Broadcasting change: in empathic dialogue with Duffy and Jennings’s graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

By Heather Thaxter.

This academic article explores Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower and its 2020 graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. It analyzes the medium-specificity of the adaptation by applying a combined theoretical approach that incorporates cognitive narratology and narrative empathy. A discursive dialogue between the two media facilitates a critical evaluation of the potential for Parable to evoke character empathy leading to prosocial action. The prescient themes in Parable, and the timing of the adaptation’s publication facilitates informed ongoing dialogue around change.  

“This book lives. It breathes, moves, feels, clamors for your attention, insists on bearing witness, insists on being heard,” declares Nalo Hopkinson in her introduction to Duffy and Jennings’s (2020) graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. After decades hovering conspicuously on the periphery of literary acceptance, science fiction and graphic novels refute their much-maligned reputations, and produce an alternative canon by joining forces. Narratives of space exploration, time travel, aliens, and meta-human superheroes disturb the grand narratives because they employ such tropes to explore the notion of the ‘other.’ Challenging the presumptions of texts that adhere to the model of white Western hierarchy, many contemporary speculative fiction narratives stage encounters between vastly different perspectives and cultures, and give agency to the ‘other.’

An early and powerful influence on Afrofuturism, award-winning author Octavia E. Butler (Womack 2013, 109) proposes a more diverse future through her palimpsestic style of rewriting narratives of race, gender, and disability, thereby challenging the status quo and repositioning previously sidelined characters center-stage. By defamiliarizing human experience, by blurring the lines of ideological expectation, and by broadcasting survival strategies that necessitate major, almost impossible change, Butler complicates the concept of ‘othering’ whilst evoking feelings of empathy for her characters. Suzanne Keen’s (2015) theoretical model of authorial strategic empathy, particularly “broadcast strategic empathy,” is the touchstone for demonstrating how Butler evokes empathic responses in her readers. Since reading is a cognitive action, I combine elements of David Herman’s inquiry into cognitive narratology and Suzanne Keen’s research into narrative empathy to shine light on Butler’s work and its enduring relevance. The remediation of this speculative fiction text into the graphic novel medium, with its metamorphic affordances, facilitates more explicit readings of the tropes of change in Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and opens up empathic dialogue about the medium-specificity of re-reading such a powerful narrative. 

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Early Vector now open access (& a note on Judy Watson)

The BSFA have partnered with FANAC.org to make sixty years’ worth of back issues available free online. This collection includes for the first time scans of all of the first seven issues (editors inclue E.C. Tubb, Terry Jeeves, Roberta Gray, and Michael Moorcock).

Among the earlier issues, there are still one or two gaps, so if in the course of your spring cleaning you find a #12, #33, #46, #47, or #49 perfectly preserved in amber, or a  #50, #51, #53, #54, #62, #63 or #184 released by glacial melt, get in touch.

The archive is an absolutely fascinating place to swim around in. In Vector #79 (1977) I stumbled on two striking comic strips by Judy Watson. There are no words. In one comic, titled ‘The Last Fish,’ a fabulous high femme fish is exploring a desolate, junk-crammed ocean. Grinning fishers, evidently in competition with one another, track her on sonar, surround her, and all together cast their vast nets, sized for catches in the thousands or millions, snagging her in a monstrous tangled web. The final panel is remniscent of da Vinci’s Last Supper, except with a vast host of indistinct gatecrashers (5,000 at least) standing in observance. All attention is focused on the little fish on her platter. A single figure at the centre is poised with knife and fork. The seated ‘diners’ — crude national stereotypes — all point and reach, their faces fixed in eerie rictuses remniscent of fish-bones. One figure, skeletal from hunger, does not reach toward the last fish, but instead cowers from her.

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In another comic, ‘If,’ blood flows freely from the protagonist’s breasts. She tapes them up, and blood pours from her navel. She tapes this up too, and visits a Dr [Somebody] — or perhaps Dracula, the edge of the sign is obscured — a balding fanged man, who drinks the blood from her breasts. She weeps, her tears turn to blood, she sits weeping under a tree. Then there is an ambiguous ecological epiphany: she smiles, she finds herself covered with — perhaps she generates? — flocks of dragonflies and butterflies.

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