What is the point of comics adaptations? A quicker, clearer, easier read than the original? A way to establish a dialog between one artist’s view upon the vision of one other? An homage that builds upon the source and that by bringing in visuals opens up new interpretations? This is not the place to start a theorization about adaptations of literary works into comics, as there are a number of articles and chapters about the subject, more or less centering on conventional pedagogical “Cliff notes” approaches, as the older Classics Illustrated series, or rather experimental takes on literary material whose aim is rather to open up new, offbeat, radical directions, such as Karasik’s and Mazzucchelli’s take on Paul Auster’s The City of Glass, Olivier Deprez’ wood-engraved revision of Kafka’s Le Château, or Simon Grennan’s work-over of Trollope’s novel with Disposession. Or that thing R. Sikoryak does so well.
One could start by saying that Damian Duffy’s and John Jennings’s adaptation of Octavia Butler’s most known novel, Kindred, falls into a rather conventional category of adaptations. It’s a straightforward transposition of its original diegesis into the comics form. The story is here, of course, the characters, the settings and the series of events that the characters go through. So in terms of thinking about an adaptation as the transposition of a diegesis from one medium to another, without taking in account media-specificity aspects, it’s done. We are indeed following the story of Dana, a black woman from mid-1970s Los Angeles who is inexplicably but forcefully pulled back into time to appear in an antebellum Maryland plantation house. She will jump back and forth in time, until she realizes that she is being pulled every time the young master of the house, Rufus, is in deadly peril. Dana is able to go back to her own time when feeling pain or under a mortal threat. There’s is an inexplicable psychic link between these characters that makes this time/space travel possible, and it is never explained away or even look at speculatively within the story, it speaks volumes to issues about identity-building and family, as one will see. This means that she’s pulled back to that horrible time in long intervals, years, even when her own perception of time is that of a few days, expounding in fantastic terms the relativity of time. Dana will realize that Rufus is, in fact, her ancestor (she had no idea he was white and even less so he was a slaver), having fathered a child with Alice, a woman who was born to a freewoman but would be condemned into slavery.
Written in 1979, Kindred is at the core of the complicated web of crossing between second wave feminism and science and/or speculative fiction, putting Butler’s name alongside that of Joanna Russ, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin and Angela Carter, among others. But it has very specific dimensions that were not being explored by other writers, namely African Diaspora and black identity, by exploring the history of slavery not an already explained relationship between the involved parties, but by re-instilling agency into everyone participating. A very common fantasy that we play in our heads is the idea that if we lived in such and such a time when injustices took place, we would try to be as heroic as possible. However, Dana, given that opportunity – returning as a free, equal, educated, independent citizen of 1970s USA to a time of barbaric inhumanity – falters however, in falling into that position. There are too many obstacles for her contemporary experience to be translated back into history, but also how actual life in that early era can be understood through categories of modern societies, which are “freer” and “illuminated”, or so we would like to believe (and Butler adamantly dismantles). Dana must find compromises, moments of silence, and eventually even some sympathy for the devil, as is explored in her relationship with Rufus, describable as complicated at best.
Not being a United States citizen, and having very limited knowledge of the implications of the crossroads between rethinking history and the current state of emboldened politics, I would dare to say however, that under the light of what’s been happening in the last couple of years (and I really hope that what happened in Charlottesville, where I’ve been and of which I hold good memories), this is a book that should be re/read (and not only for Americans, as we Portuguese have something to remember too about slavery), as Butler, without mentioning it, really explores in a way what “nostalgia” means etymologically: the wounds of returning. And some wounds are still open. The point is not to say that they shouldn’t hurt anymore, but rather to understand the phantom pain that lingers.
Many of Butler’s topical concerns, that she would explore more thoroughly and speculatively in other novels, are present in Kindred: issues about genetics and family, power, black womanhood, all of which are, as expected, inextricably individualized on the characters and politicized. Better and more knowledgeable people than me can explain how Kindred made Butler revise or inflect some of her writing, as when she wrote the fourth tome of The Patternist series, Wild Seed, by not continuing the saga but by actually delving into an origin story (could one call it, in comics terms, a “reboot”?). History and identity is at the core of Kindred: Dana has to struggle profoundly in order to reconstruct her own identity and how to cope with becoming embedded in such a different era. Le Guin wrote that “Serious science fiction is a mode of realism, not of fantasy”, and whereas we can describe Kindred, genre-wise, as fantasy or speculative fiction, what Butler explores in the small and big actions that are performed, the complicated, variegated emotions flowing through all the characters, enmeshing them together, is as realist as can get.
Anyway, we are talking about the adaptation of a prose novel. The dialogues, an important tool in molding character’s by giving them their own speech patterns and personality traits, is maintained to a certain extent, as well some narrative captions (also in the first person, Dana’s, as well as written in a seemingly typed font, heralding back to Dana’s own writing practices). But the fact that one must resort to artwork changes things. Original descriptions dissipate, for instance, into actual visual renditions of the objects themselves, from people to places, objects and the general ambient. When the action starts we see Dana and Kevin, for instances, with the physical traits of a black woman and white man, something that in the original book is only discovered later on,playing with reader’s expectations, perhaps… The prologue is reduced to a single image, of Dana looking defiantly at us and the briefest sentence, but eliminates Butler’s opening scene, which both creates an ominous, dubious situation that makes us frame both main characters in a troublesome relationship and foreshadows other characters’ suspicions about them (bringing to the fore issues of domestic violence, yet another dimension of the theme of violence explored throughout the book). Dana’s losing an arm is a rather spectacular, shocking event, but “time travel” just doesn’t cut it to the people around them.
What I feel is that Duffy’s and Jennings’ adaptation do not employ as much as they can the specificities of the language of comics, and it’s a rather underwhelming transformation. Rarely are the pages using judicious layouts, networks of leitmotivs, or even a diversity of focalizations. The figures are quite box-like, there are one too many often panels with no background or where it’s reduced to speedy lines and blots, as they are also repeatedly occupied with heads in close-ups, and facial expressions falter somewhat, due to lack of cohesion from panel to panel and, frankly, to many limitations in their rendering. Apart from being a scholar, Jennings is an accomplished artist, but his images are most effective when he creates iconic renderings of characters that create a balanced marriage between Kirbyesque power and hip-hop art. In Kindred, characters change their bodily proportions from panel to panel, there are renderings of their faces that become wither quite impenetrable or unrelated to the supposed emotion of the moment. The choice of a different color palette for the “contemporary scenes” (muted light browns and pinks) and for the “past scenes” (more electric, livelier colors for day and night scenes) is quite interesting, but the excessive lines over everything, especially white lines that are not contributing to the structure of the drawing itself, are rather off-putting. At times, it seems that the artist was aiming at a sort of wood-engraving look, or a pumped-up Ted McKeever vibe, but it ends just being distracting.
To a certain extent, but reducing the issue to ridiculous terms, this is almost the opposite of Hussenot’s books, where the visuals become more powerful than the narratives. The comics version of Kindred may revitalize a new interest in Butler’s work, and trigger more adaptations of comparable titles, but in itself it does seem to being a requestioning of comics as a form.
A thank you note to the publisher for the review copy.