I love Black Mask comics. It's no secret. I dig on companies and people with ethics (which is part of the reason I idolize Chris Roberson) and more than that I dig people who use their storytelling abilities to try to get out something more than entertainment. That being said, it's a tricky line to walk that takes equal parts finesse, passion, creativity and craftsmanship. Sometimes when you read a work with a clear point, where the author is trying to inform you about their cause or politics, the work suffers from a lack of fictional cohesion. It feels less like you're reading a comic and more like you're enduring a lecture. Villains end up as clear straw men and heroes are transparent and forced. Thankfully that is not the case with The Dregs out 1/24/17 from Black Mask from Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe.
This comic actually takes place in my neighborhood. I live in Portland, OR and sure, 5 hours of driving doesn't exactly make it in my "can I borrow a cup of sugar?" neighborhood neighborhood, but it does make it into my general area of existence neighborhood. Not entirely sure that is coming across as making sense or not, but forget about my geographical relation to the location of the comic's story because what's going on in the comic is something I definitely know about firsthand and definitely makes it hit close to home on a ton of levels.
Portland, OR is going through exactly what Vancouver, British Columbia is going through. What am I talking about? Gentrification. The gentle, wise capitalist concept of "cleaning up" a city by booting out the people who live there and slicing up the property to the fattest cats. (No disrespect meant to felines whatsoever, I myself have a big cat and it's my own fault she's so heavy, not hers, she's never greedily driven out indigenous residents in order to open up condos or high end coffee shops) As Portland (and Oregon in general due to criminally pathetic corporate tax laws) brings in corporations and big business, eager to get a piece of the low tax, hip, cultural scene the very things that made Portland, Portland are closed up, torn down and reborn into ugly, expensive tat.
Which is funny, in a "not really that funny" Catch-22 kind of way, that by coming to a cool, original, hip, weird scene bristling with life and interesting people and culture, these businesses drive out everything that made the scene so attractive to them in the first place and instead replace it with the cookie cutter, upper middle class, sprawling, metropolis landscape that spreads like a shopping mall virus. People constantly talk about how shopping malls are all dead now and "wasn't that a weird time when we all went there eh?" kind of wryly, in a winking, back patting, "ooh aren't we clever" kind of way; failing to realize that the shopping mall didn't die, it exploded and became everything. "Remember when we used to walk around shopping malls? OMG we thought we were so cool, what a bizarre quaint tradition!" the yupsters (hipster+yuppie hybrids who populate gentrified areas, "hipsters" are soooo 2005 and "yuppies" have rebranded once again, still keeping the faux 1960s cultural illusion of principles alive while cowering behind the walls of their $2,500 a month 1BR apartments) say as they walk and shop on their phone through a downtown filled with bank in the boxes, corporate chain stores and real estate only affordable to those who have abandoned the pursuit of culture, courage or creativity and instead commodified it.
So is all of that above info really necessary before diving into The Dregs? Well, yes and no. It will help you to understand the reality of the comic from the jump off, the environment where it takes place and what exactly are the real world political and economic forces driving the (hopefully fictitious) dark core of the story. You can read Naked Lunch without knowing anything about the life of William S. Burroughs, but you'll get a lot more of out of it if you come prepared. Also the comic does a fantastic job of melding the real life gentrification of Vancouver, BC (need to make the distinction as a PNW'er there is another Vancouver about 15 minutes from me, which I don't know all that much about, though I did drive there on Free Comic Book Day last year for some deals and it seemed fine) with the story's narrative in such a way that it doesn't feel overbearing or heavy handed.
The comic begins with the triptych showing the changing face of Vancouver, BC over the years and then wastes no time diving into the meat of the tale. A homeless man is stripped, drugged and then eviscerated by surgically masked men who then process the meat into sausages that we follow straight on to the plates of a trendy, upscale eatery. The protagonist is a homeless "listo" addict ("listo" being the fictional street drug in the comic that seems to produce euphoria and hallucinations) named Arnold, though he at one point he uses the moniker of Philip Marlowe during a city zoning meeting, owing to his love and devotion to pulp mystery novels of the early to mid twentieth century.
We quickly discover the homeless man we saw go from "farm to plate" was more than likely Arnold's friend Manny and so Arnold begins a search of "The Dregs", the seemingly last ungentrified area of the city. Along the way Arnold gets loaded, meets a mysterious woman, attends (and is removed) from a city planning meeting, loses everything, finds inspiration and gets in more trouble.
I will say that at some points I wasn't 100% into the writing. I've always disliked films and television shows, usually either High School or Prison based, where "the new character" comes in and another character shows them around, informing them of "the way things are" and what everything is called. That's just a narrative style, I personally am not crazy about, but thankfully that makes up only the tiniest little bit of the overall comic. It's a problem with first person narratives, which I actually quite like, but it does make the job of exposition a tricky one. This avenue is one that I've never cared for, but still, as I said, it's such a brief bit of the overall experience of the book it does little to either take the reader out or stymie the enjoyment.
What more than makes up for it is the well paced story development, the slow unraveling of Arnold's world for the reader and the frankly, so good it feels like they're showing off art. The art style of the comic manages to be a beautiful fluidity that is never pointlessly busy or cluttered. The story is presented alternately in letterbox, cubed form, topographically, and with panels that move and overlap each other, giving way to larger pieces of wonder or horror.
Arnold is also a fascinating protagonist, so fascinating that the reader forgets (or fails to realize) that we've been given very little to go on, in terms of who the baddies are. We know there's an evil corporate stooge and a mysterious smoking woman, a man in a hoodie in the night, but aside from the opening and closing bits of the issue we don't really get a look at whom we're dealing with. Arnold is a great main character as he's this mix of insanity and stability, he's a drug addict who hallucinates and his inner monologue is hard to completely trust as a result. But at the same time, he's clear eyed in his pursuit of the truth and in his feelings for his missing friend. He's not a cartoon character, a one dimensional "crazy homeless guy" trope, he hurts and rages, he crumples in sadness and escapist drug induced bliss, he dissects his world like a detective and moves like a massive, old rhino. I genuinely can't remember the last time a character so seemingly simple enticed and intrigued me so much and proved to be so much more.
The Dregs is a not a wild howl for blood in the streets, it's not a primal rage directed at the establishment; it's the rot from within, the ulcer in the stomach of capitalist greed. It doesn't roar out of the gates like a punch to a smug Nazi's face, it picks itself up from the street, from the corner you just walked past, creeping out into the concrete night daring to be itself, to at best expose the hands on the knives carving out the humans from humanity and at least to be a bone in the throat they can choke on.
The Dregs is out from Black Mask Studios on January 25. 2017