Visceral new graphic novel of "Parable of the Sower" brings the dystopian prophecy to life

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower was originally published in 1993, as the first part of a planned dystopian trilogy that she would not live to complete. Set in the mid-to-late 2020s, the book tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a Black teenager who is gifted (or cursed) with "hyper-empathy syndrome," which makes her feel other peoples' pleasure and pain. The daughter of a Christian preacher, Lauren has also created her own religion that embraces God not as a personified deity, but as the embodiment of change itself. The book is told as a series of journal entries (as well as verses for the future Earthseed religion) as Lauren and her community struggle to survive in a world ravaged by climate change, economic strife, civil unrest, privatized policing, drug abuse, and a fascist President who wants to, in his own words, "make America great again."

It's an eerily prescient book; no wonder it reached the New York Times' bestseller list in 2020, when so much of its story just seemed like the world outside our quarantined windows. That same year, Abrams ComicArts also released a graphic novel adaptation of the book, which just came out in trade paperback. Scripted by Damian Duffy (who also adapted Butler's Kindred as a graphic novel) with art by John Jennings, it's a beautiful blend of words and images, rendering Lauren's internal and external struggles in visceral detail. The Earthseed verses, for example, appear in a crisp serif font like excerpts from an actual printed book, which starkly contrasts the handwritten text of Lauren's first person narrations, all of which are taken from her diary. And all these different text boxes appear juxtaposed against the backdrop of a red-hued world full of human figures who look like the scratchy shadows of a dream. (Lauren's handwritten-notes on the page also make it easier to keep track of the large cast.)

Combined, it's a neat way to convey a story that's otherwise limited by its narrator's perspective. While the original novel is largely internal, the sparse prose can sometimes gloss over the horrors of the world. This makes sense in the story, and works well enough in novel form; a teenage girl isn't going to go into detailed descriptions of dead dogs and fires in her diary, she'll just say what they are, and that she saw them, or they happened. As a reader, you have to use your own references to visualize the world that Lauren lives in. But a great strength of the graphic novel — as fitting of the medium — is that it does this work for you. And it does it horrifyingly well. Even in Lauren's most internal and self-reflective moments, or the ones with the most abstract page layouts of criss-crossing text boxes, artist John Jennings makes sure you never forget where you are, and what kind of dystopian hellscape Lauren is trapped in. You can feel the artwork as a constant reminder in your gut that you're not safe, and that maybe this stoic teenager is onto something with her dream of creating a pseudo-Buddhist space commune.

Those science fictional elements are another place where the graphic novel excels. At the time it was written, Parable of the Sower envisioned a realistic (albeit depressing) view of a world 30 years in the future. That world is … not so different from the one we're inhabiting. In order to keep that feeling of alien prescience, the graphic novel gives extra attention to things like Lauren's hyper-empathy syndrome, and her dreams of reaching space. Again, this makes sense with both the narrative restrictions of the original novel, and the visual capabilities of a graphic adaptation. Lauren isn't going to write explicit detail about the way that she shares other peoples' pain and pleasure — it's already overwhelming enough for her to experience, so it's enough for her to simply acknowledge that it happened in her diary. But Jennings uses his visual storytelling to highlight these moments with bright red circles that serve as a constant reminder of the sensory overload that Lauren is constantly dealing with. It's one thing to look at a fight sequence; it's another to be reminded that every hit also echoes back at your protagonist. Similarly, the visual art can explore the abstractions of Lauren's galactic aspirations. It's one thing to read about her talking about space, and how much Mars means to her; it's another to see her words rendered against the backdrop of a gorgeous star cluster, bringing outer space down to her Earth-bound reality.

Whether or not you've read the original prose novel of Parable of the Sower, now is a great time to visit (or re-visit) this past prescient story of our present predicament (I read it for the first time in 2019). But this graphic novel adaptation really helps it hit home.

Parable of the Sower: The Graphic Novel [Octavia Butler with Damian Duffy and John Jennings]