/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Thu, Jan 26 2017
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  • Kindred: a powerful graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's slavery masterpiece

    Kindred: a powerful graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler's slavery masterpiece

    Octavia Butler is a name to conjure with: the first African-American woman to rise to prominence in science fiction, Butler's fiction inspired generations of writers by mixing rousing adventure stories with nuanced, razor-sharp parables about race and gender in America; she was the first science fiction writer to be awarded the MacArthur Genius Grant, and her sudden and untimely death left a hole in the hearts of her readers, proteges and admirers.

    Too many of Butler's novels are considered classics for any one of them to properly be called her masterpiece, but if you had to choose, Kindred, her 1979 book of time-travel, slavery, race, rape, erasure and history would certainly be in the running.


    Though Kindred is decades old, it is still widely read today, both because it is a magnificent work of fiction that will raise your pulse and fire your imagination; and because it is a meticulously researched and many-faceted depiction of slavery in America that offers a counterpoint to the romanticized histories of that vile and violent institutions. As current as it is, it is also now available in graphic novel form, thanks to an outstanding, just-released adaptation authorized by the Butler estate and carried out by Damian Duffy (co-editor of Black Comix: African American Independent Art & Comics) and John Jennings (co-editor of The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art), with an introduction by the incomparable, Hugo-award winning writer Nnedi Okorafor.

    Kindred is the story of Dana, an African-American writer married to a white man in 1976, who finds herself being violently yanked through time and space to the side of her distant ancestor, Rufus, the son of an enslaver who lives on a plantation in antebellum Delaware. Rufus -- a self-destructive, traumatized and spoiled child -- periodically puts himself in mortal danger, and when he does, Dana is torn from 1976 to save him, and is stranded in the violent, totalitarian south until she experiences mortal terror, whereupon she returns to her present, only moments after she left. Luckily for Dana, mortal terror is a commonplace occurance for black people in Delaware in the 19th century.

    Dana's relationship to Rufus, and to Rufus's freeborn, African-American friend Alice -- whom Dana knows to be her ancestress -- is wrenching and claustrophobic, as she is enlisted to help Rufus sexually assault and eventually enslave Alice, revealing the deep violence lurking in Dana's own distant past.

    For many years, Dana and her white husband, Kevin, are stranded in history, together and separately, and this affords Butler a chance to add yet more nuance to her tale, weaving in the point of view, privileges and horror of a white ally who, nevertheless, enjoys a measure of safety his black wife cannot claim.


    The graphic novel adaptation is extremely faithful to the Butler novel, and does brilliant things with color-palettes, using different tones to demark the present and past, and also the belowstairs and abovestairs places in the lives of the enslaved people. The lines are vigorous and rough, conveying emotion and urgency.

    It's hard to imagine how you could improve upon Kindred, but if this graphic novel doesn't exactly improve on Butler, it certainly complements her work, bringing out elements that you could miss in a mere reading, and bringing emotions to the fore that are submerged on Butler's original pages. This is an outstanding adaptation of a brilliant novel, and there's nothing more you could possibly ask for.

    Kindred (Graphic Novel) [Damian Duffy and John Jennings/Abrams]

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