Though I call the middle of America home these days, I am originally from the West Coast of Canada, and spent most of my life living in the city of Vancouver, British Columbia. Vancouver is, of course, renowned for its scenic beauty, but as The Dregs proves, it’s also home to one of the most significant communities of drug addiction and homelessness in North America; the downtown east side (or DTES, as it’s known). The Dregs tells a story that comes straight from that area, an area that I knew well, and it’s one of the most brilliant and affecting and captivating comics of the year.
The story of The Dregs is structured like a classic hard-boiled detective yarn, complete with references to Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammet and Mickey Spillane. When a homeless man named Manny goes missing, his fellow denizen of the streets and fellow drug addict Arnold sets off in search of his friend. Like all great noir stories, Arnold’s quest morphs form curiosity into obsession, and begins to reveal crimes far greater, and more far-reaching and disturbing, than the simple disappearance of a homeless man.
Brilliantly written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson with art by Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe, The Dregs tackles with laser-sharp focus and sharp insight some of the issues facing communities like the DTES. As gentrification encroaches ever closer, where do the communities of those like Arnold and Manny go? And with no resources devoted to helping them manage their lives, what happens to the tight-knit and in many cases vibrant communities that exist there? In the wake of hipsters and yuppies ever searching for new areas to make their own, ever looking for cheap real estate, how do powerless people like Arnold keep from being devoured in the wake of progress? And given how invisible these people and their needs often are to the rest of us, what does that say about the society we’re nurturing?
The creative team asks all these questions and more throughout the course of the book, and in order to really pull the reader into Arnold’s life, utilizes an intensely specific and focused approach. As a protagonist, you can’t ask for better than Arnold, who is dedicated and nuanced and complex, a man who clearly has many problems and issues, not the least of which is his addiction. But The Dregs doesn’t allow you to have any distance from him as a character, so you feel you know him and his heart throughout the book. And his mission to uncover what happened to Manny, to find the truth, becomes an obsession, you’re right there with him. And like Arnold, you can be forgiven for deluding yourself into hoping that all of this will end in some kind of justice. But the creators don’t sacrifice the uncompromising honesty of their storytelling to tie things up in a nice bow, and that gives the story even more complexity and integrity.
Though the flavor of the story borrows so much from the noir tradition, and even a little from the horror tradition (it’s a little gory and not for the giant of stomach), overall I was reminded throughout The Dregs of the work of one of my favorite authors, Paul Auster. Like Auster, the creators use the tropes of the detective genre to give the narrative structure, but ultimately wind up completely subverting the reader’s expectations. With detective stories, you expect there to be an ultimate resolution, that the revelation of the crime and its perpetrators will provide us with solace and re-establish norms. Instead, the things Arnold learns throughout the story only shatter whatever illusions he has left, and serve to reinforce the cold, hard truths of the kind of society that allows misery like The Dregs to happen in the first place. Even worse, the society in question creates an area like The Dregs but only tolerates it until it needs to consume the very community it previously neglected.
Zawadzki and Cunniffe deliver brilliant art throughout The Dregs. There are panels in the book that brought me right back to the DTES, buildings that I’ve been in and reminded me of people that I knew and miss. And the style effortlessly evokes a hallucinatory quality in the moments where Arnold’s grip on reality becomes more tenuous due to his drug use, mental health, or his obsession. But they also employ a fairly standard grid structure to much of the book, and the true testament to their skill comes from how they know when to employ more rigid layouts vs the wilder unstructured moments. For a book that takes place in the world it does, where despair and struggle is ever-present, there’s a lot of beauty in the art of the book. And that’s fitting, because where some might see the DTES as a lost place, there is a community there, a sense of togetherness. And that is under threat even now, as outside forces aggressively and persistently nibble at the edges every year, shrinking it. The art captures that, even as it never forgets the noir influence in its depiction of rain-soaked alleys, and expressionist shadows and angles. As the story progresses, the art becomes more and more varied and less realistic, and the end result is a perfect example of an art team in sync with the script.
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and not just for the connection to home it provides. It’s a book with a lot to say about people who have an extremely difficult time getting our attention, and who often only get noticed when they are in our way. In the end, The Dregs will stay with you, and it should. 10/10
The Dregs Trade Paperback will be released by Black Mask Comics on August 9, 2017.