GRAPHIC NOVELS HAVE been at the edge of literary consideration for a long time. Cultural tastemakers hemmed and hawed over them. Fans championed their artistic and literary merits, even as some of the art form’s top practitioners were unsure of what a ‘graphic novel’ was. Alan Moore, for one, widely considered a great exponent of it, called it a “marketing term” with a “gnawing hunger to be accepted”. Neil Gaiman, whenever he is complimented for writing great graphic novels rather than comic books, apparently feels like “someone who’d been informed that she wasn’t actually a hooker” but a “lady of the evening”. The term ‘graphic novel’ is, after all, a relatively recent coinage (of the 1960s); and the format—defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a fictional story that is presented in a comic-strip format and published as a book’—probably just a little older.
The graphic novel has just had a major breakthrough. It has been given a seat at one of literature’s highest tables, the Man Booker Prize. The graphic novel Sabrina, by the American writer Nick Drnaso, has made it to the award’s longlist, a first ever. This, while other heavyweight novelists—from Julian Barnes and Peter Carey to Alan Hollinghurst and Pat Barker— have failed to make the cut.
Sabrina starts with a mystery. The titular character of the book is missing. Sabrina has been murdered. But as reviewers have pointed out, the book is less interested in her fate as it is with the impact her death has on those close to her. It is set in the modern world, even though it is supposed to be the near future, and the story draws in contemporary issues—a world of internet rumours and conspiracy theories, one devoid of personal interaction and intimacy —without resorting to clichés and sensational twists. The book has been widely applauded. The New York Times called it ‘an unnerving mystery told by a rigorous moralist, a profoundly American nightmare set squarely in the first year of the Trump presidency’. Zadie Smith calls it ‘the best book—in any medium—I have read about our current moment… possessing all the political power of polemic and yet simultaneously all the delicacy of truly great art’.
This is the 29-year-old Chicago-based writer’s second book. Drnaso’s first, a graphic novel called Beverly, was a collection of short fiction. Interestingly, comic books entered his life only in adulthood, and he finds his books influenced more by TV and film than by other cartoonists. “I once had the thought that in the 60s, there were lots of people who tried to be film directors, but who didn’t have the extrovert temperament for it, and that these people are the great, lost cartoonists. But graphic novels weren’t even an option then,” he told The Guardian. “What I love about drawing them is that I can work in private.”
The Man Booker’s website notes that, ‘Sabrina makes demands on the reader in precisely the way all good fiction does.’ Kwame Anthony Appiah, chairman of the jury, told The New York Times that a graphic novel being picked for the first time was “of course” in the judges’ minds. “But when the right novel comes along and it’s in your 13 favourites, you put it in the list… The impact of this is the same you have from any great work of fiction.”
Can a book—however accomplished—that relies largely on visuals compete for a prize that has only gone to all-text novels so far? Both formats tell stories, but how does one compare text alone with a work that combines words and drawings? This debate seems to be on the verge of getting settled.