Environments and backdrops throughout cartoonist Nick Drnaso’s second graphic novel, Sabrina, are rendered with a geometric sterility that some might mistake for simple, without shading and in the same line thickness throughout. Characters rarely express signs of emotions, their faces reflecting the stoicism of actors performing their roles in the service of an expectant audience. A steadfast calm, even in the face of overwhelming anxiety; if the airline industry were ever to publish their own graphic novel, it might look something like this.
The impression that Drnaso’s spartan artwork, coupled with dialogue that feels intimately personal, is to make the reader more voyeur than observer, granting them a sense of entitlement over lives that should be private when put in situations demanding sympathy and nuance. At its core, Sabrina is an exploration of loss, both physical and existential, and the devastating effects it can have on those drafted into events beyond their control.
Sabrina, a young woman living in Chicago, suddenly goes missing, without a trace. Her disappearance sets into motion a ripple effect of events that affect not just those close to her, but anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in the cascades. Travis, Sabrina’s distraught boyfriend, goes to stay in Colorado with high school friend Calvin Wrobel, an air force boundary technician working for the Department of Defense. Calvin spends countless hours scouring online networks and firewalls for breachable issues, a position that exposes him to content so disturbing that it requires periodic psychological evaluations – all self-administered.
Teddy is left almost catatonic by the loss of Sabrina, spending his time in little more than underwear and practically immobile. He eventually finds solace in the hum of a talk radio host more than happy to share conspiracy theories and anodyne rationalizations for his self-inflicted loneliness, none of which rise much above the level of quackery and shenanigans. But for Teddy, desperate for answers – any answers – he’ll take whatever he can get.
Things deteriorate further when a VHS tape confirming Sabrina’s murder arrives in the mail, eventually finding its way online and across the file-sharing universe. It becomes a national sensation as both the murder – and murderer – become trending topics, earning their own hashtags alongside #SalmonRecall and #TheAvengers.
It’s not long before even Calvin, as a government contractor, becomes the focus of online conspiracy trolls, subjected to harassment both online and off. Some begin to question if there was even a murder to begin with. His inbox becomes filled with incendiary messages while his picture is scrutinized by strangers who compare his likeness to a famous sitcom star? I’m not sure what’s more depressing: that some readers will come to learn the term “crisis actor”, or that so many will already know it.
There’s an astonishing irony in that so many who decry “FAKE NEWS!” on social media, blogs and, sadly, mainstream news outlets are themselves most guilty of perpetuating actual ‘fake news’, if only by disseminating crackpot theories and political preferences over critical analysis. As one faction competes against the other in some bizarro quest for digital supremacy once cherished ideals such as “truth” and “facts” become acceptable collateral damage in the battle for ratings, followers, and retweets. Is it any wonder that so many have turned to ‘alternative sources’ for their information?
As consumers we’ve been socially stratified and cataloged with shocking accuracy, our browsing habits and private lives quantified with such imperceptible precision that Big Tech needed to create entirely new measurement systems to keep track of all that precious datum. One needs only flick on the TV or open a browser to experience how social media has largely become a crass amalgamation of tabloidism and schlocky reality television, pulling anything or anyone into its predatory maw deemed viral-ready.
People with thoughts or feelings once naturally scattered by life’s incoherence – and limited reach of zines and mailing lists – have behaved exactly as a good network theorist could have predicted; they connected, spawning entirely new groups and subcultures upon subcultures. Once marginalized from society, their size and influence would expand almost exactly at the same rate ‘normal’ society would continue to label them ‘fringe’; there’s no telling just how far down the rabbit hole goes, no colored pill leading any of us to ‘right’ conclusion anymore.
What were we expecting from all this connectedness, anyway? That it would be all vacation snaps and kitten videos? Cruise over to the net’s darkest shadows and you’re just as likely to get death threats as recipes for grandma’s chicken soup, probably from the same person. If it’s Edward R. Murrow versus Jerry Springer, who did you think would come out on top?
Early in the book Sabrina’s sister notices a bowl of red apples on the kitchen table, surprised to discover they’re fakes. “I repainted them. Don’t they look real?” she tells her. How many of us would choose the pretense of security and perfection over even the slightest possibility that we’ve lost control of our very existence? An apple painted red may be inedible, but at least it’ll never rot. You’ll starve to death, but at least it’ll be on your own terms.
I’m not entirely convinced this was the message Nick Drnaso intended when sitting down to draft what would become Sabrina, but there’s no escaping the fact that being completely connected makes us all participants, whether we like it or not. There’s a maturity on display that makes me excited yet terrified for what might come next, as much of today’s commerati have shown themselves incapable of properly analyzing the current culture with any degree of accuracy or honesty. It would be a shame to see him succumb to this same conclusions so many have.
While Drnaso never feels like he’s exploiting the wild west of the internet’s nastiest netizens, it’s easy to imagine a delusional critic quick to distinguish the behavior of “them” from their own, without a trace of irony. Most of us, I hope, would recognize how all-too-easy it can be to fall for the seductions of disenfranchisement, that an overwhelming feeling of freedom can be, paradoxically, overwhelming suffocating.