Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina represents the strengths and weaknesses of a contentious form that has struggled for legitimacy within the literary space. Comic books, or graphic novels, have aspired to a closer connection with wider literary culture and there is arguably no better time than the present in which to achieve this. With the ascendancy of social media, smart phone technology and video streaming services, story-telling has become ‘a more complex economy of words and images’ that saturate contemporary life. (Baetens 193) Literature is presented through an increasing number of different mediums, and graphic novelists have responded to this with a more significant focus on realism. Far from the hero-driven comic books that pervaded the twentieth century, Sabrina expresses the anxieties of the contemporary through banal depictions of domesticity and every day routine, coupled with the isolation of the subjects within. For example, Calvin’s pastel coloured home cages Teddy in a simple frame that presents his psychological anguish in a stark and naked way. (108) This is a strength of the graphic novel form, but as Sam Leith notes ‘We’re now at the point when depressed men doing nothing are as much a comic book cliché as superheroes’ and this has led to accusations of ‘shallowness’ towards the medium. (qtd. in Baetens 179) (Baetens 179) However, this ‘shallowness’ does not hold true for the detached narrative of Sabrina as it is only in ‘doing nothing’ that the isolating and frightening effects of internet culture can truly penetrate the text. (Baetens 179)
The murder of the title character in Sabrina, along with the media madness that follows, is amplified by an atmosphere of inter-textual internet conspiracy. As this atmosphere builds, the radio presenter blames an omnipresent ‘they’ because they ‘put us on a plane’ to ‘fly it into a building’ and sent ‘an executioner into an elementary school’, referencing 9/11 and the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. (Drnaso 101) By ‘us’ he claims to refer to the ‘lonely person clacking away at a keyboard: powerless’ but as Petter Törnberg demonstrates, these lonely persons ‘cluster together into tribes’ creating ‘echo chambers’ that spread ‘biased narratives, “fake news”, conspiracy theories, mistrust and paranoia.’ (Törnberg) Drnaso presents this through a series of emails sent to Calvin by ‘Truth Warrior’. ‘Truth Warrior’ confesses an interest in people at the ‘periphery’ of news stories, and his insistent emails, as well as the panels depicting clickbait articles, are reminiscent of the media frenzy surrounding Sandy Hook. (175) Suspicion falls on Calvin as a result of his connections to the US military and to Sabrina’s boyfriend Teddy. Truth Warrior and anonymous clickbait sites accuse him of being an actor paid to cover up Sabrina’s whereabouts. This is evocative of Alex Jones’s pronouncements that nobody had really died during the Sandy Hook shooting and that the victims of the massacre were ‘child actors’. (Baddour and Selby) The theory of ‘‘crisis actors’ is now a depressingly familiar trope’ and Drnaso’s panels mirror the internet images surrounding real world conspiracies. (Horgan)
The similarities between the images found online and those in Drnaso’s comic are chilling, and it is the visual form of the graphic novel that makes this so effective to a twenty-first century audience.
Moreover, Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize which has been seen as a ‘major breakthrough for the format’, and whilst Drnaso’s unsettling insight in to our current moment is advanced, Sabrina is still subject to the intrinsic tropes of the form. (Marshall) ‘Women in Refrigerators’ has been a consistent theme throughout mainstream comic book narratives though the term was only coined in 1999. (Simone) The term ‘Women in Refrigerators’ or ‘fridging’ originated from a website created by comic book writer Gail Simone who based the name on the image of a murdered female character in a refrigerator in Green Lantern #54. (17)
The website provides a list of female comic characters whose death, rape, injury or disempowerment has been used as a plot device (typically for the advancement of male plot lines), and Sabrina could arguably make this list. A notable example of this trope can be found in Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke in which we can see the treatment of Sabrina echoed through Barbara Gordan. The violence inflicted on Barbara is photographed by her tormentor and happens predominantly out of view. Barbara is stripped, shot by the Joker and rendered paralysed but this violence is not the focus of the novel. Instead, Barbara is used by the Joker to prove that good men can be driven bad and her suffering is described as ‘one bad day’ for the male characters. (Moore 39) As in Sabrina, the visual show of violence is discovered and viewed through perspective of male characters and it is their reactions that drive the plot of The Killing Joke forward.
At the beginning of Sabrina, the title character is considered missing and this is introduced to us through the interactions between her boyfriend Teddy and his old friend Calvin. It is discovered that she is dead because her killer mailed a video tape of the murder to a nondescript office, but the reader never witnesses this violence. Instead, we view it through the impact on the men who find it and on Teddy and Calvin. (69)
As the narrative progresses, it does not matter how or why Sabrina is murdered, but how the internet perceives the murderer and distorts Calvin’s role. Drnaso uses Sabrina’s murder to escalate themes of internet paranoia and conspiracy, and to show the psychological impact this can have offline. In the same way, the internet users almost succeed in writing Sabrina out of existence in their attempts to implicate Calvin who never actually knew her. For this reason, Sabrina can be added to Simone’s list for its blatant disempowerment of a female figure in the advancement of a male dominated plot. (Simone) Despite this, Drnaso’s ‘chilling analysis of the nature of trust and truth’ is extremely effective in the graphic novel form, but I disagree with Chris Ware that he ‘does not lapse in to cliche’ as fridging is a long-disputed cliche of the medium. Moreover, Ware claims that the name Sabrina ‘echoes’ throughout this book, and though many aspects of the story intensify with ‘resonance and horror’, the role of the title character is not one of them. Much as Barbara Gordan is not the focus of Moore’s The Killing Joke, Sabrina is a mere casualty of Drnaso’s plot.
Baddour, Dylan and Selby, W. Gardner. “Hilary Clinton correct that Austin’s Alex Jones said no one died at Sandy Hook Elementary.” Politifact, September 2016. www.politifact.com/texas/statements/2016/sep/01/hillary-clinton/hillary-clinton-correct-austins-alex-jones-said-no/. Accessed 22 November 2018. Web.
Baetens, J., & Frey, H. The Graphic Novel as a Specific Form of Storytelling. In The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (pp. 162-188). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
Baetens, J., and Frey, H. The Graphic Novel and Literary Fiction: Exchanges, Interplays, and Fusions. In The Graphic Novel: An Introduction (pp. 191-216). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Print.
Drnaso, Nick. “Sabrina.” One-shot graphic novel. (May 2018), Drawn and Quarterly.
Horgan, Collin. “Ann Coulter, ‘Child Actors,’ and the Future of Reality.” Medium, June 2018. www.medium.com/s/story/ann-coulter-child-actors-technology-reality-4faafe797473. Accessed 24 November 2018. Web.
Marshall, Alex. “Graphic Novel in Running for Man Booker Prize for First Time.” The New York Times, July, 2018. www.nytimes.com/2018/07/23/books/booker-prize-graphic-novel-ondaatje.html. Accessed 23 November 2018. Web.
Marz, Ron (w), Carr, Steve (p), Aucoin, Derec (p), Banks, Darryl (p), and Tanghai, Romeo (i). “Forced Entry.” Green Lantern, vol 3, issue 54. (August 1994), DC Comics.
Mikkelson, David. “Sandy Hook Exposed?” Snopes, December 2012. Accessed 22 November 2018. www.snopes.com/fact-check/sandy-hook-exposed/. Web.
Moore, Alan (w) and Brian Bolland (i). “Batman: The Killing Joke.” One-shot graphic novel. (March 1988), DC Comics.
Simone, Gail. Women in Refrigerators. March 1999, www.lby3.com/wir/. Accessed 24 November 2018. Web.
Törnberg, P. Echo chambers and viral misinformation: Modelling fake news as complex contagion. PLOS ONE 13(9): e0203958. 2018. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0203958. Web.
Ware, Chris. “Sabrina by Nick Drnaso review – an extraordinary graphic novel.” The Guardian, June 2018. www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/02/sabrina-nick-drnaso-review-graphic-novel. Accessed 23 November 2018. Web.