Historically speaking, comics have been quite attentive to current topics. One way or another, even if through the most unabashed fantasy, comics’ active participation as public discourse on current events has always been part and parcel of its output. And even though we could create an idea that comics started out closer to such an attitude (say, from Francis Barlow 1682 Popish Plot illustrated ballad, rightly celebrated by David Kunzle, to the way 19th century North American newspaper cartoons responded to the social mores of their heyday), then moved away into escapism throughout most of three quarters of the 20th century and then, late in the 1980s, started to move back into reality–related modes (through autobiographical, biographical, documentary, reportage, historical and essay–like comics), there is always a manner to interrogate comics texts in order to understand it’s contextual ground.
Sabrina is one of those books in which the effort to respond to the times at hand is so clear that it brings a slightly damaging nature to its quality as fiction, or even in its simplest form of a pleasurable read. In other words, it is constructed in a way that it knows its own “topical importance.”
Nick Drnaso’s work is inscribed in a tradition that finds authors such as Ware, Burns, Tomine, as the precursors and, but also, more recently, Gabrielle Bell and others. This is a tradition that explores the everyday of late capitalism life, where the drab and drag of common jobs, manipulated information, hollowed-out relationships, and non-stop pedestrian entertainment deprive life of its spirited, individualized joy.
There is a “mystery” in this story, something that should be solved, if this was a crime-oriented genre story. It even creates moments of suspense and expectation that almost create the impression that it will become the source of satisfaction in the reading. But it should come as no surprise that not only this event – the disappearance of the titular “Sabrina” – is not the heart of the book’s “plot” as it is also, of course, not solved. In fact, the narrative is quite adamant about the fact that it cannot solve this “mystery” precisely in order to keep its hurtful ambivalence alight. Even though there are elements that approach that “event core” – Sabrina’s sister and family, the video, other related stories – it keeps slipping away.
The protagonists of the book are Teddy, Sabrina’s boyfriend, who seems to have given up on life entirely after this disappearance. But he is taken, in a way, by a friend, Calvin, a recently separated Air Force officer who loves to listen to right-wing, conspiracy theories talk shows (Alex Jones is its model). The mixture of these two types of depression is the recipe for a spiral of commiseration, inaction, and even madness to the darkest corners of North American culture. And it is on this that the author piles up the “topicalities” of modern–day America: gun culture, alt-right nutjobs, the erosion of family life, mental illness, polarized politics, internet trolls, hate mail, the vitriolic spit that we carry within ourselves and that, sometimes, is spat out, the voyeuristic nature of people even when facing the most heinous acts that humans can perpetrate against each other. This makes up for a great checklist for discussion groups, sure, but I have my doubts if it makes up for a good book.
Of course, part of the “defense” on these points will be that that is the precise point of Sabrina. The seemingly perfunctory nature of its schematic, almost expressionless figuration, the overwhelmingly strict grid with small panels, some of which overtaken by text messages or isolated characters, the flat, subdued coloring, the almost mechanical dialogues, all come together to convey the bleakness of this world. Or at least, the bleak perspective of the world as informed by these protagonists. In fact, Sabrina explores precisely how people seem to be unable to speak and listen to one another in order to compromise, negotiate and learn, and prefer rather to be stuck to their already formed ideas and will torture any new piece of information to consolidate what they believe in.
Greice Schneider noted this adroitly in What Happens when Nothing Happens?, when she discusses the fact that comics authors pursue the representation of a drab, no-exit existence through a painstakingly minute and patient job of comics-making, a paradox she describes beautifully as the “pendular dynamics of boredom and interest”.
Drnaso makes an incredibly job in keeping up the relentless dryness of his stylistic approach. There is little chance to escape this – only a loose panel and, later, a spread of a child’s book read by Terry seems to let go of the ceaseless droning din of the narrative, but it floats ways rather quickly, leaving no respite.
Yet another defense may be that, well, Sabrina is about anomie and trauma and ennui and hopelessness and loneliness. And that there is no other way to explore this but to create a book that translates these feelings in a corresponding manner. Still, I cannot free myself from the sense that most of the topics and attitudes are rather a shopping list to approach comics from an elusive “literary mode” (an effort that payed off, naturally, from its accolades and literary awards; not to mention its very publisher), and I wonder if that’s necessarily a good thing.
Trauma does not have to lead into an explosive, emotional and final resolution. Quite the contrary, most of the time traumas become an ongoing everyday struggle of small aggressions that mow down the individual. And Sabrina explores this, as pain piles upon pain and words and attitudes and gestures of other people hurt because the person being hurt reads them to be hurtful and no one has the right to say that that reading is wrong. Once again, it’s a trouble of communicating and failing to do so. Perhaps, in the end, the failure in excitement for this book is its hidden power.