Literature steps out of the box

Putting graphic novel ‘Sabrina’ on the Man Booker longlist is acknowledgement that it is not so much genre but content that must excite our literary sensibilities

Updated - August 04, 2018 04:10 pm IST

Published - August 04, 2018 03:05 pm IST

A brutal murder mangles the tranquillity of a fragile community. It is a seemingly random act of violence by a disturbed young man. Fanned by online paranoia, its effects begin to radiate outward, amplifying fears, mistrust, and hundreds of tiny fractures in urban relationships. Sabrina , by Nick Drnaso, is very American, very today.

It is novel in that it is hardly graphic. Drnaso establishes atmosphere with a minimalist, pastel palette, and with lines that don’t

betray the inner tumult of his characters, who are drawn with empathy and a touch of deliberate androgyny. This makes it almost natural for the reader to superimpose herself onto every face and internalise the experience. The flow of events is so organic, so in tune with the familiar patterns of grief that one can’t help but feel the utter powerlessness of the characters when they spiral downwards.

 

And when they clamber back up towards normalcy and a semblance of peace, the heart is lighter. By any yardstick, Sabrina belongs in Man Booker 2018’s longlist.

Plunging deeper

Was it Sabrina ’s theme, set in a very real socio-political climate, that had something to do with the sudden acceptance of the

format? As graphic novelist Orijit Sen points out, “comics and graphic novels have been exploring important themes for decades. Conventional acceptance has been slow perhaps because of the compartments we think in, and the ‘industries’ that profit from these compartments.” More importantly for the genre, does the Booker’s inclusion mean that graphic novels have finally gone mainstream?

When Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, it was less a victory for music than for literature. The transformative impact of Dylan’s verses on language, and the global culture of music it flows through, is undeniable. But what was more gratifying, was to collectively acknowledge that these verses belong in the realm of literature. A year before that, Belarusian Svetlana Alexievich was awarded the Nobel for her incomparable work that distilled oral histories into a devastating account of tragedy.

 

Recognition for Dylan, Alexievich and Drnaso; in other words, embracing lyrical verse, oral histories or art, makes literature deeper and broader than our everyday understanding of it.

Of the three, graphic novels are arguably the most significant addition, for the simple reason that unlike the others, they’ve always been seen as a ‘lesser’ medium. While they never stopped growing in popularity or virtuosity, appreciation has been myopic at best.

The 1992 Special Pulitzer to Art Spiegelman’s Maus – a poignant tale about the author’s relationship with his father, a holocaust survivor – was the first Pulitzer for the format. In fact, Maus was among the first to be called a graphic novel. It was serialised in a magazine from 1980 to 1991 and first compiled into a volume in 1986. This was roughly a decade after the term ‘graphic novel’ was coined by Will Eisner as part of a sales spin for his book Contract with God . Marvel Comics loved the term and mass-marketed it.

Original worlds

If there ever was a clear demarcation between comics and graphic novels, it was short-lived. Meanwhile, giants of the genre had begun creating towering epics, bringing to life characters known and unknown to the comic-reading world.

 

In the late 70s through the 80s, spiked with post-war cynicism and LSD, comics decided to grow out of the black-and-white altruism of the previous decades, and into more edgy territory with shades of grey and red. Just like the kids that read them.

One work that epitomises this shift is Alan Moore’s Miracle Man, based on a 1950s’ comic. Moore evokes a bit of nostalgia for the innocent age of comic book heroes and with a wildly inventive conceit, plunges the reader into a thrilling, sinister, grown-up reality. Like Frank Miller, he went on to reinvent popular (Superman) and obscure (The Swamp Thing) characters by infusing them with vivid personalities and deeply researched stories.

 

In fact, graphic novels have always been fecund with truly original stories. The work of Lynd Ward, for instance. An artist in the Depression era, Ward produced wordless stories, some as many as 230 panels long (Vertigo), in wood engravings. Moore and Miller, like many others, cut their teeth on comics before finding the conceptual and artistic mojo to create their own,

original worlds. Moore’s From Hell , set in a painstakingly researched Victorian London, recreates the Jack the Ripper murders. Well before he published the tender, cerebral and deeply personal Asterios Polyp , David Mazzucchelli was the celebrated illustrator behind Frank Miller’s iconic Batman: Year One .

There’s much more. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis, an impossibly exaggerated world of corrupt government, a malleable people and badass journalism. Or Julie Maroh’s Body Music (her first graphic novel, Blue is the Warmest Colour, was made into the award-winning film of the same name).

The 90s belonged to Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman . Gaiman’s dreamscape was the gateway for most aficionados of the genre today, not just because of the author’s nuanced measuring cup for blending the mythical with the everyday, but for the army of artists, illustrators, inkers and letterers that worked on it. This collective effort is something that sets apart and lifts this genre above the novel.

A thing of glory

No other format can quite create the same effect these artists, and their collaborations, can. Exquisitely sculpted copy married with wildly imaginative art create an experience that is best described as synesthetic.

In the world of graphic novels, manga has hardly been explored, except for a few hugely popular works and a basement-full of adult content. In this sub-genre, Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike is a rite of passage for any graphic novel fan. Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo is considered the most important manga ever written. The economy of words and the power of art survive translation.

The Indian contribution is nascent but prolific. Sen, also the founder of the PAO Collective, is credited with India’s first graphic novel, River of Stories , (Kalpvriksha) in 1994. Appupen’s Halahala is a hilarious, often wordless, satirical world; Sarnath Banerjee, in his novels like The Barn Owl’s Wondrous Capers, champions ‘particularisation’, making them at once hyperlocal and globally relatable. Amruta Patil’s breakout work Kari was a refreshingly original and wry voice. Samit Basu, famous for The Gameworld Trilogy , straddles fantasy and graphic novel with wide-ranging collaborations.

Most of these writers don’t view the Booker nomination as particularly significant endorsement for the genre. “There is a time in your 20s,” says Banerjee, “when you seek validation. The graphic novel has come so far it needs no literary validation to propel it forward. Besides, I believe graphic novels are meant to be regional and for smaller audiences. Too much popularity makes something translatable and consequently no longer local.”

Similarly, Basu argues that while it’s good to see the award getting progressive, “the Booker would have been better served looking more seriously at novels from cultures and regions thus far not included.”

The selling game

At any rate, Sabrina might spur sales for the genre. As Appupen says, with a touch of apt cynicism, “The market is moving to visuals. Book sales are low, especially of novels. So add a few pictures and tag it with a Booker mention. It’s a better sell. We’ll be seeing more attention soon.”

Molly Crabapple, author of Drawing Blood , extends this idea of the of the image gaining ground. “It isn’t just about graphic novels or comics redeeming print,” she says, “but all work that makes the physical book a visual and tactile thing of glory… something that is beautiful in the physical world has to be held in one’s own hands. It justifies print just by existing.”

In truth, even if the Booker has been limited in its geographical field of writers, it has always made exciting picks in terms of format. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton or Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders do take the reader out of the comfort zone. The latter, for instance, is entirely and mystifyingly a series of quotes, both historical and fictional.

Most importantly perhaps, the idea of genre itself is possibly outdated. “I‘ve been bleating for years that people need to look beyond genre-elitism and trust content. There’s nothing inherently fabulous about the graphic novel form, but its best and most innovative projects are as good as those in any other literary medium,” says Patil .

In other words, the nomination would serve the genre best if it truly were not about genre in the first place. And the major literary awards are just beginning to grasp this, beginning to step out of the narrow confines of traditional storytelling.

Sabrina could be seen as the inflection point in this debate, an illustration of the changing language of literature. Whatever the trigger, for the reader, it opens a window into a new, bewildering and exciting universe.

The former journalist now works as a content consultant in fintech and crypto-economics.

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