Octavia Estelle Butler was an American novelist whose science fiction narratives featured strong Black women protagonists in stories that questioned the past, present, and future. She used elements of science fiction and fantasy to reflect on the realities of race, gender, and society. Butler paved the way as an African American woman, from the beginning of her writing career in the 1970s until her untimely death in 2006, to encourage writers- particularly those of color- to shake off the restraints of a white male-dominated genre in order to tell stories that were inclusive, diverse, and trailblazing.
Butler was a self proclaimed “pessimist” if she wasn’t careful, and “a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” She reshaped what science fiction could look like and who could be its main characters. She was a pioneer, and unfortunately there are far too many outside of the literary world who don’t know much of her work or who she was. That may soon change with the January 2017 release of the graphic novel that will adapt one of Butler’s bestselling works, Kindred. Through the use of art and comic book form, the prolific author may well be discovered by a new generation.
Kindred uses time-travel and fantasy to give a modernized perspective to the slave narrative of the United States. First published in 1979 it features a Black woman protagonist, Dana, who becomes torn between two worlds as she involuntarily travels between her home in California and a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. She finds herself in a battle for survival as she tries to navigate a time that is foreign to her, but which is all too familiar when it comes to oppression and restrictions. Through Dana’s first person narrative, we are taken on a journey through a brutal time of oppression and slavery, forced to witness its everyday violence and terror, and bits of hope, as Dana does. The themes of the novel explore race, gender, and power dynamics. The structure comes close to that of a grim fairytale.
The graphic novel adaptation, published by Abrams ComicArts, attempts to present Butler’s Kindred in a new form through artwork and comic book style dialogue. Damian Duffy and John Jennings are artist and adaptor, respectively. Duffy is a cartoonist, writer, letter, and co-editor of Black Comix: African American Independent Comics Art & Culture. Jennings is co-editor of the Eisner-nominated anthology The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, along with being a professor of visual studies at SUNY-Buffalo.
At a panel on the project at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Duffy talked about the work that went into bringing Butler’s novel to a new genre. The cartoonist explained at the panel that the themes of the novel explore the intersection of race, gender, and labor, and that when “you talk about Black History you’re talking about American history. It’s not separate. No one wants to have that conversation.”
Duffy told the People’s World why Kindred is an important novel to bring to a new audience. He explained, “Octavia Butler’s goal with Kindred was to make the reader “feel history,” which we worked our hardest to convey through the comics form. The first time Dana sees a whipping is the novel’s first depiction of explicitly racialized violence, so adapting that scene was particularly difficult. But I hope we’ve done our job right, and readers pay as much attention to the scenes where characters just talk. Because those conversations are where you connect with the humanity of the characters, where you really “feel” like history was something that happened to real people, not unlike yourself.”
Duffy went further to state that he hoped that the graphic novel was able to achieve what Butler’s work often does, which is “an empathy towards people who look different from oneself that is apparently and appallingly lacking in too-large swaths of American racial discourse.” Duffy said that it would be “extremely gratifying” if the graphic novel served in bringing readers in greater numbers to discover or rediscover Octavia Butler’s genius.
In obtaining an uncorrected proof of the soon to be released graphic novel I can attest that Duffy may well get his wish, as the work does a wonderful job in bringing Butler’s words to life in a new and interesting way.
In the original novel one of the opening lines are Dana’s chilling words, “I lost an arm on my last trip home.” Now, through the use of artwork that line takes on an even more direct nature as it is coupled with an image of Dana in a hospital bed, the stump where her left arm used to be bandaged, as her stare is directly on the reader. We can’t look away as we are challenged to turn the page and begin this journey with the protagonist. For those that have read Kindred before, the story is given a graphic renewal, and for those new to the story it is able to stand alone as an engrossing tale of survival and dark fantasy.
The graphic novel will hopefully entice readers to go read the original novel itself, (as the graphic novel can not, and does not, fit in all the wonderful prose without sacrificing the artwork), along with all of Butler’s other acclaimed writings.
As Butler once explained in an interview after the publication of Kindred, “I wasn’t trying to work out my own ancestry. I was trying to get people to feel slavery. I was trying to get across the kind of emotional and psychological stones that slavery threw at people.” And feel it people will with this latest adaptation of the award winning writer’s work. It’s a relevant story of American history that should push readers of a new generation to take a closer look at the past and how it shapes our present and future.