Nick Drnaso’s new graphic novel, Sabrina (Drawn & Quarterly),
is a subtle, heart-wrenching, multifaceted look at loneliness and loss in
our lunatic asylum of a country and an impressive follow-up to his 2016
debut, Beverly.

The story involves three regular people caught in an irregular situation.
The title character has been kidnapped: she is present only as a painful
absence. While Sabrina’s sister, Sandra, deals with the loss through
medication and group therapy, Sabrina’s boyfriend, Teddy, retreats to his
old friend Calvin’s house and into a world of self-loathing and talk radio.
Calvin struggles to be a good friend to the increasingly unhinged Teddy
while navigating his own failing marriage and frustrating career.
Everyone’s life gets worse as Sabrina’s fate becomes fodder for conspiracy
theorists, who bully and threaten all three protagonists. Panel by panel,
Drnaso crafts a gripping, sobering, emotionally resonant story about the
perils of living in your own head in the current world.

Drnaso’s simple, cartoon-style art tells his story plainly and powerfully,
via pitch-perfect dialogue and a six-by-four grid. All his characters feel
trapped, which Drnaso reinforces with the rigid panel structure that makes
them appear caged in their own lives. “I guess it looks very hermetic when
you’re reading a 200-page book,” says Drnaso, “but when I’m working day to
day it just feels like a natural way to establish some structure. I like
treating each little panel as an opportunity to practice and tighten my
compositions, even if most of the book is essentially characters being
fairly static and talking. Hopefully there’s a mood embedded in the content
of the story, so by the time I’m drawing and working out the artwork it’s
more like solving a puzzle.”

Drnaso makes those puzzle pieces fit via structuring devices that are
subtle and inspired. For example, Calvin has to complete a mental health
survey each day when he arrives at the air force base for his
intel-gathering job, noting his hours slept, alcohol consumed, suicidal
thoughts, and interest in seeing a therapist. This simple plot device
allows a fuzzy window onto the tortured soul of Calvin and interrogates the
reader as well. How much booze and sleep did you have last night?

Sabrina
is highly relevant to the current moment, in which conspiracy theories,
from the machinations of the so-called deep state to the supposed NASA
slave colony on Mars, have colonized all our brains to some degree or
another. This relevancy wasn’t intended, which may be why it doesn’t feel
contrived.

“It’s just an unfortunate coincidence that this fringe subculture has been
getting a lot of attention since Trump was elected,” Drnaso says, “because
that wasn’t the case when I had the initial idea for this book in late
2014. I don’t know why I gravitated towards the subject. I think a healthy
amount of skepticism is natural, but it’s unfortunate when things become so
distorted for some people that it’s hard to untangle everything. I don’t
know how to talk about it in a compelling way. I have blind spots and
shortcomings, so in a weird way I feel like can relate to people that
become obsessed with something to the point of delusion.”

Drnaso, 29, who’s from Palos Hills and now lives in Old Irving Park with
his fiancee and three cats, said that some tough times in his own life were
far more important to the genesis of this book than anything political: “I
was having a lot of paranoid fears at the time, to the point where it was
hard to function and feel very comfortable out of the house. I had an
unhealthy tendency to let hypothetical scenarios get out of hand, where I
was basically living with something that hadn’t actually happened, and
that’s essentially how I arrived at the story. I guess that’s why I found
something relatable with people who entertain doomsday scenarios, because
if you spend too long in those circles it really does color the way you see
the world.”

Drnaso let the story for Sabrina evolve rather than working from a
full script he’d written ahead of time. “I typically only script one
‘scene’ at a time before moving to drawing and coloring,” he says, “then I
jump back to writing, and it continues on like that. It was important to
work the pages to completion as I was going, as opposed to writing a
script, drawing for a few years, then coloring the book. Those in-between
times were usually when an idea would pop up.”

Drnaso has created a gut punch of a story that will likely make many
year-end best-of lists. Loneliness and madness are timeless, but Sabrina, in its exploration of personal fears, is a precise time
capsule of how desperate and deranged 2018 can make any of us.   v