Book Review / Kindred by Octavia Butler (Graphic Novel Edition)

by Ron Samul 
Creating a graphic novel experience is often a balance between images (graphic) and the novel (the story) and how they work together. Adapted to the graphic novel by John Jennings (illustrator) and Damien Duffy (editor), this complex piece of speculative history is constantly serving uncertainty and twists on every page. The story takes a writer from the 1970’s who is inexplicably pulled back in time to save a child. The white child named Rufus is somehow connected to her. When she returns to the 1970’s she realizes that she has only been gone a short time. As she continues to be pulled back to Rufus and his life, she realizes that she is being drawn back to a southern plantation where slaves are used to manage the house and tend the crops. Dana (and eventually her husband Kevin, a white man) must find their way in this oppressive and complicated past. 

This story maps out the balance between the past and current times with some fascinating twists and turns. As Dana realizes that she is permanently connected to Rufus and the plantation in 1820’s, she must find a way to save as many slaves as she can while figuring out how to deal with their owner Rufus, who realizes that he needs her forever. Once Dana realizes that she is able to shift between her life in 1976 and the slave plantation, her husband Kevin takes the jump with her and ends up in the world of slavery and whole different set of social rules. As a white man with a black woman – it assumes that she is his slave, and they must act the role to survive and try to help other slaves. When they are separated in the past, Dana believes that she may never see Kevin again. 

In some cases, graphic novel creators build the story and the images together. In Kindred, the story as a concept creates graphic novel symmetry – a balance between visual art and storytelling. The translation into graphic novel form works so well because of the fantastical, experimental, and historical vision of Butler’s vision.  

Kindred is a  layered story based on relationships, connections, needs, and desires. Of course, layered over that is the horrors and violence of slavery. This graphic novel opens up this conversation for younger readers, giving them a common ground between the graphic novel and a vision that is speculative, relevant, and well refined for readers. While there are violence and oppression, it is tempered at times by the suggestive elements of the artwork, and the dynamic impact of the story. While human bondage is brutal, this is still an appropriate and visionary tale for starting with high school students. 

Bottom Line: This is a complex story that brings to life the very personal and brutal reality of bondage and human suffering. It is a testament to Butler’s creativity and storytelling that brings Kindred to a new generation of readers. This story is more than speculative fiction, but a speculative history that weaves together the horrors of slavery over the long road of turmoil and hardships to our present state. It is a stark reminder that we are not that far from these terrible and tragic practices. And that we are (all of us) connected to the past as we fight our way forward.

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