Kindred written by Octavia Butler
Watchmen adapted from the graphic novel for television by Damon Lindelof, starring Regina King
At first glance, the historical fantasy Kindred (1979) by acclaimed sci fi novelist Octavia Butler and the limited superhero series Watchmen (2019) adapted by Damon Lindelof for HBO, appear to have nothing in common. And yet, both genre-bending fantastical texts use the concept of time travel to explore the trauma and violence that have been intentionally inflicted upon Black Americans since America’s founding. In Kindred, Butler uses the familiar framework of a slave narrative and its emphasis on first-person storytelling to contrast our modern perceptions of American slavery with the experiences of the Black men and women who lived through it in the early to mid-nineteenth century. At the outset of the novel, a young African-American writer, Dana Franklin, is magically transported back through time, from her home in Los Angeles in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815. There she will meet two of her ancestors—a Black freewoman and the white plantation-owner who has enslaved her. As Dana moves frighteningly (and without warning) back and forth between her own present and the antebellum plantation of her forebears, she becomes more and more deeply entangled in the lives of both the enslaved people who live and work the plantation and the family who keeps them in bondage. Dana’s struggle to survive there and to come to terms with her (and our) history is the ultimate focus of Butler’s emotional tour de force. I have taught Kindred (and its graphic novel counterpart) for this very reason. While we should not need to be reminded that the legacy of America’s violent, racist past is still with us today, Kindred possesses the power to move us seamlessly between both worlds, that we might come to understand ourselves and our country’s history better, and to see a way forward more clearly.
Watchmen, by contrast, is based on the famed DC comic book series and graphic novel of the same name, first published by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins in the late 1980s. In the original graphic novel, Moore deconstructed (and satirized) the concept of the superhero figure in part by writing an alternate history for America in the twentieth-century. The new limited television series is what showrunner Damon Lindelof has described as “remix”--a sequel, of sorts, if also a reimagining of the source material of the original comic but set in our present day, 34 years after the comic’s conclusion. Starring Regina King as a hooded, masked police officer who fights crime as the vigilante figure Sister Night, Watchmen is a reinvigoration of the superhero genre, but one that puts race and the legacy of racial violence at its center. The opening scene of the series takes place in 1921 during the oft-forgotten Tulsa race massacre. We are shown how white mobs attacked Black families and businesses in the Greenwood District of the city, which was at that time one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country (otherwise known as “Black Wall Street”). Over the course of the series, we see how the trauma of the violence of that day impacted subsequent generations of African-American men and women. Admittedly, unlike with Butler's novel, Watchmen is far more difficult to follow initially if you have little to no knowledge of the plot and characters of Moore’s original comic book series. Yet, just by reading a summary of the show’s source material, I was able to become immersed in the world (and to come to understand its characters and history) despite my lack of prior exposure. As in Kindred, some of Watchmen's most profound insights occur when characters travel back in time—either within their own memories or within those of others. While a viewer of the series won’t be rewarded with some of these moments until the latter half of its nine-episode arc, it is well worth watching, if you enjoy the superhero genre and/or are at all familiar with the original graphic novel.
Both fantastical texts contain frank—and at times graphic—treatments of racist violence and the trauma it causes for survivors. Just as significantly, however, they also present complex, righteous protagonists fighting to protect those they love from further harm, from experiencing all that they have been forced to endure. In this way, Kindred and Watchmen very much speak to our present moment; they offer powerful portrayals of courageous Black heroines using historical memory and their own experience and insight to fight white supremacy and the violence it perpetuates.
---Rachel Heffner Burns