By Jazmine Joyner
When the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings arrived at my store, I was elated. Having seen it in the pages of my Previews catalog, I could not wait to get my hands on this book.
I have loved Octavia Butler’s work since I first read her short story Blood Child in my Women’s Lit class in college. After that, I devoured The Parable books, Fledgling, and really anything with her name on it. I love Octavia Butler, and I see her work as the pinnacle of the Science Fiction genre. With that said, I was worried about what the adaptation of Kindred would be like; would the adapters be able to capture this beloved story, and revitalize it? Alternatively, would it just miss the mark completely?
Luckily, Abrams ComicArts choose the best creators for the job, Damian Duffy (script writer/letterer), and John Jennings (Artist/Colorist). They do a fantastic job with this book. The graphic novel gives a new breath of life into Butler’s novel Kindred. The story follows Dana, a young black female writer from California in the 1970s. She travels through space and time to a plantation in Maryland, where she must protect her slave owning white ancestor.
The artwork is brilliant and bright, while still showing an unflinching look at the harshness of Dana being a modern black woman in pre-Civil War America. The adaptation of the book is flawless, with the weight of Butler’s work still being felt in every panel. I got the chance to interview both creators, Damian Duffy and John Jennings about their work on Kindred, how they met, and how they came across the opportunity to adapt one of Octavia Butler’s most beloved books.
Jazmine Joyner: When did you both meet? What made you two want to work together? (Both authors told the same story so I decided to only include one for the sake of ot not being redundant.)
John Jennings: Dr. Duffy and I met about 12 years ago at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The entire story of our meeting is quite funny but, essentially he crashed a dinner with Scott McCloud (I had brought him to campus), and we hit it off. We felt that not only did our interests and aesthetics seem to mesh very well, but our politics also. We started out by doing sort of avant-garde digital comics, gallery comics and other experimental comics that pushed the medium formally. Damian and I also began really studying various modes of representation and their connections to social issues. We ended up doing a lot of curating on the subjects of underrepresented voices in comics. This included indie comics, comics by LGBTQ artists, comics that pushed the envelope around gender and equity, comics around race and identity..pretty much everything. We ended up focusing on black indie comics and representation and began making comics that dealt with those issues as well. 9 times out of 10 we agree on the what the work needs to be, and we push forward. Our work ethics are similar (insane), and our obsession with social justice and how it is articulated through the visual is also part of our passion. As J2D2, we tend to have an organic flow, and we love doing the work we do together. [Editor’s Comment: J2D2 is so clever! I love it.]
Jazmine Joyner: As a black female science fiction writer I look up to Butler, her novels helped me see myself in a genre where a black female protagonist was scarcely seen. With your adaptation of Kindred were you hoping to have the same effect within comics and graphic novels?
Damian Duffy: I hope so. To be honest, a lot of my work up to and including Kindred has been as much about getting more people from all sorts of backgrounds to work in comics, especially more people of color. I get some side-eyes as a white dude saying that, and I understand why, but John and I have really done a lot of work with our curation and co-editing the Black Comix art books to try to do exactly what you say: provide more opportunities for people to be inspired by seeing people who look like themselves creating this sort of art. Moreover, John and I are both big proponents of comics as one of the most powerful forms of education, and I think our adaptation Kindred is a prime opportunity for so many forms of learning: from writers such as yourself learning that (or becoming reacquainted with the fact that) some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy stories around were written by black women; to people learning to think of the shameful history of American slavery in more complex and nuanced terms; to just learning to consider the fact that, no matter the color of the skin or the content of the character, we are all inextricably connected. I hope that this work draws attention to the facts that 1) protagonists don’t need to be white or male; 2) Octavia Butler was a genius, and we should all recognize; 3) there are no easy answers, and there is no clean break from history.
John Jennings: I feel that Octavia Butler was a treasure to our society. When we lost her (far too soon), I created a portrait of her for our faculty show at UIUC. Hardly anyone that I worked with knew who she was, and it broke my heart. We really wanted to not only shine a light on this amazing writer but also push the idea of comics’ protagonists being from diverse backgrounds.
If you look at our scholarship, our curation, and our comics we are very “pro-everyone.” We are extremely dedicated to not only making comics that feature black women but also showcasing black female creators, writers, and editors. It’s part of our dream to see a true representation of society in all of the media that is produced for consumption in our society. Not being seen is a painful experience that no one should have to bear. Every voice matters and that is what drives our work in general.
Jazmine Joyner: Why did you both choose Kindred to adapt?
Damian Duffy: It wasn’t exactly our choice. We actually first attempted to get the job to adapt the novel into a comic in 2009, entering an open call for proposals from Beacon Press, who has the rights to the original novel. When I became aware of that open call, I firmly believed John, and I were the right team for the job, given our previous work in dealing with critical race and gender issues through comics (in both our curatorial work and in our graphic novel The Hole: Consumer Culture). However, we didn’t get the gig at that time. However, the original attempt at adapting the novel didn’t come together, and we ended up lucking into a second chance to make the graphic novel in 2012, for Abrams ComicArts, thanks to our editor Sheila Keenan. So, the decision to adapt Kindred was made by the publisher, the editor, and the Butler estate. Since that novel has historically been Butler’s most popular, that makes sense. But the nuance and complexity of the views of race, gender, and history in Kindred align quite closely with the creative and pedagogical commitments both John and I have made throughout our respective careers as creative artists and academics.
John Jennings: It’s almost as if Kindred chose us! We’d attempted to get the chance to do the book years ago when Beacon was trying to do it..circa 2009? However, we didn’t get chosen. Still, we were very excited to see the book. Years later, we realized that particular version wasn’t published. I was at SDCC in 2012 trying to get other projects, including Blue Hand Mojo, picked up by a publisher and I happened upon ABRAMS ComicArts. I had a bunch of images on my iPad and I showed them to Sheila Keenan the Senior Editor there at the time. She thought that my work would be perfect for a book she wanted to do, and when I asked her what that was, she said “Octavia Butler’s KINDRED”! I was shocked and elated! Five months later we were signing the contracts to bring this masterpiece to life!
Jazmine Joyner: Was there ever a worry that you wouldn’t be able to capture the emotional weight of the novel?
Damian Duffy: Yes, but only during every second we spent working on the project. It was a daunting prospect, adapting what should be (but strangely isn’t) recognized as one of the greatest American novels ever written. Not just because of the long shadow cast by Ms. Butler’s many awe inspiring literary accomplishments, but because Kindred’s entire purpose, to create in the reader a deep, emotionally resonant, visceral understanding of history seems all the more pressing during a contemporary historical moment where Americans seem to prefer the anesthetic of historical amnesia to the obvious culmination of prejudice and fear into fascistic overtones at the highest levels of government office.
John Jennings: There was a lot of worry. We made a lot of decisions that we hoped were the correct ones. We changed designs and aesthetics until we came up with a style that we felt fit the narrative but wasn’t too harsh so that it wouldn’t repulse the reader and make them put the book down or not even pick it up. It was a heavy book to create. It was painful, both physically and emotionally and it was a huge responsibility. If people can get the story that Octavia Butler tried to convey but also “feel” the weight and pain of slavery relating to its legacies, then I feel that we’ve done our jobs.
Jazmine Joyner: What did you want people to take away from your adaptation of Kindred?
Damian Duffy: I always hope for increased empathy: a more willing understanding of the strife that people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, genders, etc. undergo struggling beneath the boot heel of oppressive politics and economics. Which is perhaps a naïve notion, or a wide-eyed capitulation to the optimism afforded by white cis-hetero male privilege, but if I’m to hope for something based on my work in translating this prose story into a comics format, why not hope for a humanist revolution?
John Jennings: We wanted people who were fans of Butler’s work to see it in a new light but, also we wanted to try and attract newer and younger readers to this brilliant, brilliant author who, in some ways, is still being discovered. We hoped that we would do the original story justice and also shine a light on her other works. We wanted to make her proud. Hopefully, we’ve come close to some of those goals. Damian and I love Octavia Butler’s work and with any luck, we’ve shown that in the images and aesthetics of the book we made.
I believe they both met that goal. The graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings is what all graphic novel adaptations should aspire to be. Not only is it a poignant and beautifully adapted story, but its art is gorgeous and visceral, and is a wonderful accompaniment to the original novel. This book made it to number 1 on the New York Times Best Sellers List Graphic Novels in 1 week, and it truly deserves all the acclaim it’s getting. Get to your local bookshop, comics shop, or online retailer and pick this book up, you will not regret it.