runaway pick for the best comic of 2017”.  So yeah, it’s safe to say I’m a big fan of what the guys have accomplished with this one.

And, with the collected trade of the entire four-issue story set to hit shelves on the 9th of August, I was thrilled to be able to sit down with the entire creative team to have a chat about the series and it’s various themes, from gentrification to self-determination to cannibalism. 

BIG COMIC PAGE: Thanks so much for your time, guys.  So, let’s start from the perspective of someone who hasn’t heard about the series yet – can you give us a quick summary of just what The Dregs is all about?

LONNIE NADLER: In terms of plot The Dregs is about a homeless man searching for his missing friend in the midst of a hungry city that has betrayed those living on the streets. It’s a mystery that harkens back to classic crime novels like those written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, and as with most of those stories there’s a whole lot going on thematically that simmers beneath the rather convoluted journey of our protagonist. I don’t want to get too much into the themes of the book, but in short it’s about gentrification, fiction, and remaining steadfast in the face of rejection.

ZAC THOMPSON:  I’ve been pitching it as a weird homeless detective story with cannibalism. That’s the general gist of it. But when you go deeper it’s about finding meaning in even the bleakest situation and pushing for the truth when everything around you is trying to grind you into dust. Like Lonnie mentioned it’s a love letter to the mystery stories of old.

BIG COMIC PAGE: How did the creative team come together for the series, and how did Black Mask get involved?

ZAC: Years ago, The Dregs started off as a screenplay I wrote while in film school. I had just moved to Vancouver and was going to school in the Downtown Eastside. I wasn’t used to seeing the level of homelessness and poverty. I had just finished watching Rian Johnson’s Brick and began thinking about a detective story that took place in a homeless community. That was years back, and eventually Lonnie and I talked about collaborating on a comic. We both liked the central premise of the screenplay but agreed we needed to gut the script and find the real themes within.

Once we completed that, we put together a five page pitch script and reached out to Eric, who we had been talking about working with for a while. Both Lonnie and I used to do comic book reviews way back in the day, so we were pretty tight with Black Mask since the early days. We reached out with the weird pitch and I think it was only a few months later at ECCC 2016, that we got the greenlight.

LONNIE: I don’t think people realize how slow the process can be, but it’s about garnering relationships over the years and trying not to let any of them slip. Once Eric was on board and the book was greenlit we did a lot of searching for a colorist. We had a couple people lined up who didn’t work out and then reached out to Dee and he just nailed it from page one onward. Even though he lives on the other side of the world from us, he felt like part of the family from the get go. We’re pretty lucky considering this is mine and Zac’s first published book. I think it spoiled us a little going forward, but Eric and Dee taught us a lot about collaborating, and Black Mask has been a dream to work with.

BIG COMIC PAGE: One of the most appealing aspects of the series is the way it both embraces and subverts genre tropes.  Did you have to do a lot of research into the world of crime noir, or were you all fairly clued up already?

LONNIE: For myself it was a bit of both. I loved crime fiction and film noir long before we started The Dregs, and I was fortunate enough to have studied the origins of the genre during my undergraduate degree, both in terms of cinema and literature. That’s really where my love grew out of, and from there I continued to explore on my own. With that said, Zac and I also went through lengths to make sure we knew these tropes inside and out before we started scripting. We consume a lot of media so it was all there, but it’s a matter of excavating the tropes and compartmentalizing certain aspects so that when we’re telling the story we know when certain beats are meant to appear. This allowed us to either abide by them or smash them completely, most often opting for the ladder and always trying to fight cliché.

We knew Eric was pretty well versed in the genre, but Zac and I wanted to make sure that in our scripts we were offering specific “camera” angles and specific lighting details because those are such essential elements of working in the genre. Eric was able to not only take that direction but add to it so our world felt both old and new at once. Dee did a similar thing with colors, really blending the noir tone with a contemporary city setting to make this feel cohesive.

ZAC: We already loved the genre long before we began the project but it was just about immersing ourselves in our favorite stories and films in noir. We broke down tropes that we saw often and went out of our way to lean into some while rejecting others. By blending in nods to different pieces of literature we tried to upend expectations of what noir is or what it could be. When it came to scripting we made sure to pay extra attention to noir details like lighting and framing of shots. Luckily for us, Eric is such a gifted storyteller that he either nailed the influence we were going for or innovated something even better.

BIG COMIC PAGE: There’s also a real authenticity to the series in terms of the Vancouver homeless situation and the often negative effects of gentrification. Was that something else you had to do extra research into?

ERIC ZAWADZKI: I took hundreds and hundreds of photos of the downtown eastside of Vancouver. I really wanted the comic to look authentically Vancouver. This got me into trouble a couple of times because the residents there get understandably uncomfortable when strangers come in to take pictures of them and their world. On top of that, I know Zac and Lonnie took every opportunity to listen to the stories of any homeless person they came across. There was once last summer when we arranged to meet at a bar to discuss the series and when I arrived, I found them outside listening to a homeless man tell his story. I remember being very impressed by that.

ZAC: Yeah, we really made an effort to spend time on the streets with people and learn their stories. It was incredibly important for Lonnie and I to ensure the authenticity of a homeless person’s struggle was on every single page. It was paramount to the experience of scripting the series. We never wanted the book to feel exploitative and that was the only way to do it in my opinion. By collecting and listening to these incredibly humanizing stories it was rather easy to build out the world of The Dregs with a collection of people we met on the street and weave authentic details of their struggles into every single panel.

BIG COMIC PAGE: The crime story at the heart of the series is great, but telling it from the perspective of such an unconventional individual really pushes The Dregs over the top, for me at least. Tell us a little bit about where the idea of Arnold came from.

ZAC: It was always this idea of telling the story from the most unconventional lens possible. Arnold was someone that was in the original version of the screenplay way back when but Lonnie and I really stripped him down into someone who underwent a massive amount of struggle and hardship. But like any good noir detective we don’t really get a good idea of what that past is. We just see him as he is, committed to solving the task at hand not because he’s really well equipped to do so but because he believes he can do it. He has a singular drive and like us a passion for the genre.

LONNIE: In addition to what Zac mentioned, we were really interested in creating a character who would become obsessed with their task at hand. We wanted someone who would finish what they started no matter what other people thought and no matter how much they got their ass kicked. After the initial conception of Arnold, we looked to characters in films like Fitzcarraldo or Kumiko: The Treasure Hunter or Pi and wanted to build our own version of this weird archetype as a detective. Arnold is someone who wants so badly to be like the people he idolizes in his novels, but is completely ill equipped to do so. This contrast was super interesting to us and we just ran with it.

BIG COMIC PAGE: There are some genuinely moving moments during the course of Arnold’s journey over the course of the series. Do you each have any personal favourites that stick out in your mind?

LONNIE: Personally, my favorite scene is in the final issue when Arnold is speaking to someone… rather strange. It’s a pretty surreal conversation but it holds a lot of emotional weight because of how Eric managed to depict it so perfectly. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know the scene. If you haven’t, you’ll know when you get there.

ZAC: My favorite scene comes in issue three where Arnold is staking out a place called “The Town Hall.” I love the way Eric handled this scene and the resolution of what’s going on is so emotionally devastating that I find myself coming back to it over and over.

BIG COMIC PAGE: One of the reasons The Dregs seems to come across so well is that it feels like a genuinely collaborative process between the four of you.  What was that collaboration like, and how much back-and-forth was there in terms of the different visual and narrative aspects of the series?

ZAC: Lonnie and I really made sure that every aspect of the series was a collaboration. Every bit of script was prefaced with the idea of if Eric found a better way to tell the story than he should pursue it. When we scripted we ensured that everything on the page was in both of our voices and when it came to art and colours everyone weighed in on everything. It was a slow process for sure, but we came out with something meticulously created by all four of us every step of the way. I couldn’t have asked for a better and more hands on creative team than the dudes on this book.

LONNIE: Zac and I work completely collaboratively together, and we wanted to open that to the rest of the team. We are always pushing each other to make things better, so we just try to bring out the best in everyone involved.

BIG COMIC PAGE: The artwork is definitely expressive and dynamic, but is also some of the most technically impressive I’ve seen in quite some time. Eric and Dee, what was it about this series that led you to really push yourselves to make it as special as it turned out?

ERIC: Before The Dregs, I’d had a handful of my comics come out from indie publishers with very little success and I think a majority of that failure falls on me because I’m the one telling these stories. I’m the only one reading the scripts that the writers write, which leaves me to be the one to tell the story that everyone is reading. I’d reached a point in this career of mine where I needed to be better. My goal with The Dregs was to spend three times as long as usual on the layouts. Comparing the success of The Dregs to all the other comics I’ve done over the last several years, I think it paid off.

DEE CUNNIFFE: I’ve never worked on a project like this, in terms of tone and structure, so it was exciting to push what I could do with the colors. There are lots of places where I experimented with things that I probably wouldn’t have got away with in any other book. Every page was a new challenge and Eric’s art really allowed me to go wild.

BIG COMIC PAGE: There are so many memorable page layouts and visual beats over the course of the four issues – do you each have a personal favourite?

ERIC: I really like how the two page spread in issue #2 came out. A lot of that came down to the initial idea that Zac and Lonnie had for those pages. Their scripts invite experimentation quite a bit, which I was very thankful for.

LONNIE: I love the first time we are introduced to the femme fatale, and the double page spread in issue #2. Also, pretty much the entire last issue. Eric and Dee really just did an incredible job across the board and I’m super proud to have my name attached to what they’ve created.

ZAC: I love the more experimental pages that linger in Arnold’s journal. Full page spreads of stuff that is almost reductive in a sense. The type of thing you wouldn’t normally see in a comic but lingering in those details really helps us understand Arnold. Honestly without Eric and Dee coming together to make sure they felt authentic and weirdly part of the narrative they wouldn’t have been half as effective but man I keep coming back to those full journal pages.

BIG COMIC PAGE: The response to The Dregs has been overwhelmingly positive.  How does it feel to you guys to know that the series has resonated so deeply with fans and critics alike?

LONNIE: I think overwhelming is the operative word in your question. Like I said before this is my first comic that’s been traditionally published, so it’s been a really strange ride that’s tough to put into words. On one hand I always promised I wouldn’t put too much stock into what other people thought of our work, but knowing that it resonates with people and connecting with fans has been absolutely incredible. I’m just trying to navigate this new terrain, but I must say it’s way more motivating to go into our next projects knowing that we can connect with readers.

ZAC: It’s beyond humbling. We honestly made this book for ourselves hoping maybe a few other people would be into it. To see it resonate so deeply with so many people is quite overwhelming. It will never be normal. Now we’re just trying to do right by our fans and ensure that our next book brings it just as hard.

BIG COMIC PAGE: What would be the one thing you’d each like people to take away with them after reading The Dregs?

LONNIE: I don’t want to tell people what to take away from their reading experience. I just hope it offers people a new perspective and helps them to think a little bit differently about the world we live in.

ZAC: I hope it allows you to take pause next time you see a homeless person. Stop and have a chat. Learn about their story, both of you will be better for it.

BIG COMIC PAGE: Now, it almost feels sacrilegious to ask, given how well the series wrapped up, but are there any plans to revisit the world you brought to life The Dregs in any way down the line?

ZAC: We’ve joked about it and we do have some pretty insane ideas about how to continue the series but as of right now there is nothing in the works.

LONNIE: The book was always meant to be a limited series with a definitive ending. We love Arnold and wouldn’t say no to continuing his journey in one way or another, but probably not for a long while if ever.

BIG COMIC PAGE: What else do you guys have in the works right now that you can talk about?

LONNIE: Zac and I have a couple new comics in the works that we’re co-writing that should be out sometime next year. One of them is a body horror story that asks heavy questions about selfhood in the age of social media. It’s very Cronenberg. The other one is pretty absurd and while I can’t say much about it yet, it has some thematic similarities to The Dregs but in a completely different genre. Otherwise I’m working on a screenplay and trying to finish up a feature-length documentary I’ve been working on for way too long.

ERIC: I’m currently working on a 40-50 page Viking one shot with Ryan K Lindsay. It should come out next year. I’m also working on a short story with Vita Ayala for the This Nightmare Kills Fascists anthology. And after all that is done, I’ve got a pretty big project in the works that will keep my very busy next year.

ZAC: Lonnie and I are co-writing two new comics for the next year. There’s the body horror one and a more literary descent into a weird genre piece. I’m gearing up to release my first novel in October and also working on the edit for my second novel over the remainder of the year. Trying to stay overwhelmingly busy.

BIG COMIC PAGE: And finally, with the trade release right around the corner, what would you each say to someone who was on the fence about picking this one up to help convince them?

LONNIE: Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.

ERIC: I would ask them to read the first 5 pages, which is a pretty quick read.

ZAC: No! Read pages 6 to 10. Don’t focus on the castration pages.

THE DREGS TP goes on sale August 9th from Black Mask Studios, and if you don’t pick it up, then I’m afraid we can’t be friends anymore.  Sorry.  You’ve been warned.

ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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