A Talk With Comic Creator Damian Duffy

Andrea Borchert, Librarian, Koreatown Media Lab,
Damian Duffy and the book Parable of the Sower
"All of her novels are timeless in their brilliance, but these novels in particular have a timeliness that was impossible to ignore."

Damian Duffy is a cartoonist, scholar, writer, curator, lecturer, teacher, and a Glyph Comics, Eisner Comics, and Bram Stoker Award-winning, #1 New York Times bestselling graphic novelist. He holds an MS and Ph.D. in Library and Information Sciences from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches courses on computers & culture, and social media & global change. 

Together with John Jennings, they have created the Eisner Award nominated graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s award winning book, Parable of the Sower. We caught up with Damian to learn more about his work, his process, and his plans.

What inspired you to make this (Parable of the Sower) graphic novel?

The first time I tried to read Parable of the Sower, years ago, I made it maybe 100 pages in and had to put it down. And I didn’t pick it up again for a good long while. That book shook me. I had to make myself read it. Because it’s a little too real. So, I think I took that as kind of a personal creative challenge—write the thing you’re afraid to write.

But more than that, I knew we had to do the Earthseed series because the novels take place basically now. Parable of the Sower starts in 2024. And I don’t mean that the arbitrary date matters; 1984 is still 1984 even though we’ve passed 1984. But Octavia Butler chose the time period deliberately, because she set out to write a story in the “if-this-goes-on” category of science fiction. She wrote these dystopian fictional warnings at the end of the 20th century about a 21st ravaged by climate-change and income inequality and fascistic authoritarians taking over the American government—a kind of America where xenophobia is on the rise, where public education is dismantled, where people are separated from their children and housed in internment camps, and, yes, the U.S. president in Talents is elected with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” just in case the rest of that wasn’t on the nose enough.

All of her novels are timeless in their brilliance, but these novels in particular have a timeliness that was impossible to ignore.

Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 and set in an imagined 2020s, rife with catastrophe, illness, and climate change. What kind of research did you do to get ready to make this graphic novel?

Besides reading the novel something like twelve times, I also read and re-read interviews with Octavia Butler where she discussed the novels. I also did some Internet research of the different ways Baptisms are performed to stage the church scene early in the book.

But, unfortunately, much of what constituted research was just finding photo references for events happening in the real life 21st century, like the fire tornado on the side of a California highway, an event that I believe had only occurred once in Australia when Butler was writing the novel.

Had you read any Octavia Butler before this project?

Yes. Kindred was the first Octavia E. Butler novel I read, and eventually I ended up reading it like 14 times for our graphic novel adaptation of that book. I’ve also read Parable of the Talents around a dozen times, for our upcoming graphic adaptation of that book. And I’ve read a bunch, but not yet all, of her novels a time or two. 

How did the story change as you worked on it? Were there any pieces of prose or story beats that didn’t make it into the graphic novel that you especially miss?

You don’t notice it until you start trying to adapt her work, but Butler’s writing style is very intricate, with narrative time interwoven in narration in ways that don’t necessarily work well with comics. Certain events have to be rearranged to best make use of the medium’s various affordances for juxtaposition. And there’s a set page limit written into our contracts, so some things do have to be cut just for space. All of which is to say, yes, there are things I wish we had more space for. Some of the backstory on the characters Payne and Parrish, early on, and the way debt slavery works in factories that’s described towards the end of the novel are two I can recall trying to work in more.

When adapting Butler’s work, did you have any inspirations for the characters’ appearance?

We pay special attention to whatever description there is of a character in the original text, and extrapolate from there. I know John based Lauren Olamina’s hair style on the filmmaker and documentarian M. Asli Dukan. And he gave her a mole so that the character stays visually recognizable throughout the various changes she goes through on her journey.

Color has such a presence in this graphic novel, can you tell us a little about what the color palette meant and how it was developed?

John moved to the Inland Empire in California, where Lauren Olamina’s fictional hometown of Robledo is located, so he based a lot of the colors on observations and photos of the local landscape. And we very specifically decided to use a bright red to portray Lauren’s hyperempathy syndrome in reference to the scene from Lauren’s childhood when her brother Keith would trick her into bleeding by drawing on his arm with red marker.

Are there other books that you would be interested in adapting into graphic novels?

If we’re lucky enough to adapt another book by Octavia Butler after Parable of the Talents, John and I have both talked about adapting Wild Seed. As a letterer, I’ve also pondered how I might approach Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds.”

What was your favorite book as a kid? What was your favorite graphic novel?

One of my favorite prose fiction books as a kid was The Dark Half by Stephen King. Non-fiction: the book about the history of Marvel Comics by Les Daniels. My favorite “graphic novel” as a kid was a trade paperback collection I had of the “Alien Costume Saga” issues of Amazing Spider-Man.

Are there any books you had to hide from your parents?

Going with the Stephen King theme, I bought Gerald’s Game when it came out after my mom told me I wasn’t allowed to. And when I read it…I wished I’d listened to my mom.

What are you reading right now?

The Red Pill by Hari Kunzru, and The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson.

Could you list 5 graphic novels you would make sure were in every library?

Since graphic novels as a format encompass every genre of fiction and non-fiction for every age of reader from early readers to adults, this is impossible for me to answer. But here are five graphic novels I’ve checked out of my local library recently that I’ve quite enjoyed:

What are you working on now?

I’ve completed the script for John and my adaptation of Parable of the Talents, the sequel to Parable of the Sower, and John’s working on the art now. I’m also in the early stages on several original projects, including a superhero fantasy called Night Boy, with John and Stacey Robinson, and a comedy webcomic called Center of the Universe, with Ed Cho.

As the final program of the Octavia E. Butler Celebration, comic creators Damian Duffy and John Jennings will talk with us live (via zoom) about how a graphic novel is made. Register today.

John Jennings is a Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside and co-editor of the Eisner Award-winning collection The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of the Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art. Jennings is also a 2016 Nasir Jones Hip Hop Studies Fellow with the Hutchins Center at Harvard University. Jennings’ current projects include the horror anthology Box of Bones, the coffee table book Black Comix Returns (with Damian Duffy).

Recommended Reading

Book cover for Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Parable of the Sower: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Butler, Octavia E., Duffy, Damian

A gifted woman tries to find family and community in post-apocalyptic California.

Book cover for Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Butler, Octavia, E., Duffy, Damian, Jennings, John

Dana, a black woman living in 1970s Los Angeles, travels back in time to a pre-Civil War era plantation, where she saves a young white boy’s life. She learns that the boy is destined to become one of her ancestors, and as she’s pulled back and forth between her own time and the Antebellum South, she becomes dangerously entangled in the lives of slaves and slaveholders.

Book cover for Kindred
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Sower
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Parable of the Talents
Parable of the Talents
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Bloodchild: And Other Stories
Bloodchild: And Other Stories
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Patternmaster
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Mind of My Mind
Mind of My Mind
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Survivor
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Wild Seed
Wild Seed
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Clay's Ark
Clay's Ark
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Seed to Harvest
Seed to Harvest
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Dawn
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Adulthood Rites: Xenogenesis
Adulthood Rites: Xenogenesis
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Imago
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Lilith's Brood
Lilith's Brood
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Fledgling: A Novel
Fledgling: A Novel
Butler, Octavia E.

Book cover for Unexpected Stories
Unexpected Stories
Butler, Octavia E.