For fifteen years, cartoonist Nick Drnaso has been drawing chromatically flat, eerily domestic graphic novels. Following his debut publication, Beverly (2016), a dark collection of interconnected vignettes, Drnaso’s full-length thriller Sabrina (2018) became the first graphic novel to be nominated for a Man Booker Prize. With Acting Class, out today with Drawn & Quarterly, he presents an assortment of strangers who voluntarily disrupt their daily monotony to meet with a mysteriously merit-less acting instructor. Below, the Chicago-based Drnaso reveals his latest story’s origins, considers the psychic weight of group dynamics, and speaks about being technologically out of time.
SHORTLY BEFORE COVID even hit, I was home alone almost all day every day, and that’s when I began developing Acting Class. The story begins with these generic, mostly middle-aged people who find themselves being drawn into a free class at a community center led by John Smith, who’s cagey with them about where he comes from and what he’s doing. He talks a lot. He has theories. He pontificates, but doesn’t say anything really substantive. Even after drawing 260 pages, I still haven’t settled what his grand purpose is. A stereotypical manipulator’s goal would be financial or sexual or abusive, but I had strict rules for myself about what I didn’t want this book to be, including avoiding much darker or depraved territory. I liked staying in a grey area where John manipulates just to exist.
After a bit of a major depression, I got a therapist for the first time and she gave me CDs that were like guided meditations. They appeared in a scene in Sabrina where a character is trying to calm down during a panic attack. Acting Class came from this idea of trying to get out of your own head, only to ironically burrow deeper. I’ve never attended an acting class. I thought I would have to understand acting on some level, but it was inconceivable to me to put myself out there and do it. People would say, “I have an actor friend you can talk to,” but I couldn’t even do that. I read a few books on the subject and poked around online, but I’m not accurately depicting how to teach adults acting skills. The story is very detached from the real world of being a working actor. I hope that readers will feel like members of the class in some way. Or that John’s exercises invite someone to wonder, “What would I do in this situation?” There’s a variety of paths and options for readers to follow in their own heads.
The only thing I did to prepare to write the book was make glass-painting character portraits. It was like “casting” this ten-person ensemble where nobody is the main character. Some became more central than others, and some are in service to another’s development. Like in the third class, John has the students drive out to this strange house in the middle of nowhere, which is questionable. A person on their own might step back and go, “This isn’t right, why are we doing this?” But being in a group made it more natural for everyone to follow him. I was writing from the place of the confused students who passively accept John’s instruction—like Thomas, the nude model, or Lou, who’s given the role of The Dog and unquestioningly goes along with it.
A few people have asked me if Acting Class is commenting on the Metaverse, or virtual realities, but it’s not. I skirted around loftier themes like religion and group-think, and thought I was going out of my way to avoid specific time periods and regions, even though the story is vaguely Midwestern and maybe set between the 1980s and 2000s. If Acting Class took place today, it’s very unlikely that none of them would ever pull out a cell phone, or that there wouldn’t be a TV or computer in the background somewhere. The easiest way to show that these characters are out of step with the world is that they’re not plugged in, they’re not in touch, which maybe explains why they joined a class. If I were doing a book about lonely people who were feeling estranged or alienated from the contemporary world, it would be obvious to have them zone out on their iPhones. Making art about alienation through technology would feel judgmental or cynical. I’m personally a little out of time: I don’t own a smartphone, I don’t know how to use Instagram. At a concert recently, I used my flip-phone to take a picture. People around me laughed like I had pulled out a monocle. I’m self-conscious when I pull out my flip-phone to check the time because people think it’s an attention-seeking gag, but it’s not. It’s just my phone.
I’ve been thinking about performance in daily life. Like when I’ve driven to funerals and wondered what I’d say to the family when I got there, and when I arrived, I’d feel like I was behaving falsely despite trying to convey real emotions. There’s a sequence in Acting Class with Wade, the janitor, taking a bow when he notices the class watching him mop the floor. That came from years of working just like that in public spaces and being uncomfortable. I liked being a janitor, but this weird phenomenon happens when you’re cleaning in public and people just watch like you’re the entertainment. Sometimes I’d be cleaning up spilled wine at my job and people would be sipping their wine, watching me. I would step outside my body, or go mentally blank to ignore them. For Wade in that scene, a lifetime of being a janitor meant being able to zone out and have some level of grace.