Graphic novel writer Damian Duffy and illustrator John Jennings recently challenged Clark students to think about the future’s challenges through storytelling.
The two adapted Octavia Butler’s 1993 dystopian science fiction novel “Parable of the Sower” into a modern graphic novel, which is the focus of this year’s Common Academic Experience, a program created to acquaint new students with Clark academics by focusing on a single text or film. This year’s Common Academic Experience culminated on Nov. 3, when Professor Betsy Huang and Professor Spencer Tricker co-moderated a discussion with Duffy and Jennings, who participated virtually.
“It felt like everything in the novel was carried over to the graphic novel with tremendous justice,” Huang told students during the discussion.
The 2021 Hugo Award-winning work follows Butler’s story about a young girl living in a futuristic 2024 America. As the government continues to fail its citizens, the country experiences heightened environmental, social, and economic crises.
“We felt a huge responsibility to honor Octavia Butler, honor her legacy, and act as sort of cultural ambassadors to her particular genius,” Duffy remarked.
Duffy could connect with Butler’s work because he recognized a “cognitive dissonance about race and life” growing up in a Black and white immigrant community in South Chicago. Because of this diverse upbringing, Duffy most appreciates Butler’s work for her unmistakably realistic stories that broach the nuances of social and environmental struggles.
“There is a certain unflinching truthfulness about race and gender in the U.S. where Butler doesn’t waste time arguing whether there is racism or not. It is just blatantly there,” Duffy said.
Duffy recalled putting down “Parable of the Sower” after he’d read the first 100 pages because the racial and generational trauma it depicted had such a terrifying impact.
Jennings was born in 1970, a time when Blackness had turned into a cultural movement of appreciation following the Civil Rights Movement. Black Science fiction, or “Afrofuturism,” felt irrevocably empowering.
“The tensions of working on this particular story and the idea of the Afrofuture coming closer and closer together was something that really affected me on a very personal level,” Jennings said.
Between 2007 and 2008, Jennings immersed himself in Afrofuturistic literature, soon recognizing the essential role Butler played in carving out the aesthetic for future generations. As an artist in high school, Jennings was initially drawn to Butler’s “Wild Seed” because the “illusionary” cover art made him curious. For his own work, Jennings seeks to illustrate with graphic imagery that is “sufficiently iconic but also enough of a cipher.”
He chose to simplify the images as a way of making them more memorable, explaining that the recognizable image of a human face must start with simple shapes and lines, such as two circles and a curved line for a mouth.
“Cartooning is about removing the inessential elements” to create and move the story along, Duffy added.
“The more you take away from an image, the more it can speak to different segments of the population,” Jennings said.
Duffy suggested that the graphic novel’s time-sequenced panels allow for the highlighting of the characters and their struggles in the most identifiable way. Simplification can be a tool for articulating stories of oppression or societal calamities and to help others understand and empathize with those narratives.