The graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred that I wrote/lettered and John Jennings drew will be released by Abrams ComicArts on January 10, 2017 (available for pre-order now). In recognition of that momentous occasion, I’m writing 31 blog posts about the path from novel to graphic novel. This is 31 Days Of Kindred.
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The excerpt of Kindred: A graphic novel adaptation on Huffington Post I linked to yesterday carries with it the headline
Classic Sci-Fi Story About Race And Gender In The South Gets An Update
The word “Update” struck me. It isn’t really an update, in the narrative sense. The “present day” portions of the graphic novel still take place in 1976.
This was a purposeful choice, made with deliberation. In part, it was inspired by the approach to adaptation taken in the 2001 Seeing Ear Theatre audio drama adaptation, which starred Alfre Woodard as Dana, Lynn Whitfield as Sarah, and Ruby Dee performing real slave narratives between scenes.
As a digression, the slave narrative performances between scenes (as well as the stellar cast) are all things I very much enjoy about the production. Directors Brian Smith and Jackie Cuscuna describe the reasoning behind the slave narratives thusly:
“We wanted to match the historical fiction of Butler’s work with some of the historical fact that her novel draws upon. So as you listen to our production of Kindred, you’ll hear the words of real African-American women whose powerful memories of slavery live on in their own autobiographical narratives.”
The inclusion of the slave narratives is conceptually rich, providing a 19th century point of view that contrasts with Dana’s (and the listener’s) modern understanding. The audio drama does an excellent job including the past.
But it’s the use of the present that doesn’t work.
The audio drama relocates Dana and Kevin’s “present” to 2001. Dana is an employee being laid off by a dot com whose bubble is bursting, referred to derisively as a diversity hire on her way out the door. Kevin is an English teacher.
It doesn’t feel right.
For one thing, Dana and Kevin both being writers is such an important part of their relationship–their shared desire to be professional writers is the novel’s one reference to “kindred spirits.” For another, the Franklins were previously on equal footing in their present day, both successful writers, colleagues as well as spouses.
There is also the resonance of the present day being set during America’s Bicentennial, a celebration of the nation’s history that sounds a small note of dark irony as Dana and Kevin experience the ugly realities of the past.
Early on in the adaptation process, I read a number of interviews with Butler. In one, she was asked if she thought Kindred was as relevant at the time of the interview (probably the late 1990s/early 2000s) as it was in the late 1970s. Butler replied that it was, with the one exception being Dana and Kevin’s interracial relationship wouldn’t be as stigmatized by their respective families. (I’m paraphrasing because the interview was in a book I had to return to the library. Some general sense that not much had progressed in American racial discourse in 20 years, with that small, debatable exception.)
And, during their returns to the present, Dana and Kevin spend a lot of time trying to research the antebellum South with their limited resources. If they had the Internet, it might have been easier for them to find freedom papers to forge for Dana, for instance.
In any event, those are the things that led us to decide not to update the story to the 2010s. The parts of the story that seemed integral to the characters.
Of course, that’s probably not even what the Huffington Post meant by “Update.” It’s more the move from prose to graphic novel, a form which is often still understood as a “new” format. The visual nature of comics is also considered to be more attractive to younger people, used to looking at digital displays.
I don’t necessarily think the graphic novel is really an update, so much as a retelling in a different form, but in that sense of the word, I get what they mean. And it relates to the nature of the graphic novel (like the novel before it) as an educational document. A teaching tool.
More on that tomorrow.