A Q&A with Damian Duffy
In the twenty-first century, Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred continues to stand the test of time. Her story of Dana, a modern black woman summoned repeatedly from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland to save Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, makes the reality of our country’s history of slavery raw and palpable. Having sealed Butler’s legacy as the first well-known African-American woman in the field of science fiction, Kindred is the ideal work of hers to be turned into a film. But decades passed without the power of its message ever reaching the big screen or any other visual medium. Until now.
Illustrator and graphic novelist John Jennings joined forces with cartoonist and writer Damian Duffy to adapt Kindred as a graphic novel, released this month by Abrams Books. Butler fans and new audiences alike will be delighted to experience her classic novel and her bold vision rendered in this equally striking visual presentation. In this Q&A, Duffy tells us how he and Jennings got involved with the project, what the adaptation process was like, and the significance Butler’s novel will have in our upcoming political climate.
Christian Coleman: How does it feel to be the first to adapt a work of Octavia Butler to a visual medium? This was quite the undertaking!
Damian Duffy: It was an honor and a privilege for John and me to be the first to adapt Octavia Butler’s work to a visual medium. It was also, in equal measure, nerve wracking, exhausting, terrifying, and humbling. It was easily the most difficult comics work either of us have done up to this point, in no small part because we felt the need to do justice to the story, honor Butler’s legacy, and produce a work that would be enjoyable to both fans of the novel and new readers.
CC: How did you get involved with the project of adapting her most famous novel?
DD: We’ve actually been chasing this project since 2009, when Beacon Press had their original call for proposals for a graphic adaptation. I came across that information as a line item in the weekly comics e-mail digest Publishers Weekly used to do, and gave the editor a call. It turned out we had about a week to put together a proposal and get it in. This presented a problem since John was travelling to a few different speaking engagements across the country. So I wrote a script for the first couple scenes while he was on a plane, and then John would overnight Fed-Ex me bits and pieces of art for those scenes from his various stops along the way. I scanned in the art and composited pages, lettered the art and wrote the proposal, and got the whole thing in just under the wire.
In retrospect, given the circumstances, it probably shouldn’t have been a huge surprise we didn’t get the gig. It was disappointing, but nonetheless, as huge fans of the novel, we were looking forward to seeing the finished book. (Incidentally, our original 2009 pitch is online here.)
Flash forward to the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con International. I wasn’t there for the actual event (John got there a day before I did), but John was walking the convention floor, showing art from a couple other projects we’d been working on to editors, which happened to catch the eye of Abrams ComicArts editor Sheila Keenan. Sheila asked John if he’d ever heard of this novel Kindred. John says he almost passed out. When he told me about it the next day, I really had no response beyond, “Whaaaa???”
But we sent the folks at Abrams samples of our work, the publisher and the Butler estate liked what they saw, and lo and behold a few months later, we were the team adapting Kindred.
CC: Tell us a little about your backgrounds and how you got interested in producing graphic novels.
DD: John and I met in 2005 at the University of Illinois, where John was a Graphic Design professor, and where I’m currently a lecturer in Information Science. John brought comics theorist Scott McCloud to campus to talk. I attended the talk with my friend Daniel Yezbick, the first person to teach a graphic novel class at the university. Dan was friends with comics historian R.C. Harvey, who also lived in town. R.C. Harvey is friends with McCloud; they like to argue about the definition of comics.
Anyway, it ended up that R.C. Harvey crashed the dinner after McCloud’s talk because he was friends with McCloud, Yezbick crashed because he was friends with Harvey, and I crashed because I was friends with Yezbick. The four of us (me, John, Harvey, and Yezbick) started having semi-weekly lunches to talk comics. Both John and I had been really interested in becoming comics creators in our younger days, then kind of got out of it (I had recently graduated with my Bachelor’s in creative writing) and then got back into it (I’d been self-publishing a comic book series called Whisp with the artist Dann Tincher; John had spent a summer creating his graphic novel The Hole: Parts of a Hole). Anyway, based on our conversations, our shared interests in comics art, identity politics, and hip-hop, we started collaborating, eventually creating a graphic novel and curating a few comics art shows.
And now, twelve years later, here we are.
CC: There was a previous adaptation of Kindred in 2001, an online dramatic presentation that relocated the 1976 scenes to 2001, making Dana a casualty of the dot-com bubble and Kevin an English teacher instead of writers. You preserved the original 1976 scenes. (By our standards, the novel is a double period piece now.) Did you ever feel obligated to modernize the story for graphic novel audiences?
DD: We went back and forth about it, but to be honest, the audio drama was what convinced me not to modernize it. For one thing, the 2001 audio drama’s use of the dot-com bubble makes it as much a double period piece as the 1976 setting. And there’s something to having it set at the Bicentennial—an implicit indictment of a lack of progress as opposed to the explicit depiction of institutionalized racism brought on by 2001 economics—that just resonates in a more poetic way, at least for me.
I mean, I like the audio drama quite a lot—the juxtaposition they did with performances of real life slave narratives was brilliant—but that particular change was kind of jarring for me as a listener who had read the novel. It was especially jarring as a writer who read the novel and really identified closely with the autobiographical bits about working day jobs but only really feeling alive when writing. Also, in the novel Dana and Kevin connect over their shared vocation. It’s the only instance in the novel where the word “kindred” is actually used.
But the thing that finally pushed me over to “keep it in 1976” was actually an interview I read with Butler, where someone asked her in the 90s if anything had changed since she’d written Kindred. Butler said everything was pretty much the same, with the exception of there being a generally more progressive view of interracial couples. So, since Dana and Kevin’s relationship meant something a little different in ’76 than it would today, that seemed like a change too far.
CC: As with any visual adaptation, it’s impossible to translate an entire text to pictures. How did you decide which scenes to keep and which scenes to edit or leave out?
DD: It was hard, especially because Butler writes in ways that are not entirely linear. A paragraph can cover events that happen over the course of several weeks, but that pacing doesn’t exactly work the same way in a comic. I removed and/or combined some secondary characters, and we tried to keep scenes that seemed integral to the main characters’ development. “We” in this case meaning myself and our awesome editor Sheila Keenan, who was hugely helpful in editing the novel down to fit in the space we had for the graphic novel.
CC: Butler spoke in interviews about the extensive research she did to bring antebellum Maryland to life in her prose. Apart from working from her text, what kind of additional research did you have to do to bring the past to life in visual form?
DD: I didn’t really get the opportunity to do as much research into the nineteenth century as I would normally do if I was writing an original work. I did a bit of research on Butler and what she’d said about the novel. I did some research into 1976, which lead to including a couple 70s-specific background details, which were eventually cut for space.
John, on the other hand, had to do some hardcore research into the visuals, set design, dress, and lighting of the nineteenth century. In the early to mid-1800s people dressed in the fashion of the Regency era, as opposed to Antebellum. So, John did a lot of research on Regency era clothing, including watching period appropriate Jane Austen film adaptations. For lighting design I got to help a little by suggesting John check out the lighting in the movie Barry Lyndon, because I remembered the movie took place around the same time, and Stanley Kubrick insisted on using only light sources that would’ve existed in that period, like candles and oil lamps.
But mostly it was John doing that research, including visiting the Whitney Plantation museum in Louisiana to get photo reference.
CC: The drawings have a lively, frenetic feel to them. And I like how, similar to the Wizard of Oz film, you contrast the sepia tone of 1976 with the vivid color palette of the 1800s to distinguish the two time periods. (The Weylin plantation is a far cry from Oz, but you know what I mean.) How did you decide on this visual style?
DD: I hadn’t really thought about Wizard of Oz, but that’s a really apt comparison. The reason we chose to have the past be more colorful is that in the novel both Dana and Kevin note that things in the 1800s seem more real, more visceral; they feel more alive since injury, violence, and death are more imminent. Similarly, there are scenes where the characters note that they feel more at home in the past than their own time. The muted colors of the 1970s in the graphic novel were also meant to communicate Dana and Kevin’s sense of disconnection from their own time.
CC: Butler pulls no punches in depicting human cruelty and brutality. Were there any passages in the novel, graphically and/or emotionally, that were difficult or challenging to render in the script and images?
DD: The first time Dana sees a whipping, in the second chapter, was one that was difficult, both in its violence, and in its importance to the story. Butler’s stated goal with Kindred was to make the reader feel history, and that scene is where it first happens. That scene is sort of the thesis statement of Kindred, so we couldn’t shy away from it, but at the same time we didn’t want it to be gratuitous. John actually put off drawing the scene for a long time, and has said there are literal tears on the original art.
CC: What does Kindred mean to you personally?
DD: I first read Kindred as a sophomore. It was recommended to me by a creative writing professor, and I got an older copy, whose cover design didn’t give away anything about the story. I had no idea what the book was about before reading it, which is actually a different experience since you don’t know that Dana’s black until like thirty pages in, around the same time both you as the reader and she as the protagonist figure out just where and when she’s been teleporting to. So, it had a huge impact.
It also deals with a lot of the race and gender identity issues that I’ve been interested in my whole life as an artist, and touches on the power of a nuanced historical understanding of the world around you, which contextualizes my work as a scholar.
And that’s just what it meant to me before the whole adaptation thing happened. At this point, I don’t know…it’s a dream come true to be able to do this work of, not just adapting Butler’s stories, but also introducing her work to new readers.
CC: How do you see its message resonating in our current times?
DD: Kindred is about not just knowing historical fact, but feeling it, empathizing with the people who lived America’s ugly ancestry, and learning from that painful empathy. And that feels important right now, as we appear to be entering an era challenged by the ugliness and hatred that were standard practice in times past. Dana and Kevin go through some terrible experiences with the past, and they don’t come out of the other side unscathed, but they do come out of the other side with at least their souls intact. They stand up for fellow humans, being treated like they’re not human at all. It’s an example worth following.
About Damian Duffy
Damian Duffy, cartoonist, writer, and comics letterer, is a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and a founder of Eye Trauma Studios. His first published graphic novel, The Hole: Consumer Culture, created with artist John Jennings, was released by Front 40 Press in 2008. Along with Jennings, Duffy has curated several comics art shows, including Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators, Characters and Archetypes and Out of Sequence: Underrepresented Voices in American Comics, and published the art book Black Comix: African American Independent Comics Art and Culture. He has also published scholarly essays in comics form on curation, new media, diversity, and critical pedagogy. Follow him on Twitter at @.