If you have something important to say and the culture is quiet, speak loud. But when the cultural din is already pumped up to 11, a hushed voice has a way of focusing attention. That appears to be Nick Drasno’s tactic in Sabrina, his brilliant new graphic novel out this week from Drawn and Quarterly that captures the quiet desperation of Trump-era America better than a stack of shrill sociopolitical analyses.
The story of Sabrina is straightforward. Sabrina, a young woman in her late 20s, goes missing, presumed the victim of foul play. Her boyfriend Teddy is thrown into deep depression and goes to stay with an old high school friend, Calvin, who is happy for the company since his wife recently left him and took their daughter to Florida. Calvin now lives alone in a barely-furnished suburban house while working nights as a cybersecurity specialist at a bleak nearby military base.
While Calvin deals with the dull routines of his workplace, plaintively trying to reconcile with his wife, Teddy hangs around the house and starts listening to conspiracy theories propounded by a right-wing radio station. Things take a turn toward darkness when a video showing Sabrina’s murder surfaces on social media and becomes the object of conspiracy-mongers who claim it was a false flag, staged by crisis actors to serve some unfathomable political objective.
Calvin, Teddy and Sabrina’s sister try to process the tragedy in their lives but end up getting targeted by online fanatics looking to expose whatever dark truth they believe is being covered up. The din of hysteria – in the form of threatening tweets and disturbingly intimate email messages sent by anonymous trolls – chases them like a swarm of hornets. The strain on Calvin is registered in a series of psychological evaluations he has to submit for his job. Everything is mediated. No one is in control. The best anyone can do in the face of mass cultural insanity is keep calm and carry on.
Sabrina both captures the mood of this moment and comments on it through its highly-controlled, patient and understated storytelling. Working with material this intense, it would be easy to go over the top. Instead, Drnaso's storytelling turns up the heat low and slow until the tension is nearly unbearable. Working in a flat, simple drawing style and muted color palette, he lays out the tale in page after page of meticulously ordered panels whose structure and repetition mirror the cage of routine that constricts the characters.
The work has a literary sensibility that feels contemporary without being obvious. Drasno’s cartooning adds layers of complexity that serve his narrative, revealing nuances of his characters without betraying their secrets. In the end, the patience and restraint feels like kindness, and in an era of cruelty, that's about the most affirming emotional response one can hope for in a work of art.
When we look back on the serious cultural products of this stretch of history where media has made everyone crazy and driven a wedge between our public selves and our private humanity, Sabrina is likely to be a touchstone.