It’s not every day that Zadie Smith declares a graphic novel a “masterpiece”. You can, therefore, imagine our intrigue when we were sent Nick Drnaso’s latest graphic novel Sabrina, which was described as “the best book” Zadie had read about “our current moment”.
Sabrina tells the tale of the eponymous character’s mysterious disappearance and the subsequent social media storm, fake news frenzy and conspiracy theory blow-up that it triggers. “I was experiencing some paranoid fears towards the end of 2014 as I was thinking about what to do after finishing my first book, Beverly,” Chicago-based artist Nick Drnaso tells It’s Nice That. “These hypothetical worries ended up becoming the basic impetus for Sabrina. The tie-in with the character Calvin who lives in Colorado was based loosely on a relationship with one of my oldest and best friends. I took a train to his home to take the reference photos that I used to draw some of the book.”
The apocalyptic tale may span 203 pages but the bleak storyline remains persuasive throughout. This is in part due to Nick’s immaculate drawings and his unwavering dedication to his aesthetic style. From colour-filled, busy playgrounds to bland, under-furnished kitchens, Nick’s signature style is unshakable. “My drawings aren’t very detailed but there is a cohesive realism to them. It never felt right to betray those principles, as an exaggerated example, if I was to have smoke come out of a character’s ears or suddenly have them balloon in size. It seemed natural to have the images be understated,” Nick says. It is this visual subtlety that lends the graphic novel its power. Sabrina is, in many ways, a critique on the despondency that develops from hours spent scrolling through social media, a critique that is strengthened by Nick’s deadpan graphics.
Sabrina is made all the more coherent by Nick’s restrictive use of colours. The muted tones and, at times, monochromatic spreads render the timely topic all the more powerful. “The hues are taken from “swatches” of marker colours that I scan into the computer and drop in place. I’ve been using that method for a number of years. Before that, I would colour a given page with markers on a separate piece of paper over a lightbox and combine them on the computer. That became very expensive, tedious and time-consuming,” Nick explains. With the articulate storyline and expertly executed visuals in mind, it is surprising to hear the artist admit he had only a vague plot in mind to begin with. Instead, the story evolved with time as Nick experimented with various scenes and scenarios.
After winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Beverly, Nick felt the pressure while he was illustrating and writing Sabrina. “I thought at least both of these books would make kind of a set when they were finished and sitting on a shelf, and the thought to give them seven-letter female names and designing the covers and the spines similarly came later.”