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'Sabrina': Muffled voices in a post-truth world

Hikmat Darmawan

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, December 3, 2018  /  08:17 am
'Sabrina': Muffled voices in a post-truth world

Sabrina, 2018. (Courtesy of Granta Publication/-)

Halfway through the graphic novel, I was reminded of the tragic impact of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in the United States on Dec. 14, 2012.

A conspiracy theory spread over the internet alleging that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax perpetrated to campaign for gun control, which would weaken the US. Parents and families of victims, as well as surviving teachers and children of the tragedy, were seen as actors.

Radio broadcaster Alex Jones from Austin, Texas, fervently aired the conspiracy theory and in April 2018 was sued by three families of Sandy Hook survivors.

In Sabrina, one of its lead characters, Teddy, seems obsessed with a radio broadcast talking about the “Masters”, about a global conspiracy that’s enslaving listeners.

“So they manufactured tragedy […] they staged massacres and murdered civilians. This is a smoke screen,” says the broadcaster on page 88.

“Are they creating global dictatorship? Does it already exist? I don’t know that it matters. The ‘haves’ already have it all. Keeping us in place is their only goal.”

Teddy is apparently all ears. The broadcaster is described by Nick Drnaso only in the voice coming out of the radio, which narrates another version of the daily world. It is a version filled with anger, suspicion and suppressed war.

Drnaso uses so many panels to meticulously convey the voices and thoughts of the broadcaster. So goes the narrative style of the entire graphic novel: serene, flowing slowly, calmly presenting outbursts in imperceptible parts.

Drnaso focuses his visual narratives on the effect of such outbursts, an aftermath that is often quiet but sometimes is felt to be even more terrifying than tumultuous frenzies.

This graphic novel begins with the daily life of a woman in Chicago; she looks for a cat, is visited by her younger sister named Sandra, fills out crossword puzzles, chats in the kitchen and in bed.

Sandra asks her sister to vacation out of town. They part later in the evening. The next morning the woman starts the day normally. The sky is a bit cloudy and she goes out.

A while after the first part, the woman turns out to be Sabrina. She is Teddy’s girlfriend. Sabrina becomes missing. The loss gradually enters the awareness of readers.

Post truth: Sabrina depicts the dark side of the internet where conspiracy theorists and trolls regularly post hoaxes and fake news.Post truth: Sabrina depicts the dark side of the internet where conspiracy theorists and trolls regularly post hoaxes and fake news. (Courtesy of Granta Publication/-)

Teddy feels depressed and visits a childhood friend he has not seen for a long time, Calvin, in a small town in Colorado. Still with its creeping pace, the novel presents the worst possibility in the modern world and things get even more awful.

Without revealing what happens, it is enough to mention the presence of a horrifying video on the internet and its impact on Teddy, Sandra and Calvin.

As the story goes, the Sandy Hook tragedy is brought up, leading in a direction that makes it resemble the real-world tragedy.

Teddy, Sandra and Calvin are carried away by the internet, which can be very vicious.

Paranoia, cluelessness, helplessness and concealed anger that leave them prone to occasional outbursts haunt the three.

Drnaso is very proficient in building his storyline.

Conversations on the internet, some children’s games and spaces for the characters are illustrated in great detail.

Consequently, readers seemingly enter a very real world, one that’s closely and intimately involved with us every day. This makes what happens to Sabrina, Teddy, Sandra and Calvin even more terrifying as it invokes real sensations.

The ostensibly real world is built by compositions of words and pictures. This gives Drnaso freedom to both hide and express many things. Without being mediated by words, various things can be felt from the mute scenes and silent landscapes drawn by Drnaso. If prose relies on words to describe situations, a medium like a graphic novel can focus on the role of words for something different and let pictures or images speak.

In Sabrina, Drnaso optimizes words to serve as “voices” — an analogical term in the study of novels to portray personal uniqueness, either than of the novelist or the characters in a novel.

The voices in a novel are formed by uniqueness of the perspective and speech pattern.

Drnaso skillfully manifests the voices in radio broadcasts, online articles, various emails and gossip among employees that form a stream of tension that always poses threats behind this novel’s quiet pictures.

It is interesting that at the same time Drnaso manages to depict the difficulty of the main characters — Sabrina, Teddy, Calvin and Sandra — to express their own voices amid the tsunami of words in the media and social 

Gradually and terribly, the four figures are robbed of their identities and shaped according to the wishes of hoax mongers, fanatics and troll makers, without being able to voice a response to the public.

Calvin, for instance, who at first only offers a chance to Teddy, steadily obtains a new identity on the internet as a fake actor, a participant of the conspiracy around the case of Sabrina. The new “identity” turns his personal life upside down, his ties with his family living separately and his working relations.

Sandra reads a series of emails she has received after the Sabrina case’s public exposure, seemingly incapable of uttering her own voice.

Teddy is immersed in his room and unbearable loneliness. When he finally becomes obsessed with searching for Calvin’s lost cat, one can sense it as a kind of self-liberation that’s expensive in this world filled with prejudice.

Sabrina is on the long list of candidates for a 2018 Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the world, based in Britain.

The significance of Sabrina’s Man Booker Prize listing is the recognition that graphic novels constitute a valid literary medium.

Sabrina is discussed by literary critics and displayed at general bookstores rather than just at comic bookshops all over London. That’s where I bought the book at Housmans Bookshop, which claims to have been a “radical bookseller since 1945”.

The recognition is important as it opens a big chance for comics to contribute to public discourse in an effort to understand today’s complex world by means of a medium of visual narration.

Sabrina is the best book — in any medium — I have read about our current moment,” said Zadie Smith, a brilliant contemporary novelist.

Chris Ware’s comment in The Guardian describes Sabrina as “A clever and chilling analysis of the nature of trust and truth and the erosion of both in the age of the internet”.

Chris Ware is a graphic novelist considered capable of voicing the brutal silence of modern men in his comics.

This potential also needs to be explored in Indonesia’s literary and comic spheres, not merely because of our long graphic novel tradition from the 1940s to the 1980s.

More than that, the world is currently plagued by tension resulting from widespread prejudice, persecution, hoaxes and expressions of hatred that are apparently expanding in the era of the internet.

Sabrina is a gripping meditation of how frightening the dark side of the present-day internet is.