One of the key aspects of reading comics and graphic novels is paying attention not just to the words but also to the visual images that accompany them. Both the words and the images work together to create an experience that, to me, resembles a melding of a printed text and movie. When I read the March trilogy and The Silence of Our Friends, I focused on the ways that Nate Powell illustrated the text and conveyed emotion through mere images, sans words. I wrote about this some in a post for Black Perspectives back in April: “On Racism and Racial Violence in the Comics.” Today, I want to look at some of the panels in Damian Duffy and John Jennings’ graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Kindred.
Throughout Kindred, Jennings’ illustrations draw attention to the faces of characters and the emotions that lie behind those faces. Through the facial closeups, Jennings conveys the inner thoughts of Dana, Kevin, Rufus, Tom, Sarah, Margaret, and other characters in a manner that calls upon us, as readers, to think about the psychological effects of slavery, and its lingering effects, on all individuals, Black and white alike. In this way, Jennings’ images remind me of Powell’s work, specifically in the ways that they show the internal struggles of characters by just highlighting the face.
The first panel I want to discuss appears after Dana Franklin returns to 1976 after Tom Weylin whips her in the past. We see her struggling to climb into the bathtub to try and soothe her wounds. One page shows panels of her sinking into the tub, an up-close image of shock on her face as her eyes peek out above the water, an image of tears rolling down her face, an image of her screaming in utter agony, and an image of her scrubbing her arms in the bathtub. Immediately after she exits the tub, we see her applying salve to her wounds. This image directly correlates to the photographs that William D. McPherson and Mr. Oliver took of Gordon, an slave who escaped a Louisiana Plantation in 1863.
The photograph of Gordon’s scarred back appeared in Harper’s Weekly in July 1863. In 2011, The Atlantic‘s James Bennett stated, “Part of the incredible power of this image I think is the dignity of that man. He’s posing. His expression is almost indifferent. I just find that remarkable. He’s basically saying, ‘This is a fact.'” Dana’s visage, in Jennings’ illustration, has sorrow within it, but it also contains a matter-of-fact look as if to say, “This is a fact.” Leading up to this panel, Dana goes through the emotions of shock, fear, and anger. All of these emotions come through in her face as she looks to heal the wounds Tom inflicts upon her. Dana is in her house, in private, so she does not display the wounds to the world; however, as a reader, we see the wounds, thus making the private public in a way. Added to Jennings’ image, we get words that express Dana’s thoughts, specifically her fears about infection from the scourge marks.
Later, after Issac and Alice get caught when running away, Rufus brings a beaten Alice back to the house to nurse her back to health. His jealousy causes him to sell Alice’s lover Issac to traders heading towards Mississippi, only after they cut off his ears for running away. Rufus commands Dana to nurse Alice back to health. As she goes to bed one night in the attic, Sarah tells Dana about what happened to Issac. Sarah’s face takes up the entire panel, and within that panel, we see the pain and suffering that slavery enacts upon her and those she loves. Like Dana earlier, Sarah’s expression shows multiple emotions. The most obvious, of course, is sadness with the tear coming out of her right eye. However, we also get the feeling of anger behind Sarah’s gaze. Her eyes, not fully open or fully closed, narrow in a glare, and her lips narrow as well. Anger and sadness conflate in Sarah’s expression, highlighting the will to resist and the pain that slavery wrought on individuals in bondage.
While Jennings shows the psychological effects of slavery on Dana and Sarah, he also highlights the mental deterioration that the peculiar institution wreaks on Rufus’ psyche. Multiple panels show anger in Rufus’ face; however, one sticks out. When Kevin returns to the Weylin Plantation to get Dana, Rufus becomes infuriated that Dana may leave and shoots at her. The panel, on the bottom left in the image above, shows anger and fear behind Rufus’ actions. These same emotions appear in Sarah’s face; however, within Rufus, they become distorted. Rufus looks like a caricature in this panel, as if his head is too big for his body. His mouth looks menacing with the bared teeth, but his eyes reveal pain and suffering because he wants friendship, but he expects that friendship to come by force, through slavery, and not by mutual acceptance. Slavery makes Rufus into a grotesque caricature that, like Powell’s images in March, shows the caustic psychological disease that slavery wrought.
Perhaps the strongest image of characters’ faces comes at the end of Kindred when Rufus tries to rape Dana and she stabs him. Split in half, the panels show Dana and Rufus in close up. The suffering and trauma of slavery comes through in Dana’s face with the tear, but again, the anger and resistance appear with her eye and mouth. On the other hand, Rufus’ visage solely displays a feeling of dominance and control. Gone is the fear and struggle that existed in the previous image. Here, Rufus’ indoctrination into racism and the slavocracy is complete. If any hopes remained of saving him from such an existence, they are all but gone now.
There is one final image that I want to discuss. This panel of Weylin’s house appears soon after the image of Sarah discussed above. Here we see a cross section of the house with Dana, Sarah, and other slaves in the attic, Rufus holding a bruised Alice in a sexual manner in his bedroom, Tom passed out drunk in his bedroom, and then the first floor with the library and dining room. This image works on a couple of levels that warrant further discussion. On one level, we see discussions of interracial relationships both in the present (Sarah and Dana’s discussion of Kevin) and in the past with the same conversation and the image of Alice and Rufus. Kevin and Dana’s relationship has struggles, arising from the history of slavery and racism, in the present. Likewise, Rufus cannot express his true feelings for Alice because of the strictures in the Antebellum South. This is reminiscent of Tee Bob and Mary Agnes in Gaines’s The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. However, even if Alice does not reciprocate Rufus’ affections, he forces himself on her because he owns her. The cross section of the house brings the public and the private together, highlighting the space that Alice, Dana, and Sarah must navigate to maintain safety.
Along with the confluence of the public and private, the cross section also shows the library, a space that I need to think more about in regards to Kindred. Dana and Kevin are writers, and they talk about the history they read and what they write. Dana also teaches Rufus and Nigel to read. In the image, notice that Sarah and Dana are the farthest removed from the spaces of domesticity and knowledge. I am not sure what to make of all of this, but they are just some thoughts I am mulling around right now.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.