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A Graphic Novel Adapts Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction Classic

The award-winning author-illustrator duo Damian Duffy and John Jennings have teamed up again, but at times, Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation feels unoriginal, even for an adaptation.

An excerpt from Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, and illustrated by John Jennings © Abrams ComicArts, 2020 (all images courtesy Abrams ComicArts)

After producing the award-winning graphic novel adaptation of Kindred by Octavia Butler, Damian Duffy and John Jennings tackle another Butler work in Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation, providing dark, sombre visuals to the science fiction classic.

Butler’s original 1993 novel — aptly set in the 2020s — sets the scene of a dystopian world, where society is left in ruin due to climate crisis. Citizens now live in gated areas where robbery, murder, and rape are constant threats — the world has become a brutal place. The protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is a preacher’s daughter and a “hyperempath” — someone who feels the physical pain of those around them, as if it were their own. In Duffy and Jennings’s adaption, the theme of pain sits front and center.

The cover of Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, and illustrated by John Jennings © Abrams ComicArts, 2020

Duffy maintains the first person perspective used in the novel, via Lauren’s diary entries, documenting day-to-day life in her gated community as well as her conflicted thoughts on God and religion. The adaptation occasionally produces an overwhelming effect, as it takes a while to strike a balance between Duffy’s dense text and Jennings’s artwork. Yet its heavy tone, which bounces between Lauren’s attempts to process and her moments of clarity, retains Butler’s cadence.

Jennings’s illustrations highlight this persistent sense of internal and external tumult through his palette choice.  Using mainly primary colors, panels go from burnt reds to sharp blues to lurid yellows. Harsh shades and jagged linework reflect the grim violence of the world. At times the colors blend together, so everything develops a murky brown tone. While this goes a long way in yielding a realistic portrayal of a dry, destitute California, it makes some scenes tricky to comprehend, which feels counterintuitive to an adaptation. However, while the palette occasionally falters, Jennings’s character depictions feel bold and engaging. He conveys a keen sense of horror through the book via the emotions of the characters. Their constant sorrow, for example, is unavoidable as Jennings regularly employs close-up portraits throughout.

An excerpt from Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, and illustrated by John Jennings © Abrams ComicArts, 2020

At times, Duffy and Jennngs’s Parable of the Sower feels unoriginal, even for an adaptation. There’s a sense that in wanting to stay true to Butler’s work, the creators have remained as close to the source material as possible, leaving no room for claims that they missed or altered anything beyond recognition. Yet in its avoidance of bringing any new angles or fresh takes to the work, the adaptation also begs the question of why. Beyond the inclusion of illustration, what does it really offer that the original novel does not already?

Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation (Abrams Comicarts, 2020) by Octavia E. Butler, adapted by Damian Duffy, and illustrated by John Jennings (2020) is now available on Bookshop.

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