Lost In America : Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina”

We live not just in turbulent times, but significant ones — the ground has shifted beneath our feet, and if you’re American, it’s fair to say that, in many respects, the facade of the country we thought we knew has slipped, and in its place stands revealed a nation that we hoped (or, at the very least, liked to kid ourselves) we weren’t. This is, indeed, a defining moment in our history — but who defines what that moment is?

Nick Drnaso, hot on the heels of his breakout 2015 debut graphic novel Beverly, is at least game to give cataloguing the contents of said moment a go in the just-released (by way, once again, of Drawn+Quarterly) Sabrina, and to call this merely a striking follow-up is to sell it well short indeed : this is a quantum leap forward that, fair enough, treads similar thematic ground to its predecessor in some respects (individual alienation, societal atomization, mental and emotional “checking out” once again looming large as primary concerns), but does so in a manner that broadens and deepens his explorations to encompass, well — damn near everything, really, both within and without. On the one hand, yeah, it’s an almost unbearably personal and introspective work, but at the same time it’s offering an unfettered and privileged glimpse at  the national, perhaps even global, psychological malaise that’s tearing the social compact apart in favor of a new, smash-and-grab mentality that leaves a few people with everything, and the rest of us (many of whom are cheering this shift on, knowingly or otherwise) holding the bag.

Oh, and that bag? It’s fucking empty, of course.

Drnaso actually started this book before a certain sleazy New York real estate developer with a history of nothing apart from failure and fraudulence was elected to the nation’s highest office and set about re-creating America in his own craven, proudly ignorant image, but the manner in which he delineates the profound disaffection that made Donald Trump’s ascendance to what he seemingly hopes to turn into a throne (and a permanent one, at that, if we’re to believe half the shit that comes out of his assho — sorry, mouth, it’s hard to tell one orifice from another when somebody shits, farts, and belches out of both ends) possible, as well his innate understanding of the crucial work that complacent media stooges (I’m looking at you Alex Jones, Mike Cernovich, Jack Posobiec, Ben Shapiro, etc.) perform in retroactively constructing a scaffolding for the more loosely-defined and directionless anger president pussy-grabber has tapped into and vocalized (think about it — first Trump says “illegal” aliens are bad, then InfoWars and Breitbart cook up stories about illusory “immigrant crime waves”) to hang itself upon shows that this is a cartoonist with more than one of his fingers on the pulse of a contemporary America made up of broken hearts, broken dreams, and broken promises. And yet —

The picture Drnaso paints (okay, draws — and damn, does he draw it well, deceptively simple shapes and figures communicating a maximum amount of visual information with a minimal amount of fuss, all overlaid with a color scheme equal parts bland and striking that hammers home the primary feature of post-modernity, that being featurelessness) is more stark, bordering on the bleak, than it is actively dark or foreboding, his characters and environs frightening by dint of their sheer familiarity. This is a world that we know well because it’s the one we’ve allowed ourselves to slide into. Got something to eat? Something to watch on TV? Then it’s all good — for now.

Until, of course, it isn’t anymore. Our title character here, introduced briefly to readers at the outset, swiftly becomes noticeable for her absence, and without wishing to delve too deeply into “spoiler” territory, it’s safe to say that said absence, and the reasons behind it, have a profound effect on her distraught boyfriend, Tommy; her free-spirited sister, Sandra; and Tommy’s old high school buddy, Calvin, an Air Force office grunt who’s riding out the last months of his enlistment and trying to make sense of where he is in life in the wake of the recent implosion of his marriage while looking after the shell-shocked remains of his former best friend, who’s crashing at his suddenly-much-emptier place, at the same time. Their stories, ostensibly set in Colorado Springs and the Chicago suburbs, should probably be fairly well-confined to their locales, but goddamn that internet — soon enough we’re just about everywhere, and touching on just about everything. Roll call : YouTube-based amateur sleuths, performance art as therapy, belligerent talk radio hosts moving from the paranoid fringes into the mainstream, misogynist “incels” turned violent, tragedy-stalking “trolls,” crime scenes recorded on cell phones and uploaded for all to see — it’s almost dizzying to even type it all out, much less consider it all in depth as Drnaso does, but he weaves it all together (along with a few tantalizing and foreboding “red herrings” along the way, like a gun that you swear to God somebody’s gonna use for some reason before all is said and done) in a manner so unassuming as to be almost nonchalant : in the wake of events that I am still taking pains not to spell out too specifically, of course all of this is what would happen next.

For all that, though, it’s worth noting — hell, it’s absolutely remarkable — that Sabrina studiously avoids not only any urge to polemicize, but to even  editorialize in any way, Drnaso’s authorial POV being as confidently no-frills and straightforward as the largely-blank expressions on his characters’ faces (a genius artistic choice that imparts each subtle change and “tic” with the power of a seismic wave). He’s all about documenting the “arcs” of his three principal players — each of whom metaphorically travels a long way (even the one that barely ever leaves his room) and somehow comes out the other end with something to live for, although its specifics never fully come into focus — with authenticity and a kind of admirable fealty. They may not be “real” people in a “real” story, but every action they take, everything happening to and around them, has the ring of absolute truth — and it’s Dranso’s unflinching commitment to conveying that truth that not only makes this the book of the year to date, but virtually guarantees, barring a miracle, that it will remain atop that lofty perch come time for 2018 to (mercifully) hit the exits.

In short, this is the most accurate snapshot you’re likely to find, not just in comics but anywhere, of where we are and who we are right the fuck now — read it and weep.

3 thoughts on “Lost In America : Nick Drnaso’s “Sabrina”

  1. Pingback: Porkins Policy Radio episode 171 Ryan Carey on Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina | Porkins Policy Review

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