Comics scholar Ian Hague discusses the merit of Sabrina’s nomination, and asks what comics can tell us about literature.
Sabrina, Nick Drnaso’s graphic novel about the disappearance of a young woman and the subsequent propagation of a conspiracy theory in the media, has been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018. In itself this is an interesting curiosity that may or may not be repeated (it remains to be seen whether it will make it to the shortlist – that will be announced on 20th September). In a broader sense though, it seems to raise questions about the place and value of graphic novels and comics in culture. Is this the moment when comics gain true mainstream acceptance?
Don’t hold your breath. When Maus won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, it did much to raise the profile of Maus, and for a time it seemed it would be the book that pushed comics into the mainstream, but as Paul Gravett has astutely observed there wasn’t enough of a critical mass at that point to sustain the apparent growth. That might also explain why The Sandman’s 1991 World Fantasy Award didn’t take, and maybe we can even stretch it to cover Joe Sacco’s American Book Award for Palestine in 1996 as well. Yet with every passing award it becomes clearer that while comics might occasionally appear as an unexpected contender in a literary list, they’re not likely to be competing quantitatively with prose anytime soon. But does that matter?
Including comics (or graphic novels if that’s easier) on a longlist for a literary prize is only useful if you agree that comics are literature. If they are then they have arguably been overlooked for decades, an omission that has led many masterpieces to miss out on the top prizes they deserve to have won. But longlisting Sabrina for the Booker only asks us to evaluate whether it is better than Anna Burns’ Milkman, a prose novel, and it requires it to compete on terms that have been set by prose. It says nothing of how it relates to the work of, say, Charlotte Prodger, who has been shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize. Although at least one graphic novelist has won the Turner (Grayson Perry in 2003), we don’t tend to ask why more aren’t regularly shortlisted as artists, particularly given that words aren’t essential to comics at all. This is not to say, however, that comics should be viewed as art and not literature. Bart Beaty’s Comics Versus Art has already unpacked some of the difficulties involved in doing that, and I won’t repeat his arguments here. Instead, I would suggest that Sabrina’s Booker nod pushes us to ask (at least) two questions:
- What can graphic novels tell us about literature?
- What does it mean for a graphic novel to be “good”?
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
Question one, what can graphic novels tell us about literature, inverts a question that is implicit in the Booker nomination: what can literature tell us about graphic novels? In putting Sabrina on the Booker longlist, the judges are asking whether Sabrina is good literature; presumably if it measures up to the level of quality set by previous Booker winners then it has a shot. But we could also ask how Sabrina informs our understanding of literature; not only in terms of how it meets our criteria for good literature, but also in terms of what it does that literature does not. Even a cursory glance tells us that Sabrina doesn’t behave like a conventional prose novel (since, for example, it has pictures), but how do these differences inform our understanding of what literature is and isn’t? How does (prose) literature measure up to comics? Is a good novel good in the same way as a good graphic novel?
This brings us to our second question: on its own terms, what constitutes a good graphic novel (or comic)? Rather than asking us to measure Sabrina against an existing canon of great works of literature and seeing how it might fit (or not), we might instead ask whether Sabrina is a good graphic novel and what makes it so. As Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo have demonstrated, the criteria we use in making that decision will determine the outcome, and there are plenty of ways in which it could be included in or excluded from a given canon, each carrying their own risks and benefits. What is interesting about this approach, however, is that it demands a different answer to the Booker listing since it must establish criteria based on the combination of words and pictures (I’ll stick to this very problematic definition of comics here for the sake of concision, but I’ve dealt with the question of defining comics in more detail here).
Of course, there are awards for comics. Angoulême’s various awards are probably the highest profile of these in Europe, with the Eisner Awards occupying a similar position in the United States. In the UK, the most recent attempt to establish something of this nature was the British Comic Awards, though that has since foundered, and it remains to be seen whether anything will take its place. It’s worth asking how it might be revived, though, because such awards do have the potential to raise the visibility not only of comics themselves but also the evaluative criteria by which they can be assessed. While the selection of a winner, or even a longlist, inevitably generates controversy, it is also helpful because it prompts us to ask why we value certain works above others, and what those works do that we admire.
While it is undoubtedly encouraging to see Sabrina stirring up the Booker, wouldn’t it be at least as interesting to see something like Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World stirring up the equivalent for comics?
Dr Ian Hague is a Senior Lecturer in Contextual and Theoretical Studies at the University of the Arts London. He is the author of Comics and the Senses: A Multisensory Approach to Comics and Graphic Novels, and the founder of Comics Forum. He is currently co-editing two collections on Violence in Comics, due for publication by Routledge in 2019.
Header image courtesy of Julian Martinez Leclerc