Friday, May 12, 2017

Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

So far, 2017 has been a good year for me and graphic novels. Normally, I am doing well to get in one graphic novel a year. Today's selection will actually be the fourth one I have covered this year, and it is only May. When I found out Octavia E. Butler's Kindred was going to receive the graphic novel treatment, I do not think I could have been more excited. After reading Kindred in graduate school, I remember being so happy when I was done reading it, not because it is a bad book or because it is badly written (it is neither of those things), but because the material was so hard to deal with and the situation was so tense and difficult. I felt bad for the protagonist and just wanted her to be safe and happy, knowing that neither of those things were going to happen quickly or easily. But despite any hesitation I may have felt due to past experiences with the novel, I was excited for this adaptation and hope you would be too.

The Situation: Dana is a struggling writer living in 1970s California with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly - without warning and seemingly without reason - she is transported from her living room, to a plantation in the pre-Civil War south. After rescuing a young white boy from drowning, Dana is rebuked by what has to the boy's mother, and after the father points a gun in her face, she transports back to her home where Kevin is waiting for her. To Kevin, she was only gone for less than a few seconds, but the time she spent with the little boy and his family was at least a few minutes. No one knows what happened, least of all Dana. What is worse is that no one can predict when it will happen again. Each time Dana is transported back, more time has passed on the plantation, and the little boy, Rufus, grows up bigger and just a little more dangerous.

The Problem: Time travel is trouble enough. Time travel to pre-Civil War America is something else entirely. And time travel to pre-Civil War America as a black woman who is used to living in the late 20th century is an adventure that no one would ever sign up for. If Dana were white, her adventures on the Weylin estate would go very differently. No worries about being captured and sold as a slave; no worries about being beaten just because of the color of her skin; life in general would be much easier. It is on her second visit that Dana realizes she is not being transported to just any slavery plantation, but apparently one where her ancestors lived, and Rufus is one of them. Without her help, Rufus will get himself into enough trouble that he will endanger her entire family line. But in order to save her family's history, she has to help him do the unthinkable, during a time in America's history where the unthinkable was not only allowed, but expected.  

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned before, this is a graphic novel adaptation of a science fiction novel written by Butler. Kindred was first published in 1979, and is probably Butler's most studied work, so it is not surprising that it would be the one to be adapted into a graphic novel. As is probably obvious, slavery is a prominent theme. The peculiar institution is both straightforward and not, managing to always benefit those in charge, while taking from those who already have nothing. No matter what work you are given to do as a slave, or what position you hold, at the end of the day you are some one's property and will be treated as such. Even any claims to freedom as a black person are tenuous at best; having the proper papers and documents can help, but nothing is guaranteed. With each trip back in time, Dana not only learns a little bit more about the people and operations of the Weylin plantation, but also about how to survive as a black woman out of time in a place where black people knowing how to read and write is frowned upon. And if Rufus is selfish and destructive as a little boy, then he is manipulative, entitled, and downright sociopathic as an adult. Dana must navigate the laws of the antebellum south in order to save herself, in more ways than one.

My Verdict: The novel was tough to get through. The graphic novel moves a little quicker due to the nature of the format, but still, it was hard to keep turning the pages at some points. With that being said, this adaptation does not disappoint and is a fantastic tribute to Butler's work. There are certain parts of the book that I remember being incredibly powerful, and for whatever reason they just did not come through as well in this version of the story. The impact of most of the harsher moments were softened, thankfully. But that also means that the moments whose power you wish to keep were also softened, taking away from the overall effect of the story. Still, Butler's story about the institution of slavery from the viewpoint of a 20th century black woman still comes across in all of its complexity and power, and with full color pages to help depict Dana's harrowing story and journey.

Favorite Moment: When Dana makes the decision that Rufus has broken whatever agreement they had between them, and decides to act on her own in order to return home.

Favorite Character: I don't know if Kevin is my favorite character, or if I just feel bad for him. He has to watch his wife go through something that no one would be able to logically explain, much less help with. And at one point *spoiler alert* he even gets stuck in the past when Dana transports without him. 

Recommended Reading: For more Octavia Butler, I recommend Fledgling. For another graphic novel, I recommend Habitat by Simon Roy.       

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