Vancouver, like all of Canada, works tirelessly to preserve its image as a beautiful and polite place. Surrounded on all sides by some of the most gorgeous natural scenery in all of North America, the City of Glass wants the world to associate it with splendor and tranquility. Of course, no city is without its shadows, but just as Vancouver is exceptionally beautiful, it is also exceptionally ugly in its policies and behavior, particularly when it comes to the Downtown Eastside, an area of immense poverty that is featured as the true main character in Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe’s new Black Mask Studios series The Dregs.
The area frequently referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code,” (or its gulag as a notable homeless activism blogger referred to it a couple years back) is barely fictionalized in The Dregs. If anything, Zawadzki gives it a more charitable rendering, minimizing the number of bodies and burning heaps of garbage that litter its streets while Cunniffe mutes the colors so you don’t quite get the full excrement and bile aesthetic it has in real life. That’s likely because too realistic a portrayal of the real life Dregs would perhaps come across as unrealistic or, worst, exploitative. Nadler and Thompson make it clear that while The Dregs is unabashedly a pulpy horror noir, complete with key plot points referencing Raymond Chandler, it’s also meant to humanize the people who have been victimized by Vancouver’s policy of making the Downtown Eastside “a dumping ground for misfits…tailor-made to house a permanent population of addicts,” as the National Post put it.
Whether The Dregs succeeds at that comes down to your preferences in political fiction. If you want something nuanced and full of historical research, The Dregs probably won’t strike a chord with you. This is a comic that borrows liberally from B-movie horror works like Motel Hell and Soylent Green as well as more artful riffs on the same “people being fed other people” trope like Delicatessen. It is a blunt comic that makes its point brashly and aggressively. But let’s be clear about something: polite, nuanced conversation about Vancouver’s treatment of the Downtown Eastside has never gotten anywhere. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the city had the eyes of the entire world on it, and it knew that the Downtown Eastside was going to raise some questions, since it ends right beside one of the main Olympic sites, Rogers Arena. The city’s solution to this was to do things like forcibly relocate the homeless and erect a giant barricade around the Olympic zone, complete with a world class CCTV monitoring station and more armed personnel than Canada’s mobilized military. There was some outcry, but for the most part, no one thought it was odd that the city more or less made one of its largest sections a DMZ.
The Dregs takes place in the aftermath of that, as Olympic fervor led to renewed efforts to “colonize” underutilized sections of the city. Its setting is as much a character as the actual protagonist Mr. Arnold, a wouldbe private eye looking for his friend Manny, who we see getting butchered by and fed to gentrifying elite in the opening pages. What The Dregs communicates is that we treat the citizens of places like the Downtown Eastside as inhuman waste, smears on the fiction we create about the cities we call home. Zawadzki has always been an artist who has delighted in showing humans as monstrous figures, his linework is usually jagged and strange, and this script allows him to take that to new extremes, with Cuffe’s coloring bringing every bit of human waste and gore to disturbing life. If you have a stomach for pulp, The Dregs packs a queasy punch and its brisk pace makes Arnold’s depressing tour of his surroundings all the more visceral and riveting.
But there are drawbacks. None of the characters in The Dregs feel entirely real yet. They fit into stock archetypes, like a smug, ambitious tycoon who might be involved in the commodification of the poor, and a mysterious femme fatale slumming it in the DTES. Even Arnold comes across as a mere Marlowe palette swap; he talks in patter and is fixated on patterns but his motivations are hard to parse and his background is a little too thin to count as intriguing. The work Nadler and Thompson have put into bringing Vancouver’s misbegotten core to life is easy to see and deserves acclaim, but they’d be smart to put that same level of effort into their cast going forward.
And yet I am drawn to this series nonetheless. At one point I lived in the Downtown Eastside. My friends and I worked in its bars and volunteered at its shelters. Our other friends avoided the area and were always obviously uncomfortable even talking about it. Vancouver natives refused to recognize it. It is an area with a rich history, formerly the center of culture in Western Canada but it has been tossed to the side and abandoned by a country that relies on its reputation for goodness. The Downtown Eastside deserves to have its story told, and told frequently, and for that I admire The Dregs and am willing to follow it and see if it will ultimately be a work that makes others pay attention to one of the greatest tragedies in Canada’s history.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover