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.
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.
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.
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.
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