Sabrina in the Fridge: The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Graphic Novel in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

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)

Image taken from Snopes.com (A site that claims to be engaged in ‘the battle against misinformation’.)
Panels from Drnaso’s Sabrina which convincingly mirror conspiracy images found online. 2018. p. 122. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

Green Lantern finds Alex DeWitt dead in a refrigerator in Green Lantern, Vol 3, #54. p. 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.

Barbara Gordan’s body is used to psychologically torture her father in The Killing Joke. 1988. p. 26.

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)

Two male office workers watch the murder of Sabrina in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina. 2018. p. 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.

 

Works Cited

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.

7 thoughts on “Sabrina in the Fridge: The Strengths and Weaknesses of the Graphic Novel in Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina

  1. Hi Chelsea,
    Your post lucidly captures the tensions put forth in Sabrina, which sometimes frustrated me as a reader. I really enjoy your analysis here, especially the issue of the absent-yet-omnipresent titular character. Sabrina’s story is usurped for a completely different (and as you point out, male-centric) narrative, and this often feels like an injustice. I wonder if Drnaso is aware of this and, in sacrificing Sabrina’s voice for the sake of a ‘larger’ problematic narrative, he is attempting to highlight the dehumanizing affect of media focus; Sabrina and the horrific thing that happened to her becomes less important than the ongoing debates between some conspiracy theorist trolls.
    This feels all too relevant in our age of rampant fact deniers, and I think that is one thing Drnaso does particularly well. He seems to capture the hysteria and anxiety of this group, while remaining committed to unsentimental representations. This, along with your analysis, really makes me think of the toxic masculinity that is at the core of many of these groups. So, I have to wonder if the novel is struggling to make a point about this by erasing the story of Sabrina in favor of a male-centric narrative. Although, your inclusion of The Killing Joke demonstrates that this could just be a failure of the genre.
    Anyway, you make very compelling points and I would love to hear your thoughts!

    Best,
    Kendra

  2. Hi Kendra,

    Thanks for the comment. I definitely agree that the narrative of Sabrina is worryingly relevant in our age, and that the entire story adds to a scary sense of legitimacy. Sabrina’s sacrafice is really effective in this, and for that reason it does deserve much of the praise it has garnered.

    I think you’re right that you can sense an undercurrent of toxic masculinity that is so prevalent online, but I’m not sure if this is intentional. Toxically male trolls might have been more forceful and distressing where Sandra was concerned in the text, but I feel that her experience was very much shunted to the side. But the feeling is definitely there, and I would like to think that Drnaso is aware of that old comic book cliche and has chosen actively to use it because his narrative is all about the dehumanising potential of internet culture.

    I do wonder if this could have been achieved in a different way, though? The murder of a male character perhaps, or a greater focus on Sandra?

    Whatever the case, fridging has been used to make hundreds of effective points over the years, but it might be time for a change of plot device!

    See you class,
    Chelsea

  3. A few years ago, with the increasing pressure of commercial survival breathing down the back of the necks of those at DC Comics, I suddenly found myself a reader of them. this so happened to coincide with a University course I was taking with thew former President of D.C. comics at my college in New York. Needless, to say I had immersed myself in the genre and learned from the best about what it meant and where it should go in the future.
    When I came out on the other side of it, I didn’t find myself as convinced of the necessity to further promulgate this form of literature as I thought I would before I had taken the class. Instead of the ‘opening up’ of storytelling techniques that the medium had promised, I increasingly thought of this mode of storytelling as a simplification of Literature, not as a widening of the scope; a digression rather than a transcendence. After all, did it not take at least a quarter of the time to finish ‘Sabrina’ as compared to any novel off the shelf?
    I am not meaning to suggest that the amount of time it takes to read a book makes one book more superior to another, however, it does seem to be the case that a shorter piece of literature does tend to come with less detail. Even in Drnaso’s work I found myself confusing the faces of the characters, because they were too simply drawn, and confusing the names of the characters, because their mentions were too few and far between. I was losing myself in its simplicity.
    Your point about the graphic novel adapting to the modern world of social media I am in agreement with, I would even go as far as to say that Drnaso does this very well. I would not, however, claim that this is a good thing for literature, or readers in general.
    Technology has taken over our lives to the point where some form of modern technological advancements have been mentioned in everyone of our books read this semester. This focus on materialism has driven narratives away from interpersonal conflicts, solely relying on personal dilemmas. That the isolated, once-social, beings of Drnaso’s world would contemplate suicide is not so farfetched.
    Then, back to junk food.
    Sabrina is certainly a quick book to flip through, but only because it has so few words. The focus on images narrows the outcome of the audience’s perspective, but it also limits its depth. You and I, in essence, have read the exact same novel. With, I’m sure, a strikingly similar understanding of the events in the book. But here I am not talking about what Drnaso is trying to do, just how he is doing it: the medium.
    We would have an easy time focusing on his themes, but a hard time finding as many as we would in ‘The Great Gatsby’ or ‘War and Peace.’ It would be difficult to have much on the novel’s use of symbolism, or use of allusions, because there is no narrator to give us any. The graphic novel has expanded the literary medium, but truly limited its power.
    All of this being said, I truly did like the graphic novel. But I also like Hunky Dory Buffalo Crisps and Diet Coke. However, I would never claim their monotone pungency is equal to the multitude of subtle flavors that can be found in the pair of Brie and Sauvignon Blanc.

  4. Hi Chelsea,

    Your post was really informative on the correlations between some of images used in Sabrina versus those found on conspiracy websites, which I would not have otherwise noticed. I think Sabrina was truly powerful in its portrayal of radical internet conspiracies of tragedies and the effects it has upon the victims of these unfortunate circumstances. I would agree with your viewpoint that this theme was especially effective in the visual form of the graphic novel, particularly in its ability to illustrate the reaction of multiple characters smoothly without a break in narrative.

    I also believe that the character of Sabrina regrettably falls under the trope of ‘women in refrigerators’ and is a casualty of the plot, however I think this may have been influenced by its form? You referenced Moore’s The Killing Joke that follows the same formation, but I wonder is this common in many if not most graphic novels? My knowledge on comic novels is rather poor, but this trope seems common for many of the ‘superhero’ and ‘fantasy’ novels that dominate this form. So whilst Drnaso was able to break away from the superhero cliché of the past, Sabrina fails to let go of all of the clichés associated with the graphic novel.

    -Pelin

  5. Hi Chelsea,

    Great blog post. I loved your identification of how storytelling has had to evolve as a medium, in order to keep pace with modern life and its increasingly digitised culture. I would agree that the graphic novel occupies an important place in the literary canon, insofar as it generates a unique aesthetic experience for readers, whilst retaining the traditional politicised nature of any literary text. For anyone particularly interested in this topic, The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth (New York: Bloomsbury, 2018.) by Christopher Schaberg is a great read.

    In relation to the conspiracy theory elements of Sabrina, I have found actor-network theory to be particularly relevant. It ‘replaces the notion of “society” with an emphasis on networks of associations, conceiving of the artwork as embedded within multiple chains of meaning rather than serving as a microcosm of a social totality.’ (Anker, E and Felski, R (eds). Critique and Postcritique. Duke University Press, 2017: 17) In this regard, I wonder whether Sabrina is actually a metafiction, psychologically manipulating readers just as its characters are manipulated. In other words; by grounding itself in conspiracies about what became of the titular character, the text itself assumes the nature of a conspiracy, by generating a sense of expectation for readers that, in my view, is ultimately never fulfilled. Sabrina’s “networks of association” seem to warn us that such theories bring no satiation, but typify our need for answers and the anguish this brings to modern living.

    I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

    Best,
    Sarah-Jane

  6. Hi Chelsea,

    I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Sabrina.

    I have to agree that Drnaso’s visual style lends itself very well to the themes of the novel. I particularly enjoyed how clean and muted the illustrations were. In a way, they almost masked the emotionally complex story that was taking place.

    Your evaluation of the “Women in Refrigerators” trope is very interesting, and an important criticism which, I believe, transcends graphic novels/comic books. I, too, was frustrated in Sabrina’s demotion to the background character in her own murder. However, I question whether or not this was intentional. After all, the graphic novel is named after Sabrina. Admittedly, I don’t know much about his trope, and I can only speculate on the intentions of Drnaso. However, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

    Best,
    Lauren.

  7. Hi Chelsea!
    I liked your idea that Sabrina and her murder fades more into insignificance as the internet cares more about Calvin and his possible involvement in it.
    I also enjoyed your discussion that a comic can be nominated for such a prestigious award. The drawings and form for me really added to the narrative and raised questions as to why conspiracy in America is so popular.
    My question to you is, through the conspiracies and the effects it has on characters such as Calvin, is Drnaso making a suggestion that something more has to be done about these false claims when these real life tragic events occur?

    Catherine.

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