A few weeks ago, I read a truly unnerving graphic novel called Sabrina, recently published by Drawn & Quarterly. Its quiet spell hasn’t waned yet. Focusing on a man whose girlfriend has ostensibly been murdered, and the fraught aftermath of that awful event, the book plunges the reader into a netherworld of personal isolation, paranoia, and Internet rabbit holes, as Newtown-type denialists seize upon the tragedy. As such, it’s a highly American book, though author Nick Drnaso made clear that it isn’t meant to be taken as a statement on our current political predicament. I chatted with him over email about the book’s minimalist art, its inquiry into the nature and appeal of conspiracy theories, and the dark period that led to its inception.
This graphic novel does such an incredible job of simulating the feeling of spiraling down an Internet rabbit hole. But the Internet, by its nature, feels infinite, or at least frighteningly indefinite, whereas your book is so tightly put together, therefore extremely finite. I’m wondering how you thought about representing the feeling of spiraling down an infinite digital hole in a finite print medium. Also, the proliferation of comments and videos online is so fast that it seems effortless — that’s why the metaphor of a virus is so apt — whereas the work of creating a graphic novel is so painstaking and slow. Did this mismatch in timeframes and permanence lend your project a unique energy?
I’m not sure if there was really any energy being absorbed from the subject matter; it actually felt like a slog at times, maybe because there were an infinite number of paths to choose. Then again, that’s true of any given moment in any story. At times, I felt ambivalent about depicting the digital world in a printed book, but I actually enjoyed working on those pages in particular. I knew it was going to have to be addressed in some way, since the Internet is such a part of daily life and that’s how news is shared and consumed. I was kind of dreading it and thinking maybe it wasn’t going to work in the format of a comic.
On a related note, the conspiracy theories that your characters fall into are highly baroque — they keep adding details and characters and coincidences, and so on — whereas your art is so restrained, even muted. How did you think about playing these two aspects off each other?
It’s maybe the reason why the main characters ended up being somewhat one-dimensional, even doll-like, at times. As I was working out how to depict a lot of these things, it just seemed fitting to have the main characters be kind of neutral as all of this chaos is swirling around them. I had a feeling that the story was potentially overbearing at times, so I allowed myself these digressions or “cooling off” periods that maybe weren’t justified, but to me seemed necessary to balance out the story.
That balance certainly comes through. The baroque and the muted are a very fitting juxtaposition narratively as well: since the lives of the characters are so empty, it makes sense that they’d seek anything at all to fill them with. Which came first — the ‘real’ world, or the conspiracy world? Or did each necessitate the other?
You mean as I was writing the story? I didn’t have enough awareness to really think in those terms. It was such a feeling-around-in-the-dark process that sometimes I don’t know how to articulate my thought-process. I guess the juxtaposition between a beige townhouse in a quiet neighborhood and the horror at the center of the story was on my mind. There was a thought that those two things would pair up in an interesting way. Then again, that’s such a trope of true-crime TV and horror movies that it probably doesn’t serve me to mention it.
Speaking more generally, what is your overall feeling about conspiracy theories, either in terms of whatever grains of truth they might contain, or the role they play in our society? I’ve always seen them as a kind of religious yearning — a desire to believe that some order, even if it’s a sinister order, is controlling things, rather than total chaos. Does this resonate with you? If not, how do you understand their enduring appeal?
Religion and conspiracy theories are not similar in every way, or even most ways, I just think that aggressive certainty and insisting on knowing the truth is a weird parallel that you also see in some religions, not all, though. It’s not hard to understand the appeal of wanting to know something that’s a secret — that’s all it comes down to. And there are real conspiracies, there is real abuse of power, so I don’t choose to think of anyone looking for an alternative explanation as a fool. If anything, it’s frustrating that it could be a noble thing, but the loudest and crudest voices get all the attention. Maybe my book fails to address that, in that regard, but you can’t cover a subject totally.
I was especially intrigued by your decision to have one of the characters working for the military, where he’s sort of creeping up to the edge of finding out whether any of these conspiracies are true. How did that element come in, and how did you work with the idea of suggesting that maybe some of this is real? I certainly think it lends the book more drama and complexity.
The superficial details of that character were borrowed from a friend who I thought I could stay with if my life ever fell apart. It was easy to imagine that kind of arrangement, and I went to visit him in Colorado Springs to get some background and take photos before I started the book. At the time, though, all of the stuff that emerged later in the story wasn’t worked out. I just thought there would be these few ingredients to the story that I would figure out how to blend later.
This is obviously a very timely book. As you were working on it, what was your thought process regarding the intersection of art and politics in our era? What effect do you hope this book will have, and/or what kinds of conversations do you hope it will provoke?
It truly wasn’t meant to be timely at all, or some kind of political statement. I actually don’t feel qualified to talk about most of these topics, which is why I made a book to mull them over in private. I don’t really know what to say about the result, or what I imagine the reading experience will be. It’s something that was on my mind constantly as I was working on it, but it weirdly went away now that the book is finished.
In that case, it sounds like the political aspect wasn’t the germ that got the whole project started. What was? What led you into the world that you eventually developed in this book?
It just felt like a very personal exercise. I was experiencing a lot of paranoid fears at the time, so the main elements of the story came out of that state of mind. I’m kind of terrified that it’s being pegged as some kind of political statement, because again, I certainly didn’t have politics on my mind, and I think that even though some of the themes in the book are aligned with certain political ideologies, I’ll still gently maintain that it’s not a book about politics at all, at least to me.
All artwork by Nick Drnaso, courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.