I was surprised and a little perplexed when I heard there was a graphic novel of Octavia Butler’s KINDRED. The brutality of American enslavement (which Butler says she toned down for her novel) is palpable throughout the storyline. In addition, the complicated emotions tangled up in physically surviving enslavement versus emotionally surviving with your self intact is so potent in Butler’s novel. I wondered how a trimmed down text, even with imagery to support it, could convey the same thought-provoking, stirring self-reflection as the novel. But then I remembered reading Maus, Persepolis, Speak — even Fun Home — as graphic novels that dealt with deeply difficult and intense topics, and I gave it a chance. I’m happy to say that I can strongly recommend KINDRED, the graphic novel, for its ability to convey the wrenching pain and historical horror of American slavery that still affects our everyday lives.
KINDRED’s storyline follows Dana, a modern-day (published in 1979) Black woman who is married to Kevin, a white man. Dana is called back-in-time to 1815 in the American South due to a connection to her ancestor Rufus, whom she first meets when he is a small child at risk of drowning. During her various time travel trips, always when Rufus is in mortal danger, Dana experiences vicious beatings and dehumanizing treatment and she is a witness, and a sometime indirect collaborator, to rape, beatings, and the sale of enslaved people. The reader, through Dana’s observations and visceral responses, is witness to how Dana realizes the levels of enslavement (ie: she is told not to kill the “Master” because everyone enslaved will be sold and families split up) and how exposure to the society affects both Dana and Kevin, making returning to the 1970’s difficult and heart-wrenching. Horrifically, this 40-year-old storyline about a time two centuries ago is still relevant today.
The textual adaptation, by Damian Duffy, manages to keep the storyline flowing and detailed even as it drops some of the details to make room for the graphic illustrations. Dana, the main character, comes across clearly and as a fully-developed personality. The cruelty of punishments, often tied to ego and control is juxtaposed with the confusing and anxious interactions between Black and white characters, whether free citizens or enslaved people. As brutal as the beatings are, even more insidious is witnessing Dana adapt to early 1800’s attitudes towards Black people and slavery in general. Her protectiveness of Rufus, upon whose survival her very existence depends, runs into her disgust at his use of physical, structural, and emotional manipulation of the structural racism in which he is entrenched. Duffy’s adaptation ensures that Butler’s sharp, rough, and excruciatingly familiar depictions do not lose their gut-punch.
John Jennings’ illustrations have a color scheme and style that will be jarring to those who have grown accustomed to sleek and Disney-fied animation and comics. It’s an effective signal that KINDRED is not a children’s book. Scenes that take place in “present time” are in muted and monochrome color while the scenes in the 19th Century are vibrant and loud. People are drawn in bold, harsh lines; often, grotesque is the best way to describe the expressions. Jennings is able to convey deep sadness or relief with the same effectiveness as he shows unbridled contempt and fear. The scenes that show Dana’s anger and her conflicted decision-making are especially powerful.
Whether you’ve read KINDRED in its original form or not, this graphic novel adaptation will help you experience the themes profoundly and push you to consider its elements in our own time.
NB: Depictions of beatings, rape, mutilation, and dehumanizing treatment of people is consistently depicted. Language includes many uses of the “N” word, derogatory gender-based epithets, and threatening insults and coercion.