Flavorwire Interview: ‘Kindred’ Artist John Jennings Talks About Adapting Octavia Butler in Comic Form

Thirty-eight years after it was first published in 1979, Octavia Butler’s Kindred remains one of the most uncategorizable, and uncompromising, narratives about slavery in the United States. It relates the story of Dana, a black woman in the 1970s, who finds herself pulled back through time to rescue Rufus, a white boy from a slaveholding family. Rufus is not just a slaveholder; he’s also Dana’s ancestor; she has to keep saving him and protecting him if she’s going to be born, even as his relationship with her, as she jumps over decades, becomes more and more abusive, violent, and dangerous. Past trauma is interwoven with present life, and inextricable from it. As in 12 Years a Slave, there is no escape, and as in Glory, there is no victorious battle. There is only the weight of history, weighing on black people and white people alike — but mostly on the former.

Butler’s novel was a best seller, and is frequently taught in college classrooms, but it has never been adapted for film or television. It has, however, finally been adapted into a comic book. It’s the work of writer Damien Duffy and artist John Jennings — they have collaborated on a number of projects over the last 12 years, but their version of Kindred is probably their highest profile effort. The book stays close to the original, with Duffy reproducing Butler’s matter-of-fact-to-the-point-of-bleakness prose, and Jennings turning in moody, expressive, woodcut-influenced illustrations that look hacked out of, or into, the past.

I talked to Jennings by phone about Butler, adaptation, slavery stories, and black people in fantasy.

Flavorwire: How do you and Damian work together?

John Jennings: We kind of get an idea of what we want to do with the plot, and then Damian writes the script. Then I went back and sketched out everything. He letters [those sketches], and then that gets edited — and then I draw it, ink it, and he starts lettering. Then he reletters it based on the edits. And we color it up, and we make any [final] edits. He helped a lot with the streamlining of the page gutters, so [the narrative] flows really smoothly. It was a back-and-forth production. We hired five color production artists to help us with the flats, because it’s a lot of coloring.

We’ve been working together for 12 years. We can tolerate each other. Seriously, he’s one of my best friends.

Why adapt Kindred now?

I think Kindred is still an extremely important piece if you see what’s going on now politically. Octavia Butler’s work in general is important to literature, and I think she’s been unsung to a certain degree, even though she has tons of people who love her work. In Kindred, I think she deals with a lot of misconceptions about how slavery has affected our country, on both sides of the fence.

How is her discussion of slavery different from, say, Hollywood portrayals, would you say?

You don’t see how slavery undermines people’s humanity on both sides in most Hollywood films [the way you do in Kindred.] You look at Rufus as [Dana]’s trying to quote unquote “save” him, but the truth of the matter is that he’s socialized to think about himself and others in a particular way. And he doesn’t really think of black people as people.

I think [Butler] also wrote the story in part to push back against folk who said, “You know what, if I had been around back then I would have reacted differently to slavery; I would have run away; I would have killed massa.” She was showing how for anyone it would have been extremely easy to become enslaved. Or even to become comfortable and to feel that slavery was normal.

And I think she does a great job of analyzing slavery as a really insidious system, moreso than a lot of things we’ve seen. Even in Roots for instance, which came out around the time she was writing this, they turn it into an immigrant story. And you know, our ancestors weren’t immigrants. They were captives. They were kidnapped. It’s not an immigrant story. It’s a kidnapping story.

So I think she got at systemic issues, and at how slavery unmakes your humanity.

One of the interesting things about the story is that Rufus is her ancestor. He’s family.

That story totally flies in the face of how people think about race. The physiognomy, the physical aspects of race, is a fallacy. We’re all related. All these people are related to a certain degree in one way or another; either fictively or genetically, these people are related.

Is Kindred a science-fiction story?

When people think of this story as a science-fiction story, I think that that’s kind of a misconception. It’s more of, as Butler called it, “a grim fantasy.”

I have this term that I call the ethno-gothic that I think it falls under. There are a lot of gothic tropes in Kindred, but there’s also these magical and supernatural overtones. Dana is inexplicably drawn back to the past. And I think it’s a metaphor for just how slavery still affects us now.

For example, the way the emancipation proclamation jumps off, it kind of magically rendered objects into people. We’re talking about things that became human beings. They popped out of nowhere. It’s a magical document. But there’s not a system in place to deal with that, and so we’re kind of reliving what’s going on with slavery in our country. You see it economically, you see it as far as some of the biases that are still part of our country. And the policies that are connected to race still.

Is time travel in the book metaphorical in the book?

I think the time travel metaphor is a very smart one, because it deals with the way that we’re programmed to think of narration as ending. Someone beats the bad guy up and then they ride off into the sunset. That’s why I think Kindred is such a smart narrative. It deals with the fact that these things aren’t easily ended. At the end of the book there’s a sense that this isn’t resolved.

Do you think Kindred is a ghost story?

I definitely think it’s like a ghost story. That’s extremely apt.

So for instance, when you look at the color of the comic book, you see the color that we put [Dana] in, that turquoise color. Down south — in South Carolina, in particular — that’s called Haint Blue. The story goes that a lot of people who were Gullah, from the islands off the shore of South Carolina, they believed that that color would ward off evil spirits, or ward off what they call haints. So they called it Haint Blue. They would color inside of their houses and trucks and different types of objects to help help capture the spirit. They said it looked like the sky, and spirits would be attracted to it.

It’s interesting to think, what if Dana’s haunting her own past? Or what if she is a spirit? I was thinking about how the people in the past would see her.

Because for them, she literally is a “magical Negro.” She really is popping out of nowhere and helping Rufus. But I love the way Butler upends that stereotype or that kind of weird trope of the magical Negro. So we thought it would be interesting if we colored her with that Haint Blue, as a ghost.

I look at Kindred as a horror story, which is why I used the energetic, crude treatment of the images. I wanted to get across that this is something unsettling that’s happening here.

Why do you think there haven’t been any television or film adaptations of Octavia Butler’s work?

I don’t know, man. Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn is supposed to be a TV show sometime soon. Which would be crazy, because that story is nuts. I love it.

That’s the one with all the tentacle sex.

Yeah, I know, right? And also what do the Oonkali look like? I would love to do that book. Damian not so much. He was like, “ugggh.” And I was like, “No! I love that story What’s wrong with you?”

But that’s not out yet, and there haven’t been any other Butler adaptations. Shawn Taylor wrote about this topic for Fusion, [asking] why has Octavia Butler been ignored; she has so many good stories. There’s Kindred which is magical realist gothic, but you also have Fledgling which is a vampire story. And straight-up sci-fi stuff like the Xenogenesis and Patterner series. So I don’t know.

I think it’s still a white male dominated area. I think that people don’t want — the status quo doesn’t like the idea of other folk in their fantasy spaces. People say, “I’m trying to escape your black ass. What are you here for?” I’ve been thinking about this quote I heard recently, “For those who are in power, equity feels like oppression.”

And the thing is, I don’t want to take what you have, I just want to get to the point where my culture shows things that I’m interested in too.

I mean, they’re doing another King Arthur movie. Guy Ritchie’s directing it. Didn’t they just do one? I didn’t even know they did one with Clive Owen. I had no idea. I really wish that they would make… I want to see more diverse stuff. I mean, I like King Arthur, but I want to see other things. And you see something like Get Out, which I totally loved, you can see that there is space for different types of stories.