The Dregs: a graphic novel set in the Downtown Eastside

The Peak spoke with one of its creators, Lonnie Nadler, to learn more about the inspiration behind the book

(Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios)

By: Yelin Gemma Lee

The Dregs is a graphic novel about a homeless detective at the heart of the opioid-crisis-ridden Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, where behind the scenes the homeless are being made into meat to be served at high-end restaurants. Did that synopsis catch your attention? It did for me, too.

    It is a well-researched portrayal of the real life horror, desperation, and hopelessness that homeless people are faced with on a daily basis. The class differences and gentrification of downtown Vancouver in The Dregs hits hard. Suddenly we are put very graphically in the shoes of a homeless man addicted to a drug called “listo.” To make things more interesting, The Dregs was intended as a love letter to film noir.

    Written by Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler, illustrated by artist Eric Zawadzki, and coloured by Dee Cunniffe, the team of four behind The Dregs displays seamless collaboration between the art and the story. All parts of the book are cohesive, and the facial expressions and lighting match the exact tone of the script. The artwork chilled me to the bone, especially in the scenes where you see the skewed vision of someone on street drugs that may or may not be laced with fentanyl.

I sat down with Lonnie Nadler, co-writer of The Dregs, and freelance writer at Vice Canada.

The Peak: How did this project begin? Talk to me about the creative process involved.

Lonnie: Zac [Thompson] brought out an old screenplay that he’d been working on in film school called The Dregs [that was] largely useless and largely garbage.But [it] had a great base idea so we stripped it down to “homeless detective” and worked to pay homage to the crime genre [while] also being authentic in portraying the homeless people in the Downtown Eastside. A lot of what’s in [the novel] was inspired by the journalism we were doing for Vice and what we saw in the streets everyday — we wanted to tell [an] honest and truthful [story] without being exploitative.

P: Did you have any particular points of inspiration?  

L: The Dregs is loaded with inspiration from real life, fiction, and film. In terms of the real life stuff, it was really just stuff that is going on in Vancouver, people that have been displaced and dying on a daily basis from the opioid crisis. [More real life inspiration comes from] reading headlines like “Vancouver morgues completely at capacity because of overdoses,” and the general increase of homeless people on the streets over the years. Zach and I have a lot of anger towards all of that. We wish it was better and this is a way for us to channel those frustrations . . . and [put them] together with our literary influences of early crime writers like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. [We were] trying to find out a way you can put a homeless person in this traditional narrative of a detective and they, oddly enough, matched up quite well in the fact that they are both disillusioned from the world and angry at the city as outsiders . . .

P: What is the social commentary you wanted to make through telling this story?

L: We are dealing with themes of gentrification [and] how this impacts the people who have the least say about it. It was based around the idea [that] people in big cities are often able to walk by homeless people without paying them a second thought, as if they are just part of the scenery. Without being too preachy and without telling people that they need to make major changes in their lives, it was about making them aware that these are people and they have stories and they deserve just as much attention as anyone else. It was mostly about recognizing humanity in places where people often overlook it.

P: How did you find the team effort aspect in The Dregs, [and] what kind of advice would you give to artists just starting their graphic novel with their own team?

L: You have to understand that you all have the same goal in the end and you are all trying to tell the best possible story you can. It’s OK to concede, and important to understand when your idea isn’t the best thing for the project. The way Zach and I co-write is very different from other co-writers. We don’t write anything unless we are in the same room together or in the same Google Doc, [and know] exactly what’s going on . . .[A] lot of the time when we are writing it’s just us sitting there and prefacing sentences with “I know this idea is shit but what if . . .”  and then we go from there . . . [Usually] the other person will be able to find a meaningful idea out of that horrible idea.

     Eric [Zawadzki], started off living in Vancouver when we [began] the project and we were incredibly thankful for that because there is only so much you can communicate through writing versus in person. And our lines of communication with Eric were fully open from day one, and we encouraged him to change the script and be a storyteller in his own right. Eric works largely in isolation as an artist in a lot of ways because he spends 14 hours in his basement drawing and we just try to be really supportive while he’s doing all that hard work.  

P: Any other comments?

L: I’m very thankful to have worked with the team I got to work with. I mean, this is a book that got rejected by almost every single publisher except Black Mask because it was weird and risky: we couldn’t be more thankful that they saw some sort of potential in it.

You can request The Dregs at any comic book store in the Lower Mainland, and at select Indigo, Chapters, and Coles stores. The official trade launch was on August 30, 2017.