This past September, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, the graphic novelist Nick Drnaso signed books at the kiosk of his publisher, Drawn & Quarterly. The kiosk’s vertical supports, its horizontal banner, and the table where he was sitting formed a squat rectangular panel, with his upper body at its center. Drnaso (pronounced “dur-nass-oh”) has small dark eyes, a wan complexion, and a narrow black mustache that seems to have been sketched in by a fine-nibbed pen. He was wearing a black shirt. His hair, which is thinning, was hidden beneath a black baseball cap.
Drnaso, who is twenty-nine, was promoting “Sabrina,” his graphic novel about a young man in Chicago who is devastated by his girlfriend’s sudden disappearance. Did Sabrina just leave him, or was she kidnapped or murdered? He flees the mystery, and the attendant media frenzy, seeking refuge with an old buddy in Colorado Springs. Strangers learn of awful news before he does. The Internet first denies him the privacy of his grief, and then, when the fringe weighs in, upends his certainty about Sabrina’s fate. “Sabrina” depicts an eerie world of orderly tract homes, tidy parking lots, and empty streets, where roiling emotions have been displaced onto computer screens, and where powerful people make reckless pronouncements based on bottomless skepticism.
Drnaso, who lives in Chicago, has spent many hours in the darker corners of the Internet. “I have a morbid curiosity in me,” he said. But “Sabrina” is not autobiographical. He told me that he had followed the advice that the celebrated graphic novelist Chris Ware once gave to aspiring cartoonists: throw out your yearbooks. “They are not reference material,” Ware warned. The breadth of vision displayed in “Sabrina” impressed Zadie Smith, who had started reading Drnaso on Ware’s recommendation. She has called it “the best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment.” “Sabrina” is the intimate story of one man’s suffering, but it also captures the political nihilism of the social-media era—a time when a President can dismiss the murder of a journalist by saying of the perpetrator, “Maybe he did. Maybe he didn’t.”
When I arrived at the book fair, Drnaso was chatting with an older man who had just bought all the remaining copies of “Sabrina” at the kiosk. The book, which in July became the first graphic novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, had been sold out in bookstores for months, and the copies available at the festival had come directly from Drawn & Quarterly’s main office, in Montreal. The man had piled his trove into a photocopy-paper box lashed to a hand trolley with a bungee cord; though he almost certainly planned to resell the books, he kept assuring Drnaso, “They’re for friends.” Drnaso, with an unreadable smile, said that he believed him. He signed each one with a spare portrait of one of the book’s characters. Drnaso is as composed as his panels, which are rendered in crisp, almost rigid lines. He had only complimentary things to tell me about other cartoonists, and insisted that he wasn’t bothered by the fact that Drawn & Quarterly, which specializes in indie comics, had greatly underestimated the demand for “Sabrina.” “I don’t care in the least,” he said. “I never thought there was some sales goal I needed to hit.” He is so modest that, at one point, he offered an apology for his modesty, observing that “self-deprecation can be a little bit overbearing on the person who is forced to listen to it.” The only time I saw him express an impolite emotion was a few weeks after the book fair, when we were in a minor car accident on Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago. He was taking me on a tour of Logan Square, a fast-gentrifying neighborhood about which he has “mixed feelings.” It is not far from where he lives with his wife, Sarah, and their three cats. We had just eaten a meat-heavy breakfast at a favored diner—“It does the job,” he commented—when a minivan rear-ended us. Drnaso’s car had barely budged, but he was clearly upset. “What the fuck was that?” he said.
Within seconds, though, his emotions had been contained, and he assured the other driver that he would not contact his insurer. “People have let me slide once or twice, and you’re always grateful,” Drnaso explained, as we headed off. “No one wants to deal with insurance.” He noted that, after a fender bender, “usually I end up being the one to apologize—‘I’m sorry my car got in the way of your cell-phone use.’ ” Drnaso’s unfailing courtesy, with its suggestion of a current of hidden anger, finds a visual correlate in his work. He draws his characters in a way that initially suggests minimal emotion: their eyes are dots, their mouths small semicircles. But this aesthetic makes it all the more wrenching when the reader detects a flicker of anguish on one of the placid faces.
Drnaso grew up in Palos Hills, a suburb southwest of Chicago. He went to the local grade school and high school, and disliked them both. When he was around ten, a teen-age boy, a neighbor, sexually molested him multiple times. Ashamed, Drnaso told no one. He had never been an extrovert, but after the assaults he grew withdrawn and depressed. He could never predict when something would revive his memory of the trauma. One day, in a high-school health class, he watched a video on sexually transmitted diseases, and he became fixated on the idea that he had been infected by his abuser. “It was the typical process of blaming yourself,” he told me. “At that point, I hadn’t so much as kissed someone.”
Drnaso remembers this as a time when he mostly tuned others out. He listened to music all day long, with a preference for the indie-folk songwriter Will Oldham, and sometimes even went to sleep with his headphones on. He gave pot and alcohol a try, but neither eased his anxiety. “I discovered cigarettes when I was seventeen,” he said. “That was a great relief.” (For a few years, at least, until he became “terrified of the health effects” and quit.) His older brother was into heavy-metal music, and Drnaso began to join him at concerts and record stores, developing a love for splenetic bands like Acid Bath and Agoraphobic Nosebleed.
Drnaso began drawing, inspired, in part, by the phantasmagoric album covers of the heavy-metal bands he liked. A close friend was also into cartooning, and he tended to draw comedic panels; Drnaso gravitated toward much bleaker stories, tales of high school as a crucible of humiliation and failure. They bore the mark of Todd Solondz, the director of “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” an abject coming-of-age comedy that Drnaso admired, and of R. Crumb, the counterculture cartoonist. Drnaso assimilated both Crumb’s uncorked adolescent anger and the heavy cross-hatching that expressed it. Drnaso told me that he regrets this early work, which he considers facile in its darkness. When I asked to see some of the drawings, he said that he had destroyed them all. He startled me with the intensity of his renunciation: “I hate the person I was then.”
Drnaso told me that, during his adolescence, he spent a lot of time reading about “serial killers and mass murders and Chernobyl and other forms of gruesome terror.” When his family got Internet access, he looked at many things that he shouldn’t have. “There would be a beheading video, and I kind of couldn’t help myself and would be compelled to watch, and then I’d condemn myself,” he said. He understands why so many people click on such material, though: “It sounds really sick, but a lot of times you’d just end up in tears, but you’d feel something visceral. The feeling is something.”
After graduating, Drnaso spent two years at a local community college; then, in the fall of 2009, he transferred to Columbia College, in downtown Chicago, to study illustration. He was already interested in making book-length cartoons; he liked storytelling and the solitude that long-form work offered. A drawing-class professor showed some of Drnaso’s cartoons to the illustrator Ivan Brunetti, who also taught in the department. Brunetti told me that the cartoons were “just beautifully drawn,” and reminded him of “the early-seventies work of Bill Griffith,” who is best known as the creator of the irrepressible and irreverent character Zippy the Pinhead. Brunetti particularly admired a thirty-six-page cartoon that presented a perverse backstory to “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Drnaso’s retelling focussed on the boy George Bailey sweeps Mary away from at the Bedford Falls High School dance. The jilted classmate tries to poison Bailey, then commits suicide. Brunetti sent the story to the underground cartoonist Kim Deitch, who wrote a letter to Drnaso that praised his drawing and his ambition, and also admonished, “You have to find something more interesting, storywise, to do.”
Drnaso was not offended. He already had grown to dislike his parody, along with what he calls “even worse stuff.” When I asked him to name the most objectionable thing he’d drawn, he described a cartoon that he’d created when he was eighteen: “The whole strip is this young man speaking to the reader about how he’s lovelorn and this sensitive guy, and how he has this great new relationship. And then the clever reveal—‘clever,’ in huge quotes—is that it’s this kidnapped woman. He’s tied up a girl and left her in a closet.”
In 2011, Drnaso took a class taught by Brunetti. When Brunetti asked his students to draw someone they remembered from childhood, Drnaso surprised himself by attempting to capture, in ink on paper, his assailant, and what he had done to him a decade earlier. “I tried to make the drawings kind of cute,” he recalled. “Even the guy at the center of the story is this kid with a goofy smile and braces.” The details of the abuse were not depicted; Drnaso showed only a closed bathroom door. At the time of the assignment, his attacker had just been arrested for soliciting sex from underage girls on Facebook, and the final panel was a drawing of the man’s mug shot. (The man later pleaded guilty to one count and spent three years in prison.) Drnaso gave a photocopy of the cartoon to Brunetti, and asked him to destroy it after reading. Brunetti, stunned by its content, quietly disobeyed, folding it up and storing it someplace secret. (He still has it.)
At one point, Brunetti, hoping that the shy Drnaso would feel emboldened by seeing his work in print, invited him to contribute to a student anthology. In response, his student drew a twelve-panel comic, in his then frenetic counterculture style, about a businessman who barely catches a flight, only to die a few panels later, when the plane crashes. But as he worked on the project he realized that there was something else he needed to draw. Earlier that week, he had been taking a cigarette break outside the school, and had failed to help a fellow-student whose wheelchair was rolling off the sidewalk and into a busy street. “I just froze,” he recalled to me. A parking-garage attendant nearby rescued the girl. To commemorate what Drnaso calls the “shitty thing I did,” without giving away that the cartoon was about him, he improvised a new visual language. He cut out from a magazine banal images, some of them depicting kindhearted acts—a man opening a bus door for a woman, Mickey Mouse sharing a meal with Minnie Mouse on an airplane—traced them, colored them in, and accompanied them with a regret-filled monologue. He was pleased with the result: he had found a way to express his hot shame beneath a chilly veneer. He told me, “That just kind of changed what I thought about what I wanted to do.”
By the end of college, Drnaso knew that he wanted to record the world around him, rather than satirize it. Brunetti encouraged the shift. “I remember telling him he was funnier when he wasn’t funny,” he said. Drnaso was also finding inspiration in the work of other cartoonists, among them Julie Doucet, the Canadian graphic artist, whose deftly drawn autobiographical stories showed Drnaso that even dislikable people are, as he put it to me, “worthy of some dignity.” Although Drnaso was consumed by drawing, he told me that he did not particularly hope to become a full-time cartoonist, noting, “Having a hump job during the day and having this private thing at night was kind of a life style I could live with.” One of his role models was Henry Darger, the Chicago outsider artist, who worked as a janitor for most of his life and never tried to present his work to the public. Darger’s “In the Realms of the Unreal,” a fifteen-thousand-page work that ravishingly, and disturbingly, depicts erotic fantasies about girls, was discovered by his landlord after his death.
Most young cartoonists focus on either the far away (fantasy) or the immediately at hand (memoir). Drnaso was unusual in being attracted to the subject of the traditional realist novel: imaginary people experiencing the small conflicts and successes of ordinary life. He was also deeply interested in the working-class and middle-income world he came from. His father, who is retired, worked for a cable-TV company; his mother is a teacher’s aide; his brother works in a warehouse, and sometimes drives for Uber. Drnaso has held jobs ever since he was a teen-ager, and finds stability and gratification in manual labor. He told me that, in 2012, soon after graduating from college, he was asked to paint a mural for an art opening in Chicago. That month, as a member of a maintenance crew at a local concert arena, he was also staining a fence. He finished the two jobs on the same day, he told me, recalling, “The feeling of satisfaction was exactly the same between when I looked at the finished fence and when I looked at the mural.”
Few of Drnaso’s hump jobs have paid well, and he has often lived paycheck to paycheck. One reason he wasn’t angrier when we were rear-ended was that he’d bought his car, a used Nissan Versa, with money from an insurance settlement: a driver had hit him while he was biking. The impact sent him to the emergency room in an ambulance, with a broken clavicle, but the upshot was that he got a car he could not otherwise have afforded. “So all things considered it was a good experience,” he told me.
While working on the arena maintenance crew, Drnaso told me, he found his attention drawn to an “oddball” co-worker, and wrote a story, “The Grassy Knoll,” about a young man on a maintenance team who ostracizes a colleague with a creepy grin. The story seems to capture Drnaso’s lingering sense of distrust: how could you tell if someone was just peculiar or a potential predator? The story never resolves whether the rejection is deserved.
Five other stories of shame and frustration followed, and in 2016 Drnaso published them in his first book, “Beverly.” In another story, “Pudding,” a girl tries to get a female friend to acknowledge a past moment of sexual intimacy between them, but the friend angrily denies the experience. “The Lil’ King” is the story of a middle-aged couple on vacation with their teen-age daughter, Cara, and their silent son, Tyler, who is a tangle of longing and anger. Nothing dramatic happens to the boy, but Drnaso interweaves the ordinary details of a family trip with half a dozen panels in which Tyler fantasizes scenes of brutal revenge and outlandish orgies. Drnaso told me that he was proud of the technical achievement of “The Lil’ King,” explaining, “I read too many online comments, and stuff where people say, ‘Why did this have to be a comic book?’ With that story, I remember feeling like I had married words with pictures in a way I wasn’t able to do before.”
“Beverly” can be completed in half an hour, but it rewards more careful reading. The stories are delicately tethered to one another, in the manner of Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad”: a character in one story appears, a decade older, in another story. After the gay young woman in “Pudding” has her unhappy encounter with her friend, she comes across a terrible car crash; one of the victims has a role in “The Lil’ King.” Chris Ware, whom Brunetti introduced to Drnaso’s work, has described “Beverly” as “chilled-windowpane views into the fogged American psyche.” The Los Angeles Times named it the best graphic novel or comic of 2016.
Soon after high school, Drnaso had had a serious girlfriend, but after they broke up he avoided anything that might lead to rejection or a date. “I sequestered myself,” he told me. “I was just very numb.” In 2012, he left his concert-arena job to work as a janitor at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. One day, a young woman who cut the store’s fresh flowers, Sarah Leitten, spotted him reading “Alias the Cat,” a graphic novel by Kim Deitch. Drnaso, in turn, noticed that Leitten was reading John Porcellino’s “Perfect Example,” which chronicles the cartoonist’s final discontent summer in a suburban Illinois town. They began to chat, and Leitten noted that she liked to draw.
She asked him to go to the movies, and they went to see “Cremaster 3,” a queasy three-hour art film by Matthew Barney. They also exchanged their own comics. Leitten, who had trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art, gave him a zine, “Discovery Tales,” which included “Custard’s Last Sit,” a one-panel gag depicting an ice-cream cone, on a chair, melting in the sun. It was an example of the “dumb stoner humor” that she enjoyed. His gift was eight pages long and included a twelve-panel comic called “Ax to Grind,” about a spooky co-worker. Leitten told me that, until then, she had gone out only with musicians, “mostly all assholes,” and was immediately taken with Drnaso’s thoughtful reserve. Drnaso was excited to meet someone so cheerful and candid. She soon told him that she had been abused as a child, but he did not reveal what had happened to him. Soon, they were seriously dating.
The relationship brought Drnaso joy but also worry. He spent his days drawing in his apartment office—a bedroom closet—and he’d become dependent on knowing that he’d see Leitten when he was done. He remembers feeling that his reliance on her had become “cowardly.” And what if disaster struck? How would he manage without her? “There was just this black cloud that hung over it—that something terrible could happen,” he told me. Partly in an effort to sublimate these fears, he began working on a story about a young man whose girlfriend, named Sabrina, vanishes while walking home from work.
Two of the first panels he drew were of the young man, Teddy, in closeup. Teddy was being driven by his friend Calvin, a cybersecurity specialist in the Air Force, to Calvin’s home, in Colorado Springs. Teddy’s eyes were slits of pain, and his heavily furrowed brow further telegraphed his agony. Drnaso wasn’t happy with the drawing. “I was obviously trying to leap into the heartache on page 1,” he told me. “It just looked forced and melodramatic.” He moved the panel to later in the book and streamlined the figures’ expressions. “Adding more detail to make someone seem more human isn’t necessarily effective,” he said. Teddy’s nose became a line, his eyes dots. Worry was now an affectless despair. Drnaso also severely restricted his color palette. Some panels in “Beverly” evoked David Hockney; now every hue was dull. The blue sky that originally accompanied Teddy and Calvin on their drive through Colorado Springs became the toxic yellow of a washed-out sunset. The only characters who had vivid features were those shown in news clips or online, as if people came to life only onscreen. Drnaso even subjected his backdrops to this ethic of subtraction: “If there is a gas station in a comic, usually you see four cars. In ‘Sabrina,’ there are no cars.”
Drnaso wasn’t certain where “Sabrina” would end, but he completed two to three pages a week—a good clip for him. He felt excited by his visual choices. He loved populating the book with men in camouflage—“little green Army men,” he calls them—because their uniforms stood out against the drab background of the air base where Calvin works. “I liked the contrast of the white austere office building and their wearing these fatigues that you associate with heroism and combat,” he told me. He based his drawings of Calvin’s house—nondescript furniture, dunes of laundry—on photographs he had taken while visiting the house of a friend who works at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs. Drnaso had to imagine the inside of the air base, because he wasn’t allowed to visit. He is obsessed with getting visual details right, and he was disappointed, after publication, when his friend told him that no self-respecting airman would have a tattoo with his branch’s insignia, as Calvin has in the book.
Because Drnaso avoids visual clutter in “Sabrina,” any object that he includes feels freighted with import. An attuned reader will notice that, in a corridor at the base where Calvin has a confrontation with a scheming colleague, there is a tiny gray square where a wall meets the ceiling. “That’s the one place where the security cameras are pronounced,” Drnaso told me. “It’s a suggestion that they’re not the only two people in that corridor.”
In 2014, Drnaso had watched videos that Elliot Rodger had recorded before going on a shooting rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Drnaso told me, “I guess you can’t really blame people’s curiosity in wanting to understand the life of the person who committed the heinous act more than the people who happened to just fall victim.” That tension felt unique to this moment in history, and gave him another idea for his story. He decided that Sabrina would be murdered by someone like Rodger: a men’s-rights activist and a misogynist.
Drnaso had also followed the Sandy Hook massacre and the appalling conspiracy theories it had spawned—in particular, the idea that the shooting was a fake event concocted by gun-control activists. In the book, the pain felt by Teddy and by Sabrina’s family gets repeatedly lanced by strangers online who refuse to acknowledge that her killing really happened. As part of Drnaso’s research for “Sabrina,” he listened to podcasts of “Infowars,” the extremist radio show hosted by Alex Jones. The words of Jones and his guests were repellent, but they told a story, and he could imagine how even their distorted world views could provide listeners with a perverse consolation. In one of the more arresting turns in “Sabrina,” Teddy wanders around Calvin’s house, looking for a way to kill himself, and comes across a radio; he begins listening to an “Infowars”-style broadcast. He is strangely comforted by the host’s heartless speculation about Sabrina’s death—it mirrors his own numbness.
Drnaso finished his draft in the spring of 2017. He had created a comic whose drab tonalities and deliberate slowness challenged a genre that leans toward the overheated. Reading “Sabrina” feels almost like an antidote to the hectic Web sites its characters are so immersed in: some pages are simply panels of a character getting wordlessly into his car and going from one undistinguished place to another. Most of the panels have only one character in them, and are subtle in their virtuosity. One scene is presented from the point of view of laptop cameras, as Calvin and his daughter, who is in Florida, have a video chat. Calvin’s unspoken hope for connection is expressed by the way he grows larger from one panel to the next—he is leaning into his screen. When his daughter loses interest and walks away, Calvin sits back, and looks literally deflated. Effects like these impressed Drnaso’s fellow-cartoonists. Roz Chast told me that he “gets across a mood that’s very unsettling, in a way that I’ve never quite come across before, at least in graphic novels.”
Like the best fiction, “Sabrina” makes you do the work of understanding the story. Sometimes it takes several pages before you apprehend how a new section fits with those which came before. It never condescends to its characters—to their unfashionable haircuts, soft bodies, and modest ambitions. When Calvin praises a microbrew for its “cool packaging” or suggests to his devastated friend that he might consider a law-enforcement career, as a way to turn “grief into something positive,” the tone is sincere.
Drnaso was ready to send the completed “Sabrina” to Drawn & Quarterly. But he suddenly became overwhelmed by the thought that the story was irredeemably lurid. He had recently come back from a writing retreat—his first time without Sarah in more than three years—and felt destabilized. Donald Trump had just taken office, and the grotesque elements of “Sabrina” felt different. Drnaso told me, “I began to think that there was no point in putting something like this out in a world that’s drowning in negative subject matter.”
He had depicted the murder as a four-page sequence. In the first three pages, the men’s-rights activist rants about how society has wronged him. On the fourth page, the man methodically stabs Sabrina to death, with a detachment consistent with the rest of the book. Drnaso had been able to draw Sabrina’s murder only after getting drunk. He wondered if reading these pages would be any different from going online and watching an isis murder video or, as he had once done, looking at forensic photographs of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment. As a teen-ager, he had watched “Faces of Death”—a video compilation of beheadings and electrocutions—at a friend’s house, and he had never forgotten it. Now, with “Sabrina,” he concluded that he had created a poisonous book out of our poisoned times. “It’s not going to be healthy for anyone to read this,” he told himself. He e-mailed his editor and said that he did not want “Sabrina” to be read by the public.
“I made the decision not to publish,” Drnaso remembers. “And then really sunk.” He stopped drawing. He resumed smoking. His domestic happiness felt false. He said, “I had this thought that Sarah would do better without me, that I was not going to be a good presence in her life, and that I should probably just make a clean break.”
During this period, his memories of being molested came flooding back, overwhelming him. The fact that his parents had been kind and nurturing made it somehow harder to face the truth—he didn’t want his childhood to be defined by abuse. He contemplated suicide. “It was just me wanting to unplug,” he recalled. “As if I could cryogenically freeze my body for a few years and block it all out.” Leitten was patient with him. “I was dealing with so much self-loathing,” Drnaso recalled. “I didn’t want to be the wounded animal. I just sat there and ruminated for eighteen hours a day, and she just waited it out.” Leitten sat with him on the couch and comforted and hugged him. “I would just sit quietly and be present with him,” she said. “There was a lot of that.”
Drnaso’s internist sent him to an in-patient facility, but when he got there he refused to go in. Finally, he went to a therapist. He had no health insurance, and so after his Medicaid ran out she gave him a discounted rate. He started taking the antidepressant citalopram, and began to feel more stable. Drnaso finally told Sarah and his parents about the abuse. They were all supportive.
His crisis lasted more than a month. During that time, he saw the isolation and the shame of his characters in a more autobiographical light. Tyler, the boy in “The Lil’ King,” with his rage and self-doubt, now reminded him of his younger self. Drnaso revisited “Sabrina,” and decided that he could publish the book after all, if he removed the murder scene and added small moments of grace—including several panels in which Sabrina’s sister talks about her trauma, at an open-mike night in a café. Drnaso decided to give his royalties from the first printing to a few charities, including Camfed, a nonprofit that provides education to girls in rural sub-Saharan Africa. (Tracy Hurren, his editor at Drawn & Quarterly, recalled that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with this plan, because “we knew he needed the money.”) Drnaso also made a few changes to his drawings. He had never liked the way he’d drawn the face of Sabrina in the first panel of the story—she looked absent-mindedly content. He modified the curve of her mouth and gave her eyes an alert look, so that she seemed more like a deer sniffing danger.
Finally, he created a flowery back cover in a palette that is much brighter than the rest of the book. For Drnaso, the image is both a memorial to Sabrina and a tribute to Leitten, who by this time was working at a local flower shop. (In 2018, she became its co-owner.) The back-cover image was a painting on glass, which takes much longer than an ordinary panel to create. Leitten remembers Drnaso’s work on the glass painting as one of the key points in his recovery. “I think it was really good for him,” she said. Drnaso told me, “It felt like a sense of finality—to paint this thing that was so far removed from the content of the book.”
Last June, Drnaso and Leitten got married in his parents’ back yard, in Palos Hills. Three months later, they threw a pizza party at their apartment, in Old Irving Park, in northwest Chicago. The event had the feel of a follow-up celebration—some of the guests hadn’t seen them since the wedding. A wedding present from Brunetti hung on a wall by the bathroom: a pen-and-ink homage to Jan van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait,” with Leitten and Drnaso as the bride and groom. Brunetti had chosen the van Eyck as a visual reference not only because it depicts matrimony but also because the stiffness of some Renaissance gesture reminded him of Drnaso. “I tend to think of Nick as bottled in and coiled,” Brunetti told me. “But I also get the sense he’s observing—withholding judgment in the moment.”
The cats prowled on the furniture, and year-round Christmas lights were on, lending a merry glow to Leitten’s collection of vintage Pez dispensers. Nearly all the guests were cartoonists. Brunetti and Chris Ware were the oldest; Drnaso and Leitten had also invited a large millennial contingent. Chicago has a remarkable number of working cartoonists, maybe because it’s relatively inexpensive, or maybe because, as Ware more imaginatively suggested, “it’s halfway between New York City, where it’s about reading, and Los Angeles, where it’s about seeing.”
The guests talked to one another about couch-crashing, acupuncture, and universal basic income. Fiction writers often know one another through the M.F.A. programs where they study or teach, but cartoonists have scrappier lives. “Except for Chris Ware, no one here makes a living off of comics,” Drnaso explained to me. “We have to make our rent another way.” Drnaso, Leitten, the surrealist Margot Ferrick, and the absurdist sci-fi cartoonist Lane Milburn had all been employed at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. And Drnaso and several other guests had been part-time workers at the Busy Beaver Button Company, in Logan Square. Drnaso has been doing shifts at the factory’s button-pressing machine for years. “I probably earn a few pennies per piece,” he told me. “But then you do twenty-five hundred buttons in a shift, and it ends up being pretty good money. You can make like ninety bucks in five hours.”
Before the party, Leitten had made batches of blueberry-pineapple and apple-nectarine jam. Her flower shop is flourishing, but she also continues to publish cartoons in the Chicago alternative press, and she maintains a studio in the apartment. Drnaso draws at a drafting table in their bedroom; he likes the setup because Leitten can’t help but see his work when she comes home from the shop.
Ware and Drnaso began discussing their love of Charles Schulz, whose work Ware considers seminal in its depiction of cartoon characters with inner lives. At one point, Drnaso led Ware to his drafting table, to show him a page from his next book. Brunetti had already seen some panels, and he told me that the new work was amazing. “He’s stepped up his game,” he said, adding, “I hate that metaphor.”
Earlier that day, I had joined Drnaso as he worked in the bedroom. He was “inking” a page from the new book—using a pen to trace over lines that he had drawn in pencil the previous day. Inking is dull work, so he didn’t mind the company. It takes most cartoonists several days to complete a page that a reader can consume in under thirty seconds. Many of the cartoonists I spoke to mentioned this ratio as a way of explaining the extreme personalities who are attracted to the form.
In the manner of a movie director, Drnaso draws from a script: the words and the plot come first, then the images. The scene he was working on that day portrayed some sort of encounter group. The participants were engaged in a role-playing exercise in which a woman pretended to fire a man. If you looked carefully at the pages, you could see small details change as the scene developed. In the first panels, the two characters were sitting on folding chairs against the blank background of a performance space. A few panels later, the woman appeared to be at a desk, the man in an office chair; Drnaso had drawn a sad, small office plant behind her. This morphing, Drnaso said, signalled to the reader that the characters were getting deeper and deeper into their role-playing. It was another opportunity to smudge the border between the real and the imagined.
Next, he showed me a face that he kept redrawing. He flipped the page over and put it on a light box that he uses to check his work. “It’s easier to spot a wonky eye or a misshapen head from a different perspective,” he explained. He often repeatedly adjusts a drawing of a face, raising or lowering the tilt of the mouth or changing the arch of the eyebrows. “It’s so nitpicky, but I draw with so few lines that every line counts,” he said.
Inevitably, Drnaso had fallen out of love again with “Sabrina.” (He told me later, “I fucking hate that book. I don’t ever want to look at it again. It was a mistake, and I shouldn’t have done it.”) I asked him what his new book was about. “It’s going to be about religion and identity and having a sense of purpose, but also about being emotionally manipulated in some way,” he said, and added, “There’s still a lot to be figured out.”
He let me leaf through a printout of the twenty or so pages he’d finished so far. The constricted look of “Sabrina” was retreating. The palette was brighter. The white people were no longer all the same color. Many panels had three or more figures in them. “This story won’t be so limited, you know, the way ‘Sabrina’ is really just hopelesslygrounded,” Drnaso promised. His characters, however, would still be united by their “emotional ineptitude.” He expected that he would fold in some betrayals as he went along, but for the moment he was pleased that, in the early pages, the characters seemed to be making real connections with one another. Some of them even had mouths, and were using them to smile. “It’s funny,” Drnaso said. “When you’re drawing people, you kind of emote with the expression you’re trying to create. I think I’m enjoying the process more this time.”