“The Dregs” from Black Mask Studios debuted this past January, taking a sharp look at gentrification, homelessness, economic disparity, and oh possible cannibalism in the city of Vancouver. Black Mask Studios has been a welcomed avenue for new and veteran creators looking to explore the full breadth of the comic medium. The team of Lonnie Nadler, Zac Thompson, Eric Zawadzki and Dee Cunniffe did just that in the debut issue of “The Dregs.” ( I believe we gave it an 8.8.)
It was the art team of artist Eric Zawadzki and colorist Dee Cunniffe who were tasked with taking readers on a tour of horrors through The Dregs of Vancouver, Canada. They also were able to create a real and sympathetic character in Arnold. In hopefully a new way to approach interviews here, I was able to talk to Eric about a few specifics pages in the first issue. Issue two is out now so enough time has cleared, but just to be safe I would say maybe spoilers below. Eric shared his process from three pages from the second issue of “The Dregs” and we talked a bit back and forth about the pages and his process. You can find the images and conversation below!
I love this page. Aside from actually laying it out, how do you draw a page like this logistically? With it spiraling and being a full page how difficult was it to actually draw this page?
Eric Zawadzki: Fortunately, I didn’t start with a blank page. The general design was crudely worked out by my co-creators, the writers, Lonnie Nadler and Zac Thompson. They’re very visual storytellers and they put a lot of effort into thinking of innovative approaches to comics storytelling. That saved a little bit of time. They originally scripted it as 4 panels, the outside boulder rolling images and a big center panel. I roughly sketched it out. but it didn’t have the right feel. So I played around and eventually decided to have one long continuous panoramic, spiraling image. That created the appropriate feeling of walking in circles and kind of descending a little into madness. Figuring out the perspective and working out the background was the most time consuming. I do all my roughs digitally, so that helps quite a bit. I think I had four different vanishing points and several circular grids. Managing that got pretty hairy.
How long does a page like this take, do you work solely on one page at a time?
EZ: It’s difficult to tell just how long a page like this takes because I tend to work on several pages at a time. I like to have the entire issue lettered and roughed out before I get into detail work. I want to be able to read the comic several times before I get into finalizing anything. As a result of that process, many pages get changed and altered over time. If I were to estimate, though, this two page spread probably took over 20 hours all told. That includes sketching out various different ideas, figuring out the perspective, lettering, sifting through reference material, pencils and final inks.
We see the lettering gets moved to avoid the spine in the later version of the page. As an artist what is the art of the two page spread, how do you approach it knowing it’s going to essential going to have some loss in the middle?
EZ: I don’t have a lot of experience with two page spreads. I generally try to avoid them because the effect is lost on those who read it digitally. In my time doing comics, I think I’ve done only 2 or 3 two page spreads. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until we had compiled all the final files that our publisher Matt Pizzolo informed us of the obvious that we shouldn’t have writing on the spine. (especially since this sequence is towards the end of the comic rather then in middle where it would read better because that’s where the pages would actually be printed as one) As far as any other rules, I don’t know. I’m all self taught, so I learn as I go. But I will say that I learned something else after it was printed, something that seems pretty obvious in retrospect. In the printed version, Arnold’s eye in panel 2 is completely lost. So try to avoid drawing important things like that in the middle of the spread.Continued below
What made you settle on the increase in the number of panels? It looks like it jumped from 9 to about 15?
EZ: I think it just reads better. Most artists will avoid adding panels for the very good reason that there’s just no extra time when you have to be drawing upwards of 22 pages a month. I made a promise to myself on this project that I would take three times as long on the layouts as I usually do and that it shouldn’t matter how time consuming working out the storytelling is because it’s the most important part. I also wanted to really play around with pacing and some of that comes down to panel count. This has obviously added a great deal of stress to my life and taken a lot of my free time away from me, but I really wanted to push myself on this project.
9 Panel Page
The trick of pulling in tight on the two to pay off with the reveal that he has lost his seat is that element that is scripted and you have to make work or something you discover in the course of laying out and studying the the scene?
EZ: I like to letter and rough everything out as an entire, readable comic before I start finalizing anything. As a result of this, I end up reading it several times and discovering little things that I want to change. As scripted, this sequence started on one page and finished in the middle of another. (for several good reasons) But it kept bugging me as I was reading it. I felt like it read better as one page. We start the page with Arnold having a goal, followed by his time being stolen from him by a man that he loathes, which ends the page revealing that his goal has been thwarted by that. It just reads better and is more effective. Because I got it into my head that this was an important fix, I ended up losing several very precious hours by moving things around these three pages. I’m not entirely happy with it all, though. Adding one more panel to the previous page made for a better reading experience, but I think the following page is way too crowded. (which is one of the very good reasons that it was originally scripted the way it was)
Is it important to have a beginning and end of sorts on each page?
EZ: I think it can make certain scenes more effective. I like pages that you can sum up with a sentence. In many ways, that can help you create an interesting design. I think a lot of the more interestingly designed pages I’ve created are one page sequences. But it’s not important. In the end, the reading experience of the entire issue is what’s important.
What is your technique for getting subtle movements out of your characters? I love in this page the extensions of the hands in both the hello and goodbye of Lasko and the disgust of Arnold turning his head?
EZ: This is something I like about repetitive images in sequences like this. You can really focus on acting. Little bits of acting become more effective when you have a character still for several panels. I think one of the great aspects of 9 panel grids and repetitive images in storytelling is establishing patterns and then breaking them.
Ice Cream Cone
I thought having Arnold start below then build up to his level was really cool. How important are the placement of characters in comics, and how do you keep track of who is where in a scene?
EZ: It was established earlier on that the place that Arnold is staying in is a pretty scary place, so I wanted to maintain that feeling throughout. I think a side view really emphasizes the height difference between these two and adds more tension to the scene. Also, I think establishing a pattern and then breaking it makes significant moments more effective. When Arnold loses his patience, that’s a significant moment. That’s when he leaps up. Having him sitting for most of the pages makes you really feel it when he stands up suddenly. Also, having him get higher makes it feel like he’s progressing a little in his goals.Continued below
For a layout like this playing with the negative space as a panel with the ice cream cone how do you graph that out with the page and decide height/width?
EZ: A lot of that is just playing around with rough layouts until I settle on something that I feel works. I hope the extra space to the left of the ice cream cone makes you linger a bit on it’s importance. I don’t think we completely spelled it out, but the cone is another example of the recurrence of circles and triangles in Arnold’s journey. My hope is that focusing on it makes the reader think and realize this on their own.
What is the decision that goes into the choice of background use?
EZ: For this page, I think it’s so tight with the amount of figures that any background would ruin it. I also wanted to have consistent negative space to make the lettering effect in panels seven and eight more effective. Going from being surrounded by nothing to being surrounded by a seemingly endless barrage of words makes it seem more annoying. It also gives Dee Cunniffe an opportunity to work his magic. And I think he did an amazing job making this church setting seem hellish. The textured background has a kind of fiery look to it almost like they’re in hell, which is such a subtle thing that just highlights his brilliance.
Issue one and two of “The Dregs” are in stores now, and look for issue three available next month.