By Nick Drnaso
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
(deep sigh)Zadie Smith calls it a masterpiece. It’s the first comic to be longlisted for the Booker Prize. It’s impossible to find on the shelves of the Barbican Library because everyone keeps reserving it. And so I guess with all that build-up I guess it was inevitable that by the time I finally managed to get my hands on a copy and the chance to sit down and actually read it the tiny voice in the back of my head just kept repeating like that Strokes song: is this it?
The thing it really reminds me of is this: I went to this literature reading thing last year and one of the authors talking was this person who’d written a story about a fake social media storm. So there was some outrageous event where someone said something wrong or offended the wrong people or something (I honestly can’t remember what it was exactly) and then it a blow by blow account of what celebrities would say what; how the newspaper columnists would react; what things people would tweet; what jokes comedians would make; how the news would report on it etc etc etc. Now without wanting to be mean about the person who wrote it (I hope I’ve been vague enough that they won’t ever read this) I swear to god it was one of the tedious things I’ve ever had to sit through. And the tiny voice in the back of my head just kept repeating over and over again: but why? but why? but why?
Basically I’m not even slightly convinced that producing a facsimile of current events and building somekind of story around it is really that intellectually edifying or nourishing you know? I mean – I could sit down and write something about a crazy narcissistic reality TV show star becoming President of the United States but I’m gonna guess that most at this point most people would consider that kinda redundant – no? I wonder then why Sabrina has been getting all this love bestowed upon it like it’s finally the one comic that people can point to and say: “You see! It’s not just for kids anymore!” (Pow. Zap etc).
So yeah – it’s hefty. And it feels like a “proper” novel. And it’s boring. It’s all very “realistic.” There’s nothing fantastical or science-fictional. And nothing much really happens in it. And the whole thing (puts book to nose) smells really proper adult. Like if a kid or a teenager picked it up and tried to read it then they’d for sure fall asleep within the first 10 pages so yeah – all the sensible adults can hold it up as an example of where comic books should be as a medium (SNORE). Plus the way it’s drawn is also super boring and just kinda… dull. (Why are all the colours so… faded?) Is this crazy but just looking at it makes me feel kinda sleepy? And just a tiny little bit nauseous? The way Nick Drnaso draws people makes them look like they’re living in a world where the gravity is just slightly heavier than the real world and their faces all our too mushy and undefined: so you feel like if you put your hand on their cheeks your fingers would sloooowly sink in… urg.
(Sorry. Don’t think I would be being this harsh if Sabrina was just another boring comic that I didn’t bother to read – but well you know it’s basically been showered with plaudits from here to there so mostly I guess I’m reacting to all of that. If it was just another book then I would shrug. But it’s not another book – it’s the new comics Emperor and so yeah: I guess I’m the one that wants to be all like: but he’s not wearing any clothes).
But all of this stuff is a feature not bug: whether Nick Drnaso did it consciously all not – I don’t know (but would guess not) but it is interesting that the book hit such a sweet spot with so many of the right people. I was left cold by the way the story doesn’t really resolve at all at the end – choosing instead to throw up different threads and leaving them all pretty much untied but it was only thinking about it afterwards then I realised that of course that’s the point. A book with a point of view and an agenda is obviously too antagonist and off-putting. So much better to create a kind Rorschach blot that lets everyone see what they want to see. A story that leads you around but never actually – you know – commits to anything. Great. That’s just what we need – right?
What do you think?
Agreed about the tedium. I guess Sabrina is partly about tedium, but it’s so successful in capturing this that the experience of reading the book is itself tedious. Usually I have to pace myself so that I don’t finish graphic novels at breakneck speed, but reading this one was a dragged-out affair.
I’d recommend Beverly–another Drnaso book named after a woman (curious to see if he keeps that motif going). Beverly is a collection of graphic short stories, which I feel are better suited to his deliberately flat style and unsettling slice-of-life observations. It’s inhabited by the same kinds of doughy, expressionless, disaffected people who populate Sabrina, but in small doses I find his world compelling.
I wonder how much of the tedium was down to the art style? It reminded me of an airplane safety card, but with more muted colours. That has to be deliberate, right?
Not just in the drawing style, but in more subtle ways – the subject dead-centre in each frame, all the frames in very uniform grids. (Both of which are big no-no’s according to all the theory I’ve seen on comic-making). I ranted about this before when we read Bitch Planet, but here it feels very deliberate. I’m not sure why you’d do that, though. Maybe to make the visuals more machine-like, a mechanical pacing without variation.
That slow, deliberate, mechanical feeling was something I got from the whole narrative, really. Everyone seemed very dulled, very muted, and I think that was deliberate – any time there was action in the story the scene ends, the camera cuts away. After the murder video is sent, we only see Calvin describing Teddy’s reaction to the police, rather than the reaction itself:
Throughout the story, moments of strong emotion are avoided, and I think that’s a comment on how the people in the story act – they’re so disconnected from their emotions that they just don’t know how to react to tragedy, especially someone else’s tragedy. I disagree with Joel, I think this type of realistic portrait absolutely has value, I think it’s making a good point about how alienated we are from our emotions and the effects of our actions, and I think it’s going to be even more effective as time moves on and society changes, to see the minutiae of how people acted back then. Also, I wonder how much of its impact we lose from it being such an American piece – some of the resonance has to be lost in translation, right?I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it’s intended to be enjoyable – that’s not where its power comes from. It definitely resonated with me, the characters felt alive (if completely numbed), and it succeeded at feeling ‘real’. I don’t think art necessarily has to be pleasurable to have value. I dunno, I hated it for the first fifty pages or so (I’m enough of an art-snob that I avoided buying this one just because of the art style), but this morning I fell into its rhythm and just demolished the rest of it, and it’s put me a pretty introspective mood, got me thinking about society and stuff, so I guess it did its job?
I guess it’s a very ‘me’ comic, I’m a huge Adrian Tomine fan, I love his 90s-as-hell generation-x slice-of-disaffected-life stories, and this is very similar, even down to the weird not-actually-an-ending endings. The art is more my bag, though the monochrome graphical style suits his stories in the same way Drnaso’s diagrammatic pastels suit his middle-america.
My main complaint with it being on the Booker list is ‘but it’s not a book’ – they’re different mediums, and while the validation is nice, it does feel a bit like appropriation.
(I totally agree about the faces, mind you – yuk.)
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
I mean – I can understand where Rat is coming from because basically this is how we’re taught to understand what art is and how it works. Making all of this deep points and etc. And the deeper it seems the more seriously we take it. I mean there’s loads of comics that we’ve done for the Book Club that aren’t really taken that seriously because – lol – they’re comics. And also – boring – they have stories where characters do stuff and react to things and have adventures (how gauche!). And then along comes Sabrina and Nick Drnaso and presents us this story which doesn’t really have anything exciting or dramatic, where moments of “strong emotion are avoided” and everyone (aka Booker Prize et al) is all like: oh wow – give this book a medal. I mean – a story which is making the point about how alienated we are from our emotions and the effects of our actions kinda sounds like… well: a bit of a shitty story to me? Seeing how most of what a story is is about the seeing people have reactions to things? (No?).
And this whole kinda “I can’t say I enjoyed reading it, but I don’t think it’s intended to be enjoyable” is again – incredibly common and very much how we’re taught to think about high-brow kinda stuff. Altho to me it seems very much like a religious hangup. If you’re reading something and it’s enjoyable then it’s obviously not that serious and you should maybe feel a little bit guilty? But if it’s something that’s no fun to read – then you know it must be good right? And obviously this is all complicated as hell of course: I mean – there’s loads of stuff that people love that I’m pretty sure is actual trash and vice versa and etc: but I’d like to take a stand and draw a line in a sand and say actually – this book is kinda boring and basically comics should be doing better than this. Not falling into the hole of “respectability” and “seriousness” and producing stuff that might tickle the fancy of snobs and Guardian-readers etc but erm upon closer analysis isn’t really that good?
And yeah I know that I’m just howling into the void here and what does it even matter what I say anyway? But I’m not sure that’s true and it’s kinda my whole point – critical consensus is built up by people and how people think about things and if you want it to get better well – you talk to people and try to get them to change their minds and maybe look a little bit deeper into how they evaluate things…
I mean – I very much hope that this doesn’t make me sound mean (and please know Rat that I’m not having a go at you) but this is also the perfect encapsulation of what Sabrina is all about – “got me thinking about society and stuff.” Because erm yeah like i think I’ve already said – what the hell is this book even about? It’s been held up as this comics masterwork and all the rest of it but erm – I’d day that the whole thing is actually pretty vacuous in terms of what it’s actually saying. I mean if the book could talk then what else would it really be saying apart from “oh yeah – fake news and stuff?” “and erm – maybe no one really knows anything” “and – let’s see what else: maybe everyone is just erm acting out their prejudices and stuff? I don’t know?”
It’s the appearance of profundity but without (as far as I can see) anything profound actually being said. And I don’t know about you – but that kinda chills me to the bone a bit? i mean – fuck – god knows Maus isn’t the perfect book: but at least it was about something – at least it had a point of view and something to communicate (and just between you and me) between all the horrors of the holocaust – it’s also a book that can be pretty funny at points? (I seem to recall his Dad has a lot of good one-liners). And now – what? – 30 years later? we have Sabrina which has all of the insight of a piece of paper with “Fake News” written on it (“Oh wow – reading it really made me think about fake news and stuff”).
Reading Sabrina I feel like whathisface in the car. “Yea.” “Hm.” etc.
Basically: what is the point of this book? Oh you know – stuff.
No! Disagreement is forbidden! 😉
All the booker prize stuff means to me is that it’s making the sort of noises the judges of those prizes appreciate, nothing more. It’s like complaining that the winner of the Bowl Of Custard prize is a bowl of custard. I have issues with comics and books being judged as a single catagory, but that’s beside the point.
I totally agree with you the book doesn’t live up to the crazy hype-train it’s got going on, but that doesn’t mean it’s without any value – it tries to do something different with comics, at the very least.
Here’s a question: does a comic have to have a story? Does it have to be about its story? I’m not sure, I can think of at least one comic-like-thing that definitely doesn’t tell a story (Martin Vaughn-James’ Cage) but I’m not sure if it’s a comic.
Ditto with other things, does a comic (or any art) have to ‘say’ something? Can it just be about representing something, and what’s the best way to do that?
You can draw a line in the sand for yourself, but I don’t really want to box comics in like that. I’m not saying it’s amazing, I’m saying it interested me with its difference from standard narrative-focused comics, and I enjoyed (am enjoying) thinking about that. I like works that try something different, even if what they try doesn’t work.
So yeah, maybe Sabrina‘s artsy-comic label made me think more about it than I would have with other comics. Maybe other comics would have pulled my brain in other directions with a bigger focus on narrative. But there’s room in looking at comics to go beyond ‘this is good!’ and ‘this is bad!’, surely?
(Also, if it’s created a discussion that’s got you so passionate, isn’t that of value, too?)
Could you treat any comic with the same seriousness, and have a conversation go in interesting directions because of that? Absolutely.
(This month’s book club title is totally gonna be ‘Rat vanishes up her own arse’, isn’t it?)
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Those people unlucky enough to know me know that the main elements of my body are piss and vinegar and a hatred for most things that burns with the intensity of a thousand suns. Obviously this makes me difficult to know. But it also means (and let me get my apologises in beforehand and say sorry now) that I’m not sure that I really believe in the idea that everything has value.(Sorry).
What’s the line from The Incredibles?
But let me try my best to answer all the points Rat has raised.
First up I would question the idea that Sabrina is trying to do “something different with comics.” Like: what exactly is this new thing that it’s trying to do? I mean apart from the muted colour tone and the scenes which drag on for ages and ages and ages I guess I don’t really see what new things it’s doing / what boundaries it’s breaking? I mean – Chris Ware kinda does all this stuff a lot better. And (love him or hate him) Chris Ware is a lot better at making comics that very much only function as comics. With all his crazy experiments and panel construction and all the rest of it. I mean – I might be wrong but I reckon you could turn Sabrina into a proper novel or a boring-ass TV show and you wouldn’t really lose anything (apart from the mashed potato looking people).
Also: pet hate of mine. Save from from art that “tries” to do stuff. I get kinda binary about this sort of stuff – you either do something or you don’t. If a comic is “trying” then that kinda means that – it didn’t work. So yeah – you don’t get no points for that from me.
Does a comic have to have a story? Well – I mean: question 1 would be: what does “have” mean in this case? Like I’m sure there are lots of comics out there that don’t really have stories in a traditional sense of whatever (question 2 of course would be: what does “story” mean in this case?). Up until now I’ve never heard of Martin Vaughn-James’ Cage but I’d be interested to read it – altho if it doesn’t have a story then what is it? Just a bunch of random pictures and words? That just sounds… boring and uninteresting. And frankly that kinda stuff always just kinda strikes me as the work of someone that doesn’t realise how much time and effort and skill it takes to tell a story. It’s like going into a restaurant and finding that the meals are just random uncooked ingredients put on a plate. I mean – yeah ok maybe you think that’s art and maybe you think that’s interesting and maybe you think you’ve very clever – but my best guess is that you don’t really know how to cook? And maybe don’t be surprised when people say “this is shit” and no one wants to eat there?
Does a comic have to say something? Well – I would argue that every story ends up saying something. Every story is a point of view. Every story tells you something about the world and about the person (or people) who made it. What they value. What they think is important. What matters to them. And yeah with Sabrina I guess the thing that I’m getting at – is that it’s a comic where the thing they’re saying is that they’re not really saying anything. It’s about not choosing a side and staying as uncommitted as possible so the audience can make up their own mind. And while obviously lots of people dig this approach (I can imagine people in book clubs across the world sipping tea and saying stuff “I really like how it gave me space to come up with my own conclusions.”). Which well yeah ok – in that case I’ve got this amazing comic you’ll love which I call “A Black Piece of A4 paper” which is obviously the best thing ever…
Re: Going beyond “this is good!” and “this is bad!” I mean – well – yes and no? I think if you’re trying to understand and critique something properly and really get under the skin of a comic (and the narrative around it) then you kinda have to go “this is good!” or “this is bad!” – it’s almost a responsibility. I mean – the view that everything just is and don’t critique it and just accept it for what it is etc is massively political and plays directly into the hands of those in power and those who are in charge of the status quo: and basically – fuck that. I realise that it’s a bit of a stretch maybe to go from saying things about comic books to changing the world and creating fully automated utopias: but well to use a phrase that I love – yes it’s political / everything’s political. And everything is about well – deciding what you value, what you think is important and what matters to you.
Instagram / budaboyhq
It’s my first contribution here, but Sabrina annoyed me so much that I can’t keep quiet. It’s like going to a bad contemporary art show and listen to talks like ‘at least he did something’ or ‘just discussing about it makes it valid’, and I’m so fed up with this kind of talk that I don’t feel like contributing to it.
Sabrina tells a story in a reported way, so it’s impossible to see the actions, just the consequences and so on. But the thing is that it’s no interesting seeing a guy reading emails on his laptop before bed. Or a guy in underwear rooming around- who does that in another people’s house anyway? It’s very American. ‘Look at the size of our houses, however we are still sad and gloomy and alienated and so on….’ it’s too pretentious to say the least.
Airport art for safety purposes has, at least, a sense of accomplishment after reading- we’ve survived the landing over water, hell yeah.
But Sabrina got me hooked while reading it but left me hating everything afterwards. It’s like it was meant to become a movie. And I’ve deciddd that I usually dislike the ‘Man bookers prize’ in general. What kind of name is that anyway, for a prize?
Sabrina disappointed me, because it shows that some people actually don’t read comics, and give prizes that are undeserved.
So, uh, you guys didn’t like it? ;)The movie idea is interesting, I hadn’t got that from it, but I can see it now you’ve said it. Some arthouse adaptation that makes about a fiver at the box and wins a bajillion awards. It’s probably six hours long, and has a blue filter over everything.
How does everyone feel about ‘slice of life’ stuff in general? Ghost World, Chris Ware, Adrian Tomine, etc? I wonder if maybe Sabrina clicked with me more because I like the genre… Or maybe my tolerance for art-wank is just higher.
Vaugh-James’ cage was a book showing a series of illustrations of everyday settings (looking through a chainlink fence at a playground, etc), first showed normally, and then after some sort of disaster. It’s… weird. It was from the 70s, and it shows.
In 1975, Coach House released The Cage: A Visual Novel, the book that much of Martin Vaughn-James’ reputation rests on. Composed entirely of single page illustrations or panels, with short typeset pieces of text postitioned at the top of each page, the book is an enigmatic story without human characters that examines a series of deserted rooms and outdoor spaces, in a seemingly post-apocalyptic landscape. The critic Domingos Isabelinho has suggested the book’s main character is the image of bed that appears on several pages throughout, noting that, “The Cage is a book about our desire to communicate (in the book we were substituted by, we are made of, modern communicating, recording, and measuring devices), our struggle to perpetuate our memory, our ideas, and our feelings against something that’s sublimely far bigger than ourselves: Time. We are cages trying to reach other cages. We, the cages, and our pathetic inventions, will inevitably be destroyed. Even something as grandiose as a pyramid will eventually disappear.”
Bet you’d love it, huh, Joel?
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Thinking about cages and “slice of life” stuff I would recommend everyone reading this to go out and bag themselves a copy of Cages by David McKean which (back when I first read it) felt like one of the best comics I’d ever encountered (wonder what I’d think of it now tho – especially seeing how when I spoke to Dave McKean on a comics panel he kept on referring to me as “Josh” LOL).
But yeah it is a seriously hefty beautiful thing with lots of cats and I would recommend it to just about everyone. If this was the book that was nominated for a Booker Prize then I wouldn’t be griping so much: but instead joining in with all the people singing its praises. Right at the start of the thread Christine said that “I guess Sabrina is partly about tedium, but it’s so successful in capturing this that the experience of reading the book is itself tedious” – Cages is also (amongst other things) about tedium and that feeling of being stuck in… well… cages (LOL). But manages to be actually good because reading it is exciting and interesting and cool and etc etc: all the things that you’d want a comic book to be. 🙂
Of course it helps that he’s frigging Dave McKean and basically does the best drawings of pretty much anyone on the planet so erm well – yes.
But basically yeah – I’m not really sure how useful it is for me to think of comics (or anything) in terms of genre and thinking that would have somesort of indication as to whether or not I’ll enjoy it / think it’s good. “Slice of Life” stuff can be done really well or it can be boring and dull. It all depends on how the authors and artists mix and chop and cook the ingredients. Like: I think it would have been possible for Sabrina to be a good comic if only Nick Drnaso like learnt how to draw people a little better? Spent some money and brought a few more different coloured paints? And read a book about how to structure a dramatic story instead of imbibing this kinda mainstream bullshit that the best works of art are the ones that don’t actually do anything lol.
Also – I’ve got to say that I was left a little confused by Alexandre’s email. “But Sabrina got me hooked while reading it but left me hating everything afterwards.” – erm: this kinda makes it sound like there were bits of it that you actually liked maybe? (I’d be interested to know what those bits were / what it was that hooked you…).
Am one hand typing while juggling almost new baby on other arm. Which is to say, I’m living life in snatches of time at the moment, and haven’t had the luxury of reading through all the responses yet, so this might read as repetitive.
America-in-the-age-of-Agent-Orange inflicted this on us. All of it. The nonsense notion that all perspectives and opinions deserve a fair and balanced airing (even if Drnaso himself doesn’t think so, he’s fanning that flame in this story line)… Comics creators putting out work that is supposedly ambitious, oh-so-serious, elevated, breathlessly well reviewed and bound to be optioned for film, that just doesn’t need to exist. Because comics already are cool and rad and awesome, always have been. Feels like winning awards for his first full length comic book made Drnaso feel pressure to keep putting out work that was ‘worthy’. There’s just too much America-2018 reality in this book, I can’t stand it. I was suspicious by pg 24, and properly put off by pg 38. It’s also full of cheap emotional tics, and the artwork is schticky. I usually force myself to savour good comic books, not swallow them up in a single sitting. Not this time! Even though this was a christmas present – slow season, so I had time – soon as I realised what it was I speed-read the rest of it, sort of hoping it would redeem itself in some way, vaguely unsurprised that it didn’t.
About the cover endorsements – unless Zadie Smith and Jonathan Lethem are die hard ‘comics people’, I discount their views to zero. Adrian Tomine, “demonstrates the inexplicable power of comics at their best” – really, dude? That feels kinda like a betrayal of all the truly great comics out there.
How does one pronounce ‘Drnaso’? Frankly the most interesting part of my whole experience of Sabrina, will be figuring that out…
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