Nick Drnaso’s ‘Sabrina’ and Affronts to Truth

In the graphic novel ‘Sabrina’, Nick Drnaso explores how psychic and social isolation fuels tragedy’s evolution into social paranoia.

Nick Drnaso
Drawn & Quarterly
May 2018

National news stories of school shootings, random murders, or violent attacks on citizens are often quickly followed by false claims on social media that there are no victims and some deep state operation was just trying to fool the public. While most of us see the effects from a distance, Nick Drnaso allows us to witness the psychological impact of affronts to truth on the people closest to the tragedy. Through a story of a personal tragedy exploded into a national media story, readers see the fallout through the lives of three characters directly and indirectly affected by the consequences of information spiraling out of control and reason.

Titular Sabrina exists more as a catalyst than a character. We only get a short sequence that shows her in a mundane situation with her boyfriend. She has disappeared just one block from her home. She is talked about in the past tense by those who know her. That allows the story to be told. Sabrina is less a character and more a catalyst for the machinations of social media and conspiracy theorists to lay down a framework of victim blaming masked in a dark state of paranoia.

Most of the story is told through the experience of Calvin Wrobel, who works in the Department of Defense. He takes in his old high school friend, Teddy, Sabrina’s boyfriend of two years. Teddy seems almost catatonic. Calvin, dealing with a separation from his wife and child, struggles with the fallout of taking Teddy into his home while trying to map out the rest of his future. Readers contend with Calvin’s aspirations fading in the reality that his isolated existence has been infiltrated by an old friend dealing with a mental breakdown and the accompanying conspiracy theorist who seems ready to use violence to support his false view of reality.

Drnaso presents a portrait of the US in flux, but he never allows his narrative to divert into blame or scapegoating. His main character works for the military, but we see the character as a cubical-dwelling worker unsure of his future and isolated in his present as he lies to his coworker friends and plays online games from his bed. He doesn’t have the support system of an extended family, and his nuclear family has broken and exists in the awkward dissipation.

Sabrina’s sister, Sandra, seems to be internalizing her distress. A friend tries to help her but Sandra pushes her away whenever she’s too close to the pain. Sandra takes the place of any number of relatives of victims who have been hounded by the media and targeted by conspiracy theorists without an opportunity to engage in mourning her sister.

Teddy becomes the most conflicted character. His is the only character where spoilers might make a difference in how a reader responds to the work. Drnaso embodies all of the characteristics of the world in this one damaged man. Teddy will provoke reader’s expectations and bias, and the effect provides the heart of the narrative.

Academics may find value in the artistic presentation of people dealing with the fringe, paranoid element that buys into conspiracies and presents threats to citizens dealing with personal tragedies that are blown up into social media movements. Drnaso personalizes the conspiracy of self-deception that many readers may see as absurd. This is not an easy feat and something unexpected in a work of graphic fiction.

The novel is text heavy, often showing writings from emails or message boards. Surprising for this reader was the absence of a focus on the political machinations that validate the fringe. The only comparison that comes to mind is how Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird dealt with racism on the personal level without devolving into a political polemic. Much like that novel, Sabrina forces the characters to confront the paranoid fringe as an insurgent in their own emotions and their emotionally relevant worldview. This frightening world becomes personal for the reader as the characters bend under the strain of an unending tragedy.

Drnaso’s art style is spare but full of impact. Faces are simplified and rooms seem overly spacious to the point of emptiness. Frames can be text heavy, mirroring the screens readers use to read this review. This backdrop exposes the isolation and domestic vacuum in contemporary life.

Sabrina is a thoughtful exploration of what many people in the United States are experiencing in 2018. Overlaid with a critique of the fringe social media world, the characters populating the novel are distinctively human in the face of both threats and concern. He explores how isolation, both psychic and social, fuels the evolution of tragedy into social paranoia and a dehumanized narrative of fraud. Drnaso explores this unique moment in history when a fringe element spins tragedy into a backdrop of deep state conspiracies while presenting victims and their families as actors hired to fool the public. Readers are given an artistic presentation of characters dealing with both personal tragedy and the threats from the anonymous public convinced that the conspiracy is true.

Indeed, Drnaso personalizes the conspiracy self-deception that many readers see as absurd and isolated in the gullible Other. This is not an easy feat and something unexpected in a work of graphic fiction. Drnaso reminds us that even when the view of the world is warped in paranoia, rational and feeling humans still populate our homes and streets.

RATING 9 / 10