Comic Review: The Dregs (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

I’ve been meaning to get round to reviewing The Dregs for a while, and with all four issues being collected soon (August 9th), it seemed like the perfect time to talk about it. The Dregs was created by Zac Thompson, Lonnie Nadler and Eric Zawadzki and published by Black Mask Studios, with Thompson and Madler on writing duties, pencils, inks, letters and covers by Zawadzki, and colours by Dee Cuniffe.

The Dregs is a grim detective story about gentrification, cannibalism and the human condition. Arnold is one of the many forgotten homeless on the streets of Vancouver, drug addicted and destitute and slowly being boxed into a five square block area known as The Dregs, as neighborhoods get homogenised and sterilised. But when his friend Manny disappears, it sends Arnold on a noir-esque trip through the streets, complete with mystery, death and even a femme fatale as he tries to get to the bottom of why the homeless denizens of The Dregs are disappearing, and why no one seems to care.

The Dregs relies heavy on detective stories, to the extent that the only possession Arnold owns is a battered copy of Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which he stuffs full of clues during his investigation. He even uses the pseudonym Philip Marlowe, the lead character of Chandler’s detective stories and one of the most recognisable gumshoes in fiction, when confronting people. There is a danger of creating an eye-roll inducing referential slant to a story by name checking like this, but the The Dregs takes these influences and weaves them in such a way that truly understands the detective story and the character of Philip Marlowe that were it not for the time displacement, I could believe that this was Marlowe decades after his adventures where his mistakes have driven him to the gutter.

The twisted nature of the plot in The Dregs is certainly very strong, but it is almost framing device for the more important things the book has to say. The first is that genuine Marlowe feeling, the drive to uncover the truth not only to his own detriment, but in spite of the fact that no one else cares. Not even the people he is ostensibly trying to help. The second is how this factors in to the core theme of gentrification, of the uncaring nature of supposed societal improvement wiping away a problem (in an inventive an horrible way here) rather than treating the causes and truly helping people. And everyone is complicit in it. There isn’t just one evil cackling villain, but scores of people either turning a blind eye because they are too disgusted to look, or actually benefiting from wiping problems like homelessness away like an eyesore rather than people who need help, and have been let down by society. In this, I think The Dregs manages to deftly hold a mirror up to the issues that are compounded by “solutions” like those proposed in the book (and the real life attempts at dealing with homelessness and drug abuse are often barely less ghastly that they are here).

The book doesn’t just rely on social commentary and noir dialogue though; the art from Eric Zawadzki is powerful in its own right. There is an ugliness to everything and almost everyone that sells the grim nature of the story, and for most of the four issue run the art is very strong, strongly evoking the work of Chris Burnham when he was working on Batman. So as a baseline, the art is good. But there are moments where it truly shines to be something truly great. Early on as Arnold’s investigation moves forward, the art takes on the form of a twisted puzzle, that goes hand in hand with the detective story setting. And in the last issue, as things start to both coalesce and fall apart, Arnold’s journey through the city takes on an Escher-style mind-bending trip, not out of place on storyboards for Inception or Doctor Strange. Cuniffe’s colours make these pieces look even stronger, and while the general street scenes are rendered all the more realistic by their drab palette, the unfamiliar areas of the city to Arnold are awash with a colour that seems blinding by comparison.

I wasn’t expecting it going in, but The Dregs is one of the most effective and affecting books I’ve read this year. The grim nature of the plot and the skilled handling of the subject matter, combined with a spot-on detective noir style and some gorgeous art, make this something well worth your time. Issues 1-4 of The Dregs are available online through Comixology (and physical copies may still be available in your local comic book shop), or you can wait and check out the collection when it comes out on August 9th.

Score: 9 hits of Listo out of 10

Comic Review – Kim & Kim #1 (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

This week I’m reviewing the first issue of the new Black Mask Studios series Kim & Kim, written by Magdalene Visaggio and illustrated by Eva Cabrera, with colours by Claudia Aguirre and letters from Zakk Saam.

Cover art by Tess Fowler & Kiki Jenkins

Cover art by Tess Fowler & Kiki Jenkins

Kim D & Kim Q are a pair of down on their luck galactic and interdimensional bounty hunters, struggling to get a decent job after their most recent payday fell through. Their target was ‘vacated’ and the bounty rescinded, with the Marshal refusing to even pay their expenses. Some old friends try to lend a hand in the form of teaming up on an exclusive bounty contract, but after she left The Catalans, their organisation run by her father Furious, Kim Q still harbours some resentment towards them. Instead, the girls decide to chase the bounty themselves, heading to the planet Clovis to find the mark, who has been quietly murdering people across the dimensions. With no leads, no real information on the target and The Catalans looking for him too, Kim and Kim may be in over their heads.

There is a definite punk and Riot Grrrl feel to Kim & Kim, both in the characters and plot, and in the book’s aesthetics. Kim Q even uses a bass guitar as a weapon, which is fairly punk rock (seemingly a common choice with a lot of my favourite characters,  looking at you Marceline the Vampire Queen). Black Mask describes the book as a “day-glo action adventure that’s bursting with energy and enthusiasm and puts queer women and trans women front and center.”, which is pretty spot on for a few reasons. Kim Q is a trans woman, and Kim D is bisexual: important facets of their characters that are put front and center in an honest and completely non-cynical manner, with both characters already having rich personalities in just one issue. Magdalene Visaggio deftly creates a warm and believable friendship between the girls that is big part of what makes this book work well and why they feel so fully fleshed out so quickly. Also it is basically a punk rock LGBTQ Cowboy Bebop or Firefly and I really can’t think of a better selling point than that.

Art by Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre, letters from Zakk Saam

Art by Eva Cabrera, & Claudia Aguirre, letters from Zakk Saam

The art from Cabrera and Aguirre is bright, beautiful and fun. There is an obvious Tank Girl vibe, but also an Adventure Time/Bravest Warriors aesthetic to the art too. The excellent character design of Kim and Kim put them at the center of attention in every scene, while the action feels fast paced but never too busy and the quieter moments of reflection are softer and focused on conveying well the emotion of the scene through body language and facial work. The colours finish off the art strongly with a bright palette in the city scapes at the start of the issue, a warmer glow sunset glow to the scenes on Clovis, and the “day-glo” colours reserved for Kim and Kim themselves.

Kim & Kim is a lot of fun, full of heart and an interesting plot with great art, and is a strong LGBTQ-positive book which is something fiction always needs more of. And as I said: punk rock LGBTQ Cowboy Bebop. Why haven’t you bought it yet? Pick it up at your LCS or digitally now.

Score: 8.5 Tentacles out of 10

 

Comic Review – 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1 (Black Mask Studios)

Adam reads as many comics as he can afford. Then he reviews one every other week.

Last week I was sent an advance copy of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank #1 from Black Mask Studios. written by Matthew Rosenberg, with art by Tyler Boss and letters from Thomas Mauer. This is the first issue of a new  mini-series coming out next week on April 27th, “A coming of age crime caper comic book in 5 parts’. Here’s a nifty trailer from Black Mask about the book…

 

4kids titleIn this first issue of 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank, we’re introduced to the main cast through their Dungeons & Dragons characters (due to my recent predilections for that game this got my attention very quickly). Paige, Berger, Walter and Stretch are a group of 11 and 12 year old kids, generally arguing, spilling drinks and falling out. When the gang are heading out for ice cream, courtesy of Paige’s dad, a group of thugs turn up at the house. They throw their weight around, make threats and leave. But they start hanging around the kids at school. And it turns out there is a family connection that no one was expecting.

4 Kids… is a really fun, witty and fast paced book. The dialogue from the strong-minded kids is snappy and full of a believable bravado that would make children stand up to genuinely terrifying threats. Threats that don’t have any qualms about hitting kids, or worse. And the book is very funny too. There are a few instances of repeated panels focusing on back and forth dialogue, over the radio and in the car for example, that are excellent examples of well timed comedy. The only drawback of this first issue for me is that it doesn’t seem to actually quite reach the main plot and the titular …Walk into a Bank part, that is the bank heist element to the plot. This is eschewed for set up and character development, which are done very well as a result, but it could have used a more direct connection to the events to come rather than ending on a visual reveal. But that really is a small complaint for an otherwise strong first issue.

4kids1The art from Boss is evocative and expressive, with a retro 80’s feeling complemented with a washed out colour palette, that reminded me overall of comics like Hip Hop Family Tree. There were some really impressive double page spreads too, in particular the hallway scene that showed the two groups facing each other down. The previously mentioned repeating panels showing only slight changes in facial expressions as the characters react to each other were really enjoyable to read.

4 Kids Walk Into a Bank is a really interesting first issue, and this mini series is shaping up to be a lot of fun with a dangerous, yet genuinely funny and charming core. It comes out next week, so head down to your local comic shop or check it online on April 27th.

Score: 8.5 Paper Bags of Beef Stroganoff out of 10