It’s a great time to be a conspiracy peddler with an enormous megaphone. Or at least it may have been until the litigations began.
Sandy Hook parents are suing Alex Jones for his false-flag rumormongering. The family of Seth Rich is suing Fox News for an article Sean Hannity flogged relentlessly, even after it was retracted. And as these lawsuits chug along on the road to eventual settlements, the first piece of art to truly demystify how an average citizen might get swept up in a conspiracy’s tornado pull, Nick Drnaso’s sobering graphic novel Sabrina, has just arrived in bookstores. Considering how of-the-moment Sabrina is, it might be surprising that it was conceived over three years ago.
“The fact that it lines up thematically with some things that are getting a lot of attention right now in the media is an unfortunate coincidence,” Drnaso says.
The author had the initial idea for Sabrina in late 2014, and began writing and drawing early the following year. He was deep into the project by the time the election cycle rolled around, at which point he realized there would be a new president in the near-future in which he’d set the book. For that reason, he largely left out politics from his street-level story about a man in a vulnerable place who gradually proves susceptible to an Alex Jones-type provocateur. (The question of what it means when the actual president endorses the actual Alex Jones, for instance, is beyond the scope of the story.)
The story begins when the titular Sabrina goes missing in Chicago. Sabrina’s aimless boyfriend Teddy eventually accepts an invitation from his friend Calvin, a clerical cog in the Air Force, to fly out to Colorado Springs and decompress. Add into Teddy’s raw emotional stew of anger, guilt, uncertainty, and gobs of glacially unfolding time the Albert Douglas Radio Show, which constantly calls into question the truth according to mainstream media. Things deteriorate quickly for Teddy and Calvin when Sabrina’s fate becomes a minor national news item that Albert Douglas takes a special interest in. Meanwhile, Drnaso illustrates the proceedings with an attention to detail that perfectly captures the numbing familiarity of seeing the latest school massacre trend on Twitter, right next to a hashtag promoting America’s Got Talent.
Although Sabrina’s themes seem especially relevant in 2018, the elements Drnaso employs to express them were hanging around in a different form as he worked through writing and illustrating the story.
“The conspiracies that were circulating when I started the book were all about the impending FEMA camps that Obama was creating to round us all up and begin some kind of genocide,” Drnaso says. “Of course, here we are in 2018, and nothing like that remotely happened, so I wonder what happened to the people that believed that. I guess the narrative has just shifted to something else. The irony is that Trump seems to threaten personal freedom all the time. I can only pray that cooler heads will prevail.”
The Chicago-based artist manages to explain both the Alex Jones surrogate and his fans, while not excusing either. The radio host character, Albert Douglas, mentions his daughters and his property, his childhood and the bitterness of aging, and alludes to an ominous father-figure who looms large possibly only in his mind. By giving readers glimpses of the way he views the world closer to home, it’s easier to understand the way he manipulates the fears and uncertainties of his audience to make them believe whatever he wants. It’s easy to dismiss someone like Jones as ridiculous or despicable, rather than humanize them, but Drnaso is more interested in how a person like that casts such a hypnotic spell.
In fact, even after all he’s written on the topic, the artist is not sure he would be immune from it.
“I feel like I’m particularly impressionable, because my insecurities would make it easy for someone to make me doubt my opinions, so I can’t act like I’m above something that to you and me seems crazy or ignorant,” Drnaso says. “My fortitude has never really been put to the test. I’ve never lost my home, never experienced a great tragedy, never gone hungry, I don’t have kids to support. So maybe people sometimes become desperate, and become fixated on something to an unhealthy degree.”
If Drnaso is uncommonly compassionate toward the conspiracy theorists and their believers, however, he saves the most delicate touch for the people whose actual trauma fuels their fire. The graphic novel is named Sabrina to center the woman whose disappearance incites the story’s action. Even though she is absent from the subsequent events, Drnaso very deliberately makes sure Sabrina’s absence is its own character by opening with several pages in which the reader meets and gets to know her in mundane moments. It’s a luxury denied to most of the world’s Seth Riches and Sandy Hook victims.
“Conspiracy theories aside, the ‘victims’ are chewed up by the media in every horror story. I say victim in quotes because there’s something sad and impersonal about that word, like their life is destined to be a footnote in the story of the person that destroyed them,” Drnaso says. “Even their name will be shackled to the story on the internet until the end of time. Why are we more interested in the abhorrent behavior than the people that are affected? Of course, there are reasons why. It is undeniably compelling, until you’re affected personally.”
By presenting someone who is personally affected by a tragedy and then process it like an Alex Jones fan might, Drnaso crystallizes the confusion of the post-truth era–and shows how it affects all of us.