A few days before Thanksgiving, Nick Drnaso, undoubtedly cartoonist of the year, explained it was ironic to him that a reporter was in his home right now, because the night before he had doubts about his talents and ability to say anything meaningful. He had stared for a time at a page of his next book and felt swamped “with every feeling of, whatever I’m doing, it sucks. Later today, I have to speak to a class at SAIC (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and I have this imposter syndrome.” He added, so quietly you strained to catch the mumble, “I’ve no business speaking to ...”
He trailed off.
Drnaso lives in an Old Irving Park apartment with his wife, Sarah, and for many years worked as a janitor, at the Field Museum, at a Hollywood Casino, at a Whole Foods. His story, he said, is “pretty short and there’s not a lot there.” Grew up in Palos Hills, moved to Chicago. The end. That’s it, that’s the whole story, he said, really. Studied illustration with cartoonist Ivan Brunetti at Columbia College-Chicago; a couple of years ago, made a quiet, acclaimed debut with “Beverly,” a series of intertwined strips of suburban ennui.
Then came “Sabrina.”
Since spring, Drnaso’s minimalist masterwork about the tenuousness of facts and official records — he does more with the image of a bathtub full of red water than a year of horror movies — has been one of the year’s best reviewed books, graphic novel or otherwise. It was celebrated, by the New York Times, NPR, GQ, etc., as an uncanny distillation of the unsettling political, social and cultural vacancy of 2018. Which is to say, it’s an unnerving read. Last summer, Drnaso became the first cartoonist to crack the long list for the Man Booker literary prize; and now a New Yorker profile is on the way.
Drnaso is thrilled.
Which is to say, he is 29 but looks 19, reed thin, with a mustache still filling in and a face of constant dread.
“I’m not ungrateful,” he begins. “It could easily be interpreted as ungrateful. But it’s more like ... an unworthy feeling I have. I made a book and everyone I know makes books — all my cartoonist friends have — but why this one was distinguished? It doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe because I was mired in it. I don’t have perspective. I felt really bad about the book when I finished it and had a lot of reservations about publishing it because of the subject mater. The optics of it alone — it’s about a woman being abducted and murdered and it’s a story of the most grim things that society has to offer. And when I finished in early 2017, we were into the Trump presidency and the #MeToo Movement, and I felt I was contributing to the cesspool of negativity just releasing it.
“I had a conversation with my editor (at Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly) and they respected the decision and didn’t push too hard. I said my piece and they said they hoped things would get better. It was not solely the failure of the book (that led him to this point). I went into a major depression, which I had never experienced. That was kind of the tipping point for canceling the book. A bit of self sabotage. Then I started going to therapy, and I don’t know what changed my mind, but I called my editor back.
“I asked if I could take another crack. They said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So, that this has been the most widely read thing I have ever done? I guess there should be a feeling of accomplishment and security that goes with it — a good feeling. And I think I am veering into sounding ungrateful again. But do I feel conflicted right now? I do feel conflicted.
“But things have gotten better.”