Interview: Tilting at Windmills with The Dregs Team: Writers, Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson and Artist, Eric Zawadzki

This week the final issue of Black Mask’s The Dregs with the racks, concluding Arthur’s crusade, whilst armed with only a Raymond Chandler book.

Here at Crusaders, we have enjoyed getting to know Arnold and following him on his quest has been heart-felt and heart breaking.  We caught up with the creative team of the Dregs to discuss everything from panel count, homelessness and of course, Don Quixote.

Comic Crusaders: Guys, its great to talk to you.  How did you all meet up and get on the same page, so to speak for The Dregs?

Eric Zawadzki: We all had mutual friends in the Vancouver comic scene. I met them separately without realizing that they were collaborators. I had met Zac via e-mail when he worked for the comic book section of a website because I needed to promote my first Black Mask comic, Last Born. And I believe I met Lonnie in a bar at someone’s birthday. I remember Lonnie was shocked that I lived in Vancouver because he was familiar with my work. I recall thinking ‘These are really smart guys and they’ve got a lot of hustle’ so I think I drunkenly told Lonnie one night in a bar that I’d be willing to do a pitch with them if they’re up for it. Several months later, they approached me about The Dregs.

Lonnie Nadler: Eric, pretty much got it all down. I met Zac at Emerald City Comic Con a few years ago and we had a lot of mutual tastes when it came to comics and literature, and we decided to give co-writing a shot. He brought up an old screenplay about a homeless detective that he’d written and we basically just stole the basic concept from that and made something completely new that felt represented both of our sensibilities. We had admired Eric’s work from afar for a few years and when he said he’d be interested in working on a pitch with Zac and I we put our noses to the grindstone and wrote up a concept for what would eventually become The Dregs. Lucky for us, Eric was into the idea and from there, the story took control and we just went along for the ride.

Zac Thompson: At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll forgo all the meeting stuff. But getting on the same page was rather easy. The three of us see storytelling in comics as paramount, which may seem obvious, but we all seemed to want to craft meticulous comics; the type of layered story that was carefully constructed so that every moment of every page tells a story. Luckily, we all see comics the same way. So, the pitch really cemented things and we started tirelessly working on what eventually became The Dregs.

CC: Which aspect of Arnold’s story affected each of you the most?

EZ: There’s a scene that Zac and Lonnie wrote in the third issue that I absolutely love. Arnold is just asking people on the street for help in finding a specific place and everyone is either horrified by his presence or just pretends he doesn’t exist. They don’t see him as a human being. The scene works so well because we’ve lived with Arnold for two full issues and we see him as a human being before we see this. And I have to admit that I’ve been those people on the street pretending a homeless person doesn’t exist way too many times.

LN: For me it was always a matter of bringing sympathy to Arnold’s character without outright showing who he was in his life before living on the streets. We wanted to show his humanity and relatability not because of who he was, but because of who he currently is in the narrative. I think it’s more effective this way because it’s not so much about his past, and shows that we’re still able to sympathise with the homeless even though they might seem alien at first glance. The scene Eric mentioned was an essential moment for me in the book and Eric communicated the distress of that subtle moment perfectly. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the book as well. I also have to say Arnold’s love for literature has a big impact on me. I see a lot of homeless people reading, huddled up in doorways, and it’s such a wonderful, but despondent image. I really wanted to build on that aspect to show just how far fiction can take you.

ZT: For me, it’s always been the physical toll that homelessness takes on the body, the idea of sleeping on the concrete in tattered clothing where anyone could wake you up at any moment. Eric made Arnold’s life on streets weigh heavily on his shoulders, the slumped posture, the weak knees and the shaking hands. It’s always what made Arnold so strong to me. This idea that despite having a body on the brink of collapse here’s this man who refuses to yield. Even though most homeless people aren’t out in the world solving mysteries that element rings true. Despite having a body that tells you not to get up in the morning, you do, and you suffer through it.

CC: Were the characters based on anyone in real life, either in prose or in visual?  If so whom?

ZT: Arnold, at least for me, represents this every-man on the streets. He’s like dozens of people on the streets of Vancouver. He carries many of the strange idiosyncrasies we see around Vancouver. But in a lot of ways he becomes a Chandler-esque archetype. He’s not quite Philip Marlowe as he’s a little more removed. He’s like someone who’s had a lifetime of practicing by reading prose, and he understands a lot of what makes hard-boiled detective but he’s nothing like them. In a lot of ways his creation was inspired by Rian Johnson’s Brick which masterfully relocates the tropes of noir into high school. After seeing that, I knew we needed to created a homeless detective.

CC: Lonnie and Zac, what’s with all the Don Quixote quotes and which of you is the Philip Marlowe fan.  By the way, I absolutely love the Raymond Chandler quote “a Darkness more than night” that has been used a few times.

LN: I studied English Literature for my undergraduate degree and Don Quixote is one of my favourite novels. It’s a beautiful, timeless story about the power of fiction, both good and bad, and how it allows us to live romanticized lives through the written word. It’s also a book that comes up a lot in post-modern lit, with writers like Borges and Auster, who feel indebted to it, but use Don Quixote to explore the way fiction has changed or the way we relate to it. Those writers are a huge influence on me and while Zac and I were writing the outline for The Dregs, at some point we realized that we were in essence doing a re-write of Don Quixote, with a man who loves a certain archetype of fiction, in our case a detective as opposed to a knight, and attempts to become just that in an effort to escape his circumstances. We leaned hard into that aspect of it and it became a guiding force throughout the narrative. There’s a lot of hidden and overt references to Cervantes throughout the book.

ZT: Yeah, I can only really echo Lonnie here. But at some point the literary influence really hit us hard and we realized it was better to have Arnold immersed in that world of nods and subtle references. The reality is there’s so much more than Chandler and Cervantes. We went out of our way to layer in subtle references from numerous sources. Everything from Greek myth to David Cronenberg is in there on some level. But not everyone’s going to find it all. That’s half the fun.

CC: Eric, how did you contend with the amount of “talking heads” that seems to populate the story?  Was it like “Oh dear god not another 12 panel page? For the record, the art looked great.

EZ: I think the most amount of panels that these guys have asked of me is 9 panels. It just so happens that I sometimes take those 9 panel pages and turn them into 12 panels. And I sometimes take those 6 panel pages and turn them into 9 panels. I’m in a stage of my comic career where I really want to play around with pacing. I’m very much concerned with the best possible way to tell this story. Even if it means that a page is going to take twice as long because of some of the storytelling decisions I’ve made.

CC: Lonnie and Zac, were you having Eric’s life with the “talking heads”?  Was it “hey you know what this story needs-more talking heads?

EZ: I remember they were a little concerned with all the walking. But I love drawing the details of a city, so I had no complaints.

LN: It’s funny, when Zac and I started scripting we were pretty conscious of not giving Eric too many panels per page because we didn’t want to be part of that “how many panels can you fit on a page” circle jerk that happens in comics sometimes. We were also worried people would think the book was boring because there’s so much talking, but it’s a crime book so that’s what was required. I think we were doing a lot of six and seven panel pages and even then we were worried about crowding things too much for Eric. But after the first issue Eric often increased the panel count and we tried to keep up with that on subsequent issues because Eric really set an amazing tone and pacing for the series. The high panel count really works to increase the tension and paranoia that Arnold feels throughout the book, and as storytellers all of us are always looking for ways in which the form can augment or complement the content of the narrative. We got into a groove and scripting things meticulously, but Eric would often just do his thing during a lot of dialogue scenes and it came out all the better because of his willingness to experiment.

ZT: Eric, really leaned into making those moments some of the best in the series. It helps that he’s a master of emotion and often was able to communicate everything we needed to say with facial expressions. While we worked hard to ensure dialogue was razor-sharp, Eric often complemented these scenes with an incredible amount of nuance through body language and silent moments. We did have a mantra from page one that storytelling takes precedence above all else. Basically if the script wasn’t the best way for Eric to communicate the emotion of the scene we trusted him to experiment. It was always better once it got out of the script and onto the page.

CC: Seriously, the book deals with some pretty dark issues, both in script and visually. How were you all able to walk that fine line between entertainment and over-indulgence?

ZT: We maintain that the book isn’t that far outside the realm of reality. Over the course of the series’ release we noticed that things in Vancouver’s downtown eastside have only been getting worse. You’ve got the opioid crisis claiming the lives of so many people who our morgues are full and yet apathy reigns king. Nobody knows what to do and how to deal with it. Although we turned to art, Lonnie and I made sure while scripting that we never beat readers over the head with our social cause. We didn’t want to make the book preachy and we really wanted to walk a fine line between social commentary, dark satire, and a gripping detective noir. It was a tightrope walk at every turn but that’s the beauty of working in a team. We were able to check each other at every turn and ensure that we never went too far or to on the nose.

CC: Regarding the ending, it seems like a very organic conclusion.  How did that come about?

LN: Zac and I researched and plotted the book out with scrupulous detail over the course of a few months. We knew exactly what we wanted the last couple pages to be before we even started scripting the first issue. I know a lot of crime writers that influenced us like Chandler and Hammett would often just start writing and let the mystery unfold as it did while they wrote their novels, but that method wasn’t going to work for us because this was our first real foray into crime. The kind of writing I love most in comics often from a formalistic school where all the elements, from plot to theme to art, intermingle so well together that it gives you a sense of there being some master architect behind the scenes, who is in full control of the medium. If you look at Alan Moore’s early work, things like Watchmen #4, it’s so well planned and fits together so perfectly that it almost makes me sick. I want to tell stories that way and Zac and I did our best to deliver a story to readers that felt planned and dense, but also offered surprises along the way.

ZT: We also had this vision early on about ending the series in a surrealist black and white fugue. It felt like the natural direction for the series as we wanted to create something so inherently rooted in comics that it would exist in defiance of this idea that comics are just failed movie pitches. Mind you, we did everything we could to meticulously seed in elements of this finale in the earlier issues to it felt earned. We studied Alan Moore’s work and really tried to understand why he has such a mastery over the page. I don’t think we’re anywhere near his level but we treated this like our only opportunity to create a comic book. This was our one chance and if we’re going to do then we wanted to ensure that it was densely layered and fully realized.

CC: Which books are currently floating your boats at the moment? Who are you creative inspirations?

EZ: I’m currently doing a deep dive into the best of Frank Miller’s 80’s comics. I can’t say enough good things about his storytelling in Ronin, DKR and Elektra Lives Again. He was always trying to figure out how to control the pacing when people can just read a comic at any speed they want. I’m also doing my semi-annual re-read of Akira and my brother recently introduced me to Howard Chaykin’s 80’s work.

LN: Right now I’m reading The Flintstones and it is wonderful and hilarious across the board. I can’t wait for the new Snagglepuss book. I’m also reading Ray Fawkes’ Underwinter and loving it; The Unsound by Cullen Bunn and Jack Cole, which had a stunning first issue; and I just picked up all three volumes of A.D. by Lemire and Snyder, which I can’t wait to dive into. I also try to keep up with other Black Mask books as much as possible, and Ryan Lindsay’s new book, Beautiful Canvas, is deadly. Otherwise, I’m not reading too many current books at the moment. There’s a couple on my radar but I usually wait for trades. I mostly find myself revisiting and studying the classics more and more. I mentioned Alan Moore earlier and I can’t overstate how big of an influence he is on me. I’m currently in the process of re-reading all of his work, and there’s seriously something new every time. I’m also a big Charles Burns and David Mack fan. Otherwise, a lot of my influences lie in film and literature.

ZT: I’ve been doing a deep dive into old Warren Ellis books. I just picked up Planetary for the first time and it’s rocking my world. On top of that I just finished Otomo’s Akira for the first time and I don’t even know how to live my life the same way anymore. It’s absolutely masterful. As for current books, Donny Cates’ God Country is sublime, Ryan K. Lindsay’s Beautiful Canvas will be the book of the summer – mark my words, and Daniel Warren Johnson’s Extremity – holy fuck, it’s a master-class in visual storytelling.

CC: If you weren’t working in comics, what would you guys be doing?

EZ: My twin brother is in the business world, so I see him as an alternate mirror to my life. But I don’t think I had a chance. I was probably always destined for this topsy-turvy art world.

LN: I also make films and write fiction, so probably just that. If those are off the table too though, I’d probably enjoy being a professor and teaching literature, film, or philosophy.

ZT: I’d probably still be writing novels or something. But, if I had to be somewhere completely different I’d probably be somewhere knee-deep in teaching critical psychology at a university. Years ago, I walked away after my thesis to pursue fiction. I think it was a good call.

CC: If you could work on any big two character, who would it be and why?

EZ: I was an X-Men kid, so anything in that world would be amazing. I also grew up on Wildstorm comics, so I’d love to play in that sandbox. I love drawing Ladytron, an obscure Wildcats character.

LN: I was also an X-Men kid so I’d love to play around in that world a bit. I also love DC’s darker characters because they have such a rich history of being treated as C-listers and then a creative team coming in and turning them into something so outside the realm of traditional comics. So I would like to explore characters like Swamp Thing, Deadman, Etrigan, and Animal Man.

ZT: X-Men rule me. I think we’re all in the same boat on that one. But I’d kill to do a really body horror driven Animal Man book and I know it’s like the #1 thing but I’ve always wanted to write Batman. Hell, when I was little I wanted to BE Batman.

CC: I understand that The Dregs is getting the trade paperback treatment.  What can fans expect in the TPBK? What’s next for you guys and for Arnold?

LN: The trade will be the complete story, and it also comes with some awesome extras. We’ve got pinups by some insane artists, a series intro, and the photography project, Off Hours. Lots of good stuff in there to get bang for your buck. Zac and I have a few others books in the works right now, nothing we can talk about too much, but hopefully soon! As for Arnold… if you’re astute enough, you can find him wandering through the pages of classic crime fiction.

EZ: I’ve got a couple of little projects in the works. I’m doing a small project with Ryan K Lindsay and a short comic with Vita Ayala for the This Nightmare Kills Fascists anthology.

ZT: The trade is really the ultimate Dregs experience. And yeah, we’ve got a couple of things in the pipeline and they’re fucking terrifying. We’re trying to push ourselves to do weird and ambitious comics you can’t get anywhere else.

We do have some really weird ideas for how we could potentially follow-up The Dregs but those are just silly pipe dreams right now.

Thanks for taking the time to speak tome guys.

The Dregs #4 s out now in all good comic book shops and don’t forget to check out the review o the book in our review section.

REVIEW: The Dregs #1

Review: The Dregs #3

Advance Review: The Dregs #4 (of 4)

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