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Homeless Meet Rich Cannibals in Vancouver Tale of Ultimate Class Divide

Graphic novel ‘The Dregs’ features struggling Downtown Eastside protagonist discovering the grisly fate of his missing friends.

Christopher Cheung 31 Aug

Christopher Cheung is a reporter and page editor at the Tyee. You can find his stories here and follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

Pick up the graphic novel The Dregs and you’ll recognize Vancouver in its pages.

There are the familiar landmarks like the art deco city hall and the pillared Carnegie Centre that anchors Main and Hastings. There’s also the unmistakable giant blue-and-green boards used by the City of Vancouver to announce new developments. There are the alleys of the Downtown Eastside. There are the boutiques of Mount Pleasant, food carts outside the downtown art gallery, and a developer at a public hearing talking sunny neighbourhood revitalization.

The story tells us this is Vancouver of the near future, with towering new projects by starchitects on the city’s skyline. But see the boomer homeowners at city meetings, the tattooed hipsters selling vintage goods, glammed diners digitally documenting their experiences, and homeless pushing their shopping carts and you’ll know that The Dregs is very much Vancouver today.

And it has cannibals.

The Dregs was born when Zac Thompson and Lonnie Nadler attended Vancouver Film School. Thompson originally wrote it as a screenplay. Nadler stepped in, and the duo worked together to transform it for comics. Its four issues, published earlier this year, have been compiled in a single publication.

In the book, we tour Vancouver with Arnold, who is looking for a missing friend. Arnold is homeless, struggles with drug addiction, and lives in the Dregs — the name Thompson and Nadler use for the Downtown Eastside. Arnold is the “exact opposite” of what you expect of a lead detective character, said artist Eric Zawadzki. He’s husky and short, with greasy, long hair, huge eyebags, and a fat, pockmarked nose.

Arnold’s friend isn’t the only homeless person missing. The reader quickly discovers their fate: they’re being butchered and served to the city’s wealthy at a hot new restaurant that’s moved into the Dregs.

Don’t dismiss The Dregs as B-level splatter without substance. The journalist who introduces the novel (disclaimer: a former Tyee staffer) says she almost made that mistake.

“A horror noir about drug-addicted homeless people getting eaten at trendy restaurants?” Sarah Berman writes. “I think I ignored [the writers’] emails for three weeks.”

Yes, there are works out there like the 1980s’ Cannibal Holocaust about man-eaters from the Amazon, but cannibalism has also been touched on by Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde.

“Cannibalism has a very interesting history in cinema and literature,” said Nadler. “This was a way to deal with class structures and social structures and who’s eating who. We wanted to go back to that.”

The duo captures those socio-economic and cultural divides in The Dregs, brought out visually by artist Zawadzki and colourist Dee Cunniffe. Arnold sits in distress outside an espresso bar as a young woman inside works on a nice laptop with a cappuccino beside it. In one panel, the streets of the Dregs are black and blue while a restaurant is bathed in warm orange. And eating there is part of conspicuous consumption for moneyed Vancouverites as shown by three friends who giggle and snap a selfie in the lineup. Even the guys who do the butchering are cultured. They pause for a moment to inspect a homeless person’s sweater — turns out it’s a Coogi. “This sweater’s legit,” says one, before conducting a bloody beheading.

‘The Dregs’ graphic novel
Vancouver landmarks like the Carnegie are recognizable in The Dregs. Readers familiar with the Downtown Eastside will notice incarnations of Insite and First United Church. Black Mask Studios.

Thompson and Nadler often saw these class divides after moving to Vancouver from Eastern Canada. Their film school was near the Downtown Eastside, which Nadler had heard about from the song “East Hastings” by Montreal band Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

“It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, apart from watching The Wire,” said Thompson. “By and large, it was a community, a group of people who took care of one another and made sure everyone survived on the street.”

Thompson and Nadler watched documentaries on the neighbourhood and read a blog by a former Downtown Eastside beat cop called Eastside Stories, but a lot of the realism and humanity in The Dregs comes from time they spent in the community.

“Often when we were stuck scripting, we’d wander out and talk to the people there,” said Thompson. “We learned their stories.”

The humanity of the people in the Downtown Eastside is artist Zawadzki’s favourite part of the project.

“Everyone is a human,” he said. “Everyone has a story. And even that rambling, mentally ill person on the street deserves our empathy. The fact that Arnold displays signs of a mentally ill person is so important to what makes The Dregs what it is. The conventional approach would be to make him as relatable to the reader as possible, like some sort of tragic homeless savant. But we rejected that. And the readers ended up empathizing with him anyway.”

'The Dregs' graphic novel
The Dregs follows Arnold’s search for his friend Manny. Black Mask Studios.

Readers have been stirred by the timeliness of the themes in The Dregs during its four-issue run.

Fentanyl has struck many cities, not just Vancouver, with opioid overdose crises. Urban inequality and segregation are increasing in cities, something urban theorist Richard Florida covered in his latest book.

“It’s strange because some of the more intimate aspects we drew upon, like rezoning billboards, spoke to people in other cities,” said Thompson. “It’s not just happening here. We didn’t tap into the experiences of New York or Boston, but by doing what appealed to us in Vancouver, we had people reach out from all over, saying, ‘This is happening in my city.’”

We write about divided cities often at The Tyee. There’s a copy of David Hulchanski’s famous “Three Cities” study on my desk, which shows how Toronto’s rich areas got richer, poor areas got poorer, and middle-income areas vanished since 1970. There’s also a copy of Sharon Zukin’s Naked City, which tells of how the unique cultures of low and middle-income neighbourhoods are lost as those residents are pushed out by new development and wealthy arrivals.

But neither of these important works, among others, feature cannibalism as a metaphor for social breakdown. As media, academia, and policymakers continue to research our increasingly divided cities, The Dregs invites us to think differently about who’s eating whom.  [Tyee]

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