“Hard-boiled” just took on a brand new meaning as writers Lonnie Nadler and Zach Thompson introduce readers to The Dregs, a four-issue mini-series debuting next week from Black Mask Studio. Nadler and Thompson were on hand to tell Comicosity all about the development of the series and how they’re blending genres to focus in on gentrification and drug use in urban Vancouver.
Matt Santori: How did you and the creative team come together with Black Mask to produce The Dregs?
Lonnie Nadler: It was all rather serendipitous, I suppose. Zac and I met at Emerald City Comic Con a few years back and found out that we not only both lived in Vancouver, but were also attending the same school. We probably walked by each other like every single day and just didn’t notice. We started hanging out, drinking beers together, and quickly realized we had a lot of similar influences and writing sensibilities so we developed some pitches together.
One night we were trying to come up with a new idea and Zac brought up an old screenplay he had written called The Dregs about a homeless detective. I have a deep affinity for the noir genre so I loved the core concept, and we just shaped it from there. We ended up gutting the entire screenplay and rebuilding it from the ground up.
Eric Zawadzki was also living in Vancouver at the time and we met through some mutual friends. Zac and I were fans of his work on Headspace, so we pitched him The Dregs and, fortunately for us, he was into it.
Zac Thompson: Yeah, once we gutted that screenplay we really dug around in the noir genre to find the elements we wanted to bring to the table with The Dregs.
Once we had Eric on board it was all about making efforts to subvert and elevate the genre tropes of noir wherever we could. We knew that a homeless noir couldn’t play by the rules of old school conventional detective stories but could borrow more inspiration from films like Rian Johnson’s Brick and Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye to create a kind of meta noir against the backdrop of our own city.
LN: Once we had the pitch together, we just sent it off to Black Mask. The publisher liked it, and funny enough, they greenlit it at Emerald City.
MS: The obvious genre story you’re following with The Dregs is the classic detective story, but how are you working within it — and transforming it — to tell the story of Arnold’s investigation into Manny’s disappearance?
ZT: We decided early on that while this would be a detective story it certainly wasn’t going to play by the rules. But in order to break the rules you’ve got to learn them first. So we went through every effort to deeply research the noir genre by consuming the works of Chandler, Hammett and film-noir in general.
By doing that we set different ways to subvert and play out the tropes of the genre in new ways. You may notice that the resolution to core mystery of the book is presented pretty clearly in the opening pages of the first issue. This was a distinct choice, among many others in an effort to tell a different kind of detective story.
The second is to use the perspective of a homeless man who believe his love for fiction is all he needs to become a detective himself. From there we continued to use these two elements to define the series against type whenever possible.
LN: It was also important to us to take a post-modern approach to the story and explore what genre means to us as readers, and what it means in contemporary society. The hardboiled detective as we know him was invented as a means to critique American culture and to look beneath the surface of the American dream facade. These characters, like Marlowe and the Continental Op are always down and out, living not for wages, but for the moral implications of their work.
In this sense, Arnold is both the epitome and opposite of the classic detective. He’s disillusioned, yet he looks up to them and their world in a romantic sense. This allows us to simultaneously write a love letter to noir but also subvert expectations.
MS: The issues of gentrification and homelessness are front and center with a homeless man as protagonist for the series. What kind of research and influences went into developing Arnold and his environment in Vancouver?
LN: Like most major cities, gentrification and homelessness are huge issues in Vancouver. Zac and I are both journalists and have each written a handful of articles on the subjects, and these are issues we care deeply about and it was very important for us to represent them accurately and honestly.
Obviously we read a lot about homelessness and drug use, but the personal accounts of those living on the streets were really what inspired us most because we didn’t want an awful stereotypical homeless savant as the protagonist.
There’s a famous Canadian documentary called Through a Blue Lens that’s about cops dealing with the people who live in the notoriously harsh Downtown Eastside of Vancouver and we referenced that quite a bit.
There’s also a blog called “Eastside Stories,” and it’s all written by a local cop whose beat is on the Downtown Eastside. His stories are so gut wrenching and macabre, yet there’s something human to the experiences he shares that makes it emotionally authentic.
Those were wells of inspiration for us, but honestly we’ve been reading local newspapers every single day for the duration of this project to keep informed and a lot of what’s going on is so shocking that it feels like fiction sometimes. This was a really bad year for homelessness and drug addiction in Canada. All of these realities sort of leak into the storytelling one way or another.
ZT: There’s also the bleak reality of spending time on the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Lonnie and I made every effort to travel to the poorer areas of Vancouver and spend some time with the people who inhabit the streets. From short observations walking the block to longer in depth conversations with the homeless of Vancouver we tried to ensure we were representing the reality of this world.
It was important to us that we didn’t make any of the issues we’re tackling in this book as a punchline to a bigger story but rather that they communicate authenticity. By speaking to the homeless of Vancouver we had moments of shared humanity. We learned so much from those interactions and tried to ensure every bit of it eventually made its way to the page.
MS: You’ve immediately introduced this narrative of cannibalism with the first few pages of The Dregs. Talk to me about that decision and how it fits in for you to overarching story of the economic divide you’re depicting.
ZT: We immediately show the bleak reality of the world we’re dealing with in The Dregs from page one. We’re not interested in pulling our punches. There’s a point to that, it’s a moment where you understand everything about what is being done to the homeless in this city. It’s an intimate exploration of how we treat our delicacies.
By showing that the homeless people have become the next biggest food fad in Vancouver, we show just how the rich treat homeless residents in most cities. It’s as much a thematic statement of “this is a story about how cities consume people,” as it is establishing the stakes of Arnold’s story over the next four issues.
LN: As Zac said earlier it also serves the purpose of playing with genre expectations. The answer to the mystery is largely presented in the first five pages. While there is certainly a focus on mystery throughout the series, it also allows us to show that this is about a character, and about his struggles to find the answers that the reader is already largely aware of.
MS: How is Eric Zawadzki’s work developing in tandem with your scripts? Are you sending reference, or adjusting your scripts to match his style?
LN: Eric’s a dream to work with for us. From the outset we made it clear to Eric that this was a collaborative project, where we wanted him to be very involved in the storytelling. It’s just what we believe begets the best comics. Our scripts are generally more detailed and more prose-like than a lot of other scripts we’ve seen.
Not to sound pretentious or anything, it’s just the method that works best for us, and I suspect it’s partly due to our backgrounds in writing film, journalism, and fiction. We make efforts to be as detailed as possible in our panel descriptions, painting a picture with words, covering everything from background specifications, to character thoughts, to lighting queues. It’s all in an effort to offer a sense of mood and atmosphere in the writing itself, which is especially important in crime stories.
Eric takes our scripts and finds the best way to communicate our ideas. He then builds out the story sequentially, often changing the number of panels on a page or adding certain ideas of his own, and it always enhances to our initial vision. He’s running a blog on his creative process that I recommend any writer or artist check out.
ZT: Eric has been able to take our labyrinthian scripts and turn them into wonderful pieces of art that elevate the story. We’ve made it clear from the beginning that we’re all storytellers in this process and without Eric we’d just have prose on a page.
Like Lonnie said, we’re writing scripts that are more dense than usual. Yet, Eric takes those dense details and adds his own flourish and breaks them down in his own way. We’ve seen pages totally evolve once his pencils hit the page and while the paneling may be different than we originally imagined the core theme of a page is in tact and better than ever.
Now that we’re further into the series we’re all clearly operating on some subconscious level where things are painstakingly detailed to the point where we’re the only people that will care. There are so many tiny visual throwbacks and nods to inspirations and subtles within the book that I’m hoping people will eventually notice on a second read through. It sounds cliche but working with Eric is a dream come true.
MS: It wouldn’t be a classic detective story without introducing a femme fatale, but there seems to be more to this apparition than meets the eye when she crosses Arnold’s path. Is this simply a reflection of the narrator’s drug use or a part of the bigger story?
LN: You’re right. There’s rarely a good detective story without a femme fatale. We struggled for a while to figure out how to fit ours into the story because we didn’t want to sexualize her in any way, but once we had our epiphany she became a natural fit. We don’t want to give to much away or explain exactly how she fits into the world or what her relationship is to Arnold, but it will become more clear along the way for the astute readers.
ZT: There’s more to China than you’d first imagine but it’s not what you think from the outset, that’s all I’ll say.
MS: Any special teases you can share with the Comicosity audience prior to the release of The Dregs #1?
LN: The story only gets weirder and more personal for Arnold as he begins to uncover a rather heinous crime. Pay special attention to the people he encounters in the issue. Nothing is as it seems. Follow the shapes. They will guide the way. Just don’t mistake them for purpose.
ZT: Those who are playing close attention will be highly rewarded as the series presses forward. This is a detective story after all and we’re not the only ones telling a story. Don’t be afraid to dig deeper.
Black Mask Studio releases The Dregs #1 next week on new comic book day: January 23, 2017! Don’t miss out.