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Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina Captures the Anxiety of the Information Age

The cartoonist’s new graphic novel releases this month.

'Sabrina' by Nick Drnaso
Photo: Kevin Penczack

When couples move in together, the problems they encounter typically revolve around spending too much time with each other. But cartoonist Nick Drnaso had the opposite experience—he’d grow anxious whenever his girlfriend left their apartment. “I was just really paranoid,” he says. “Even when she would go to work, I was convinced something bad was going to happen.”

'Sabrina' by Nick Drnaso
Photo: Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

Drnaso’s preoccupations tend to inform his work, and the Old Irving Park resident, 29, used this one as a jumping-off point for his much-­anticipated second graphic novel, Sabrina (May 22, Drawn & Quarterly). The book begins with the disappearance of the title character, a Chicago woman, while on her way home from work. Her boyfriend, Teddy, subsequently has a nervous breakdown and flies to Colorado to stay with his high school friend, an air force officer. Most of the story takes place in the friend’s house, where an infantilized Teddy spends his time listening to a zealous radio personality who peddles conspiracy theories.

Though Sabrina is rooted in personal drama, the book is an astonishing meditation on the anxiety of post-9/11 America. A dead-on snapshot of the present day, it’s filled with news headlines about horrific violence, banal inspirational stories, and, most notably, hysterical extreme right-wing figures. Yet when Drnaso set out to write Sabrina, pundits like Alex Jones of Infowars were at the edges of political discourse. “This was a very small fringe subculture,” he says. “But it’s obviously multiplied in the recent year or two.”

As unsettling as Sabrina may be, it is never overly depressing. Part of that has to do with Drnaso’s visual style, dominated by pastel colors. But an even stronger component is his graphic novel’s resemblance to great fiction. Drnaso has a talent for writing concise, snappy dialogue and arranging images in a way that reinforces mood and setting, sometimes on pages with no text. That helps explain the glowing endorsement from British novelist Zadie Smith on Sabrina’s back cover: “The best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment.”

Teddy’s journey to Colorado is loosely based on a trip Drnaso took to visit a friend in the air force. But the author is nothing like his shell-shocked character. Around 5-foot-10 with a Larry Bird mustache, Drnaso is soft-spoken but confident in his choices, even when they’re unconventional. For one, he refuses to own a smartphone. “I like the simplicity,” he says. “I’m home; I have my computer nearby. The internet’s too close by most of the day. When I go out, I have to be out and look around.”

Panels from 'Sabrina' by Nick Drnaso
Photo: Courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly

Born and raised in Palos Hills, he briefly attended Moraine Valley Community College before transferring to Columbia College, where he studied with cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, whom Drnaso describes as “my favorite teacher and a mentor who has become one of my best friends.” Brunetti introduced him to acclaimed cartoonist and Oak Park resident Chris Ware, who showed Drnaso’s work to Drawn & Quarterly. The highly regarded Canadian publisher of comics released Drnaso’s debut, Beverly, in 2016. A series of mordantly funny interconnected stories about fantasy and disappointment, Beverly won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for best graphic novel.

Drnaso is prolific. For Beverly and Sabrina, he averaged around two pages a week, an impressive pace for any cartoonist, while also working part-time. He’s reluctant to go all in on cartooning, preferring to take flexible gigs to supplement his income. At present he works more or less when he wants at the Busy Beaver Button Company, where he packages and assembles buttons and does odd jobs around the office. His former occupation as a custodian at the Field Museum, where he spent most of the day cleaning display cases, was actually a plus when he was writing Sabrina. “I loved looking at the dioramas,” he says. “I’d have eight and a half hours by myself to just ruminate on my comics. I ended up getting a lot of work done, just there, thinking.”

Today, Drnaso still lives with his girlfriend (now fiancée) and three cats. He no longer frets about her being kidnapped. “I don’t know if it has anything to do with making the book, but I came out on the other end not having those fears anymore.”

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