Alternative Explanations: Nick Drnaso Interviewed by ​Elena Goukassian

The graphic novelist on conspiracy theories, writing depressed characters, and telling a story for our times. 

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Earlier this year, Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina (Drawn & Quarterly) became the first ever graphic novel to appear on the long list for the Man Booker Prize. Drnaso, who is based in Chicago, has mixed feelings about the whole thing. After all, his second graphic novel is rather distressing. The titular character suddenly vanishes, and much of Sabrina seeks to unravel the motives behind her abductor’s actions, as well as the web of associated conspiracy theories that form as a result of her disappearance. The graphic novel winds itself around Sabrina’s boyfriend, Teddy, who seeks to escape reality (with limited success) by running away to Colorado to stay with Calvin, a childhood friend who works for the Air Force. It’s a very timely story, melding the themes of hysteria and the influences of fake news and social media—with the voice of an eerily familiar, inflammatory right-wing radio talk show host playing a rather large role. Sabrina is fantastic, one of the most engaging graphic novels I’ve read in years, not only for its exploration of humanity in the digital age, but also for its almost film-like visual style.

—Elena Goukassian

Elena Goukassian In previous interviews, you’ve said that Sabrina was, at least in part, a result of your own feelings of anxiety and paranoia, and specifically nightmares you were having a few years ago about abduction. Was the process of making the book therapeutic at all?

Nick DrnasoThose feelings came up towards the end of 2014, as I was finishing my first book, Beverly. Unfortunately, the process of making Sabrina only seemed to exacerbate them. It was kind of unavoidable, because I had to actively play out and think through scenarios that I found particularly terrifying. And in the process of doing research for this kind of subject matter, I had to read pretty deeply into topics like the Sandy Hook shooting or an Isis beheading, stuff that is truly depressing and horrifying. I guess I’m better now, but I’ve always dealt with a kind of generalized anxiety, so my worries have shifted to other things.

EG One of the main through-lines of Sabrina is the problematic nature of conspiracy theories, and you cite a lot of them, some so far-fetched (like the victims of Sandy Hook and the Boston Marathon bombing secretly living on a “black site” on the Palmyra Atoll) that they seem both humorous and deeply disturbing. What are some other conspiracies you came across in your research that didn’t make it into the story?

NDThe Palmyra Atoll theory in the book was completely made up, though of course you can find variations on the “black site” conspiracy theory that are similar to that. I wanted to try to show the comfort that certain alternative explanations bring to people who need to find comfort in things that are unsettling, like the thought that you could be killed at work or school for no reason. I don’t know. My stock response is that my curiosity for the subject was the impetus for the book, but I haven’t reached any solid conclusion or a tidy thesis about any of it.

EG Did you listen to a lot of talk radio while making Sabrina? And, in general, why do you think these kinds of programs are so persuasive to so many people?

ND The Alex Jones comparison I guess is pretty apparent, to the point where some people assume it basically is Alex Jones without calling him by name. That might have been a miscalculation in the writing on my part, but I couldn’t have predicted the surge in notoriety he would get as I was finishing the book. The radio host in the book, at least the voice I heard in my head, is actually closer to Art Bell or George Noory. More hostile, certainly, but with the same kind of vulnerability they had/have.

As for the larger shifts and trends of the past few years, again, those things are way too overwhelming for me to explain, and weren’t really on my mind in relation to Sabrina. I had the thought after the election of Trump that these shifts seem to correspond to the length of a human life, and I found a book that has pretty much the same theory called The Fourth Turning. The authors lay out a cyclical time frame of eighty years, broken down into four phases, and make a pretty effective case that these shifts are natural and predictable. The idea is that each new generation will mold themselves in reaction to the one before, and not realize they are repeating the same patterns over and over. It came out in the mid-1990s and their premonitions about the early twenty-first century are pretty spooky. Weirdly, it’s supposedly one of Steve Bannon’s favorite books.

EG Why did you choose radio as the medium for the conspiracy theorist talk show? Why not TV or the internet? I read in a recent interview that you, personally, don’t have a smartphone.

ND I had to figure out a way that Teddy would only get a sliver of information from the outside world, and an AM radio in his bedroom seemed to be the most fitting solution. I already had to reference the internet and smartphones quite a bit in the book, simply because they are ubiquitous and unavoidable, but with his storyline I needed to enhance the isolation and create a more narrow, claustrophobic situation.

I’m not sure if I’m similar at all to Teddy, because I don’t know how I would react in his situation [losing someone he loved]. I remember being uncomfortable even trying to depict someone who is experiencing grief like that, this feeling that the grief was not my own and that I can’t even step inside it for the sake of fiction. I think that is why he is so blank and essentially has no personality.

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EG You’ve mentioned that you largely based the Calvin character on a friend in Colorado, and that you hadn’t heard from him yet, but you hope he didn’t mind that you used parts of his story for the book. Have you heard from him? Did he like the book?

NDHe’s one of my oldest and closest friends. He’s actually out of the Air Force and living back in Chicago. Ironically, when I was going through a pretty hard time last summer, he would come up to my house and just sit around and keep me company, almost like the relationship between Calvin and Teddy. I’m not sure if he finished the book or what he honestly thinks of it. I’ve been meaning to have a conversation with him about it, but I don’t want to put too much expectation on his reaction.

EG There’s a lot of pain and grief in Sabrina, much of it portrayed through blank facial expressions, and a saturation of words (from the radio, for example) often followed by total silence, as the characters eat a meal without speaking, wander around their houses, or curl up in a ball on the floor. How did you find the balance between portraying the suffering and keeping the reader from putting the book down because it’s too depressing?

ND That was a constant worry. I was actually certain that the book would just be too depressing, because I found that even I was depressed by much of it. I guess those digressions seemed necessary even for myself as I was writing, and I just hoped a reader was sharing that feeling and needed what I thought of as these “cooling off” sequences as much as I did. I thought if there was a scene with an abrasive tirade from a radio host or someone on the internet, then to follow it with a quiet sequence in a diner or something mundane would be a nice balance.

EG I love the little details in Sabrina, especially the ones specific to the Midwest, like how Sabrina’s house looks vaguely like a Frank Lloyd Wright house and the In Cold Blood reference at the beginning. How are these details important to the larger story? And to the midwestern atmosphere, both aesthetic and cultural?

ND Sabrina’s parents’ house is a standard 1920s Chicago bungalow, which are everywhere in the city and especially my neighborhood. That house was drawn from my friend Ivan Brunetti’s house, and I live in an apartment in a house that is almost identical, so it wasn’t a very creative decision; I just like those houses and they are what I see every day. I tried to avoid direct references because that can seem like a cheap and easy ploy to create some kind of recognition, but hopefully there would be a sense that the scenery felt like the places I was trying to depict.

EG What inspires you visually?

NDI try to take visual ideas from real places as much as possible, though of course there are cartooning influences that will always be apparent. Lately I’ve been trying to transpose feelings from certain things into completely unrelated other things. That sounds like art-talk nonsense; all I mean is that I might flip through an old department store catalog, and the color scheme of a dress might bring to mind a room, and a scenario in a room, and then I’ve arrived at this idea seemingly out of thin air.

EG Tell me a little bit about your drawing process. Did the drawings come first or was the story process mostly simultaneous?

ND I write out a script a little bit at a time as I’m drawing the book, so the storyline and the writing are worked out before I start drawing, and those two things move along at the same pace, with the writing just a little bit ahead of the drawing. I work out the compositions on the fly as I’m drawing, depending on what makes sense in a given scene, where to place the characters in a room, how they move around the room, when to close in on a face—things like that. Depicting the internet in some form was unavoidable for this type of story, so it was really just a matter of figuring out how to break down text and fit it into the grid of the book.

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EGSabrina is the most engrossing graphic novel I’ve read in a long time, and I feel a lot of that has to do with the almost movie-like suspense, where the characters’ paranoia slowly rubs off on the reader. You’ve said in the past that your comics are influenced by film. Which films specifically, if you can name them? Would you ever consider turning Sabrina into a movie?

ND Thanks, that’s very flattering. I’m not sure if there were specific movies in mind; I think I just meant that my history with movies and TV goes back deeper into my childhood than comics. I’ve always responded to the visuals in the movie Elephant by Alan Clarke. Come to think of it, the fraught rekindled friendship could have been inspired by Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. I love that movie.

EG You’ve said that when you finished Sabrina in April 2017, you didn’t want to publish it, because you felt it was too negative (at least partly because you accidentally predicted a pretty bleak near-future). What made you change your mind to publish? Did you end up changing the story at all?

ND Those negative feelings about the book and the subject matter became so overwhelming that at the time it really seemed like my only option. Some things I had drawn in the past now make me very ashamed and uncomfortable, so I was experiencing quite a bit of self-hatred about that, and I didn’t want to put out anything with my name on it. I guess I’ve come around, but it was a real crossroads where I didn’t see much of a future.

To answer the second part of your question, I did have some reassuring conversations with some friends at the publisher, and when I decided to complete the book, I spent that summer taking out certain things and adding other scenes. It was all for the best and that period of doubt and anguish probably did help the book.

EGIn light of your apprehension to publish, how do you feel about the book’s success?

NDI was hoping it would just be another comic that would circulate among the small subculture that’s interested in these types of books, so in a sense I’m wary of something like a New York Times review or this very interview. It’s not like it’s setting the world on fire, but it has certainly gone beyond where I thought it would. I take all of that with a grain of salt, though.

Elena Goukassian is an arts writer based in Brooklyn. She writes about art, theater, books, music, film, architecture, and dance. She’s also a huge fan of digging through archives and uncovering unusual histories. Her pieces have recently appeared in The Art Newspaper, Atlas Obscura, The Calvert Journal, Artsy, and Hyperallergic.

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