Sabrina Is An Excruciating Portrait Of How The Fake News Era Is Crushing Our Souls

Sabrina Is An Excruciating Portrait Of How The Fake News Era Is Crushing Our Souls
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A sequence from Sabrina. Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

For a handful of pages in Nick Drnaso’s new graphic novel, the title character of Sabrina is a real person. We see her eat, talk, and laugh with her sister. But after she’s brutally killed on camera, strangers on the internet pick apart her death like it’s a twisted sign of the times.

The cover of Sabrina. (Image: Nick Drnaso, Drawn & Quarterly)

The cover of Sabrina.Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

Published by Drawn & Quarterly, Sabrina is an astonishing tour-de-force that simmers with quiet, unresolved dread. The graphic novel opens with Sabrina Gallo catching up with her sister Sandra while checking in on her parents’ house. They chat about future plans and go their separate ways, neither knowing that will be the last time they see each other.

Sabrina‘s actual main character is Calvin Wrobel, a boundary technician at the Department of Defence who didn’t even really know the murdered woman. Estranged from his wife and daughter, Calvin lives alone. He agrees to let Sabrina’s hurting boyfriend Teddy – who he knew in high school – stay in his near-empty suburban home after she’s gone missing.

Intense depression triggered by Sabrina’s disappearance has Teddy sleepwalking through his days. While he’s hollowed out by a boring job and his marital separation, Calvin is more functional. But he too seems like he’s fighting numbness.

Calvin shows Teddy around his house. (Image: Nick Drnaso, Drawn & Quarterly)

Calvin shows Teddy around his house.Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

Things get worse for the roommates after a video of Sabrina’s murder surfaces. In an all-too-familiar cycle, the footage becomes a social media fetish object and truther conspiracies spring up around the crime. Internet randoms question whether the murder even happened, if the killer was physically capable of doing it, and speculate that Calvin might be a crisis actor. Calvin serves as Teddy’s channel to the outside world and we get the sense that, along with everything else, it’s wearing him down. Meanwhile, Teddy gets pulled into the dark orbit of a political radio show, one that he keeps listening to every day even as the host bloviates about the tragedy to preach to his listeners.

A sample of the rhetoric from the radio show that Teddy listens to obsessively. (Image: Nick Drnaso, Drawn & Quarterly)

A sample of the rhetoric from the radio show that Teddy listens to obsessively.Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

Drnaso lays out his pages with a precise formalism, all right angles and rigid grids. The linework on his characters also feels it’s been executed in a way to scrub away any expressiveness. The technique works to underscore the worst consequence of the Fake News Era: when everything gets endlessly debated in nasty factional arbitrage, we can’t even trust our own feelings.

There are gentle smiles and hugs but no ferocious embraces or infectious grins. The low-affect emoting Drnaso imparts to his characters make it feel they’re all perpetually flummoxed by the world they live in, making the rare moments of strong reaction pop even harder.

The unseen radio host thinks there's a conspiracy behind Sabrina's death. (Image: Nick Drnaso, Drawn & Quarterly)

The unseen radio host thinks there’s a conspiracy behind Sabrina’s death.Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

The most chilling sequence in Sabrina happens after Calvin hides the radio in an attempt to sever Teddy’s unhealthy obsession with the talk show. Teddy finds the radio and waits behind a closed door with a knife.

It’s not clear if he wants to hurt Calvin, himself, or the shadowy conspirators he keeps hearing about on the radio. When Calvin comes home, he and Teddy stand on either side of the door in tense silence, neither knowing what the other one is doing. Up until that point in the book, it felt like the two men were teetering on the brink of the abyss, ready to commit the same kind of violence that took Sabrina’s life.

Teddy locks himself in with the radio. (Image: Nick Drnaso, Drawn & Quarterly)

Teddy locks himself in with the radio.Image: Nick Drnaso (Drawn & Quarterly)

Instead, Sabrina lands in a more nuanced place. The frustrated, stunted, lonely main characters aren’t killers waiting to detonate. They’re perpetual victims, wounded over and over again by cycles more concerned with talking about horrors than rooting out their causes.

Drnaso sketches out the emotional toll of the current sociopolitical climate and the way social media pressurises grief, exhaustion, and helplessness in volatile materials that can explode at any time.

Page after page, you wait for all Sabrina‘s existential upset to crescendo into something fiery. But Drnaso’s work ultimately winds up as a powerful document of emotional catalogue, giving a glimpse at the quietly awful imploded lives left behind by overheated sociopolitical discourse. When polarised factions and 24/7 tragedy bombardment dissolve the bonds that connect us, all we’re left with is wretched paranoia and powerless apathy.

Sabrina comes out May 25.


  • Fake news is no longer “Fake News”

    Its just a term people use to dismiss information they dont like or does not fit in with their political ideals. Rather than objectively counter the information with their own points. They essentially stick their fingers in their ears and yell “LALALALA I CANT HEAR YOU”

    Both sides of the policitical spectrum are guilty of this.

    • This comment is almost entirely incorrect, and unsurprisingly upvoted almost entirely by conservatives.

      Fake News is indeed a thing. There are countless outlets, mostly conservative-funded (from various nations), which are quite precisely disinformation creators. This has been a tactic in use for centuries but recent decades have seen it explode, mainly thanks to the pioneering work of Rupert Murdoch.

      While it is true ‘both sides are guilty’, anyone with a background in media can tell you that conservatives are overwhelmingly moreso, mainly because conservatives respond better to fear than fact. That’s not to say you don’t get the same thing with liberals, but since the demographics present with liberals having a higher baseline education they are less receptive to fact-free content and in a historical context, pushes for ‘reason-based news’ have come from the liberal side.

      It’s also the kind of content that makes a difference. Liberal propaganda is ‘climate change is destroying the world, don’t build coal power stations’. Conservative propaganda is ‘gay muslims are perverting your children’s minds, we need to put them in camps FOR YOUR SAFETY.’.

      Compare the Guardian to the Daily Telegraph if you want clear illustration of this. Or check out Jezebel and Infowars.

      The problem with your assertion is that ‘countering information’ doesn’t work. Murdoch worked this out quite a while ago and people are still catching up.

      The deluge of Murdoch’s conservative propaganda (which includes everyone on both sides who copied his model to make $$$), combined with information technology advances, has broken the principle of ‘reasonable assertion’ that people relied upon for most of the 20th century.

      Most people don’t use reason in most cases. They may think they do, when their own imperatives align with a reasonable outcome, but it’s rarely the case that reason comes first. This can be countered if you present both a lot of reason-based content and in an environment that privileges that – but creating and sustaining this is near-impossible in late stage capitalist society as there are no economic or social drivers to make it the market-leading solution especially if the alternative is presented en masse.

      So yeah, everyone dismisses information they don’t like – as you will see proven by the people who downvote this post simply based on their political ideals, as they always do – but that’s nothing to do with ‘fake news’ not being a thing.

      Fake news is simply the monetisation and amplification of this basic human psychology and that’s why it’s more effective than reasoned communication in most cases.

    • “Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn, and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy”

    • For those curious, this is called “false equivalence” where someone says – possibly accurately – that both sides are guilty of doing something but omits the degree to which each side are guilty of this thing and thereby implies that both sides are equally guilty.

      For every time a significant fraction of left side of politics claimed something was “fake news” that turned out to be true, you could find five trump-tweets that cry “fake news” over something that’s clearly factual (I’m using the US as an example because it’s a heightened version of everywhere else). The two sides are not equivalent.

      • Oh im left wing and i know the left does it just as much. They just dont use the term “Fake News”

  • Sounds kinda interesting but we aren’t in a fake news era, we have long progressed in to a true post truth era in that years of media propaganda from nearly every source has resulted in people from both sides of the faux divide gravitating toward the truths (or lies) they want to beleive in.
    (Let’s face it, like politicians we almost all accept that the news hasn’t been an unbiased or reliable source for a fucking long time, well before somebody thought up the buzz word “fake news”)

    I mean shit, you want crazy conspiracy you need only look at how politics took a divisive turn around about the time that people almost universally united behind mistrust of government, finance and media, followed up by two of the most polarising figures in modern political history.

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