I first read Octavia Butler's Kindred in high school, but, looking back, I don't really know that I was ready to process the novel for what it truly was: A dark reflection on how a person's power and agency are inexorably linked to their race and gender. A new graphic novel version delivers the genius of the sci-fi classic in a totally different way.
In its original novel format, Kindred gave readers a grim, thoughtful blend of classic sci-fi and Butler's distinctive voice. But in Abrams ComicArts' new graphic novelisation adapted by cartoonist Damian Duffy and illustrated by professor John Jennings, Kindred becomes a different kind of story that's driven by a combination of powerful imagery and Butler's haunting prose.
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman from the late '70s, who's repeatedly ripped back through time and space to a slave era plantation in order to save the life of her racist, slave-owning, white ancestor.
The book opens with Dana making a life for herself as a struggling writer living in California with Kevin, her woke-ish (but still very white) husband. When Dana first discovers her uncontrollable ability to travel through time, she's uncertain about why she's jumped to the Weylin plantation in far flung Maryland. Quickly, though, Dana realises she's being literally drawn to Rufus, the young son of the plantation's master (and her great-great-great-grandfather), whenever his life's in mortal danger. Dana deduces that her entire family's survival in the present rests on her ability to protect Rufus, and eventually figures out that the only way she can fling herself back to her own time is by putting her own life in danger.
The concepts at play in Kindred -- weaponised rape as a tool to exert power over enslaved black bodies, knowledge as defiance of that same power and death as an escape from it -- all underpin one of the more prominent themes in Butler's work: A survivor's radical empathy for their abuser becoming a literal superpower.
It took me a while (and multiple readings) to understand the intricate constellations of power Butler crafts with Dana's story, partially because there was only so much of Kindred that I could visualise as a teenager. TV shows and movies about slavery are a Thing™, but a narrative like Kindred that incorporates time travel, temporal paradoxes and critical race theory is a wholly different experience made stronger with artwork.
Together, Duffy and Jennings manage to condense Kindred into 240 pages that are respectful of Butler's original work while also feeling like a distinctly new story at the same time. In exchange for some of Butler's scene descriptions, the book offers up a richly rendered, raw take on Dana's experience, heavy with thick lines and blurred movement conveying her existential disorientation.
At first glance, Jennings' art comes across raw and unfinished, but as the book unfolds, you realise the intentionality behind the style. Jennings transforms the roughness and agony that Dana experiences into a violent, visual language meant to convey pain, sadness and fear.
Being able to see Dana move through spaces that are distinctly black and white, enslaved and free, challenges you to rethink the way she relates to her abilities and her calling to Rufus. Scenes of Dana making sense of her newfound surroundings are at once dreamlike and horrifying as moments of genuine fascination butt up against the bloody brutality of slavery in 19th Century America.
It's one thing to simply read Dana's internal monologue, but to see the erosion of her spirit on the page gives Kindred an added layer of visceral impact. The more time Dana spends in the past on the plantation trying to hold onto the person that she was, she begins to understand the culture of slavery as a "a long slow process of dulling" gradually sapping her of her will to fight out of sheer terror for herself and those relying on her.
Kindred's exploration of how power situates itself at the various intersections of race, sex, class and wealth have made it one of Butler's most iconic and widely-read novels, and its new illustrated counterpart honours that legacy well. But where the original Kindred asked you to envision Dana's worlds in your mind's eye, this book draws you in immediately with Jennings' distinctive art style. It transforms Kindred's story into something that's instantly immersive and, ultimately, the perfect gateway to the rest of Butler's oeuvre.