A comic, up for the Booker prize? About time too
Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina is the first graphic novel to be longlisted for the prize. It’s good news for everyone who loves books
Wed 25 Jul 2018
Wed 25 Jul 2018
ick Drnaso’s Sabrina has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize – the first graphic novel in the award’s 50-year history. I’ve spent six years writing and editing criticism of comic books (as we in the know like to call them) and this news inspires a great feeling. We made it in during the first half-century! All right!
I’m being facetious, but the more present comics become in the established literary scene, the more people will be able to access the stories that are told best though the cartoonist’s art. The urge to share fiction that enlarges, uplifts or otherwise challenges the spirit is the reason for the existence of theMan Booker prize, so to include texts that contain strong pictorial elements does not seem egregious. Sabrina, a modern mystery about a missing woman, has been longlisted this year because it’s an incredible piece of narrative craft. This is good news for comics, cartoonists and literature in general.
Drnaso is published by Drawn & Quarterly, a company with a “literary” aesthetic, and Sabrina’s style is particularly refined. The Chicago Tribune said that “Drnaso’s simple, rigid drawings capture the bleak blankness of much contemporary life”. Indeed they do, as that studied use of image to describe atmosphere is how comics work. But it would be wrong to associate a particular aesthetic trend with literary value. Posy Simmonds, for example, is very different and just as talented, but she doesn’t receive quite the same sort of rapturous praise. (And it is worth noting that, were Drnaso to win the Man Booker, he would be the third American male winner in a row.)
|Nick Drnaso, whose graphic novel Sabrina has been longlisted for the Man Booker prize. Photograph: Olivia Obineme for the Observer|
When these books are suddenly celebrated beyond comics-reader circles, we fans sometimes forget to appreciate each book for its own sake. Some will jump at the chance to prove that comics can be “serious literature”, and use this longlisting as proof, unwittingly implying that every other comic is lesser. Some will turn up their noses at any books that look like the type of comic thatwould be acknowledged as the worthy kind. It’s hard to stay focused on what we enjoy about the comics form when one book, hewing close to one stylistic ideal, ends up being seen as representing an entire form.
Much of the praise lavished on Sabrina could be equally applied to other comic books: Hannah Berry’s Livestock is also a “masterpiece” about “our contemporary mitigated reality”; Conor Stechschulte’s Generous Bosom is just as full of “ominous, dead quiet”; Luke Healy’s How to Survive in the North has a similar approach to bodies and page layouts, though his is imbued with sherbet colour and a sense of climate. Simmonds, as mentioned, offers a fine, soft line in “fridge-humming domesticity and quiet dread”. Rather than being outraged at Drnaso’s longlisting, or defensive of his role in a particular literary tradition, let’s see his Man Booker nomination as a celebration of all these cartoonable and universal qualities.
• Claire Napier is a critic and independent comics editor, as well as cartooning just for kicks