Detective Noir, Horror, And Homelessness – Lonnie Nadler And Zac Thompson On The Dregs
I noticed the Black Mask Studio series The Dregs immediately, when it started rolling out in shops, because the premise of the story is unusual, at least in comics. The Dregs follows the life of a homeless man among a large homeless population in Vancouver, British Columbia, a social situation that is true to life. But from that point the series jumps off into a blend of genre traditions, such as detective fiction and horror, before bringing you back quite firmly to the idea that the terrors of homelessness are probably far worse than anything our fiction usually imagines.
This is not to say that comics have never included homelessness or addressed the social issues we face–far from it. But to foreground the role of homelessness in the comic so specifically and in a known real-world setting creates a different tone for conversation. Written by Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson, both of whom have worked as reporters for VICE, The Dregs is drawn by Eric Zawadzki, and also contains a back up feature in each issue, an “Off Hours Photo Series” of homeless people by Thanh Nguyen.
While the social issues of homelessness, presented in great detail via research from the creative team, are a significant part of the comic, the idea of main character Arnold’s addled but obsessive pursuit of a noir detective role in tracking down the fate of missing homeless friends, is very compelling and turns this comic into a detective story you, too, will want him to solve.
I spoke with the writers of the series, Lonnie Nadler, and Zac Thompson, about The Dregs, ahead of the third issue’s release on May 3rd, 2017.
Hannah Means-Shannon: The Dregs is a serious and strange mystery story following homeless man, Arnold, living in an area of Vancouver where the homeless have been sequestered. Can you tell me how you see the relationship between the mystery elements—tracking down a crime—and the social issues you’ve chosen to write about? Why is a mystery a good way to talk about homelessness, or why is homelessness a good fit for a mystery story?
Lonnie Nadler: When Zac and I first started working on the book, our focus was on exploring a real world situation, one we bore witness to every single day, through fiction. We really wanted this to be a book that dealt with a social issue, but we also never wanted to stray into territory where we were shoving our agendas down people’s throats because that’s just not engaging and it’s not good storytelling.
This presented a unique problem because so many modern books that are tackling a timely social issue are rather on-the-nose about it. The story was also always meant to be a mystery of sorts, but I have a huge affinity for classic crime fiction by writers like Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, and Dashiell Hammett and I really wanted to bring those elements into the book. As we continued to develop the project, Zac and I started to embrace elements of classic crime novels and film noir because it just came so naturally with the world we were working in.
Dealing with things like a corrupt city, a secret plot, real estate development, and paranoia stemmed out of the social issue we were addressing, but those are also huge tenants of the crime genre. We eventually decided to fully embrace those influences and bring them directly into the story.
Arnold himself became a figure who envies the stories by the writers I mentioned and the detectives in them, but who also works as the absolute epitome of those detectives. He’s a down-and-out private eye working a case nobody else cares about. The themes those writers were exploring back in the mid 20th century were similar to the ones we were addressing now. It all worked out and allowed us to tell the story wanted to tell about social issues while also exploring the history of fiction.
Zac Thompson: We’ve always been interested in treading the line between social commentary and mystery. As Lonnie said, we took a lot of influence from writers who created the tropes of the mystery genre and saw how well they worked when injected into the real-world situations of Vancouver’s downtown east side. The Dregs has always been about gentrification on the surface but it’s also deconstruction of noir.
While we are dealing with strong social issues, we’re also using genre elements in our storytelling. It’s an effort to avoid hitting people over the head with how horrible it is to be homeless. It’s about instilling hope and familiarity in the world that seems so foreign and giving people something to latch onto that already makes sense in their head. The Dregs really owes a lot to Rian Johnson’s Brick. So much of that film works because it’s just a noir in a new environment.
When I was doing research for the book, I came across this serial killer from Vancouver’s downtown east side, Robert Pickton. He would inject homeless women with windshield wiper fluid and take them to his farm to be eaten by pigs. I wondered what it would look like if one of those homeless women had a husband, or a friend and what would happen if that person took it upon themselves to solve the mystery. It all developed from there.
HMS: There’s a solid amount of literary reference in the comic series, from Raymond Chandler to Don Quixote, and now in issue 2, the myth of Sisyphus. Do you think these elements will help readers come to grips with a reality that may feel and seem very foreign to them?
ZT: I think so, but the key thing to remember, above all else, is how our protagonist, Arnold makes sense of the world he’s in. Arnold is well-read and carries influences with him wherever he goes. The literary references were something we thought were integral to understanding Arnold’s character because he loves to read and he’s obsessed with detective fiction. We subtly feature Arnold’s book collection in the first issue but it’s just a background detail.
For us, the fiction is definitely a gateway to understanding the world you’re in but it’s also a way for us to make this story bigger and bring in influence from outside comics. We’ve both found that comics are incredibly self-referential to the point that it’s detrimental. We strove to bring in influence from outside comics and inject a different type of sensibility in our storytelling.
LN: I suppose when you’re referencing Camus and Chandler there’s always a risk of coming across as pretentious, but as Zac says, it informs the world and its characters. If anything, I think our literary references are actually alienating to some readers who don’t quite know all of the things we are alluding to. That’s no slight against them, and not our intention, but we love literature deeply and that love itself works its way into our writing. If anything, we hope it inspires people to seek out the stuff we are referencing.
HMS: Can you tell us anything about the concept of Sisyphus in the comic and how the unique double-page spread in issue #2, depicting Marlowe searching the city for clues, as Sisyphus, came to be?
LN: I have my BA in Philosophy, and I was always specifically drawn to Existentialism and the thinkers coming out of Europe in that World War II era. One of my favorite philosophers and writers from that period is Albert Camus, and his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” was a huge influence on me. Sisyphus represents the eternal struggle of man when Camus lays it out.
Sisyphus is faced with the absurdity of a world that rejects meaning despite his desire to find meaning. This is a big theme in the book for us, the idea of a man who is searching for answers, for meaning, in a world full of people who constantly reject him and his goals. So, this idea of struggling to find answers through repetition of action was something we wanted to represent visually for the reader as Arnold is descending further down this path of madness.
Zac and I both strive to experiment whenever we can and to push the boundaries of the medium so that the form we are presenting (along with Eric) complements, or augments the content. I wish more people were trying weird shit in comics, and testing out the limits of the medium because it’s still quite young and there are so many possibilities that we’ve yet to uncover.
ZT: Lonnie and I strove to create scripts that really embraced the medium of comics. We wanted to create moments that couldn’t have been pulled off in a movie, like weird page turns, or that crazy spiral double page spread. The type of thing that makes us go mad as we’re plotting it out. And it’s about capturing the eternal struggle in the face of absurdity. The futility of it all and how Arnold will continue to go in a circle until someone pulls him out of the mess.
The comics we love always add a visual element to their storytelling, an extra layer of madness for the reader to experience along with the protagonist. That’s what we want more of in comics and we strove to bring elements of this existentialist madness into each issue, both visually and through the narrative.
HMS: You often focus in on the physical toll of homelessness, just the sheer weight of time, elements, and the body’s response to it. Why is this important to you to include in the comic?
ZT: We did a lot of research on what it was like to be homeless. We spent time talking to the real homeless people of Vancouver and doing research on what it meant to be homeless. In the end, the physical toll on the body kept coming back through research and talks we had around the city. It felt like something that readers needed to understand to truly empathize with Arnold as he moves through the story.
The idea of sleeping on solid ground in the elements, particularly rain, really is harrowing. It takes an incredible toll on the body that most never get over, even if they do get clean and get off the street. This is Arnold’s reality and the reality of many other people like him, so it made sense to focus on his physical struggles as his mind erodes trying to solve the mystery.
LN: I think when a lot of people consider the struggles of homelessness or addiction, it’s the obvious things that come to mind like having no food, being cold, or getting clean drugs. We wanted to go beyond those stereotypes to provide moments and struggles that readers may not have considered previously. Focusing on these minute, specific details makes Arnold’s journey and life more relatable.
It’s like in a film, when you see people getting injured in big choreographed action sequences, none of the pain resonates for the audience. It’s only when a director is able to focus on a specific element, like a gash on the palm of the hand or ripping off a fingernail, that the suffering is felt by the audience. We wanted to feel that throughout the book. The harsh realities of being homeless stretch far beyond what we, as more privileged people, can fathom and chronicling the physicality of Arnold’s body and its changes across his journey serves as a means to communicate just how horrible life on the streets is, even for people who are foreign to that way of life.
HMS: Were you all concerned in creating this comic that you’d face criticism for how you presented gentrification, local government, or the police in the context of homelessness in Vancouver? Has there been any commentary on that since publication?
LN: I think anytime you write anything in our current cultural space, that there’s not only a possibility, but a likelihood of facing criticism, whether your work is intended to be political or not. Obviously, ours is intended to be political in some regards, and this is something we did take into consideration. But we know it’s our job as writers to tell the story as authentically as we possibly can, and if this ruffles some proverbial feathers, then that means we’re doing our job as writers who want our fiction to rouse something in our readers.
We haven’t had any real negative feedback in regards to the way we are presenting the city and its authorities. I think a lot of people in the city are pretty aware of how fucked up things are at the moment, and I only hope our book works to open maybe just a couple more eyes. We’re not afraid of negative backlash on this project, to be honest. We’ve also been journalists for years and, especially with our stuff at VICE, we’ve pretty much dealt with the worst criticism out there. I believe Zac has received some death threats on Twitter, which is just insane.
ZT: It’s true. I’ve had the absolute worst things said to me over really petty shit. Mostly misunderstandings of my work are due to people only reading headlines. Which, I think was something we were both concerned about with the first couple pages of the series. We figured that people were going to lash out about the gruesome first scene.
Outside of some of the more fantastical elements we don’t really think The Dregs is that far off from the current reality of Vancouver. As we were writing the series, the headlines in the local news came to mirror some of story elements in the book. Obviously, that’s horrible but it means that we’re onto something with this story. At the end of the day, we didn’t write the story because we wanted to comment on gentrification, we wrote it because this is the world we live in and we wanted to show the authentic struggles of homeless people in Western Canada. If someone has a problem with that, I’d love to talk to them.
HMS: What led to including the “Off Hours Photo Series” in the comics? What do you think it adds or suggests alongside the reading experience?
LN: Thanh Nguyen is the photographer and she’s been working on the series for about as long as we’ve been working on the book. Zac and I knew we wanted to have a backup for the book from a local Vancouver artist or writer, and we wanted it to be thematically related to the story we were telling. Thanh showed me some of her work for “Off Hours” and I pretty much immediately knew it was a perfect fit. I sent it off to Zac and Eric, and we all agreed it had a place in The Dregs. We get questions about it on every interview or podcast that we do, and it’s rare for people to talk about the backups, so I think that alone is proof that it’s a powerful photo series, and that it accomplishes the goal of bringing people further into the reality we are fictionalizing in the series.
HMS: Cannibalism seems like an extreme thing to include in the comic, something that opens the series, and lurks in the background. It pops all the realism in the comic a little bit out of the frame of normality but does bring home an intense brutality. What sort of effect were you going for?
ZT: The cannibalism was this thing that was there from the beginning. The idea that we were telling a story about a city that literally consumes its homeless. We realize that’s a harrowing first scene but that was the point. We wanted to unsettle readers and show them that this is really happening and it’s brutal as hell.
The point was to throw everything else into context, to show you people who are willing to do that to another human being, and to show you that this world is dangerous and fucked up. It grounds Arnold’s struggle in a strange way because you understand that he’s not fighting for something imagined. This is really happening and despite his shit detective skills, he aims to get to the bottom of it.
LN: There’s a pretty rich history of cannibalism in literature and its generally employed by authors to either show the savagery of a particular race is or to comment on social structure. I’m talking about things like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. And we wanted to bring it back to those notions, but reverse the idea of who in this world was considered “savage”.
Of course, the other end of cannibalism in pop culture comes with films like “Cannibal Holocaust” or “Ravenous”. Zac and I are also big horror fanatics, so we wanted to get in a really gory scene to set the stage for this world and then reel it back, as Zac mentioned. Blending the old and new ideas of cannibalism was something that appealed to us and goes back to the idea of playing around with genre and tropes, which we’re always trying to do.
HMS: Can you tell us a little about the trajectory of the series and where you hope it’ll take readers?
LN: We’re not naive enough to believe comic books can change the world or even a city, but we do believe fiction has the power to unearth certain truths that are difficult to get at in non-fiction, and that fiction can serve as an “axe to the frozen sea within us,” as Kafka says.
It doesn’t need to turn everyone that reads it into an activist, but we hope it opens their eyes and offers an emotional experience they, perhaps, were not prepared for. We hope that the book resonates with people and leaves them thinking not only about their cities and the way the interact with homeless people, but also about the importance of storytelling and its relationship to the way we view the world.
ZT: I really couldn’t say it any better than Lonnie just did, but I’ll try my own rendition. The Dregs is meant to be a personal exploration of purpose. The purpose we give ourselves in the face of insane odds. Hopefully when you read it, you’re empathizing with Arnold and understanding his struggle. Hopefully, you look at the apathetic world around him and reconsider walking past a homeless person on the street.
If nothing else, we hope that you think about the city you live in and consider what role you play within that concrete landscape. It’s fiction with a purpose, and at the end of the day all we’re really hoping to do is get you to think about these things, these people, and these cities.
Thanks to Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson for this extensive interview.
The Dregs #3 arrives in shops from Black Mask Studio on Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017.