Soon after high school, Drnaso had had a serious girlfriend, but after they broke up he avoided anything that might lead to rejection or a date. “I sequestered myself,” he told me. “I was just very numb.” In 2012, he left his concert-arena job to work as a janitor at the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. One day, a young woman who cut the store’s fresh flowers, Sarah Leitten, spotted him reading “Alias the Cat,” a graphic novel by Kim Deitch. Drnaso, in turn, noticed that Leitten was reading John Porcellino’s “Perfect Example,” which chronicles the cartoonist’s final discontent summer in a suburban Illinois town. They began to chat, and Leitten noted that she liked to draw.
She asked him to go to the movies, and they went to see “Cremaster 3,” a queasy three-hour art film by Matthew Barney. They also exchanged their own comics. Leitten, who had trained at the Cleveland Institute of Art, gave him a zine, “Discovery Tales,” which included “Custard’s Last Sit,” a one-panel gag depicting an ice-cream cone, on a chair, melting in the sun. It was an example of the “dumb stoner humor” that she enjoyed. His gift was eight pages long and included a twelve-panel comic called “Ax to Grind,” about a spooky co-worker. Leitten told me that, until then, she had gone out only with musicians, “mostly all assholes,” and was immediately taken with Drnaso’s thoughtful reserve. Drnaso was excited to meet someone so cheerful and candid. She soon told him that she had been abused as a child, but he did not reveal what had happened to him. Soon, they were seriously dating.
The relationship brought Drnaso joy but also worry. He spent his days drawing in his apartment office—a bedroom closet—and he’d become dependent on knowing that he’d see Leitten when he was done. He remembers feeling that his reliance on her had become “cowardly.” And what if disaster struck? How would he manage without her? “There was just this black cloud that hung over it—that something terrible could happen,” he told me. Partly in an effort to sublimate these fears, he began working on a story about a young man whose girlfriend, named Sabrina, vanishes while walking home from work.
Two of the first panels he drew were of the young man, Teddy, in closeup. Teddy was being driven by his friend Calvin, a cybersecurity specialist in the Air Force, to Calvin’s home, in Colorado Springs. Teddy’s eyes were slits of pain, and his heavily furrowed brow further telegraphed his agony. Drnaso wasn’t happy with the drawing. “I was obviously trying to leap into the heartache on page 1,” he told me. “It just looked forced and melodramatic.” He moved the panel to later in the book and streamlined the figures’ expressions. “Adding more detail to make someone seem more human isn’t necessarily effective,” he said. Teddy’s nose became a line, his eyes dots. Worry was now an affectless despair. Drnaso also severely restricted his color palette. Some panels in “Beverly” evoked David Hockney; now every hue was dull. The blue sky that originally accompanied Teddy and Calvin on their drive through Colorado Springs became the toxic yellow of a washed-out sunset. The only characters who had vivid features were those shown in news clips or online, as if people came to life only onscreen. Drnaso even subjected his backdrops to this ethic of subtraction: “If there is a gas station in a comic, usually you see four cars. In ‘Sabrina,’ there are no cars.”
Drnaso wasn’t certain where “Sabrina” would end, but he completed two to three pages a week—a good clip for him. He felt excited by his visual choices. He loved populating the book with men in camouflage—“little green Army men,” he calls them—because their uniforms stood out against the drab background of the air base where Calvin works. “I liked the contrast of the white austere office building and their wearing these fatigues that you associate with heroism and combat,” he told me. He based his drawings of Calvin’s house—nondescript furniture, dunes of laundry—on photographs he had taken while visiting the house of a friend who works at Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado Springs. Drnaso had to imagine the inside of the air base, because he wasn’t allowed to visit. He is obsessed with getting visual details right, and he was disappointed, after publication, when his friend told him that no self-respecting airman would have a tattoo with his branch’s insignia, as Calvin has in the book.
Because Drnaso avoids visual clutter in “Sabrina,” any object that he includes feels freighted with import. An attuned reader will notice that, in a corridor at the base where Calvin has a confrontation with a scheming colleague, there is a tiny gray square where a wall meets the ceiling. “That’s the one place where the security cameras are pronounced,” Drnaso told me. “It’s a suggestion that they’re not the only two people in that corridor.”
In 2014, Drnaso had watched videos that Elliot Rodger had recorded before going on a shooting rampage at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Drnaso told me, “I guess you can’t really blame people’s curiosity in wanting to understand the life of the person who committed the heinous act more than the people who happened to just fall victim.” That tension felt unique to this moment in history, and gave him another idea for his story. He decided that Sabrina would be murdered by someone like Rodger: a men’s-rights activist and a misogynist.
Drnaso had also followed the Sandy Hook massacre and the appalling conspiracy theories it had spawned—in particular, the idea that the shooting was a fake event concocted by gun-control activists. In the book, the pain felt by Teddy and by Sabrina’s family gets repeatedly lanced by strangers online who refuse to acknowledge that her killing really happened. As part of Drnaso’s research for “Sabrina,” he listened to podcasts of “Infowars,” the extremist radio show hosted by Alex Jones. The words of Jones and his guests were repellent, but they told a story, and he could imagine how even their distorted world views could provide listeners with a perverse consolation. In one of the more arresting turns in “Sabrina,” Teddy wanders around Calvin’s house, looking for a way to kill himself, and comes across a radio; he begins listening to an “Infowars”-style broadcast. He is strangely comforted by the host’s heartless speculation about Sabrina’s death—it mirrors his own numbness.
Drnaso finished his draft in the spring of 2017. He had created a comic whose drab tonalities and deliberate slowness challenged a genre that leans toward the overheated. Reading “Sabrina” feels almost like an antidote to the hectic Web sites its characters are so immersed in: some pages are simply panels of a character getting wordlessly into his car and going from one undistinguished place to another. Most of the panels have only one character in them, and are subtle in their virtuosity. One scene is presented from the point of view of laptop cameras, as Calvin and his daughter, who is in Florida, have a video chat. Calvin’s unspoken hope for connection is expressed by the way he grows larger from one panel to the next—he is leaning into his screen. When his daughter loses interest and walks away, Calvin sits back, and looks literally deflated. Effects like these impressed Drnaso’s fellow-cartoonists. Roz Chast told me that he “gets across a mood that’s very unsettling, in a way that I’ve never quite come across before, at least in graphic novels.”
Like the best fiction, “Sabrina” makes you do the work of understanding the story. Sometimes it takes several pages before you apprehend how a new section fits with those which came before. It never condescends to its characters—to their unfashionable haircuts, soft bodies, and modest ambitions. When Calvin praises a microbrew for its “cool packaging” or suggests to his devastated friend that he might consider a law-enforcement career, as a way to turn “grief into something positive,” the tone is sincere.
Drnaso was ready to send the completed “Sabrina” to Drawn Quarterly. But he suddenly became overwhelmed by the thought that the story was irredeemably lurid. He had recently come back from a writing retreat—his first time without Sarah in more than three years—and felt destabilized. Donald Trump had just taken office, and the grotesque elements of “Sabrina” felt different. Drnaso told me, “I began to think that there was no point in putting something like this out in a world that’s drowning in negative subject matter.”
He had depicted the murder as a four-page sequence. In the first three pages, the men’s-rights activist rants about how society has wronged him. On the fourth page, the man methodically stabs Sabrina to death, with a detachment consistent with the rest of the book. Drnaso had been able to draw Sabrina’s murder only after getting drunk. He wondered if reading these pages would be any different from going online and watching an isis murder video or, as he had once done, looking at forensic photographs of Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment. As a teen-ager, he had watched “Faces of Death”—a video compilation of beheadings and electrocutions—at a friend’s house, and he had never forgotten it. Now, with “Sabrina,” he concluded that he had created a poisonous book out of our poisoned times. “It’s not going to be healthy for anyone to read this,” he told himself. He e-mailed his editor and said that he did not want “Sabrina” to be read by the public.
“I made the decision not to publish,” Drnaso remembers. “And then really sunk.” He stopped drawing. He resumed smoking. His domestic happiness felt false. He said, “I had this thought that Sarah would do better without me, that I was not going to be a good presence in her life, and that I should probably just make a clean break.”
During this period, his memories of being molested came flooding back, overwhelming him. The fact that his parents had been kind and nurturing made it somehow harder to face the truth—he didn’t want his childhood to be defined by abuse. He contemplated suicide. “It was just me wanting to unplug,” he recalled. “As if I could cryogenically freeze my body for a few years and block it all out.” Leitten was patient with him. “I was dealing with so much self-loathing,” Drnaso recalled. “I didn’t want to be the wounded animal. I just sat there and ruminated for eighteen hours a day, and she just waited it out.” Leitten sat with him on the couch and comforted and hugged him. “I would just sit quietly and be present with him,” she said. “There was a lot of that.”
Drnaso’s internist sent him to an in-patient facility, but when he got there he refused to go in. Finally, he went to a therapist. He had no health insurance, and so after his Medicaid ran out she gave him a discounted rate. He started taking the antidepressant citalopram, and began to feel more stable. Drnaso finally told Sarah and his parents about the abuse. They were all supportive.
His crisis lasted more than a month. During that time, he saw the isolation and the shame of his characters in a more autobiographical light. Tyler, the boy in “The Lil’ King,” with his rage and self-doubt, now reminded him of his younger self. Drnaso revisited “Sabrina,” and decided that he could publish the book after all, if he removed the murder scene and added small moments of grace—including several panels in which Sabrina’s sister talks about her trauma, at an open-mike night in a café. Drnaso decided to give his royalties from the first printing to a few charities, including Camfed, a nonprofit that provides education to girls in rural sub-Saharan Africa. (Tracy Hurren, his editor at Drawn Quarterly, recalled that she wasn’t entirely comfortable with this plan, because “we knew he needed the money.”) Drnaso also made a few changes to his drawings. He had never liked the way he’d drawn the face of Sabrina in the first panel of the story—she looked absent-mindedly content. He modified the curve of her mouth and gave her eyes an alert look, so that she seemed more like a deer sniffing danger.
Finally, he created a flowery back cover in a palette that is much brighter than the rest of the book. For Drnaso, the image is both a memorial to Sabrina and a tribute to Leitten, who by this time was working at a local flower shop. (In 2018, she became its co-owner.) The back-cover image was a painting on glass, which takes much longer than an ordinary panel to create. Leitten remembers Drnaso’s work on the glass painting as one of the key points in his recovery. “I think it was really good for him,” she said. Drnaso told me, “It felt like a sense of finality—to paint this thing that was so far removed from the content of the book.”