Survival, Slavery, and Suffering in the Graphic Novel of Octavia Butler’s ‘Kindred’
The graphic novel adaptation of the late Octavia Butler's masterpiece Kindred opens with the main character, Dana, sitting in a hospital bed with her left arm missing at the elbow and the words "I lost an arm on my last trip home" printed in a narration box. It's a sharp, painful opening for a book that deals with slavery, suffering, and survival in one of the most dangerous times in history for Black people.
In this vividly rendered adaptation, writer Damian Duffy and illustrator John Jennings bring to life Butler's story about a young Black writer in 1976 who finds herself sent back in time a hundred years earlier to the plantation where her great grandmother would eventually be born. The team works magic with Butler's words, the adaptation matching and enhancing the experience of traveling back and forth in time with Dana, her husband Kevin, and her great-great-great-grandfather Rufus.
Kindred doesn't stop being a difficult story to read in graphic novel form. In fact, seeing Dana's wounds from being beaten and whipped for perceived disobedience makes it an incredible difficult read. Violence, intense and without reason, is a significant part of this book. As with Butler's original work, Duffy and Jennings don't shy away from illustrating the way that enslaved Black people were subject to unending cruelty every step of the way, even from masters that claimed to care for them.
Over the course of the graphic novel's 240 pages, we see runaway slaves being whipped bloody, women threatened with rape, and families separated and sold on cruel whims. Every new page brings new upsets and new reasons to grit your teeth with anger at how unfairly Dana and the people around her are treated, and how the dehumanization of Black people during slavery looks on the page.
There's no way to read this graphic novel without feeling emotionally drained at the end. The first time that Dana is sent back in time and finds herself saving the life of the man that would later become her great-great grandfather, it's impossible to look at the scene without worrying about what will happen next. I spent most of the book shaking with rage, not at any of the people involved with the book, but with how horrible everyone Dana comes across is treated.
Every time that Dana returns to her own time, she comes back changed just a little bit further both physically and mentally. Dana returns with bruises from beatings, striped scars from whipping along her spine, and, in the end of the book, a missing left arm.
She and her husband exist in a sort of strange limbo where being back in 1976 is jarring for both of them, to a point where it's difficult for them to function in their own time --- in part because their friends and family assume that her healing injuries are Kevin's fault.
All in all, Duffy and Jenning's adaptation of Kindred is a painful read, but a necessary one.
Kindred is on sale now from Abrams Comicarts.