The cover of the "Parable of the Sower" graphic novel, an adaption of the Octavia E. Butler book by Damian Duffy and John Jennings. (Photo: Courtesy of Abrams Books)
With the Doomsday Clock ticking ever closer to midnight and threats of nuclear war and illness outbreaks, things are a little scary right now, globally.
In 1993, science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler released “Parable of the Sower,” a novel that told of a future where people suffered the consequences of these same situations.
This week , four years shy of when Butler’s dystopian tale takes place, the “Parable of the Sower” graphic novel (Abrams, 262 pp., ★★★½ out of four), adapted by Damian Duffy and illustrated by John Jennings, brings that world to life.
Duffy and Jennings previously adapted Butler’s popular 1979 book “Kindred” into a graphic novel in 2017; it won an Eisner Award — the highest achievement in comic books — for best adaptation.
“Parable of the Sower” follows teen narrator Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives with her minister father, stepmother and stepbrothers in a Los Angeles neighborhood gated to protect its inhabitants from the terrors of the nation’s crumbling society, which has collapsed primarily due to global warming and governmental decline.
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“Sower” has shades of “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “The Walking Dead,” but zombies might be less scary than what these characters endure daily.
The novel begins in 2024 and covers events over the next few years in Lauren’s family and community, and elsewhere in the nation. Water is scarce and expensive, jobs are few and people are struggling to survive. Crime has the country in a violent grip, with thieves, murderers and the drug-addled wreaking havoc.
And Lauren is losing her religion. She often wonders what really separates the poor and middle-class from the “pyros” and “paints,” drug addicts with a penchant for setting fires. She has questions about the God about whom her father regularly preaches.
Butler’s powerful novel is bleak, for sure, but there are glimmers of potential peace and hope throughout, and the graphic novel stays faithful to the journey as it weaves in the lessons of the book with the many characters who come in and out of Lauren’s life.
Lauren begins to develop her own religion, called “Earthseed,” around the idea of traveling elsewhere, perhaps even beyond Earth, believing it is humanity’s destiny and a necessity for survival. She writes regularly in her journal throughout the book, and her musings are represented in the graphic novel in a notebook-paper motif, offering texture and context.
As Lauren confronts venturing outside her community’s gates, close cropped panels become wider, as if the illustrated scenes are also growing beyond their walls. An ocean is drawn almost as if a mirage, changing the scope of the scene that’s taking place. In this way, the graphic novel is faithful to Butler, yet still fresh in its world building.
Butler, who died in 2006, was the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and also won Hugo and Nebula awards. Butler, who was black, made race, class and feminism key themes in her writing.
There’s stark horror in these illustrated pages. But maybe we’re supposed to be horrified instead of merely concerned about climate change. Maybe we’re supposed to want to do something about it, like Lauren often insists to her fellow survivors.
Perhaps now is a fitting time for revisiting Butler’s parable.
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