Nick Drnaso's new graphic novel, Sabrina (Drawn & Quarterly), is a subtle, heart-wrenching, multifaceted look at loneliness and loss in our lunatic asylum of a country and an impressive follow-up to his 2016 debut, Beverly.
The story involves three regular people caught in an irregular situation. The title character has been kidnapped: she is present only as a painful absence. While Sabrina's sister, Sandra, deals with the loss through medication and group therapy, Sabrina's boyfriend, Teddy, retreats to his old friend Calvin's house and into a world of self-loathing and talk radio. Calvin struggles to be a good friend to the increasingly unhinged Teddy while navigating his own failing marriage and frustrating career. Everyone's life gets worse as Sabrina's fate becomes fodder for conspiracy theorists, who bully and threaten all three protagonists. Panel by panel, Drnaso crafts a gripping, sobering, emotionally resonant story about the perils of living in your own head in the current world.
Drnaso's simple, cartoon-style art tells his story plainly and powerfully, via pitch-perfect dialogue and a six-by-four grid. All his characters feel trapped, which Drnaso reinforces with the rigid panel structure that makes them appear caged in their own lives. "I guess it looks very hermetic when you're reading a 200-page book," says Drnaso, "but when I'm working day to day it just feels like a natural way to establish some structure. I like treating each little panel as an opportunity to practice and tighten my compositions, even if most of the book is essentially characters being fairly static and talking. Hopefully there's a mood embedded in the content of the story, so by the time I'm drawing and working out the artwork it's more like solving a puzzle.”
Drnaso makes those puzzle pieces fit via structuring devices that are subtle and inspired. For example, Calvin has to complete a mental health survey each day when he arrives at the air force base for his intel-gathering job, noting his hours slept, alcohol consumed, suicidal thoughts, and interest in seeing a therapist. This simple plot device allows a fuzzy window onto the tortured soul of Calvin and interrogates the reader as well. How much booze and sleep did you have last night?
Sabrina is highly relevant to the current moment, in which conspiracy theories, from the machinations of the so-called deep state to the supposed NASA slave colony on Mars, have colonized all our brains to some degree or another. This relevancy wasn't intended, which may be why it doesn't feel contrived.
"It's just an unfortunate coincidence that this fringe subculture has been getting a lot of attention since Trump was elected," Drnaso says, "because that wasn't the case when I had the initial idea for this book in late 2014. I don't know why I gravitated towards the subject. I think a healthy amount of skepticism is natural, but it's unfortunate when things become so distorted for some people that it's hard to untangle everything. I don't know how to talk about it in a compelling way. I have blind spots and shortcomings, so in a weird way I feel like can relate to people that become obsessed with something to the point of delusion."
Drnaso, 29, who's from Palos Hills and now lives in Old Irving Park with his fiancee and three cats, said that some tough times in his own life were far more important to the genesis of this book than anything political: "I was having a lot of paranoid fears at the time, to the point where it was hard to function and feel very comfortable out of the house. I had an unhealthy tendency to let hypothetical scenarios get out of hand, where I was basically living with something that hadn't actually happened, and that's essentially how I arrived at the story. I guess that's why I found something relatable with people who entertain doomsday scenarios, because if you spend too long in those circles it really does color the way you see the world."
Drnaso let the story for Sabrina evolve rather than working from a full script he'd written ahead of time. "I typically only script one 'scene' at a time before moving to drawing and coloring," he says, "then I jump back to writing, and it continues on like that. It was important to work the pages to completion as I was going, as opposed to writing a script, drawing for a few years, then coloring the book. Those in-between times were usually when an idea would pop up."
Drnaso has created a gut punch of a story that will likely make many year-end best-of lists. Loneliness and madness are timeless, but Sabrina, in its exploration of personal fears, is a precise time capsule of how desperate and deranged 2018 can make any of us.