The literary cartoonist talks about taking graphic novels mainstream, his feelings of imposter syndrome, and processing his darkest childhood memories in his latest book
Nick Drnaso finds himself in a disconcerting position. His hobby has become his job. He is still struggling to get used to a world in which it makes more financial sense for him to sit at his drawing board from the moment he wakes up until 2am. He feels, he admits when he speaks to me from his home studio in Chicago, like an “impostor”. Until 2016 he was working behind a pressing machine in a factory that made tin badges. “You would kind of assemble the pieces. It just felt like cartooning,” he says, “problem solving and repetitive motion and working delicately with your hands. So I loved it.”
The mundanity of ordinary work, and its way of anchoring people in their lives, is a theme that runs through his new book, Acting Class. As well as the button badges, Drnaso, 33, has done nine-to-fives as a janitor, and painting slogans on to dolls at “a weird ornament company” – both jobs that are faithfully (and wanly) reproduced on the page.
Acting Class follows the intersecting stories of a collection of people who sign up for a free drama class at a community centre. As the book progresses, the imaginative exercises of the class start to bleed alarmingly and in sinister ways into real life. The characters find themselves losing track of time, sliding sideways out of their jobs and their families, losing their bearings – and the genial acting teacher starts to give off faint but noticeable cult-leader vibes. It’s trippy and disconcerting, but it’s also rooted in the stuff of everyday reality. “I was wanting to avoid some turns that a book like this could certainly take – when you have a situation where people are being manipulated and pushed in a certain direction by this charismatic leader. I think the thing I was holding in my mind was, like, restraint.”
Restraint is perhaps a defining characteristic of Drnaso’s style as a writer and cartoonist – just as diffidence and courteous self-doubt seem to be his hallmarks as a conversationalist. He has a long, mournful face, light facial hair and a thin beanie topping his dark hair. “I can only speak for myself,” he says cautiously when I ask why literary cartoonists seem to be such a tortured bunch, “but I have found that there’s something in the [comics] form that does attract people who maybe have anxiety or OCD-type tendencies.” He points to the extraordinary disjunction between the time an artist will work on a panel or a page, the painstakingly detailed work, and the speed with which the reader will skip over it. “There’s something therapeutic about the problem solving, figuring out how a sequence is going to unfold and be structured and paced. So many practical things to focus on.”
Born in 1989 in Illinois, Drnaso grew up in a suburb of Chicago where he was a “fairly average” kid until “puberty and kind of depression took over – alienation, I think, by the time I was becoming a young person”. The younger of two brothers, he came from a happy and loving middle-class family – his father worked for the telecoms company Comcast and his mother was a teaching assistant in elementary school. He struggled at school, though. “I couldn’t really function in that environment. The pressure of having to perform and be among my peers was unbearable.” He is married to fellow cartoonist Sarah Leitten. “I was just talking to my wife the other day,” he says, “and we were just realising that we completely blocked out huge chunks of our lives. It’s like a blur. I don’t remember anybody’s names, or I don’t remember what the school felt like. It’s just completely forgotten.”
Drnaso’s difficulties were more than just average adolescent mood swings. He was sexually abused at the age of 10 by a neighbour’s son. When he later told his parents about his experience, they discovered from the sex offenders register that his abuser was still living and working just a few streets away. “My mom said, ‘You know, if I ever see that guy, at the grocery store or wherever, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna let him have it.’” That filled the young Drnaso with apprehension. “I kind of went with that fear of, ‘What will happen if she runs into him?’” Drnaso says the man in question has since been jailed for soliciting minors on Facebook.
Comics were what provided him with a sort of escape. In his late teens, having known only about the tights-and-capes sort of comics, which didn’t interest him, he found that “there was this movement of underground comics … you could make these stapled comics and tell short stories that are sort of bombastic and transgressive and perverse and disgusting. That appealed to me just at that age, just being kind of an angry young man in a way that’s very embarrassing now.”
His lurid apprentice work, influenced by the heavily crosshatched forms of Robert Crumb, was an antithesis to the style for which he has come to be known. Discovering the midwestern cartoonist John Porcellino’s work – “It pushes minimalism pretty much as far as it can go while still telling a coherent story” – was “a huge revelation”. Drnaso learned the lessons of that minimalism in his debut collection, Beverly, and refined it in Sabrina, the breakthrough 2018 work that established him – and that has put him in the relatively rare position of earning a full-time living making literary comics.
Drnaso writes his scripts first and draws afterwards – and the glum exactness of the words is just as important to him as the drawing. “The types of characters that I write and the way that I draw hopefully just kind of coalesce – where even when I start a new project, I have this notion that people are going to emote in a certain way.” He doesn’t, as many cartoonists will, signal that a character is speaking by drawing them open-mouthed: “It seems like they’re just frozen in this kind of slack-jawed expression while a whole sentence appears above.”
A quirk of his written style is that his characters all say “Yea” instead of “Yeah”. To my reading, the unusual spelling makes it just that shade more downbeat: as if to rule out a perky exclamation mark being inserted even in the reader’s mind. “That was kind of my thinking too,” he says. “Keeping the H off makes it seem more like a grunting, kind of natural [expression].”
Sabrina was a murder mystery, of sorts – or, at least, the story of a woman’s disappearance and the way in which the grief of her boyfriend and sister is compounded by the spread of lurid conspiracy theories about “crisis actors”. It captured the post-Sandy Hook, Infowars moment that permeated the early years of the Trump era. Sabrina’s precision and understatement were some of its most extraordinary qualities. Among the revisions Drnaso made before publication was to remove anything that dealt with the actual murder, so the whole story of the book was the aftermath, told in a drab palette and affectless interiors: diagrammatic human figures fretting and suffering in rooms and behind screens, while thin voices on the radio spew their savage silliness.
Drnaso’s feelings about his best-known work have whipsawed over the years. He agonised over the composition – it took three years to complete – and when it was originally on the point of being published by Drawn & Quarterly, he withdrew it at the 11th hour. It took a psychological crisis, in which the returning memories of his childhood experiences played a large part, and some substantial alterations, before he relented and allowed it to go out. The critics didn’t share his reservations. Zadie Smith called it “the best book – in any medium – I have read about our current moment”, and in 2018 it became the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker prize. That created its own problems. Many commentators (including, full transparency, this one) questioned whether it had any place on a longlist whose other works were prose fiction. Suddenly, Drnaso’s work was being asked to be representative, the flag carrier for Graphic Novels As Serious Art, and he wasn’t happy with it.
“Yeah, it felt like I shouldn’t be a spokesperson for this thing,” he says. “Even people in the comics world thought this was a bad idea. I felt ambivalent about it, too. It’s a little weird to put this thing in that doesn’t quite fit the parameters. That whole conversation didn’t feel good. If you have impostor syndrome, and if somebody’s putting you in this place where maybe you don’t belong, it just feels like you’ve been pushed into something. The book sales that I would get as a result, or the nice attention that the book got, just felt like a byproduct of something that I don’t have any control over. But again, that sounds ungrateful, whining about something that’s an enormous privilege. So I hesitate to talk about it at all.”
Even now, he has his doubts.In 2019 he told an interviewer in the New Yorker: “I fucking hate that book. I don’t ever want to look at it again. It was a mistake, and I shouldn’t have done it.” As he sees it, that self-criticism is an engine of progress. “I’m hugely critical of past work, which does seem difficult and uncomfortable, and it is. But I can spin it [into] something positive, because I’m not looking back and thinking that I’m really proud of something I did. If anything, there’s that sense of shame that, ‘Well, I should really try to do something better to cover up this.’ What I see is this bad, flawed work – and it kinda keeps me looking forward.”
Where Sabrina seemed to engage with the public space and the cultural politics of a particular moment in American life, Acting Classis much more hermetic, rooted in anonymous ordinary lives. “It’s a conscious move back towards a space that’s more natural to me,” he says. “When I started on Sabrina, I felt like I was veering into something where I was kind of out of my depth. I’m not going to write polemic or be any kind of public thinker in that way. That’s just not my space at all. Acting Class is getting back to something that’s in a bit more of a bubble, removed from the modern world. Maybe it’ll seem clearer that Sabrina is the outlier.”
Nevertheless, he doesn’t regret the mainstreaming of graphic novels in which his own work has played a part. “The more people who discover comics the way I did, the better it will be,” he says. “The more we’ll get different people with different perspectives and experiences trying to draw comics. My publisher just put out a book by a first-time author named Emily Carrington. She came to comics by reckoning with childhood sexual abuse that she experienced, that she didn’t process until she was an adult. She was a visual artist, and she tried to figure out, ‘How am I going to process this?’ and discovered, ‘Oh, there’s these things called graphic novels, I should try my own.’ She made this brilliant book called Our Little Secret. It’s the best comic I’ve read in years.”
Drnaso, too, processed his own abuse through his comics, “though in a less direct way than she did”. One of the most shocking vignettes in Acting Class comes when one of the apparently sympathetic characters is confronted by a woman whose child he has molested. Drnaso hadn’t planned that – “I’d introduced this person in sort of a neutral way” – and when he started to think about that as a possibility, “there was almost this dawning sense of dread. ‘Do I want to draw the scene? Do I want to introduce that into the story?’ I just went for it. When I decided, ‘I’m going to do this scene,’ I probably wrote it in real time, as fast as I could type it, because what a parent would say in that situation and how he would react … was just, like: ‘I’ve played this out 1,000 times in my head.’”
What he writes and draws speaks to a wide audience, and his craftsmanship is remarkable. Yet Drnaso remains what he calls “process-oriented” – with comic panels as with button badges. He’s an artist, as Bob Dylan has it: he don’t look back. He’s already working on something new, though he’s reluctant to talk about it in detail, he says, because he’s still “kind of floundering around, figuring it out, making notes”. But then he surprises me by holding a little painted clay bust up to the camera: “I’m making these heads out of clay that will form the basis of character design. This is kind of the next phase of what I’m doing.” It’s a method of working he hasn’t tried before. “It’s a fun project to work in three dimensions.”
He seems excited by what he’s doing, caught up in the process. I catch myself worrying, though, that once this project is out in the world, no matter how much everyone admires it, he’ll feel bad. As he says of his work: “I don’t think I’ll arrive at a point of acceptance or certainly nothing resembling pride. I don’t see that ever happening. It hasn’t happened even in the slightest bit.”