Six pages into SABRINA (Drawn and Quarterly, $27.95), Nick Drnaso’s new graphic novel, the title character’s sister reads out a clue from the crossword puzzle she’s working on. “Twelve letters,” she says. “We killed the Clutter family.” Sabrina knows the answer: “Dick and Perry” — the killers made famous by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” On first read, it’s just an example of the conversational vérité that Drnaso excels at, the brief reunion between the two adult siblings at their mom’s house in Chicago. Four pages later, Sabrina heads out the door, the last time we see her alive.
Not yet 30, Drnaso has topped his virtuoso 2016 debut, “Beverly,” which had a cheerful palette gleefully at odds with all that roiled beneath its speckless Midwestern skies: class friction and psychosexual urges, brain-draining sitcoms and kneejerk racism. (Nearly everyone in Drnasoland is white.) Some of the visual shocks in “Beverly” lodge in the head, like certain demonic glimpses from “The Shining” — but “Sabrina” goes deeper, risks more. It’s an unnerving mystery told by a rigorous moralist, a profoundly American nightmare set squarely in the first year of the Trump presidency. Politics is never mentioned, but the dread is everywhere: on the airwaves, at an open mic, in a kid’s activity book, and — most barbarically — online.
The book centers on the uneasy bond between Calvin Wrobel, who works at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, and Teddy, Sabrina’s boyfriend of two years. Newly divorced, Calvin is unusually empathetic and selfless; he takes in Teddy, who arrives from Illinois completely numb after Sabrina’s disappearance. Out of touch since high school, Calvin nevertheless cares for his helpless charge, bringing him fast food and giving him the run of his comfortable, desolate house. At work, dressed in fatigues, Calvin periodically fills out Department of Defense mental health surveys, registering hours slept, drinks consumed and whether he’s entertained thoughts of suicide. He always answers in the negative.
Then a videotape surfaces at a news outlet, with sickening confirmation of Sabrina’s fate. Naturally, the murderer’s name starts trending. An investigator tells Calvin they’re “desperately trying to keep this video from leaking onto the internet,” but its migration is inevitable. (“I need to see this,” one commenter writes.) In an unguarded moment, the upright Calvin hits download, but Drnaso doesn’t show what he sees, leaving the worst of it to the reader’s imagination.
Teddy’s rage at the senseless loss and the virtual violation makes him vulnerable, unpredictably, to another obscenity: a false-flag narrative peddled by an “Infowars”-like show, relentlessly flowing from a radio as he clutches a pillow. “I have been targeted for voicing what amounts to perfectly legal and acceptable free speech,” the host insists. “If you ever see me being taken away in handcuffs, you’ll know what’s going on.” After conspiracy theorists, emboldened online, notice that the victim’s last boyfriend is cohabiting with a member of the military, Calvin gets threats from people who believe he’s an actor.
“I’m what’s called a boundary technician,” Calvin explains to Teddy. He monitors weaknesses in the networks, looks for breaches. Drnaso is an ace boundary technician as well. With his fluid framing — fitting anywhere from two to 24 panels to a page — he dictates information delivery, allowing the mind to breathe. His drawing style is at once poetically attuned to details of neighborhoods and interiors (the lit canopy of a gas station at night, the banquette at an antiseptic diner) and deceptively plain when it comes to the people who inhabit them. Figures are airtight yet textureless, with eyes like pinholes. Calvin is built along the hefty lines of Walt from “Gasoline Alley.” Sabrina, with her Dorothy Hamill haircut, at first appears to be a man; Teddy, sporting a limp blond shag, resembles a woman. The fleeting sexiness of “Beverly” is absent, the characters’ drabness somehow making their awful plight all the more intimate.
“In Cold Blood” aestheticized the Clutter murders, mixing lurid details with gossamer prose. The fictional killing in “Sabrina” is disturbing, but Drnaso doesn’t fixate on the gore or the culprit; he’s more concerned with how the public claims and consumes it, spinning out morbid fantasies with impunity. Blink and you’ll miss it: The first D.O.D. mental health survey we see is dated Sept. 11, 2017. The book’s title might allude not to the fizzy Audrey Hepburn film, but to Sabrina Harman, one of the guards convicted of abuse at Abu Ghraib. Drnaso subtly suggests that the current climate of constant horror, weaponized by hashtags and spread by autofill, has its seeds in the fall of the Twin Towers and our response to the tragedy. It’s a shattering work of art.