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Octavia Butler’s Kindred, adapted by Damian Duffy and John Jennings

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More than 35 years after its release, Kindred continues to draw in new readers with its deep exploration of the violence and loss of humanity caused by slavery in the United States, and its complex and lasting impact on the present day. Adapted by celebrated academics and comics artists Damian Duffy and John Jennings, this graphic novel powerfully renders Butler’s mysterious and moving story, which spans racial and gender divides in the antebellum South through the 20th century.

Butler’s most celebrated, critically acclaimed work tells the story of Dana, a young black woman who is suddenly and inexplicably transported from her home in 1970s California to the pre–Civil War South. As she time-travels between worlds, one in which she is a free woman and one where she is part of her own complicated familial history on a southern plantation, she becomes frighteningly entangled in the lives of Rufus, a conflicted white slaveholder and one of Dana’s own ancestors, and the many people who are enslaved by him.

Held up as an essential work in feminist, science-fiction, and fantasy genres, and a cornerstone of the Afrofuturism movement, there are over 500,000 copies of Kindred in print. The intersectionality of race, history, and the treatment of women addressed within the original work remain critical topics in contemporary dialogue, both in the classroom and in the public sphere.

Frightening, compelling, and richly imagined, Kindred offers an unflinching look at our complicated social history, transformed by the graphic novel format into a visually stunning work for a new generation of readers.
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Earlier this week, I posted my review of Octavia Butler’s seminal 1979 novel Kindred; this is a slightly odd review because rather than talking about the work itself, I’m going to be talking about it in relation to the work of which it is an adaptation, and therefore that earlier review is a necessary read before going further.

Adapting a novel into a more visual format can be achieved in a number of ways – we’ve all seen films adapting novels: dropping subplots, complexities, changing how characters looked, or simply taking a core simple idea and mangling everything else beyond recognition (Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, anyone?). Graphic novel adaptations of novels seem to fare on average better, perhaps because they have a similar length in many cases, and because they can handle non-dialogue language better; from the Manga Shakespeare series to this volume, there are a variety of approaches. Kindred takes a very direct, literal approach: almost all the words (with one clear exception) are taken directly and exactly from the novel as quotes, with occasional reordering – both narration in caption boxes, and dialogue, directly as speech. Because of the way Butler wrote, this can at times be a little odd – there’s a particular moment when Dana talks about being at a whipping being impossible to imagine just from seeing images of one, and these thoughts are captions to pictures of one, for instance. There are also occasions on which events are slightly reordered – there doesn’t seem to ever be a clear reason for the slight changes, apart from cutting a few panels out here and there by combining things, so presumably it was a space consideration, a reasonable concern given that nothing was lost.

The aforementioned clear exception is an odd one, though; it concerns one of the moments when Butler may, or may not, have been being rather subtly pointed in Kindred. A (presumably black) friend of Dana’s gives her and Kevin a blender as a wedding present in the novel; this is, perhaps, a commentary on the mixed race marriage, on the idea of “blending” races. In the adaptation, though, Duffy and Jones replace the blender with steak knives – arguably a possible foreshadowing/hindshadowing of other events, given when it’s revealed, but it seems a very strange choice of alteration when so much of the rest of the text is unchanged at all from Butler’s own words.

A graphic novel is more than just words, though, of course; it is also the art. Kindred has an art style that is often seen in the more artsy of the independent comics out there, reminiscent of Jeff Stokely’s art on The Spire. It’s not quite naturalistic without being either symbolic rather than literal or the shiny-happy people of Marvel’s house style; it’s a little rough looking, a little off normal, and I found that a little frustrating, because it never quite fitted the approach the text takes, which is totally matter of fact. There were some fantastic grace notes (near the start of the book, Dana is shelving her books after moving house, and drops some – one of which is Patternmaster, Butler’s debut novel), but overall, the art is more distancing, and reductive, than helpful.

In the end, Kindred is an amazingly powerful novel; this adaptation doesn’t quite manage to capture that power, and occasionally seems to have failed to understand how Butler accomplished it. Nnedi Okorafor’s brilliant introduction is a must, though!

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