Intimacy and Hope in Duffy and Jennings’ Adaptation of Butler’s “Kindred”

The last time I read Damian Duffy and John Ira Jennings’ graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979), I zeroed in on the ways that Jennings represents faces and emotion in the text, specifically through Dana, Sarah, and Rufus. In this read through, I noticed the multiple panels with hands, either embracing, playing, or in confrontation. Today, I want to take a moment and look at some of these panels.

The initial panel that caught my attention occurs when Dana and Kevin attempt to obtain a moment of respite together in Antebellum Maryland. They converse under a tree and talk about the realities of slavery. Kevin asks if Dana has done anything that will cause Weylin to whip her, and she thinks of Nigel, who wants to learn to read and shows Dana his back, filled with scars from previous whippings. Kevin reminds Dana that if Weylin catches her teaching Nigel to read when he is not around that he will punish her.

The next panel shows Dana’s and Kevin’s hands embracing. Dana tells Kevin to stay close, and Kevin tells her to teach Nigel well and hopefully he will instruct future generations. Dana thinks to herself about what it means to teach Nigel, about what it means that she did not think about teaching Nigel until he asked, and about what it means that the children play at “selling each other.” She concludes, in the next panel, by stating, “I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.” In this panel, we see Dana’s back as she walks away from Kevin. They have broken their embrace, and Kevin stares at her, back to the reader as well, watching her walk away.

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The first panel, with Dana’s and Kevin’s hands, shows a unity, a coming together and intimacy that mirrors other panels in the text, specifically ones where Dana and Kevin lay in be embracing one another. However, that coming together breaks apart when Dana thinks about how easy “people could be trained to accept slavery.” Before Dana returns to Maryland for the third time, Dana reminisces about meeting Kevin. The final panel, before returning to 1976, shows Kevin and Dana lying in bed asleep after sex. She has her hand over his chest as they both smile.

When Dana begins to get dizzy, Kevin grabs a hold of her, despite her protests. When they arrive back in Maryland, she thinks, “I held Kevin’s hand, glad of its familiarity.” The “familiarity” comforts Dana; however, she also fears for Kevin. The initial panel when they get to Maryland shows the tow on the ground, close to touching and/or holding hands. The next panel shows the two standing close together, yet they are not touching hands. Their faces look solemn, and Dana glances at Kevin. She thinks, “I didn’t want this place to touch him, except through me.”

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In each of these moments, we see Dana and Kevin connecting and joining together. However, we also see that they can never be completely joined together. There will always be, because of their skin and the histories attached to their skin, a separation in experiences and reactions to those experiences. Living in the early 1800s for five years after Dana returns to 1976, Kevin picks up an accent, and him and Dana each refer to the Weylin Plantation not as a stopover but as feeling like home.  The period affected Kevin just as much as it did Dana; however, they realize that they must both confront the past to move forward, and they serve as a symbol of that forward progress.

The “Epilogue” contains eleven panels, eight of which show Dana and Kevin. In six of the panels, Kevin’s arm is next to Dana’s missing limb. The two do not hold hands, and a couple of panels show Kevin with his hand either on Dana’s back or on her shoulder. The final two panels, though, she the two either touching or holding hands. Kevin comforts Dana as she laments that they did not discover the site of the plantation or what happened to Joe and Hagar. Kevin has his arm around Dana’s shoulder, and she raises her hand to her shoulder, touching his.

The final panel shows Dana and Kevin holding hands as they talk about why they decided to head to Maryland to try and piece together, through historical records, the lives of the people they encountered. Kevin tells Dana that they did this, even though they did not necessarily find what they expected, that they did it “to touch solid evidence that those people existed.” This, of course, plays into Butler’s purpose with Kindred to draw attention to the lack of historical and fictive writing, during the 1970s, on the lives of enslaved women.

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Jennings’ panel here draws attention to the fact that in order to move forward we must know the past and confront it. The panel shows Kevin taking Dana’s hand as they stand in front of a waving American flag. This image, combined with the images of intimacy and connection between Dana and Kevin throughout the text, provides hope for the future if we work with one another to defeat, as Bruce Dain calls racism, “A hideous monster of the mind.”

Each of the instances where Dana and Kevin join hands differ from panels that show either Tom or Rufus Weylin grabbing Dana. In these panels, the Weylins exhibit force, not cooperation. When Tom Weylin catches Dana teaching Nigel and Carrie to read, he grabs her hand. The panel has no words. All we see is Tom’s hand clasped around Dana’s wrist. Later, after Isaac beats up Rufus, Dana tries to help him. One panel shows Rufus grab Dana’s arm, trying to pull himself up. However, he falls back to the ground. Unlike Kevin, Rufus grasp does not highlight cooperation. It highlights dependence and a reluctance to work with Dana to get to his feet. This is reminiscent of Rufus’ actions throughout.

These moments differ, dramatically, from the panels depicting Dana and Kevin’s hands. The final panel I want to discuss occurs during a flashback when Dana is thinking about the ways that her relatives and Kevin’s relatives reacted to the news that the couple planned to get married. The page consists of seven panels, five of which show Dana’s and Kevin’s hands thumb wrestling. The other two show their respective families. The last panel just shows their hands. Kevin asks, “So we are getting married?” Dana simply responds, “You know damn well we are.”

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We must know the past and confront it. We must, as well, work together. We cannot expect to make any sizable progress, apart from the inches here and there that Du Bois mentions in “Of Our Spiritual Strivings,” if we do not come together and lift the shadow of racism and oppression that lingers over our nation. We need to dig deep into the earth and uproot the past. We need to rip out the roots that nourish the construction of race. We need to salt the land so nothing will grow from the same ground. We do not, though, need to forget. We cannot forget. If we forget, the roots will begin to grow again and he tree will sprout anew from the soil.

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