“Scathing and heartbreaking in equal proportion” – Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

sndSabrina is the absence at the heart of Nick Drnaso’s second book, a young woman abducted and murdered off-screen, the effect of which plays out in the lives of a handful of disparate characters: there is Sandra, her sister; Teddy, her boyfriend; Calvin, a childhood friend Teddy moves in with. Calvin and Teddy haven’t seen each other in years and Calvin is having problems of his own (his wife has just left him, taken their daughter, moved back in with her folks – and the two of them are trying to decide if the separation is temporary or permanent) – but he’s a good, well-meaning guy, wants to help, even if Teddy is almost vacuum-packed with grief.

Drnaso’s art is pitched mid-way between that of Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. Like Tomine, he uses occasionally flat, muted pastels, to fashion a world that feels realistic, a not too distant neighbour to our own; like Ware, he uses frames composed of larger and smaller blocks. No two pages are the same. Sometimes, we wordlessly follow people as they go through their respective motions. Sometimes frames are used to show us an excerpt of other frames (screens, for instance). This is a boxed in world. His storytelling, however, is audacious and modern. Sabrina is an attempt to hold up a mirror to the world in which we live and it’s scathing and heartbreaking in equal proportion.

At first it is Teddy but later Calvin who becomes aware of the things that are being said: that Sabrina was fake, didn’t exist, couldn’t have died, that Teddy and Sandra and Calvin are actors in the employ of some shadowy cabal who use disasters and murders to further their dark ends. We’re privy to things that get said on the radio, to things that are said online, to the paranoia words engender in every day life, in casual exchanges with strangers in petrol stations. You read and you think these people are crazy and then you look up and you look about you and you see these people in the world around you and you despair. The reality of fake news. Where you can dismiss anything that feels uncomfortable to you, where you can troll anonymously, where you can heap abuse on people. This world in which we find ourselves. Drnaso does a tremendous job of unpicking the painful way in which people are compelled to look, even when they don’t want to, even when they know it can only be bad (and it’s always bad).

You read Sabrina and you think: we should all do better. This is the gift that Sabrina urges on you. Step outside of your echo chamber. Hide your radio. Think about the future. Do the right thing. These are all takeaways from the book. Which makes Sabrina feel urgent and important. Because the fact is – the problem is not other people. It’s you and it’s me. If you’re right and you think you are right, doubt yourself. If you’re right and you think you are right, you’re probably wrong. The world, it seems, is full of people who think they are right. Right about Brexit, right about Trump, right about the world being flat and the moon landings being fake. Right about immigration, right about the tyranny of men, right about what the country or the world needs, right about any subject you’d care to mention. Conviction, it seems, is the new ignorance.

Nowhere is this better seen in Sabrina than in an exchange that takes place towards the ndsend of the book, as Sandra turns on Teddy. Each of them is dealing with their grief in the only way they know how – but Sandra comes to believe Teddy is not grieving, despite the fact she hasn’t seen or heard from him (because she hasn’t seen or heard from him). Sandra needs Teddy to be a certain way and because he isn’t that way he is condemned. Condemned for doing nothing. (And it’s nothing against Sandra – she is hurting and lashing out and dealing in her own way – Drnaso isn’t picking a side.) It has you thinking about Jon Ronson’s most recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. As with Ronson’s book, Sabrina stays with you, leaves you mulling, genuinely frightens you with its truth. This is what books should be shouting about.

Any Cop?: A real knockout. Alarming and upsetting and moving and rich. Without a doubt, one of the standout graphic novels of 2018.


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