Political scientist and extremism expert Michael Barkun asserts that conspiracy theories can be defined by three key principles: First, that nothing happens by accident; second, that nothing is as it seems; and third, that everything is connected. A corollary is that conspiracy theories morph to accommodate whatever evidence would seem to contradict them, so they can never be fully dispelled.
In his eerie and astute second graphic novel, “Sabrina,” Nick Drnaso delivers a vivid panorama of the muddled minds and misanthropic deeds of those who choose to fall under a conspiracy theory’s thrall. As is the case in real life, most of the conspiracy faithful are men. But the title character is a smart and sweet, if slightly directionless, 27-year-old Chicago woman.
In the opening pages, we see her house-sitting for her parents, being kind to the family cat and talking to her sister, Sandra, who suggests, as they do a crossword, “Hey, you know stuff! You should just go on a game show and win a pile of money.” Just as we feel ourselves getting attached, she vanishes, leaving her live-in boyfriend, Teddy, and her family bewildered and grieving.
At first, the narrative seems as though it’s going to be a mystery, and that the reader will spend the rest of the book watching the characters try to solve the conundrum of Sabrina’s disappearance.
Instead, we find out early on what happened, and the novel is much richer for Drnaso’s decision to focus not on the question of whodunit but why. Sabrina's horrific and nauseating fate is soon revealed not only to her loved ones, but to the broader public, which learns that the man responsible for her disappearance “was active on various message boards ranging from body-building and men’s rights to theoretical physics and organic farming. Apparently, he was banned from several online groups for dominating the discussions with long, vitriolic rants.”
From there, Drnaso is able to interweave a web of storylines that explore with painful realism and poignant emotion the phenomena of paranoia, privacy and mourning, as well as the false comfort, in the face of unutterable confusion, of having a grand theory.
Sabrina’s boyfriend, Teddy, moves west to stay with his childhood friend Calvin Wrobel, a serviceman working night shifts on an Air Force base in Colorado. For all his compassion, Calvin has huge blind spots, possessing a stockpile of firearms “to protect my family,” nevermind that his wife moved to Florida with their 4-year-old daughter months ago, tired of being ignored by him.
Meanwhile, Teddy, depressed and alone, teeters on the brink of falling under the spell of Albert Douglas, one of the same sources of hate and fear who motivated Sabrina’s abductor, a radio host “who has built a sizeable audience by routinely predicting an imminent apocalypse and claiming that most acts of terrorism are staged by the government as a means to strip the American people of their freedom.”
Both Sandra and Calvin begin to receive threats from conspiracy website followers accusing them of covering up the truth of what really happened to Sabrina. With a perfectly balanced blend of words and images, Drnaso illuminates the detestable egocentrism of far-right talk show hosts and the tiresome and terrifying bombast of online community members who go by such handles as “A Warrior for Truth.”
Drnaso presents most of the male characters as isolated by screens, experiencing everything by way of mediation and digital distancing, from Calvin’s co-workers who bond over video game sessions to Calvin himself, FaceTiming carelessly with his faraway kid.
Born in Palos Hills, Drnaso lives in Chicago, where he works as a cartoonist and illustrator. His 2016 debut, “Beverly,” won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Graphic Novel, and in “Sabrina,” he continues his pithy and haunting work.
Drnaso’s simple, rigid drawings capture the bleak blankness of much contemporary life, anomie hovering over almost every interaction, both real and virtual. His muffled colors build the texture of a world bombarded with distraction yet void of connection, and his careful use of boxes and frames conveys the stunning lack of freedom the supposedly free space of the internet constructs, a dim and inert prison of both the body and the spirit.
The word conspiracy derives from the Latin con, meaning “with,” and spirare, meaning “to breathe.” Drnaso’s book leaves the audience holding its breath, hoping his flawed but sympathetic characters will find their way from lies to truth.