Rosie and Dennis meet for the first time on a date. We’ve seen this scene replicated countless times in popular media. Their conversations are cringe-inducing. Rosie ends the date. She can’t take the awkwardness anymore. In the panel – yes this is a graphic novel – it’s revealed that the meeting is a roleplay exercise. Rosie and Dennis are married. The date was performed to rekindle their relationship. Thus, begins Nick Drnaso’s Acting Class, released on August 2022 by Drawn and Quarterly, a book full of uncomfortable moments between people. Acting Class is also the author’s way of reconnecting with a constantly receding world.
Though it’s a work of fiction, Acting Class is a facsimile of our world, maybe even our lives. There is angst galore in the suburbs and the city. Disparate individuals join an acting class to “turn things around”, rekindle sparks, make friends, heal trauma, or simply just find a place to belong. Acting Class is a tender and disturbing glance into average Americans’ modern and ever-drifting life. Drnaso displays his understanding of a specific type of human psyche – scarred by the wards of the past and held down by the ennui of the present. They are brought together by their attempts to deal with the “imperceptibility of a different day.” Self-care becomes a gateway into fantasy existences. For Acting Class’ characters, an imagined world is more worthwhile than their day-to-day reality. Does this sound relatable?
The titular acting class comprises ten people: Gloria, Beth, Thomas, Rosie, Rayanne, Dennis, Lou, Angel, Danielle, and Neil. They are socially awkward and anxious (especially Angel). At first glance, Neil appears to be the character that will benefit the most from the experience. Rosie, who advises another character “not to hang too much self-esteem on a job”, finds work as the only tolerable constant in her life. Lou just wants a place to be a good boy. There is more to all of the ten characters’ personalities and motivations. Drnaso dutifully develops them as people throughout Acting Class. Even though troubled, they are presented with dignity. Even the janitor has his moments; we are told to “watch his movements. His fluid rhythm.”
The class is a potential opportunity. All are welcome to this unique experience taught by John Smith. He is quick to present himself as an average man – as average as his name – yet there is something unsettling about him. As in Drnaso’s previous two books, the suburban mural Beverly (2016), and the epitomical comic of Trump-era America Sabrina (2018), Acting Class is subdued in its style. Also, like Sabrina and Beverly, Acting Class is relatable and uncanny in its presentation, yet more baroque than the two. Drnaso’s style is straightforward, each panel presents information via delicate details and sparse mise en scènes. Unlike many of his peers, he hides nothing behind flashy artistic flourishes, ultra-violent imagery, or derelict prose.
Drnaso has come to embody the working-class artist. While working on Beverly and Sabrina, he created reflective and unflinching art in his spare time. His work exclusively focuses on working- or middle-class people. Since completing his degree in illustration in 2011 Columbia College in Chicago, Drnaso eschewed satire, instead focusing on chronicling the world around him. All of Drnaso’s books demand attention.
Drnaso can draw more elaborate illustrations, yet he prefers to have few lines in his panels, and every line counts. Drnaso is also a very good writer. Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be nominated for the Booker Prize. In Acting Class, his ability to conjure complex thoughts and rivet and drive the story with a few lines of dialogue is mesmerizing. Words and pictures complement each page like a pianist and singer creating one song. Nothing is wasted. With this third graphic novel, Drnaso has developed an oeuvre and aesthetic that is all his own and instantly recognizable.
In Acting Class, the setting is transformed when characters are engaged in an acting session. Drnaso makes excellent use of the graphic novel as a medium by depicting the real and the imagined as states of reality just a panel away. After participating in John’s lengthy class, some characters begin acting strange outside of the class. Their time with John begins to change them in fundamental ways. Angel goes into a trance and disappears, and only returns for the next acting class. Things in the characters’ lives begin to fall apart, and little is holding them together.
The tone of Acting Class is ambiguous throughout. The reader may feel tense and worried when a character inexplicably leaves their job because we understand what it means to go without an income. Drnaso elicits strong emotions from the reader by mostly drawing affectless faces and drab interiors. Acting Class is also weirdly uplifting. It has many comforting reflective scenes and panels that show characters smiling. Drnaso understands that the world’s splendor can’t entirely succumb to our self-loathing.
The final class is a climatic improvisational session. It is intense. I put the book down to process what was going on. Did they step into a nightmare or a dream? The characters try to find something they can hold on to in a world constantly alienating them. The characters, like many in real life, consider a social activity such as an acting class to be a potential remedy to this modern malady. However, the line between acting out a fantasy and living a lie is invisible. Drnaso is at his most lurid illustrating this phenomenon. Acting scenes come alive on the page as the characters perform them. Out of context, it is difficult to differentiate between their acting and their (fictional) reality. Acting Class mélanges all of this into the character’s minds and our own.
Acting Class’ ending is perplexing and open-ended. There are many parts of the book that left me bewildered, and that’s okay, if albeit a little distressing. Like many, I don’t fully understand our current tumultuous cultural-political moment. Acting Class is a rapturous critique of our moment, and fittingly it offers no answers – there isn’t even a semblance of a gratifying closure. A mark of a meaningful venture is how many questions it leaves upon its completion. There should be many questions at the end of a class, book, or journey. I closed Acting Class’ cover, stared at it, and realized that an abyss was looking back at me. It felt eerily comforting.
Drnaso, Nick. Acting Class. Drawn and Quarterly. 2022.
Max, D.T. “The Bleak Brilliance of Nick Drnaso’s graphic Novels”. The New Yorker. 14 January 2019.
Shannon, Meghan. “Graphic Novel Captures a World on the Brink”. Columbia College Chicago. 18 September 2018.