******Trigger warnings: Rape, sexual assault, suicide (off page), self harm, death of a parent, torture, death, child marriage and homophobia*******
I think just about everyone and their dog who has a passing knowledge of dysopia in speculative fiction or just fiction in general is aware of the prowess of Margaret Atwood. I first read The Handmaids Tale back in 2016 after finishing college and working my first full time job. Safe to say a lot of the things that start the creation of this world, were things I found believable at that point of my life. However I did resist reading the graphic novel adaptation for a while now (this isn’t exactly a book I wanted to reread) and the time came for me to remedy that.
Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.
Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid’s Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying reality of Gilead has been brought to vivid life like never before.
Like I said, I’m sure more than enough of you are aware of this story, it’s significance, the award winning sequel or the TV show that began airing on Hulu in 2017. This isn’t new ground. What I am here to talk about is how the choice to adapt this for a graphic medium is the best idea for this story and really reinforces the bleak world of Gilead.
That’s where I honestly want to start is Gilead, we get to literally see it on the page. I haven’t seen the series personally so I’m not entirely sure how it’s portrayed there but something that really struck me is how I never actually pictured the setting fully. I always was able to picture Offred’s room, the house, even the illegal brothel Jezebels but the mundane life of living in this brutal place isn’t something I really thought about. There are still streets, shops and queues to buy food. There are no signs, just pictures for what each one sells. Something that is subtle and I certainly forgot from the original book.
There is no overstating the power Reneé Nault’s art brings to this. Nault is a fantastic artist with a style that is hard not to marvel at and has previously worked on her own comic, Witchling, and has spoken on the more mesmerising quality she likes to add to her work. Something I really enjoyed about how Nault formatted this to tell Offred’s story. She uses the traditional paneling you would expect in any graphic novel but she manages to play with it in a creative way, much like Colleen Doran, where the changes in the structure often push and pull on the feelings the reader is having. Example being, where Offred meets another Handmaid and the sharp arching of the page referencing the sharp awareness that the other woman could be a friend or foe.
Both the story and the characters, both the oppressed and the oppressors, are the same as Atwood’s novel but it’s amazing how much more the horror of this world settles on you when you’re seeing it visually. From the costumes, right down to the vile ‘Ceremony’ depicted against a flat square of black so that we can look no further but except at what is happening and just the endless flashbacks painted in a softer, more washed out colours as Offred recalls them, really made this story all the more bleaker. When I first read the novel, I genuinely had some optimism for Offred in the end and prior to reading The Testaments even. Here, it’s hard to navigate beyond the bleak world of Gilead.
Overall this served as a good refresher for me of the overall story but was still an uncomfortable read. The art is absolutely stunning and the artist was definitely the right choice to tackle this frightening story. It does obviously display the acts of state sanctioned rape on the handmaids so I have put the necessary trigger warnings. Thanks for reading the post people, happy reading!