Online Nothing is Off-Limits: Emotional Apathy in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

Nick Drnaso’s award winning graphic novel Sabrina offers a disturbing reflection of current culture. He uses an unassuming, deceptively simplistic art style, and a muted colour palette to display a story of quiet horror and growing dread. A commentary on the lack of empathy in society. A lack fostered by internet culture. The apathy of the public for a family’s grief is mirrored by the apparent apathy and lack of emotion displayed by the characters in the graphic novel.

A review for the LA times notes that early in the novel’s events, “Two nondescript men greet each other in a nondescript train terminal.” Teddy and Calvin display little to no emotion that the reader can discern through the faces drawn by Drnaso or even from the dialogue. Another review in the New York Times comments on the style used to draw the characters: “Figures are airtight yet textureless, with eyes like pinholes.” This style chosen by the author hides the horror of the novel’s events behind a veneer of the mundane and banal. This is aided by the colour palette, with muted tones and pages entirely filled with almost only one colour. The inclusion of multiple panels per page and some panels devoted solely to moments of silence and inactivity creates a sense of intimacy with the characters, as we have a window into even the quietest moments.

From page 32 of Sabrina

Calvin is an emotionally detached man. Absent emotionally from the novel, and absent as a husband and father – this led to the collapse of his marriage. This emotional detachment is reaffirmed by the art style, which allows almost no definition for the faces of the characters. Readers are unable to connect with the characters before them. Some may consider this a fault of the genre, and the difficulty encountered when trying to conveying emotion through picture alone. However, I believe it was Drnaso’s intention to portray these characters as emotionally distant, each is handling their own grief and personal trauma privately.

From page 57 of Sabrina

Aside from the emotional unavailability of the character’s themselves, Drnaso reflects a society that has next to no empathy for the situation of this family who have lost a loved one.

Drnaso shines a light on the dark side of internet culture, conspiracy theories. From true crime shows to conspiracies about the government – nothing is off limits online where no one is actively affected by what is happening.  GQ magazine calls the novel “The first great work about our current age of disinformation, paranoia and fake news, Sabrina is part Don DeLillo, part Jim Jarmusch, all fridge-humming domesticity and quiet dread.” Internet and mainstream culture have seen a huge spike in interest for conspiracy theory videos and stories. Stef Aupers considers the idea that “[c]onspiracy culture is a radical and generalized manifestation of distrust that is embedded in the cultural logic of modernity.” Similarly, Chris Ware posits that it is this culture of distrust that Sabrina is focusing on, when he states that the novel is an analysis of “[t]he nature of trust and truth and the erosion of both in the age of the internet.”

It is this inherent distrust that allows people like Alex Jones and info-wars a platform to spout their agenda.

screencap of Alex Jones, from infowars, notorious conspiracy theorist

Drnaso offers a startlingly familiar interpretation of these conspiracy theorists. Teddy, a vulnerable young man, is drawn into the propaganda of a radio show. The first instance Teddy can be seen listening to the radio the presenter is stating, “Man commits a terrific atrocity, and the rest of us have to suffer the day with a little less ardour, a little less empathy.” Which resonates with how the character is feeling, with his life adrift. It is these lost people like Teddy who are preyed upon by these kinds of media outlets. However, the term ‘empathy’ used in this context bears a note of humour, as these news channels have no empathy for the people they report on or their families.

The conspiracy theories become even more sinister once the story of Sabrina’s death becomes main news. The family and those surrounding them become barraged with comments and demands from faceless people on the internet who have no right to their grief or their story. Calvin in particular becomes harassed by these anonymous internet users. A user calling themselves Truth Warrior sends aggressive and unhinged messages to him. “The rest of the world may have forgotten about you, but not me.” (175) Increasing the sense of fear that these people and this culture is dangerous. These online users also make demands of Sabrina’s sister. This is revealed towards the end of the novel when she attends an open mic night and reads some of the messages she has received from strangers. “Hi Sandra. I sent you a message on facebook. What’s up? Is this for real or what? I think you owe us an explanation.” (154) When sitting behind a computer screen is so easy to distance yourself from real situations, getting so caught up in a conspiracy that you forget that there are real people involved who are suffering. The audacity of a stranger on the internet to make these ludicrous requests of someone grieving a relative is truly shocking. Not just demands for information, but threats also, as she goes on to read.

“Your address is online. People in our community are waking up to the truth. I’m armed and protected see what happens if they try and test me. I don’t really buy this story. I don’t really believe anything I’m told from so-called verified sources. Remember the Gulf of Tonkin? Why should we believe your story? This whole fucking thing is fake. It’s a fucking lie. It doesn’t make any sense. Where is she?” (155)

After this revelation it appears as if no one knows what to say, and Drnaso’s art style makes it impossible to determine what any of them might be thinking or feeling. The entitlement to the information of others and paranoia is highly prevalent throughout the novel. The distance of a computer screen, allows society to create an emotional distance from events happening around us. Leading to the callous and heinous interactions from total strangers to those grieving Sabrina’s death. Drnaso’s novel is a chilling response to what internet culture is doing to how we interact with one another as well as how it affects how we feel.

Works Cited

Aupers, Stef. “‘Trust No One’: Modernization, Paranoia and Conspiracy Culture.” European Journal of Communication, vol. 27, no. 1, Mar. 2012, pp. 22–34

Drnaso, Nick. “Sabrina.” One-shot graphic novel. (May 2018), Drawn and Quarterly

Hunter, Greg “A Humane Remove: Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina” Los Angeles Review of Books July  2018 (https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-humane-remove-nick-drnasos-sabrina/#!)

Park, Ed “Can You Illustrate Emotional Absence? These Graphic Novels Do” The New York Times May  2018 (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/books/review/nick-drnaso-sabrina.html)

Ware, Chris. “Sabrina by Nick Drnaso review – an extraordinary graphic novel.” The Guardian, June 2018. www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/02/sabrina-nick-drnaso-review-graphic-novel

6 thoughts on “Online Nothing is Off-Limits: Emotional Apathy in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

  1. Hi Mary-Kate, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts here. One of the things I found most interesting about Sabrina was its handling of conspiracy and internet culture, and in that way I think your comparison to Alex Jones is absolutely spot-on in showing how conspiracy-theorist-personalities can ingratiate themselves to people in vulnerable positions. For me, one of the most unsettling aspects of the book was watching how Teddy is isolated and radicalised by something as simple as a radio-show (that he could access from a child’s room, no less), and I think that was entirely the point that Drnaso wanted to make: that cases like Teddy’s could (and do) very easily occur in the real world.

    With regards to Drnaso’s art style, I’d agree that it interacts with themes of the book in interesting in ways. We see these characters in very intense, private moments, but then even as we watch those moments, their faces are so simplistically drawn that they’re not always easy to recognise. I think in a lot of ways that disconnect is reflective of how internet culture works: on the one hand, it puts so much information at our finger-tips that it warps our perception of what information we’re owed, while on the other it simultaneously allows us to distance ourselves from the people involved. There’s a hypocrisy to the fact that the very people demanding information and proof-of-identity from Teddy, Calvin, and Sandra, are themselves hiding behind anonymity and pseudonyms like “Truth Warrior”.

    Whether that’s an irony that’s intentional on Drnaso’s part, I don’t know, but it’s interesting to think about, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

    1. Hello Hugh,
      I appreciate your comment. I totally agree with you, Drnaso uses a range of techniques to really showcase the alienation caused by this age of the internet. From the colour palette, to the pacing and the simplistic facial features of the characters. I find your comment about the hypocrisy of demanding information from a group of people whilst hiding behind an anonymous username particularly interesting. I think it all combined does show the reflection of modern culture that Drnaso wanted to convey. And the image is terrifying.

  2. Hey Mary-Kate,

    I also enjoyed reading your opinions on Sabrina and internet culture. I agree with Hugh here, but would add that conspiracists are likely to not think that they are ‘lost’, but rather have complete faith in their beliefs, and perhaps it is because of this confidence that they influence others. Your evaluation of the likes of Alex Jones as a personality that ‘preys’ on vulnerable people, and radicalises their pre-existing beliefs, is an unsettling but important concept to consider. I, too, noticed how Drnaso’s art style not only limited the emotion conveyed from his characters, but it does so in a way that mimics the ‘inhumanness’ of the internet altogether. As though, while reading the graphic novel I felt pulled in to an emotionless virtual reality.

    You mentioned that there has been a ‘huge spike in conspiracy culture’. However, considering conspiracy theories have existed since long before the internet, I’m interested to know how far, and why, you think the internet has influenced this culture?

    Kayleigh

    1. Hello Kayleigh,
      Thanks for your comment. To answer your question about why the internet has influenced conspiracy culture – I can only imagine that it is due to the accessibility of the information. It is online for more people to read, online communities of thousands who are picking apart stories like what happened to Sabrina in the novel and the online spectacle of her death. And like Teddy is drawn into the radio show, vulnerable individuals can be drawn in the same to online conspiracy forums. People with similar beliefs are connected across continents which allows things to spread faster and wider than they maybe ever have been before. It’s certainly a very interesting thing to consider. I also don’t doubt that the current political climate in the US and elsewhere has influenced the mistrusting nature of the general populace.

  3. Hi Mary-Kate,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. Your exploration of internet culture is particularly interesting in that you highlight the lack of privacy surrounding grief and the way that internet culture co-opts the grieving process. In an age where we are always within viewing distance of a screen, strangers become emotionally invested in news stories about real people and Sabrina really showcases the dangers of this.

    I agree with you that the art style really furthers the sense of isolation and emotional detachment between the characters – specifically in the case of Calvin – but I also think that the plain faces make it very easy for the reader to project what we want to see on to them which aids reader involvement in interpretation. The non-descript image of the murderer is also much more chilling in this style because he could be anyone!

    Thanks for an interesting read,
    Chelsea

  4. Hi Mary-Kate, I found your blog extremely interesting!

    Like many of the other comments, I too particularly enjoyed Sabrina’s focus on conspiracy and internet culture. I found this topic extremely relevant in today’s society, and so, found this one of the many successes of the text.

    Like Hugh, I also found the radicalisation of Teddy perhaps the most unsettling aspects of the book. The fact that it was a radio-show that was the catalyst for his radicalisation, emphasises how easily this process can occur in our own world. This is entirely plausible when one thinks of news reports of how young people become radicalised to terror groups due to the internet, for example.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

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