It came as a bit of a shock to the literary world earlier this year when the Man Booker Prize, one of England’s most renowned prizes for writing, nominated a graphic novel for the first time ever. The novel was this one: Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, which tells the story of a missing and murdered woman, and don’t worry I won’t spoil it. So why this graphic novel? Well, perhaps author Zadie Smith said it best when she said that “Sabrina is the best book in any medium I have read about our current moment.”
“Don’t ever think the globalists that have hijacked this country wouldn’t stage something like this. They kill little kids all day, every day and it’s not our government It’s the…” “And they think that what they see on the web and TV is just a reality show. And so if it’s a reality show then everything is staged that everyone is an actor “This isn’t a fucking conspiracy. This is real life and people are fucking dying.” In Sabrina, the story of the titular character’s disappearance and subsequent murder goes viral and outlandish conspiracy theories that resemble the ones spread about the Newtown and Parkland massacres start percolating online and on talk radio. Things like the idea that the entire event was fake and that everyone involved is a crisis actor or that Sabrina never existed or that she’s actually still alive. The main characters include Sabrina’s sister Sandra, her boyfriend Teddy and one of Teddy’s high school friends, Calvin, who he takes refuge with following Sabrina’s disappearance. We witnessed their mental health deteriorate first as a result of the tragedy and then by being the target of conspiracy theories and death threats. The novel shows how it’s that second wave of traumatic experience how we’ve come to treat each other in the wake of these tragedies that might just be as traumatic or even more so than the initial loss. As the story drives on, we watch as the characters start to lose their ability to trust others. Sandra is always asking her partner to leave so that she can be alone and for Calvin and Teddy seemingly benign interactions induce a state of paranoia and suspicion. A helping hand from a stranger feels sinister. A friendly jibe from a co-worker sounds threatening. The dread that online vitriol might at any moment transform into real life violence is ever-present in Sabrina. Case in point: a dream sequence in which Calvin appears to confront a character who looks like Sabrina’s killer and the lines he speaks are echoes of lines from earlier in the novel all mixed together. This includes words that the killer himself said in the videos admitting to his crime but it also includes references to average everyday encounters, conversations with his ex-wife and the threats he’s received online. All of them get mixed into a singular threat that leaves the character in a constant state of apprehension. That is the true cost of being at the center of one of these events, the sensation that there is danger everywhere. Sabrina may not be the best novel of 2018 but it is the best novel I’ve read about 2018. The great achievement of this novel is that it puts you in the mindset of these characters as your eyes grasp at the panels, fearful that something horrifying could happen at any moment. And I think that is in no small part due to the art style of the novel. Now from just looking at a few panels, you might be wondering how a book with such a simplistic art style could receive so much attention? And yes, Drnaso’s style is extremely minimalistic but I feel that each choice is aimed at enhancing the feelings of isolation discomfort and paranoia. The characters are drawn with only a few simple lines and at a distance their faces will often even lack features. They are rarely ever expressive either, often wearing neutral blank stares drawn with beady, inscrutable eyes. Many times this occurs after a particularly frightening encounter and the reader is left to grasp at what the characters are feeling. The result is that the book holds a mirror up to you asking how you would feel in such a situation, forcing you to project that onto the characters. All graphic novels and comics are participatory, to a certain degree, with the reader filling in the gaps between panels, a process called closure. But in Sabrina, that process is emphasized by giving the reader only a few clues to go on. The panel format for the novel is equally featureless. In the entire novel, there are only four different types of panel size. It’s a very rigid format to commit to but the effect is harrowing. The small squares feel constraining, heightening that sense of powerlessness that the characters feel. So that when the story suddenly switches to larger panels during an intense confrontation, it feels like they’re bursting off the page. The larger panels are also frequently used to highlight the isolation of the characters by having a character walk through wide open empty spaces. This strategy of subtraction, of only using a few of the tools most graphic novelists use, is best exemplified by the novel’s use of silence. So many of the conversations in this book are failed conversations, ending on an awkward silence, driving home how isolated each character feels and their inability to communicate. And again, the silent panels invite you to interpret the characters’ emotions without much to go on. Few stories rely this much on subtext, making Sabrina a story that is best absorbed slowly. Regretfully, Sabrina did not win the Man Booker. It was cut before the short list of nominees and the prize ultimately went to Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I don’t doubt deserved it. But Sabrina still offers an utterly unique reading experience, while at the same time giving new faith to the idea that this medium can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any other. So, this episode is sponsored by Brilliant. 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Thanks for watching everyone! I loved getting the chance to talk about a graphic novel and I hope you liked it because I’ve got another video on them coming up and maybe more on the way. So, if you want to help make sure that those videos happen, then you can support this channel on Patreon.
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