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Fiction Science Club

Prophetic sci-fi tale retold in a not so comic book

Climate catastrophes? Gang violence? Political divisions? A president whose slogan is “Make America Great Again”? In the 1990s, that was the stuff of science fiction for Black author Octavia E. Butler.

“Just really hard-to-believe fictional stuff,” cartoonist/writer/teacher Damian Duffy says. “I keep doing that joke, and it’s not funny at all.”

Today, the outlines of the apocalyptic world that Butler described in her Earthseed novels — “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — are all too close to reality. And it’s up to Duffy as well as his longtime collaborator, illustrator/professor John Jennings, to adapt those works to the graphic-novel format for 21st-century readers.

Although graphic novels are often thought of as comic books for grown-ups, there’s nothing funny about the late novelist’s books, or the adaptations created by Duffy and Jennings. Duffy even acknowledges that working on “Parable of the Sower” — which has just come out in paperback — added to the “depression stew” he’s been dealing with.

But in the end, he thinks it’s worth it.

“You feel a little bit stronger for having survived it,” he says. “I think that’s true as a reader, and I think it’s also true as adapters.”

Duffy and Jennings discuss the process of creating graphic novels, and their work with Butler’s novels in particular, in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast. Fiction Science, co-hosted by science-fiction writer Dominica Phetteplace and yours truly, focuses on the intersection of science and fiction.

The Earthseed novels depict a world in the midst of an apocalypse — or “the Pox,” as it’s know in the books — that was brought on by a combination of environmental degradation and economic dysfunction. The main character, Lauren Oya Olamina, finds a way to survive the tumult that’s tearing the country apart in the mid-2020s, and create a spiritual movement that comes to be known as Earthseed.

Lauren’s journal entries become sacred scriptures that lay out a path through perdition. “The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars,” she writes.

Butler intended for the story to unfold in a seven-part series that would take her characters beyond the solar system — but she wasn’t able to write the third book before she died unexpectedly in 2006 outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash. She was mourned by fellow writers as a champion of diversity in science fiction.

That diversity comes through in the relationship between Duffy and Jennings, who have worked together in the graphic novel field for more than 15 years. That relationship isn’t just a case of black and white.

“I’m the white guy, right?” Duffy asked Jennings during our talk.

“You are,” Jennings answered, playing along with the joke.

“When we first met and started talking, we said, ‘Oh, we’re actually alike in our political views, how we think about identity politics, about art making, about comics, about hip-hop, about just a lot of things,’ ” Jennings said. “And it just makes a great working relationship.”

Damian Duffy and John Jennings
Damian Duffy and John Jennings created the “Parable of the Sower” graphic novel. (UIUC News Bureau / L. Brian Stauffer)

It’s Duffy’s job to condense Butler’s prose into a script that Jennings uses as a guide for his drawings.

“It looks like a screenplay, a little bit, but it’s basically broken down into panels and stuff, and it’s like the directions that Damian writes to me,” Jennings explained. “A lot of times, when you’re working as a team … the audience is really the artist, because you’re trying to describe what’s happening, scene by scene.”

Jennings is particularly proud of the way he portrayed Lauren’s hyper-empathy syndrome, a condition that causes her to feel the pain that she perceives is afflicting others. When Lauren has to kill an attacker, the pain she inflicts on her foe rebounds upon herself in bloody colors.

“It’s one of my favorite pages, even though it was really violent and messed up,” Jennings said.

Duffy felt as if he was experiencing his own brand of hyper-empathy syndrome while he was working on the script.

Parable of the Sower book cover
The graphic novel version of “Parable of the Sower” adds a visual dimension to Octavia E. Butler’s tale. (Abrams Books / John Jennings)

“I had to get off social media. There were far too many moments where I was writing the script, and I would look at the news, and the same thing was happening in the news … this feeling of terrible warning of this horrible apocalyptic future we’re heading for, and then looking and seeing it happening in real time,” Duffy recalled. “I don’t know if it’s exactly hyper-empathy, but I was definitely really feeling deeply the warning that Octavia Butler embedded in these novels.”

“Parable of the Talents,” which Duffy and Jennings are currently adapting, comes even closer to the headlines: One of the main characters is a charismatic president who promises to fix the nation’s broken economy and “make America great again.”

Duffy said he and Jennings have been debating how far “Parable of the Talents” should go when it comes to reflecting current events.

“Should somebody be wearing one of those hats, or like, ‘Make Christian America Great Again’?” Duffy asked. “I don’t think we’ve decided fully yet, but I’m currently of the mind [that] I don’t want to give that movement that much energy. I don’t think they deserve to get to be in the graphic novel. You already get the parallels, I think.”

What would Butler think about how her novels are being reimagined? “I always imagine her criticizing me,” Duffy said. That’s why he and Jennings take their work very, very seriously.

“There’s an educational aspect to having the honor and privilege of adapting Octavia Butler’s work to a new form, where we also get to be ambassadors of Octavia Butler and hopefully reintroduce her to readers,” Duffy said. “Given our shared history in academia and being teachers, and also both being really interested in comics — not only as a form of entertainment, but also as a form of education — all that really fed well into these projects.”

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

Neurocomic cover
“Neurocomic” is an imaginative graphic tour of the human brain. (Nobrow)

The work being done by Duffy and Jennings proves that graphic novels are about much more than costume-clad superheroes. There are plenty of graphic novels about serious subjects, which means they’re well-suited for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. Since 2002, the CLUB Club has highlighted books with cosmic themes that have been around long enough to show up at local libraries or secondhand book shops. Or, for that matter, at comic-book shops.

Here’s a list of recommendations from Duffy and Jennings that’s heavy on graphic novels with scientific twists, but also includes a few of their recent favorites about other matters:

My co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. She’s among the science-fiction authors featured in The Best Science Fiction of the Year. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, DominicaPhetteplace.com.

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts and Radio Public. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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