Sabrina is a 2018 fiction graphic novel by Nick Drnaso, and the first ever graphic novel to make it to the longlist for the Man Booker prize. A young woman named Sabrina Gallo goes missing in Chicago, leaving her family and boyfriend, Teddy, distraught. After a month with no sign of Sabrina, her sister Sandra struggles to cope, while a grieving Teddy goes to stay with his friend Calvin in Colorado. Not long after this, VHS tapes are released to the media depicting Sabrina’s murder. The killer is identified as Timmy Yancey, who is found to have killed himself in his home after sending out the tapes. As the atrocity goes through the 24-hour news cycle and the video surfaces online the situation devolves into rampant speculation about what really happened and harassment of those associated with the victim.
The two perspective characters who get the most attention are Teddy and Calvin. The former spends most of his time chronically depressed and prone to occasional outbursts, while the latter, who works for the U.S. Airforce, struggles with his recent separation from his wife and gets caught up in some of the whirlwind around Sabrina’s murder. Calvin serves as the reader’s proxy for the whole situation, especially in the beginning. His friendship with Teddy has him at the fringes, but he’s largely an outsider like most of us are when a tragedy like this happens. It is through his online research that we learn a lot of what happened to her, as well as a lot of the speculation, something I’m sure many of us would find hard to resist doing ourselves.
As the grisly video is picked apart by people online, wild speculation comes into the picture and a vocal contingent of people believe begin to it is a false flag. Calvin makes an honest slip-up when cornered by the media that puts him under undue scrutiny and a radio host (whom Teddy constantly listens to despite it making him miserable) drums up fear and fervour around the incident using these conspiracy theories. Sandra, struggling to cope on her own and pushing away those close to her, is frequently harassed by people insisting she’s in on some big secret. Calvin soon finds himself the target of online harassment as well, including doxing and blatant threats to his safety.
The relationship that this book fosters with the reader is perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of it. While reading, it’s hard not to despise the faceless voices coming from the radio/online that spew such harmful narratives about what is clearly just a tragedy perpetrated by a troubled man. It starkly impacts the way the characters interact with other people in the real world. Relatively benign interactions become suspicious and one can’t help but begin to suspect if everybody is as out to get the characters as online dialogue suggests. Related to this, as readers, it’s hard not become akin to that collective of online voices ourselves.
Much of the story is reading between the lines. We primarily get our information from what we see in the panels and what people are saying. What dominates many scenes is complete silence, or pregnant pauses when conversations awkwardly trail off. It is hard not to start reading meaning into the mundane actions that nebulously unfold before us. We are never conclusively told Teddy has done anything wrong, for instance, but it is hard not to wonder if he may have been involved. He has completely removed himself from Chicago and shows no support for Sabrina’s family. What is clearly a man broken down by grief could equally be interpreted as someone wracked by guilt. We only have this small window, however, and are scrutinizing and injecting meaning just as the outsiders in the story do as they watch Sabrina’s murder over and over.
Drnaso’s art is minimalistic in an effective way. The paneling is fairly simplistic, using different sized squares and rectangles laid in grid patterns that really lends to the idea that the reader has more of a voyeuristic perspective into these people’s experiences. The characters are also abstract enough, while still being distinct, that you feel like they could be anybody. Their expressions are subtle, sometimes making it so interpretation of an individual panel could vary from person to person. That being said, there was one aspect of the art that bothered me. Occasionally the characters appear to have small contented smiles when, contextually, I can’t imagine them possibly feeling this way. I suspect this was meant to be a more neutral expression, but I couldn’t help reading these faces that way and it often hurt immersion for me a little.
Despite being centred on a murder, Drnaso crafts a truly haunting story that doesn’t depict any violence on the page. Instead, Sabrina showcases the darker effects social media has on public discourse and the weaponization of doubt that has been plaguing us lately, set against the crushing grief that survivors must still try to process through it all. The negative effects of the virtual magnifying glass laid upon the characters is palpable and unnerving, amplified by a minimalistic art style that makes it easier to project yourself onto the characters. It’s an excellent graphic novel that is definitely worth checking out.
My Rating: 4.5 out of 5