Nick Drnaso is a patient artist. While many of his peers put out handfuls of hand-made zines and gather mountains of Tumblr likes, Drnaso has been chipping away at Beverly, his singular debut graphic novel. This patience shows up in the book as well. The series of stories is about an interconnected set of family and friends, but there’s also slow burn unpredictability as the characters try to conceal their secrets behind meaty bodies, wood paneling, and honest-to-goodness manners. I talked to Drnaso about his evolving style, writing with objectivity, and Midwestern repression.
RJ CASEY: Before we get into the new book, I wanted to talk a little bit about your path from where you started and leading up to Beverly. You’ve only self-published one comic, right?
NICK DRNASO: Yeah… well, kind of. Some comics saw print, so I guess I self-published, but I didn’t make any real effort to get them out there. From here on out, I consider Beverly to be my first book. Everything before Beverly could just be considered an exercise or student work.
The first chapter in this book, “The Grassy Knoll”, had been published before, by Oily Comics.
Yeah, but that wasn’t really planned. That story was always meant to be collected in this book. Chuck Forsman saw it and, at that point, it was just a nice, small 12-page story. It fit into his format at Oily. I’m glad that that little sampler came out, but a part of me still wishes that “The Grassy Knoll” was brand new.
Are there any difference between the version of “The Grassy Knoll” published in Beverly and the mini-comic published by Oily?
A little bit, yeah. If you lined them up beside each other you could spot some little corrections and tweaks. I had to update the color, so I ended up recoloring this story and the entire first half of the book before it was finished.
That’s interesting, because your flat, pastel-like colors are very distinctive. What’s your coloring process like?
It’s hard to describe… the first half of the book I colored on a light box with Prismacolor markers. That takes a ton of time. Then I had to scan the page and the colors. My lines are pretty thin and I had to line them up with the marker and make sure it was even in Photoshop. At a certain point, about halfway through the book, I realized that I could just scan marker swatches into the computer and place them in whatever area I wanted them to go. That method gives me a lot more freedom than coloring in everything with marker by hand — not to mention spending less time and less money. I had to go back and color the entire first half because I was getting a different effect and the two halves didn’t look fluid or consistent.
That seems like it would have taken forever. How long did the book take you to complete in total?
Three years to draw the interior stories, then a few more months to edit, create the cover, and all that for D&Q. So four years total. I know there will be things that I’ll want to go back and correct. That’s a lesson I learned while making Beverly.
What’s the lesson? That you can’t go back once the book’s out? You have to leave it alone?
While working on this book, I started tweaking things instead of just going back and redrawing them entirely — that’s the lesson I learned. I used to be someone who would’ve just gone in and gutted huge chunks of the first half of the book or things I wasn’t happy with. I’m better at constructively nitpicking now.
The last time I saw you, your arm was in a sling. Did that injury coincide with the drawing of the book?
Yeah, that happened while I was drawing the fourth story of the book, “Pudding”. That story was drawn during that six-month period. I started it right before I had a bike accident where I cracked my collarbone and finished it right as I was on the mend and going back to work. That was also the same exact time period where Chris Oliveros saw what I was working on and we started corresponding. I had a broken collarbone, a verbal publishing agreement… It was an interesting time.
What’s your writing process like? You use a very rigid grid, so are things scripted out before you go in and tackle the drawings?
Usually. Every story in Beverly started in a written document where I might have a page or two done in advance before I start drawing. I never have a fully completed script done, but it’s more like a foothold.
And the grid?
Working with the grid was a way to learn and show my respect for the craft of cartooning. I still consider myself a beginner, so adhering to this strict grid was something I wanted to do.
I don’t get the feeling you’re a beginner. When I read your work, I think of control. It seems like you have complete control even when I look at your bricks in buildings and wood siding on houses.
Yeah, a lot of straight, thin lines.
Do you think geometry is part of your style?
I’ve fully embraced rigidity. There’s simplicity in it, I think. At a certain point I realized that stripping away was more effective than going in and adding things — at least for Beverly. I wanted to tear things down to their essence. Before I worked on these stories, and in an art school kind of way, I was searching for a style and hiding behind overly hatching things. I used to use wild angles and spend hours and hours crosshatching.
I don’t think there’s any crosshatching in Beverly.
I’m more concerned now with solid cartooning and transitioning from one panel to the next. If I was spending all that time drawing tiny hatches, my hand would hurt and I would get lost in all the meaningless details. With minimal amounts of detail, I want to worry about the story and the flow — what’s really important. The dialogue and if I can somehow make characters contradict themselves — those types of things are much more interesting to me than hatching for five hours.
I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that describes the Midwestern suburbs as well as Beverly does.
We both grew up in the Chicago suburbs, so I’m assuming we have some similar backgrounds and life experiences. Is that something you had in mind going into Beverly, or is it so ingrained in you that it just inevitably comes out?
I didn’t plan on writing Beverly as region-specific, but I grew up and lived in the same house from the time that I was born until age 20. Then I moved into my apartment in Chicago where I’ve been living for six years. In that time, I wrote the book. So my worldview is narrow, to say the least. I’ve never lived in another region. I’ve never really travelled. I guess I have a claustrophobic view of things and my stories reflect that. I want them to be true to me, not falsely expansive. I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it…
You could certainly do worse than setting your book in Chicago.
It’s a good starting point. Write about what you know, right? It’s my natural environment.
The people in these stories were very much like people I knew in high school and growing up in the Chicago ’burbs. They felt very real.
Well, a lot of them are based on real people. Distorted just enough though, hopefully.
The mom and the daughter in the book get chosen for a focus group to watch a sitcom and give feedback, but they are just asked about the commercials. They get so upset by this. Is it because they wanted to be part of something bigger?
Exactly. And that story’s taken directly from life. That happened with my mom and played out pretty much just like that. She was asked to watch a VHS tape of a sitcom pilot. It was pretty bad. But the questionnaire was only about the ads. They never asked our take on the sitcom itself. The show never made it on the air and the whole process just seemed cruel.
Did your mom have the same reaction as the mom in your story?
She was definitely disappointed. It was a small feeling of being used. Just manipulated enough…
Diving a little deeper into the Midwest, I wanted to bring up something that usually goes hand-in-hand with it: Repression. Is that a theme you wanted to examine in Beverly?
Yeah, repression certainly is a theme. I’ve heard a lot of people say that is a very Midwestern thing, but I’m curious… I’m in the process right now of moving to Buffalo, New York. I’d like to see if there’s a slight difference. My girlfriend’s told me there’s the same kind of repression and bland friendliness there as well. I don’t know if it’s a Rust Belt thing? A Midwestern thing? An American thing?
There’s that short sequence in your book where the family is taking a road trip and sees a billboard for a strip club or and adult toy store and the next billboard says “Repent!” or something for a church.
There’s that weird confliction of indulgence and repentance and sin and faith. It’s interesting. It seems like drawing those two billboards like that might be a little too on the nose, but when you’re driving through Northwest Indiana you see them all the time. They’re right next to each other. Seems like something in a movie or somehow too planned.
I found the characters in Beverly to be very sympathetic. You treat them in a kind way and I just felt bad for everyone.
[Laughs] Is that a good thing?
Well, you treat everyone fairly. You don’t always see that when you’re dealing with middle- or lower-middle class suburban people in fiction. You don’t make anyone a punch line.
That’s what I’m most worried about in the reaction to the book. Maybe if people just read the back cover or skim through the book, you might assume there’s cruel jokes about drug users, or TV watchers, or… I tried to stay away from that.
You mentioned some of this being autobiographical in a way. The story “Virgin Mary”, was that based on something that happened? It seems like a nightmare.
That was sort of taken from something that happened in the suburb where I’m from. A girl from my high school was abducted. She described that a Middle Eastern man abducted her and that story was plastered all over the neighborhood. There was a manhunt to find the guy who sexually assaulted her and beat her. It was a horrific story. There were a lot of rumors floating around that I was privy to and it was revealed after the fact that… well, I want people to read the end of the story.
In all the previous stories in the book, everyone plays things very close to the vest. They aren’t open with their feeling or emotions at all, but when they have a scapegoat, they go all out. Almost over compensating.
People seem attracted to morbid, scandalous stories they can rally around. I can remember long conversations at family parties that are centered on whatever the mass tragedy of the day happened to be. I have memories of family members talking about Columbine and Waco and Oklahoma City. It’s a thing that everyone has in common.
They had real opinions or were they just repeating things they heard on the news?
I think some people have genuine emotions behind it. In a way it brings closeness. And being gripped by that fear is sometimes the only topic that everyone can relate to. There’s a bizarre fascination too. Seems like everybody’s read a book on Jack the Ripper or the Manson family. I don’t know what that is about.
That’s like the character Tyler in the book. Sometimes you draw him with a ski mask on and he sees people around him brutally murdered. Is that some sort of fantasy of his or prescient in any way?
This character suffers from a form of OCD called Unwanted Thought Syndrome, which is a disorder where you have these morbid thoughts that are beyond your control.
And that’s why he’s seeing everyone at the hotel all slashed up?
In the story I didn’t make it clear if he’s relishing in these fantasies or suffering from them. You see these awful things through his point of view and he has a blank, unemotional reaction to a lot of it. That was deliberate. It’s never made clear if he’s disgusted by it or embracing it. That’s where the tension lies.
Would you consider this book to be a black comedy?
Maybe. Some people might find some situations funny.
There’s a trend, especially in TV, where uncomfortable situations occur and characters are forced to react. I thought in Beverly that characters tried to prevent the situations from occurring at all. They wanted to keep a lid on it rather than pick up the pieces later.
That might just be my personality and sensibility. I’m usually reserved and unemotional.
It makes the uncomfortable situations less laugh-out-loud and more sinister or dark.
After getting home from a day job, eating dinner, talking with friends, and all that, I find myself pretty detached from my characters after a while. Especially if I’m worrying about what shade of yellow to color the background or how the panels fit on the page. The darkness, if there is any, might come from that detachment.
You think that disconnect affects your storytelling and drawing?
Comics can feel like doing animation, frame by frame, but you never get to see it played through. I’m just left to wonder if it works or if it the story’s interesting. It’s maddening sometimes. Drawing without action or too much emotion — everyone in Beverly is very metered and quiet. I don’t think there’s a single motion line or sweat mark or exclamation in the entire book. It’s very bleak and frozen.
And that’s on purpose?
Yeah. It’s exactly what I’m trying to do.