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It felt somewhat surprising to me that the fact a graphic novel has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for the first time has proved to be so controversial. I don't believe there's ever been any rules in the prize's guidelines saying a graphic novel can't be submitted and if none have been listed for the prize before I can only assume that publishers haven't submitted many in the past since they are only allowed to submit a very limited number of books. It feels like there's been an elitism and snobbery expressed by some who don't believe graphic novels are as great an art form as pure prose fiction. I get the point if people feel that reading a graphic novel is a totally different experience from reading a novel composed entirely in prose, but I think it's great that the prize is challenging people to read different forms of story telling and it might introduce some to an entirely new genre. I've certainly not read that many graphic novels before, but have really appreciated ones by Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore/Melinda Gebbie, Howard Hardiman and Chris Ware. So I'm glad the prize has introduced me to Nick Drnaso's work because I found “Sabrina” to be quite a powerful and bracingly melancholy read about current American society. 

A woman named Sabrina has gone missing. The novel focuses on the lives of Sabrina's sister Sandra and her boyfriend Teddy as they try to deal with her sudden absence and the aftermath when the shocking truth of what happened to her is revealed. The drawings which accompany the dialogue and text are very understated in how they convey the scenes with little detail or facial expressions in the characters. In the context of the story this has the odd effect of imbuing them with even more emotion because its all submerged and the characters are stuck in a state of inaction/confusion. Many of interior and outdoor spaces portrayed are also very muted or stark as if the environment is just as barren and sombre as the characters who are dealing with their grief. The conversations are clipped and awkward as the well meaning people in Sandra and Teddy's lives try to console them. All this evokes a tone of stripped down emotion as the characters are surrounded by a jaded society that's become accustomed to a bombardment of horrific news and a culture rife with conspiracy theories. Ironically, the only colourful and busy images in the book are reproductions of scenes from children's activity books which suggest a world of motion and light that's in stark contrast to the inertness of reality.

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The story also involves a man named Calvin who takes his old friend Teddy in and tries to help him deal with his sudden loss. Calvin works in computer security for the US military and is trying to formulate a plan to relocate so he can be closer to his ex-wife and daughter. While his actual job doesn't involve any combat he spends his time out of work playing video games with his colleagues that simulate military battles and he keeps guns locked away in his house so that he's “well-protected if anyone tries anything.” This combined with radio broadcasts and disturbing threatening letters sent to Sandra and Calvin suggest how society has become so consumed with paranoia about intangible threats. But the only threats that are actually portrayed in the stories are the ones which come from within when the characters are under so much anxiety that they appear to contemplate harming themselves or others. As part of his job, Calvin must routinely fill out a medical evaluation survey which is designed to gauge his mental health. While his stress levels fluctuate in his answers portrayed on these forms throughout the book he never admits to thoughts of depression or any personal circumstances which might affect his duties. Why would he when he knows it would risk his employment and possible promotion? So it gives the feeling that there are structures in place to try to support people's emotional health, but in reality little attention is given to the intricacies of their wellbeing.

Small details in the drawings poignantly portray the fraught condition of these character's lives. For instance, Calvin and Teddy basically live off from fast food and its highly suggestive how Calvin often brings home bags with a smiling star on them which could stand in for any generic fast food brand but which you know won't provide them with much nourishment. Also, nighttime or nightmare scenes are drawn in such a way that evocatively invoke a sense of space where the characters are wrestling with the unwieldy complexity of their feelings. While the overall tone of the novel is quite dark and sombre there are some lighter moments as well in the form of a slanket which Calvin has become accustomed to wearing or a vending machine at work which breaks down so much it's become an office gag. There are also many moments of simple kindness shown throughout the story which gives a hopeful sense for our ability to be our best selves in situations where we aren't so physically removed from each other. Running alongside the story of Sabrina's disappearance is that of Calvin's cat who vanishes without the characters noticing. This neglect parallels with the way Calvin has become so estranged from his daughter that his ex-wife tells him not to bother attempting contact anymore. It suggests how we can sometimes be careless about the things and people that matter to us most until we suddenly realise we've lost them for good.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNick Drnaso
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Much of Evie Wyld's fiction has an unmistakeable feeling of menace as if there is something dangerous lurking unseen in the background just out of sight. This is felt most intensely in her novel “All the Birds, Singing” where someone or something unknown is savagely killing the sheep on a woman’s farm. In this graphic memoir she writes of her family life, growing up in Australia and her enduring fascination with sharks. Using stark pared-down language Wyld creates a mood where reality intersects with mounting feelings of fear, particularly a fear of death. However, sharks are not the monster enemy. They are gradually shown to be more the victims – killed by humans out of fear. They are a presence in the girl's imagination as comforting in their constant attendance as they are horrifying. The exquisite, expressive and haunting drawings imaginatively bring the story to life. Humans are cartoonish figures while images of the sharks or other sea inhabitants are drawn in a hyper-realistic way.

“Everything is Teeth” refers to the surface of a shark's skin which can be like sandpaper so swimmers who simply rub up against a shark feel their skin being cut as if by teeth. The title is given an even more layered complex meaning as the story progresses. When the girl eventually re-enters the water after receiving a jellyfish wound “The salt chews on my stings.” There is a sharp distinction created between the areas of habitation above the water and below. When this line is crossed it can result in injury or death. The savage way in which humans are shown to survive or fight against the threat we face when crossing this boundary between land and sea indicates how we are hampered by fear. This is echoed in relationships between the family members and the girl’s vivid imagination about how they might die. There are important messages here about learning to live with fear as well as maintaining respect for animals and each other.

The atmosphere created by the drawings and poignant text is utterly enthralling. There's an extraordinary drawing of her brother swimming where the water is swirling and the current looks like a mixture of eyes and faces. Oftentimes sharks linger in the background even when she’s on land as if they constantly circle the girl wherever she goes. While snuggled up on the sofa reading this book I felt my toes curl. I was reminded of a great short story in Jackie Kay’s collection “Why Don’t You Stop Talking” called ‘Shark! Shark!’ where a man nearing retirement has a growing fear of sharks despite living inland. Sharks make an easy metaphor for our fear of death, but the co-authors of this graphic memoir transform this into something more subtle and complex. This is a quick read, but it will linger with you.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson

There have been countless in-between times I've spent watching ‘Murder, She Wrote’. Whether it was between having breakfast and getting dressed for the day, reading a book and going out for the evening or slouching on the sofa with a hang over, it seems that repeats of the show can always be found playing on some network. The preposterous plots and grandmotherly charm of Angela Lansbury never fail to make me smile and warm my heart. In this new pamphlet 'Angela' with text by Chrissy Williams and illustrations by Howard Hardiman the personality of Angela Lansbury via Jessica Fletcher is explored through a tale of love and obsession. In a confiding deeply-intense monologue stream the narrator speaks directly to Angela in an act which prises free the woman from behind the female super-slueth persona. Through poetic lines and repetition it speaks of a longing for a psychological and sexual connection with her while disentangling the mystery of amorous obsession. “Angela – you draw the dagger out, keep drawing, keep on drawing. This dagger never ends.” Angela is both the instigator and teller of the mystery tales giving her a godlike power which we mortals are enthralled by wanting her stories of small-town murder and intrigue to continue on and on.

Hardiman's illustrations recreate a cast of suspicious characters as might be found in episodes of the show as well as a trail of clues and murder scenes, but each is sharply etched out as if they were woodcuts and coloured in only three vibrant shades of red, white and black. In addition Angela herself is represented as on the hunt for answers, giving a cheeky wink to the camera or staring out at the reader with her face a mask of deep-lined horror. The familiar cartoonish aspect of the genre characters are given a darker edge as if they've been overlaid with the projection of a gothic psychological horror movie. Hardimen says on his website that he was given a brief to imagine Murder, She Wrote as directed by David Lynch. In fact, Lynch appears in the background at one point alongside a cast of characters. Subsequently the pamphlet gives a feeling of deep unease alongside a sense of psychological turmoil mired in absurdity. Shining through all this is Angela’s light-hearted personality making this comic a source of both stark beauty and subversive pleasure. Hardimen’s talent for packing complex emotions into a tenebrous landscape populated by quietly-dignified melancholy figures as was exemplified in his tremendous series ‘The Lengths’ is used to wonderful effect when set against William’s playfully lugubrious poetry. ‘Angela’ emanates with nostalgia tainted with an adult heartache.

Trailer for 'Angela'

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson