Was anyone expecting a The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel? I wasn’t, but that just goes to show that sometimes we get nice things without having to ask. The powerful art by Renee Nault adds something to the story even beyond what was possible on the screen.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a digital copy of The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel for review. The opinions are my own.
There’s no denying that Margaret Atwood wrote a powerful novel. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. I was actually skeptical about the Hulu series because I couldn’t imagine how a TV show could live up to her story. Of course, the show is amazing and terrifying at the same time, so winning there. Still, it seemed like The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel had too much competition to stand out.
But it does.
Graphic novels are a special sort of medium. They’re collaborative: a writer lays out a story and the artist translates it into visuals to add another layer of meaning. Two great storytellers working together can create something bigger than either had done alone. With a subject this intense and politically weighted, maybe collaborations like The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel or the Hulu show are the strongest way to drive home that this isn’t just a story. It’s something that could conceivably happen in our world.
The graphic novel certainly does that. There’s something about Renee Nault’s art that makes the reader feel both closer to the action and completely, terrifyingly, alone. Everything before the current regime took over is washed in warm, soft colors and draw with sketched lines which are often colored over. Everything After is outlined in strict lines colored in bolder hues mixed with stark black and white scenes.
The contrast is especially striking when Offred is walking through the city remembering things. The After scenes feel relentlessly harsh next to the gentle Before art.
Nault’s art pulls you in like you’re looking over Offred’s shoulder, her voice in your ear. The danger she faces is all yours as well. You hear Offred wondering about Luke’s motives and wonder how your male relatives would react in this kind of society. You see the world around her go black and white as Eyes arrive and your own breath comes shorter as you wonder who they’re after.
There’s actually a part in the story where Before becomes After. The colors change in real time, a blunt signal that Offred has reached the point of no return. It comes well into the novel, once you’ve been lulled by gentle shifts between memory and present. When it happens the change hits you like a physical slap. This is the power of graphic novels- the ability to add that extra emotional pull to an already strong story.
One thing I did struggle with for a moment was the lower diversity in The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel compared to the TV series. Moira is black in my head now, not an angry pale redhead. After a bit, I reread the book and remembered – of course there’s less diversity. A Wife wouldn’t want an obviously mixed race baby; that would destroy their illusion.
That paints an even darker picture of the world, because what happened to all those women of color who weren’t forced into Martha roles? The only place you see them is the club where the Commander takes Offred. Not a pretty mental image, is it?
It’s worse when you remember that Margaret Atwood specifically chose only events from real world history. Maybe they didn’t happen all at the same time or in the same place, but these are real things that have happened and could happen again. This novel illustrates all the reasons we need to stay strong and support equality for women – all women.
In case you haven’t guessed from my enthusiastic art nerd review here, this is a really successful adaptation. Old fans will love the respectful adaptation of Atwood’s words. For those who have only watched the show, The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel is a highly accessible way to interact with the original work. It goes in a slightly different direction than the show, so you can read without worrying about spoilers as long as you’re past Season One.
And just to show the quality of this novel – I was sent a digital review copy, and after reading it went online to order a hardcopy for my library. It was that good. If you want to try it out, you can find it at your local bookstore (support your local indie bookstores if you want them to stay around!) or online at Amazon.
Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
Khai is a writer, anthropologist, and games enthusiast. She is co-editor (alongside Alex DeCampi) of and contributor to “True War Stories”, a comic anthology published by Z2 Comics. When she’s not writing or creating games, Khai likes to run more tabletop RPGs than one person should reasonably juggle.
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