AuthorCitron, Danielle Keats

SABRINA. By Nick Drnaso. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly. 2018. Pp. 203. $27.95.


Nick Drnaso's (1) graphic novel Sabrina provides a powerful snapshot of online norms. The picture is not pretty: A young woman goes missing. Her grief-stricken boyfriend cannot bear to stay in their home and escapes to a friend's house. Her sister struggles with the pain of her loss. We learn that the woman's neighbor, a misogynist loner, killed her and recorded the murder. Online, people clamor for the video.

The execution video leaks and goes viral. The media hounds the woman's sister and her boyfriend. A conspiracy theorist with a popular radio show argues that the murder is a deep-state hoax. He gins up a cyber mob to "investigate" what is really going on.

A cyber mob descends. The woman's family, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's friend are smeared as crisis actors. They are barraged with death threats, and their personal information is posted far and wide. The attacks continue until a shooting massacre captures the conspiracy theorist's attention. The cyber mob redirects its wrath at other mourners.

The novel raises important questions about the interaction of human behavior, culture, and law in the digital age. What compels people to like, click, and share grotesque execution videos, conspiracy theories, and destructive falsehoods? We have always been drawn to information that resonates with us, but the online environment seems to supercharge human biases. Why? Platforms structure and shape online activity, so what are they doing about online abuse? Each and every one of us is ultimately responsible for liking, clicking, and sharing the destruction. How can we work to change our behavior?

Right now, it is cheap and easy to wreak havoc online and for that havoc to go viral. Platforms act rationally--some might say responsibly to their shareholders--when they tolerate abuse that earns them advertising revenue and costs them nothing in legal liability.

Combatting cyber-mob attacks must be a priority. Law should raise the cost of cyber-mob attacks. It is time for tech companies to tackle some of the negative externalities of their business model. Platforms should not enjoy immunity from liability for user-generated content unless they have earned that immunity with reasonable content-moderation practices. Education should play a role as well. As digital citizens, we need to do better.


    Sabrina is an important read. Fiction and visual representations can alter our understanding of human experiences and struggles. (2) The recognition of human rights owes much to novels, art, and photographs that changed social attitudes by showing human pain and degradation in a visceral way. (3) As Hillary Chute has argued, hand-drawn pictures forge a personal connection with readers. (4) They help us bear witness to suffering. (5)

    Sabrina does this in spades. Male aggression and fear pervade Drnaso's graphic novel. So do dark, dull hues and slow-moving action. (6) The novel's inhabitants and environs appear muted, contemplative, and restrained except when the action moves online. Then, texts, emails, blog posts, comments, videos, Skype calls, and multiplayer games appear in stronger colors. (7) Then, frenetic, impulsive, and disturbing developments come to the fore.

    The novel's contrast of quiet introspection offline to the loud negativity online allows readers to feel how jarring and destabilizing a cyber-mob attack can be. One minute, people are safely and anonymously proceeding with the minutiae of daily life. The next, they are caught in the blinding glare of a cyber mob's attention. They are exposed, maligned, and scared. Sabrina helps us appreciate what it is like to be in the vortex of a cyber-mob attack.

    The novel opens with Sabrina Gallo, whose later absence is a driving force of the story. Twenty-seven-year-old Sabrina is seen talking to her sister, Sandra, in their childhood home in Chicago (pp. 2-4, 81). After chatting about their parents, Sandra asks Sabrina to join her for a bike trip. The idea is to "[g]et out of the city. Get away from the internet" (p. 8).

    Sabrina wonders about the safety of camping out alone (p. 8). After thinking quietly about the question, Sandra recalls a trip she took by herself at age nineteen (pp. 8-9). The experience was "a spring break nightmare.... lousy with college date rapists ..." (p. 9). One night, three boys confronted her on the beach (p. 9). They were "out hunting," they said, and asked her to go to their room (p. 9). One of the boys grabbed Sandra's arm to prevent her from leaving (p. 9). Sandra managed to escape to a restaurant where she hid, crying in the bathroom (p. 9). She reveals the incident to Sabrina for the first time and says that she has not taken a vacation since (p. 9). Sandra assures Sabrina that their bike trip would be safe because "[t]he fucking wild animals stay in hotels" (p. 9).

    Two days after the sisters' chat, Sabrina disappears (p. 58). She is last seen leaving work (p. 30). As time passes, her loved ones assume the worst (p. 37). Grief incapacitates her boyfriend of two years, Teddy King, who has been living with her (p. 16). Teddy flees to Colorado Springs to stay with a high-school friend, Calvin Wrobel, a cybersecurity analyst in the Air Force (pp. 12-31).

    Teddy is seen in Calvin's guest room, listless and worried, while Sandra is seen cradled in a ball on the floor (pp. 54-59). With her hands over her ears, Sandra repeatedly cries, "I want it to stop" (pp. 62-63). Every night, Calvin returns home from work and tries to convince Teddy to eat something (pp. 32, 55). Calvin retreats to his bedroom to play first-person shooter video games with his Air Force buddies (p. 42). In online chats, someone says, "Just woke up and I can't fall back asleep. Killing people always puts me to sleep ..." (p. 42).

    Soon, Sabrina's terrible fate is revealed. A twenty-three-year-old neighbor, Timmy Yancey, abducted and killed her (pp. 70, 81). He is a misogynist loner, an avid player of video games, and a freeloader whose mother pays his rent (p. 70). He is modeled after Elliot Rodger, a college dropout who shot and killed six people, including two sorority women, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, because, as he raged online, beautiful women refused to sleep with him. (8)

    Chicago police learn about the killing after a newspaper contacts them about a VCR recording of the murder (pp. 67-76). The killer sent copies of the video to several news outlets, Chicago politicians, and a local sportscaster (p. 76). The police discover that after murdering Sabrina, the killer committed suicide (p. 72). The killer's smiling face is seen jutting out of a bloody bathtub in his apartment (p. 72). Although we never see the execution video, we learn that the killer wore a black mask and said on the tape, "It has become increasingly difficult for my voice to be heard above the din of chatter. This is only a means to an end" (pp. 81, 114).

    After a news outlet posts a screenshot of the killer taken from the video (p. 76), online posters clamor to see the whole thing. Online commenters solicit links (p. 81). The comment "I NEED to see this," posted at 1:37 a.m., gets 101 likes (p. 81). Trending hashtags of the day include #TimmyYancey, #SabrinaGallo, #TheAvengers, and #SalmonRecall (p. 81).

    Details about the killer's life appear in posts that garner hundreds of clicks, comments, and shares. The post "What we know about Timmy Yancey" reveals that he was "active" on men's rights message boards and had been banned from several online communities due to his "vitriolic rants" (p. 81).

    The frenzy builds offline as well. Television crews surround Sandra's house (p. 99). The family issues a statement to stop people from contacting them, but to no avail (p. 99). Reporters camp out at Calvin's house to reach Teddy (p. 99). Calvin tells a coworker that only after a "big shooting happened in Buffalo" did the media retreat (p. 99). The shooting massacre diverts the public's attention, but just for a while.

    After learning about Sabrina's death, Teddy spends his days listening to the radio (p. 88). He tunes into the show of conspiracy theorist Albert Douglas, a takeoff on Alex Jones's Infowars. (9) Teddy is seen hugging a pillow as he listens to Douglas talk about a "globalist" conspiracy to keep the public repressed (p. 88). According to Douglas, the government has been staging school shootings to keep people separated and scared (pp. 101, 118, 121).

    Douglas urges listeners to harness their rage in the "right direction" (p. 88). "[The government is] going to announce a state of emergency.... Then they will shut down the power grid and disable the internet," Douglas insists (p. 138). He warns that at that point, fighting back will be useless: the "moment to organize an armed rebellion [will have] passed" (p. 138).

    A month later, the execution video leaks and goes viral (pp. 112-13). According to Douglas, the video is being downloaded "five million times per hour" (p. 108). Online advertisements flash next to links to the execution video (p. 113). Searches for the video yield autocomplete suggestions that include the killer's name and various terms like "video leak," "download," "video full," and "video stream" (p. 113). Even Calvin succumbs to curiosity and searches for the video. He watches it while Teddy sleeps in the room next to him (p. 114). We see him struggling to make it to the bathroom to vomit (p. 114).

    The viral spread of the video generates intense media attention. Sandra is seen in news footage posted online crying and yelling, "This is madness! This has to stop! Get away from me!" (p. 113). Camera crews appear at Calvin's home (p. 109). He pleads for the crew to leave: "Please respect our privacy. I don't even know why you're asking me about this. I didn't even know Sandra" (p. 110).

    As the madness escalates outside his bedroom...

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