Nick Drnaso reflects on his hallucinatory new book
‘Persona’ is derived from the ancient Greek for a theatrical mask. In Nick Drnaso’s new graphic novel, the façades of ten strangers who meet at a free acting class soon become irrevocably transfigured. Led by their enigmatic teacher, the attendees – each searching for belonging in contemporary America – find their improvisations, memories and fantasies bleeding into their troubled civilian lives, destroying some, liberating others. It is an ominous, joyous look at the transcendental nature of art and the imagination; the absurd non-sequiturs, traps and alternate realities it weaves when unbound. Drnaso’s award-winning work has been published in fifteen countries. He lives in Chicago with his wife and their two cats.
I read that your previous book Sabrina was born from anxieties and nightmares. What was Acting Class shaped by?
In certain pockets of America, I think there is a kind of spiritual bankruptcy and directionless search for meaning. As far as I can tell, for most people, there’s an absence of a strong sense of community. I’m now in my mid-thirties and not having any real religious belief to give my life structure or purpose, or to have any kind of certainty – that was a big factor in settling on the subjects in the book.
The isolation, sterility and claustrophobia in Sabrina led me to reflect on the possibilities of a group dynamic. How it would be an interesting challenge to develop ten distinct people and juggle an ensemble. I had a lot of freedom, and the big shifts and movements of the book arose organically. There was always this notion that the acting lessons and scenarios would expand and get more involved, more immersive.
How does your work begin and fit together?
I plot and script things out pretty precisely before I set out a page to start drawing. I’ve already thought through the purpose of a scene and the structure of it, where moments of silence, pause or transition are placed, what purpose they serve. Once I get into the sketching phase I figure out what that’s going to look like, or who the pause is going to rest on or what they’re expressing. When I think of editing the dialogue into sequential images, the language of film translates well. It’s close to storyboarding.
As someone who’s done quite a bit of acting, you capture the simultaneous awkwardness and removal of inhibition it can provide very keenly.
That’s the highest compliment because my biggest worry was that it wouldn’t ring true. Maybe that’s why I settled on the subject; I’m the complete opposite of a performer. I wondered if I should take a class, but I just couldn’t put myself through it. There was a slight crossover having attended art school, so I could pull from the creative language of teaching. Once I started writing, I realised there was a certain freedom in making John Smith (the acting teacher) not a con artist, per se, but there’s this question of: is he making this up as he goes along? What are his motives?
There are flashes of eerie homogeneity between the character’s faces sometimes. How did you want the artwork to compliment some of the ideas explored around conformity and individuality?
Some think of my previous work as reductive, that characters are featureless or interchangeable. Just for readability, I had to introduce more distinct facial qualities. But then, drawing comics makes you streamline and embrace systems, because even working as quickly as I possibly could, it still took me four years. I’m drawing ten to fifteen individual panels a day, so inevitably you expedite. Sometimes you can get so tripped up in the grind of it that it starts to feel somewhat uncreative. Not arduous or unpleasant though, problem solving and figuring out how a page or scene is going to unfold is incredibly stimulating. Since I’m writing beforehand, by the time I’m drawing I’m pragmatic. Perhaps that creates what some people think of as my ‘frozen’ or ‘stiff’ style, but it unconsciously comes out that way.
You previously had to work alongside your comics, does it feel strange to now do something you love, full time?
Working on comics all day is obviously surreal. I had always thought – like many working artists – that I would figure out how to make art alongside a day job. Having all this unchecked free time is a little strange; imposter syndrome often rears its head.
Sabrina was the first ever graphic novel to be longlisted for the Booker Prize. I know it was disorientating for your work to be placed in that space, has your opinion shifted on this?
From the moment I realised the scale of the professional leap it brought, I felt unworthy. Being elected an ambassador to comics was uncomfortable because I shouldn’t be a spokesperson for this broad medium. I know that within my field, what I do is a pretty acquired taste. I think the book being elevated to stand as ‘the ideal comic’ created a weird rift; I was torn between the world of alternative comics and the literary world. I don’t feel like I’m a part of either one of them at this point, which is maybe good, in a way. Personally, prizes don’t move me.
Sharing work and receiving feedback from my wife, those quiet daily things are a source of validation. Creatively and professionally at this point, I’m thinking deeply – half-praying and waiting for an idea to come along. I don’t have a manic artistic drive, it’s a cautious and critical process. Especially at this point, when I haven’t drawn regularly in several months, and I’m slowly accumulating concepts to go into the next book. That’s the only thing that means I can breathe a little easier. Even if it’s just the smallest, most insignificant idea that I jot down. For me, that’s like gold.
Acting Class by Nick Drnaso is published by Granta Books, out now
This article is taken from Port issue 31. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here