My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Around the time this acclaimed graphic novel was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, I read it and wrote a somewhat glib, very short review. The review briefly restated my distaste for the artistic tradition within comics to which Drnaso adheres—not because I think this tradition lacks all intrinsic merit, but because it seems to have become the sole stylistic signifier of “seriousness” in comics to the outside literary world, even though it hardly exhausts the potential of the form. I deleted that review as too mean-spirited and shallow. On the other hand, I don’t believe in Auden’s old axiom that a critic shouldn’t write bad reviews. Bad reviews allow for the clarification of values; they give a great opportunity to say, I believe this and not that. To that end, a more substantive explanation of why I cannot esteem this celebrated graphic novel:
Nick Drnaso works in a stylistic idiom that goes back from today’s “literary” graphic novel to the ’80s/’90s alternative comics scene to the ’60s Undergrounds. This style bases itself on the ironic appropriation of supposedly more innocent art of early-to-mid-20th-century cartooning, both to point out the disavowed perversity that underlay mainstream culture before the revolutions of the ’60s and to lament our regression from a society that at least had ideals, however flawed. The paradox of an irony-poisoned nostalgia is not itself the problem. Spiegelman raises it to high and anguished art in Maus and Clowes finds its emotional core in Ghost World. But it can bespeak a limited social analysis, a lament over lost childhood, which also limits aesthetic amplitude. Such a style, because its irony covers everything in a patina of deniability, repels any emotion except a numb, rueful, and self-conscious sadness, even as it leaves us politically uncertain as to whether we are to mourn the past or be glad it’s gone.
Drnaso, like Adrian Tomine, comes late into this tradition. He seems to adopt it automatically as the house style of the literary graphic novel without recognizing its ill-fit with his subject matter or ideological outlook. He puts his figures, reminiscent of Chris Ware, through their agonizingly slow paces—tiny panels full of meticulously-recorded banalities—to condemn our world as an inferno where we have no real relations with each other and consequently have to jolt ourselves awake with Internet sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and violent video games. Drnaso’s precise ligne claire leaves not a line out of place, while his colors are flat and institutional, like office or hospital walls. The aesthetic is all of a piece, which is admirable only to a point.
The plot itself indicts our civilization as lonely, violent, and hysterical. Sabrina narrates the aftermath of the title character’s random murder by a fame-seeking Internet troll. Her grieving boyfriend, Teddy, goes to live with an old school friend named Calvin, an Air Force cybersecurity expert whose own marriage has broken up. The depressed Teddy slowly becomes convinced, by an Alex Jones-like radio host, that his own girlfriend’s murder was a false flag committed to spread panic by the global elite, while Calvin becomes enmeshed in the viral Internet version of the same conspiracy theory.
Mass shootings abound as everyone downloads Sabrina’s leaked murder video. No one is immune from the contagion of inhumanity—though the novel suggests that men are particularly affected, as even the best of them lose themselves in shooter games while, in counterpoint, Sabrina’s grieving sister reaches out to others and escapes into nature, successfully mourning without the need of digitally-enabled masculine self-assertion. As social media rages, daily life is banal and anhedonic, the 21st-century condition one of empty exchanges and passionless endurance. In the dialogue, Drnaso persistently misspells “yeah” as “yea,” like in the King James Bible, which is perhaps ludicrously apt for this jeremiad of a book.
With its tone of slow, flat affect and its political polemic against fake news and toxic masculinity, Sabrina more than earned its plaudits from the mainstream. But I am left with more questions than answers. For one thing, the book’s style is, as fashion critics say, too matchy-matchy. Is there no language any character can speak above the level of unintelligent, empty conversation? Is there any way to provide imagery in this mode of drawing and coloring that would act as a counterweight to the oppressive normalcy the novel showcases?
When Sabrina’s sister escapes into nature, the trees and bushes are as flat as the office walls elsewhere depicted. When Teddy discovers Calvin’s daughter’s children’s books and allows their playfulness to put his pattern-making faculty to better use than conspiracy theorizing, the picture-book art, meant to be playful, is as dull as anything else in the novel. When the characters break from their anomie long enough to care for each other—as, for instance, when Calvin feeds a cheeseburger to a grief-defeated Teddy—the style is unable to let the moment float free of ironic comment on all action.
Everything, even those things we are supposed to understand as redemptive, comes off like Peanuts seen through a cynical, depressive haze. Such a style long ago spent its critical force, and it hangs around only as a sign of artistic integrity even though it no longer possesses any intellectual content. I don’t doubt the sincerity of Drnaso’s political intention, but his sheer inertia of style cannot even hope to depict the salvation through nature, art, and kindness that his narrative arrangement commends. It used to be called the fallacy of imitative form: Drnaso tells us that we’re bored and depressed in a boring, depressing way.
Furthermore, is Drnaso’s trendy political analysis really so unimpeachable? It was instructive to teach this book to students who were not familiar with comics, because I had to fill them in on the form’s history before addressing Sabrina itself. This history lesson offered the ironic juxtaposition of Drnaso with Fredric Wertham: here is an art form over which midcentury parents and professionals quaked with moral panic, and here is a contemporary comics creator who is himself quivering over today’s threats to public order: social media, fake news, conspiracy theories, toxic masculinity, and all the rest (everything but Putin). Is it possible that these contemporary fears will one day come to seem as quaint as Wertham’s sub-Frankfurt-School warning that Batman would turn kids gay?
Not that Wertham and Drnaso weren’t and aren’t pointing out some real problems. Wertham was correct to say that midcentury comics were often crude, brutal, and illiterate, and Drnaso is on solid ground when he advises us to get outside more and treat each other better. But is the Internet reducible to the most egregious of its uses? Are we really all in danger of being mowed down at any moment by attention-seeking shitposters who can’t get over their anomie in any other way? And is the legacy media not exaggerating social media’s dangers for its own purposes, to distract from its own panic-inducing culpability in extremist violence, and is there not a sad irony in a comic book artist, of all people, going along with such scaremongering? There is also the problem, all too common among liberals today, of using the most stupid or cynical forms of conspiracy theory to discredit any social criticism that strays an inch to the right or left of wherever the Democratic Party’s leaders and their mainstream media allies tell us to be.
All in all, then, Sabrina is a precision-crafted product of its time; it is almost a time capsule. This is an achievement of a sort, but the best art does more than parrot the platitudes of its period; rather, great work rises above its era through imaginative force. Drnaso is unwilling or unable to do this—and even associates a drive for transcendence with dangerous male aggression in a classic instance of “male feminism” (AKA chivalric sexism). Such moralism and timidity likely dooms his work to rest in the epoch it so thoroughly condemns.