Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 masterpiece, Kindred, ties the fate of Dana, black writer from the Californian 1970s to her white, slave-owning ancestor in antebellum Maryland. In 2017, this time-travel epic was adapted by illustrator John Jennings and writer Damian Duffy into a stunning graphic novel, one that’s already become a New York Times bestseller. Brooklyn Magazine spoke with both about their experiences with this classic of historical and science fiction.
How did you become involved in adapting Kindred?
John: I was at San Diego Comic Con in 2012 and I went by the ABRAMS ComicArts booth and I met Sheila Keenan. She really liked my work and thought I’d be perfect for a book she was trying to get the rights to adapt into a graphic novel. When she said Kindred, I was in shock! Five months later we were signing a contract to do the book. It’s been a rollercoaster ever since.
Damian: I’ve loved Kindred since I first read it when I was a sophomore creative writing student in undergrad. It was recommended by a professor, and it was the first Butler novel I ever read, so I went in with basically no foreknowledge of the story or Butler’s work, which made Dana’s predicament in the early going—when she doesn’t yet know she’s time traveling—all the more identifiable and harrowing as a reader. It was one of the few novels I’ve read in a single sitting, and when I got up I felt changed as a reader and a writer.
Q: This is the first time that Octavia E. Butler’s work has been visually rendered. How did it feel bringing this famous novel to life?
John: It was an amazing honor but, it was also a heavy burden to some degree. Octavia Butler’s legacy is very important to, not only her fans, but to literature itself. So, it was a constant sense of utter elation and trepidation. At the end of it, we just wanted to make sure that we did a good job doing the story justice and getting across what she intended with the story. It’s one of the most important things I’ve ever done in my career.
Damian: It was amazing and terrifying, an honor and a huge amount of pressure to get it right. We were very cognizant of the fact that the adaptation needed to do the novel justice, to appeal to hardcore Butler fans, but also [to attract] new readers unfamiliar with the novel. I worried about what her estate would think, what her contemporaries would think. I think I’m still in shock that it’s been so well received, just because I spent so long stressing over cutting the prose of such a famous and influential and important literary figure.
How did you decide what content to exclude in the graphic novel?
Damian: We had fewer pages to work with than the novel, and a single paragraph in prose can cover a scene that takes multiple pages to convey in comics, so there were definitely a number of things we had to cut out. For the most part, I looked for scenes that revealed something new and important about the character, especially the main characters. I had to cut out some of the backstories for more minor characters, and combined some of the background characters. Some of the moments from the book that seem to broach issues related to the mechanics of time travel—like when Dana brings a 1970s history book back to the 1800s, Rufus gets ahold of it, and Dana worries that Rufus might predict and alter 19th century events—those we cut out, since ultimately the how and why of the time travel are beside the point, and ultimately left unexplained.
What challenges come with adapting and visualizing a 35-year-old text for a modern audience?
John: For me, getting the right “feel” to come across was the hardest thing. The story isn’t a sci-fi story, it’s a “grim fantasy” as Butler called it. We even look at it as a horror story. However, if we rendered a super-realistic horror story, the true nature of slavery and its effect on our country really couldn’t be stomached. Even Butler pulled back on the cruelty that actually happened to black people in our country during slavery. So, a balance had to be struck between the grotesque and the fantastic. We ended up with something that could be described as a very, very dark fairy tale. Drawing abuse both physical and psychological is very taxing and traumatic in its own way. That had to be endured. So, the visuals are very very crude, grotesque, wild.
Damian: For a novel that came out in 1979, Kindred isn’t dated in the least. There was some discussion of changing the scenes set in 1976 to the present day, but in the end we liked the resonance of the Bicentennial, the idealized celebration of American history, with the realistic American history the main characters endure. Also, we felt the existence of 21st century technology might have changed the story too much from the novel. In the book Dana and her husband Kevin search books for an image of 19th century freedom papers to copy, but if the story took place in the 2010s, they’d have searched it out online. Also, Dana and Kevin’s interracial marriage was much less common in the 1970s than it would be in 2017. Overall, the novel’s use of 1976 as “the present” is fairly unobtrusive to the narrative, since most of the 1976 scenes take place in the couple’s new house. Which is to say, when you read the novel, or the graphic novel, I don’t think any of it seems hard to identify with for modern audiences.
Why is Kindred especially important today?
John: Kindred, and Octavia Butler’s work in general, is extremely of the time. It’s unfortunate, but we still have a great deal of work to do around a lot of issues that appear in Kindred and in her other work. Racism, violence against women, class discrimination, environmental issues…these things are even more of a problem than when she was looking into the future and writing about them decades ago. So we hope that this book introduces more people not only to her work but, also to a method of using narrative to help combat real world issues now. There’s still time for us to find solutions.
Damian: I think the story carries with it a sort of vaccine for the regressive, ahistorical mentality that’s been running rampant in the United States. Kindred throws truth on the lie that somehow our society has moved past, or even really dealt with in a substantive way, the race- and gender-based prejudices that fueled the violent dehumanization of chattel slavery in America.
Butler approached race and gender as they really are, complex and irreducible. Sites of struggle and resistance, simultaneously targets singled out for white supremacist patriarchal trauma and sources of strength and resilience for the oppressed and their allies. And I hope all of our work follows in her effort to acknowledge and encourage understandings of the world that move away from that simplistic us vs. them rhetoric.
What were the greatest obstacles in creating the imagery for this book?
Damian: We talked a lot with our editor about making sure the scenes were realistic but not exploitative. The other challenge was making sure the images worked to capture the idiosyncratic humanity Butler wrote into each of her characters. No one is pure good or pure evil, and that makes everything much more difficult, and complicated and, ultimately, truthful in its investigation of racism and sexism.
What was your favorite part of adapting the novel?
John: Is it terrible to say finishing it? I say this because it is a harrowing work. The themes are heavy. The emotional affect is dark. The characters are so real and live with you. I love this book but, it was truly a daunting task. I am proud of the work we’ve done but, I think it’s one of the toughest things I’ve ever done.
What message do you hope to convey to newcomers to Butler’s work?
Damian: Read more Octavia E. Butler.