For a handful of pages in Nick Drnaso’s new graphic novel, the title character of Sabrina is a real person. We see her eat, talk, and laugh with her sister. But after she’s brutally killed on camera, strangers on the internet pick apart her death like it’s a twisted sign of the times.
Published by Drawn & Quarterly, Sabrina is an astonishing tour-de-force that simmers with quiet, unresolved dread. The graphic novel opens with Sabrina Gallo catching up with her sister Sandra while checking in on her parents’ house. They chat about future plans and go their separate ways, neither knowing that will be the last time they see each other.
Sabrina’s actual main character is Calvin Wrobel, a boundary technician at the Department of Defense who didn’t even really know the murdered woman. Estranged from his wife and daughter, Calvin lives alone. He agrees to let Sabrina’s hurting boyfriend Teddy—who he knew in high school—stay in his near-empty suburban home after she’s gone missing. Intense depression triggered by Sabrina’s disappearance has Teddy sleepwalking through his days. While he’s hollowed out by a boring job and his marital separation, Calvin is more functional. But he too seems like he’s fighting numbness.
Things get worse for the roommates after a video of Sabrina’s murder surfaces. In an all-too-familiar cycle, the footage becomes a social media fetish object and truther conspiracies spring up around the crime. Internet randoms question whether the murder even happened, if the killer was physically capable of doing it, and speculate that Calvin might be a crisis actor. Calvin serves as Teddy’s channel to the outside world and we get the sense that, along with everything else, it’s wearing him down. Meanwhile, Teddy gets pulled into the dark orbit of a political radio show, one that he keeps listening to every day even as the host bloviates about the tragedy to preach to his listeners.
Drnaso lays out his pages with a precise formalism, all right angles and rigid grids. The linework on his characters also feels it’s been executed in a way to scrub away any expressiveness. The technique works to underscore the worst consequence of the Fake News Era: when everything gets endlessly debated in nasty factional arbitrage, we can’t even trust our own feelings. There are gentle smiles and hugs but no ferocious embraces or infectious grins. The low-affect emoting Drnaso imparts to his characters make it feel they’re all perpetually flummoxed by the world they live in, making the rare moments of strong reaction pop even harder.
The most chilling sequence in Sabrina happens after Calvin hides the radio in an attempt to sever Teddy’s unhealthy obsession with the talk show. Teddy finds the radio and waits behind a closed door with a knife. It’s not clear if he wants to hurt Calvin, himself, or the shadowy conspirators he keeps hearing about on the radio. When Calvin comes home, he and Teddy stand on either side of the door in tense silence, neither knowing what the other one is doing. Up until that point in the book, it felt like the two men were teetering on the brink of the abyss, ready to commit the same kind of violence that took Sabrina’s life.
Instead, Sabrina lands in a more nuanced place. The frustrated, stunted, lonely main characters aren’t killers waiting to detonate. They’re perpetual victims, wounded over and over again by cycles more concerned with talking about horrors than rooting out their causes. Drnaso sketches out the emotional toll of the current sociopolitical climate and the way social media pressurizes grief, exhaustion, and helplessness in volatile materials that can explode at any time.
Page after page, you wait for all Sabrina’s existential upset to crescendo into something fiery. But Drnaso’s work ultimately winds up as a powerful document of emotional catalog, giving a glimpse at the quietly awful imploded lives left behind by overheated sociopolitical discourse. When polarized factions and 24/7 tragedy bombardment dissolve the bonds that connect us, all we’re left with is wretched paranoia and powerless apathy.