Kindred (A Graphic Novel)
Octavia Butler; Illustrated by John Jennings Damian Duffy
Kindred is a science fiction novel by Octavia E. Butler that was first published in 1979 which was adapted into a graphic novel by John Jennings and Damian Duffy in January 2017. Written during a time of new activism for in the Civil Rights movement, Kindred hosts a plethora of realistic, non-stereotypical characters that give the audience a more connected sense to the story. Its science fiction components take form in the concept of time travel, which comments on racism in the past and future. Filled with bold, stylistic illustrations and differing color schemes, the graphic novel further emphasizes the moods for each scene and the overall theme.
Dana, the main character, represents some of the most spirited women of the time. Due to unexplained circumstances, she begins to sporadically travel back in time where she finds her ancestor, Rufus, a slave owner. Her random trips to the past allow her to monitor Rufus’ growth while she constantly saves him from death and attempts to change him for the better. From her stereotype-breaking slaves to slave owners with some twisted sense of humanity to a reluctant but inevitable familial bond, Butler’s novel closely parallels that of the modern world.
The Historical and Cultural Context
The 1950’s to 1970’s in American saw a massive resurgence of Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements from the march of Martin Luther King Jr. to the rise of the Black Power to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, despite this rise in progressive movements, there existed this repressed trauma in relations to America’s collection memory to history. More exactly, many people knew a rough sketch of the horrors that occurred during that time, but many did not want to think or talk about it. This results in the naivety and ignorance of the most liberal and spirited people of the time. This term is coined “historical amnesia.”
Butler mentions how she overheard a young man from the Black Power Movement expressing contempt for his ancestors for their “submissiveness to whites.” (Kenan 3) Yet, this young man did not understand the circumstances that revolved around the system of slavery. History, people, and narratives paint slavery as an individual experience and a collective of individual struggles, but they forget the struggles for family life and love for the slaves. In this sense, many of these young liberals had this stereotypical idea of what slavery was, but they had no idea exactly how difficult it was to live during that time. (Rushdy) In addition, this lack of knowledge also brings about the liberal, white males of the time who fight for equal rights, but often don’t realize how easy it is to fall for an imbalance of power and reap the benefits from the oppressed. They are so unwittingly distanced from those horrors that it might be easy to overlook them. As such, the story was written to unmask the realities of the slave system.
In 2017, we still see political strife. So soon after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, we see yet another resurgence of rights for women, people of color, the LGBT community and more. With the rise of outspokenness from white supremacist groups, misogynists, and white supremacist sympathizers. To combat these obstacles media have been adapting famous oppression based novels into more modern modes of communication as a means of drawing attention to the issues.
Two popular styles of adaptations are TV series and graphic novels. While, TV series and movies seem like a media form that is generally accepted as a means to communicate serious issues, and messages, graphic novels have a more childish stigma that surrounds it.
Derek Parker Royal comments that while graphic novels and films “rely on a visual language that encourages a more immediate processing time,” graphic novels have always been closely associated with comic books. Traditionally, comic books tend to stereotype its characters for an easier writing process. Thus, comics like “Tintin in the Congo” and “The Spirit” overgeneralize African Americans into the “loveable darkie” character. Paired with its renown for superhero fiction, many people do not consider comic books as a reliable form of storytelling. (Royal 2) However, artists like Scott McCloud and Matthew J. Pustz see comics as a medium to take on the issues of diversity and otherness. To summarize, both comment that America would be a better place if there were alternative voices that could speak up in a mode of communication widely loved by a myriad people. In addition, characters that represent something more broad, general, and stylistic allow more people to connect with them.
Some characteristics of graphic novels lend itself to empathy and connecting the audience to the story. McCloud comments on Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus. By illustrating the main character as a mouse, it becomes a white screen the reader can project on.” McCloud also points out that the “more iconic its features are, the close we come to identifying with that subject.” (Royal 3) Other aspects of the comics from the spacing of the panels to the arrangement of bubble texts and the font and style of the language play big roles in influencing the audience’s perspective on a situation.
With the rise of graphic novels depicting serious situations from the Trans-Atlantic Slavery, to Nat Turner, and now to Kindred, this medium of storytelling is finally becoming a more serious literary form.
Themes and Styles
The central theme of Kindred is that without an accurate knowledge of the past or present or an ignorance of such, society and individuals are highly susceptible to oppression.
By linking modern day characters to things of the past, Butler creates a sense that the present is just an echo of the past. Although the actions are not quite as barbaric and inhumane, people still do suffer from casual racism, deliberate discrimination, and general thoughtlessness of people with more privilege. Dana is portrayed as a strong, independent black woman. However, at one point, she becomes more willing to bend towards the slavery. She falls for the way Rufus acts with some semblance of human decency and kindness, so she comes to rationalize that at least this plantation is not as bad as some of the others. This is a woman from the 1970s which yes, are troubled times, but which are east not as inhumane as the slave era. Even Dana’s husband, Kevin who identifies as a liberal, progressive white man, becomes more complacent about slavery. Because he has always been so distant from it, Kevin never witnesses the casual cruel and inhumane treatment towards slaves. While the roots of their leniencies stem from different roots, they both share this naivety towards history which allows them to fall prey to oppression. It seems as if they never knew that slave-master could trick their slaves with small acts of “kindness” or that slaves have families that prevented them from acting out against their masters. (Rushdy 154)
Dana and Kevin eventually come to the realization of the reality of slavery which is expressed through the loss of Dana’s arm and a scar on Kevin’s forehead. However, “realization” might be a word that undermines what happened to them; “trauma” would fit better. By coming to term slavery and oppression, both Dana and Kevin have opened themselves up to the trauma of the past, and it will never leave them. Kevin’s scar points to a realization of his privilege as a white male. Dana underwent heavy consequences because as an African American female, she would suffer the most under oppression. (Rushdy 145)
This adaptation of Kindred takes form in a graphic novel. And although it might not seem like anything other than another way to tell the story, the comic offers up a lot of supplemental elements to enrich the message of Kindred.
As Scott McCloud explains in his graphic novel, “Understanding Comics,” the stylistic choices that illustrators make all serve a purpose and can often influence readers. Derek Parker Royal who wrote “Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative,” also agrees with this statement. From panel placement to the shading and bolding of objects, many seemingly subtle elements of Kindred are used to emphasis Butler’s messages.
Kindred’s color schemes play on the connection between the past and the present motif of the story. Interestingly, the color scheme for the past is bright and vivid while the present is sepia-toned. Sepia tone is a color palette filled with different tints of amber, white, and black to create a sense of memory or remembrance. In setting the present with sepia tones, the illustrators emphasize the how the present is just an echo of the past. It also ground the readers heavily into the past because of the contrast in colors. In this way, the audience still retains their “modern logic” while situated in the past.
The graphic novel also draws attention to some of the symbolism from the story. One of Butler’s focal points was that people cannot dig out history without being traumatized and hurt. Acting according to this idea, the illustrators frequently focus on scars and wounds in the comic. Some grotesquely memorable zoom in shots are slaves being whipped and brutalized, and Dana cutting her wrists to go back to the present. The most symbolic scar is on that’s referenced to on the cover of the book: Dana looking her arm. In “An Interview with Octavia Butler,” Butler mentions how she “couldn’t let [Dana] come back whole.” (Kenan 2) The final chapter depicts Rufus clinging to Dana’s arm like in the cover of the book. When she goes back to the present, Dana finds her arm stuck in the wall, forcing paramedics to amputate it. In trying to change history, Dana suffered the consequences.
Butler originally wrote this story in response to her life experience. Her grandmother cut sugar canes and her mother worked several jobs despite being treated like dirt. Although Butler did not understand her mother’s motives as a young child, she eventually realized that her mother allowed herself to be treated in such a way for Butler to have a good childhood. Thus, in Kindred, Butler wanted to emphasis the silent, rebellion of the slaves and other discriminated against. (An interview with Octavia Butler)
The idea, “the dangers of complacency”, is an essential idea to this novel. Written at the height of civil rights movements, Kindred’s message closely parallels that of The Handmaid’s Tale. And although expressed in different ways, both Butler and Atwood warns the audience of how easily society can fall into fierce oppression despite how “liberal” or “modern” they are. In Handmaid’s Tale, a modern society is overthrown by radicals and regress back a couple hundred years. In Kindred modern society’s remnants and legacies of slavery are exposed when the past is presented with characters that closely parallels real people of the modern age.
Ofglen, the protagonist of The Handmaid’s Tale, often think back to her feminist mother and how she pioneered some of the women’s movements. She wonders why she was always complacent about her mother’s work. In a similar fashion, Dana finds out how little she truly knew about slavery at the plantation as she finds herself growing more fond of Rufus and realizing the depths of his cruelty. If placed in a similar situation, she would have turned out like her ancestor, Alice, who is another victim of slavery.
Since Kindred was recently published in January 2017, there hasn’t been much conversation and opinions on the piece among experts. However, TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale and graphic novels like Maus that have been around long enough to spark critical conversations can represent some of the ideas and influences of Kindred. Since these are all modern media adaptations of stories on oppression, their commentary offers many parallels to the reactions Kindred might have.
The story is a response to past oppression on women, and the adaptation is a warning to those who have forgotten the past. As Adi Robertson comments, The Handmaid’s Tale will almost certainly be taken as an indictment of Living In Trump’s America – a reasonable critique at a time when the government is working hard to roll back women’s rights. But drawing lines between the series and reality isn’t the most interesting or meaningful way to approach it. The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t chilling because it gives us a precise roadmap to real-world tyranny. It’s scary because it suggests that no matter how many decades of progress we make, Gilead will never be more than a few steps behind us. And if we ever stop watching for it, oppression will be ready to drag us down. Two other writes, Moria Weigel and Emily Nussbaum, had a similar impression of the TV series. Due to the frankly human quality of the characters, they proclaim that their resilience and weaknesses were realistic and a close parallel to the modern day.
The adaptation of these stories begs the question: “Are we making enough social progress?” It almost seems strange to think that issues from the 19th to 20th century would persist now, but with the rise of these classic stories, many people are beginning to see the racism and oppression that was passed down from before. Stories such as Nat Turner, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Kindred, are ones that many people see present-day problems in, such the reversal of rights and privileges for women and the mistreatment of the African American society. These adaptations serve as another warning to the audience that their ignorance and lack of knowledge and lead to another era of discrimination. And with the rise and much more noticeable appearance of white supremacy groups, racists, misogynists, and other factions based on discrimination, it’s important to learn from the messages in these adaptations so that the audience will recognize the threat of oppression from ignorance.
Ashraf H. A. Rushdy. “Families of Orphans: Relation and Disrelation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” College English, vol. 55, no. 2, 1993, pp. 135–157. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/378500.
Kenan, Randall. “An Interview With Octavia E. Butler.” Callaloo, vol. 14, no. 2, 1991, pp. 495–504. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2931654.
Royal, Derek Parker. “Introduction: Coloring America: Multi-Ethnic Engagements with Graphic Narrative.” MELUS, vol. 32, no. 3, 2007, pp. 7–22. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/30029789.
Nussbaum, Emily. “A Cunning Adaptation of.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/22/a-cunning-adaptation-of-the-handmaids-tale.
Weigel, Moira. “We Live in the Reproductive Dystopia of.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/we-live-in-the-reproductive-dystopia-of-the-handmaids-tale.
Robertson, Adi. “The Handmaid’s Tale is a chilling expansion on Margaret Atwood’s novel.” The Verge, The Verge, 13 Apr. 2017, http://www.theverge.com/2017/4/13/15222296/handmaids-tale-margaret-atwood-hulu-tv-series-review.
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Brown, Tanya Ballard. “The Joy (And Fear) Of Making Kindred Into A Graphic Novel.” NPR, NPR, 10 Feb. 2017, http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/02/10/514397472/the-joy-and-fear-of-making-kindred-into-a-graphic-novel.
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