Parable of the Sower Review

By | Thursday, January 16, 2020 Leave a Comment
Parable of the Sower cover
When I reviewed Damian Duffy's and John Jennings' graphic novel adaption of Kindred, I ended my review by saying, "But if Kindred sells as well as it ought to, then I suspect we'll see more of her [Butler's] work crossing over into comic formats. Here's to hoping Duffy and Jennings are tapped for those as well!" And indeed, they were tapped to translate Butler's 1993 novel Parable of the Sower. (Published by Abrams Comicsarts on January 28!)

The story begins in 2024 and follows teenage Lauren as she witnesses the dystopian world around her. Society, as we know it, has all but collapsed due to climate change and wealth inequality. The cities that remain are largely run by corporations and the residents are effectively slaves to them. Outside the cities, people try to band together in small communities and/or family groups to ward off marauders and looters. When Lauren's community is ransacked and her family killed, she and two friends decide to try hiking up the coast where, allegedly, potable water doesn't cost more than food. As the three make the dangerous trek on foot (no one can afford gas) from southern California to maybe Oregon or Canada, they meet a number of others who are in essentially the same position. In some cases, they join together and start to form a new community -- as they continue hiking -- around Lauren's new Earthseed religion which is based around the idea of "God is change."

At first, I was a little surprised that Duffy and Jennings opted for Parable as the second of Butler's books they wanted to adapt. The original is basically written as a series of journal entries from Lauren, interspersed with tenets/passages from the Earthseed: The Books of the Living that she's writing, and it wouldn't strike me as particularly conducive to a graphic novel format. While that certainly would make it a challenge to develop, though, the messages within the story itself seem frighteningly more timely now than when Butler first wrote it. Half of the events depicted in here are literally the nightmares that wake me up at night today! (And the other half are nightmares I hadn't considered before, but am terrified of now.) The 2024 that Butler created back in 1993 seems like it could really come to pass on that schedule. There's no flying cars or teleporters or laser guns or anything; you can read this now in 2020 and easily see how this can all happen in four short years.

But you know, that's all stuff you can read in reviews and summaries of Butler's original. The question here is: how did Duffy and Jennings do in adapting it?

The more I sit and think on it, the more impressed I am honestly. Interestingly, they mostly keep the same narrative hook of presenting Lauren's journal entries. They're presented here as captions, but hand-written on lined notebook paper. However, what struck me was that, despite being fairly caption-heavy to accommodate Lauren's journal entries, it never feels caption-heavy. I think you'd risk the danger of the book feeling more like illustrated prose than sequential art, but it never comes across that way. It's not uncommon to go several pages without any actual dialogue (instead the only words being the journal-style captions) but you never get the sense that things can/should have been handled differently. I suppose that might be, in part, because it's all written from Lauren's point of view, but they do a good balancing act of being sure to include the actions and dialogue of other characters, so it doesn't feel like a giant monograph.

One hallmark of good comic book writing, I think, is to know when to hold back on the script and led the art do the storytelling. It's easy to find examples -- in older comics especially -- where caption boxes and dialogue basically just reiterate what's being shown. That's also a challenge, I think, in adaptations, where there's a desire to include as much of the original author's text as possible. I think it's a sense of trying to "distort" or "edit" their work as little as possible. I haven't gone through Parable to do a word-by-word comparison, but it does appear like there was a lot of thought that went into what should be said versus what should be shown. And, if certain scenes were to be shown, how much dialogue might need to be added/removed relative to what Butler had originally written? Whatever ended up getting added or removed, though, the whole thing flows very smoothly, and I never feel like they've skipped over a chunk to save space.

Visually, there are some distinct and different challenges here compared to Kindred. In that book, for example, we watched as characters grew up from childhood to adults -- depicting a character consistently isn't always easy, and doing so while making them gradually look older is obviously more difficult. There's no real concerns like that in Parable, but there is a much larger cast of characters, few of which have quick/obvious visible signals to identify them. Lauren's father is the only character, I believe, with a white beard but few other characters share such hallmarks. Despite this, though, the reader is never really at a loss for following who is who, even as the number of characters grow larger and larger. There's almost two whole different casts here, in fact: the community Lauren lives in for the first half of the book, and then the community she builds in the second half. But Jennings manages to make them all individuals -- a very welcome boon for someone like myself, who tends to get lost in prose with a long string of names. (And good grief -- me trying to read a play? I never know who's supposed to have said what! Why did they make us read plays in high school anyway? The whole point is that you were supposed to watch a play! It's an inherently audio/visual medium! But I digress...)

One of the interesting ideas Butler introduced in her original is that Lauren suffers from hyperempathy, a condition where she literally feels the pain of those near her. This is originally explained via Lauren's journal entries, but throughout the book, Jennings has created a set of visual cues that alert the reader when Lauren is experiencing this, so that it doesn't need to be reiterated in the text repeatedly. It's another benefit that comics have over prose is that it can mix and match different types of signifiers for readers that help streamline the book.

Let me try to sum things up this way... if you didn't know Parable was initially a prose novel, you wouldn't get the sense that Duffy and Jennings' version here wasn't the original. It doesn't seem like an adaptation; it seems like it was designed as a graphic novel from jump. It's not just excellent as an adaptation, it's excellent as a comic. Between that, and the powerful story Butler wrote in the first place, I don't see any reason why this shouldn't be the next book you read.

If you already like Butler's work, reading this is a no-brainer -- they do a great job of telling the story in a new medium. If you like Duffy and Jennings' work, reading this is a no-brainer -- I honestly think it's the best work I've seen from either/both of them. If you have any concerns about what you see/hear on the news, you should definitely put this at the top of your TO READ pile -- forewarned is forearmed, after all, and I would not be at all surprised to see 2024 look exactly like it's depicted here. It's scary as f*** out there right now, but it can get a whole lot worse. But if enough people see this and/or start at least attempting Lauren's hyperempathy, maybe we keep this book safely cataloged in the fiction section.
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