To Adapt ‘After The Rain,’ Artists Cross All Kinds Of Boundaries

by Etelka Lehoczky

As the market for graphic novels has taken off lately, so have graphic adaptations. That’s no wonder — they let publishers simultaneously recycle existing content and snare an all-ages audience. Fortunately, the profit motive can sometimes manage to coexist with good art — and even a new kind of art criticism. Peter Kuper’s Heart of DarknessP. Craig Russell and Scott Hampton’s American Gods, Odyr’s Animal Farm and Miles Hyman’s The Lottery are all far more than just illustrated versions of well-loved stories. Deploying a formidable arsenal of cartooning techniques, these creators comment on, interpret and unsettle familiar narratives — all without writing a word.

It’s not surprising that John Jennings should achieve a comparable feat with After the Rain, his and David Brame’s interpretation of a short story by Nnedi Okorafor. Besides teaching Media and Cultural Studies at the University of California at Riverside and writing extensively on cultural representations of race, Jennings drew two recent graphic adaptations of works by the great sci-fi author Octavia Butler. Like 2018’s Kindred and 2020’s Parable of the SowerAfter the Rain is far more than a well-rendered tribute to a trailblazing black female writer. In this case, it’s also a kind of visual incarnation of the story’s theme.

Okorafor’s story is about crossing boundaries — some tangible, others emotional or mythic. Chioma, the 39-year-old protagonist, navigates several such divides in the course of the book. Nigerian American (like her creator), she’s made acutely aware of her in-between status when she goes on a two-week visit to her grandmother’s village. In her regular life she’s a Chicago cop, making sense of the world’s strangeness and danger through “cop’s logic.” But on her ancestors’ turf, cop’s logic is no match for the deeper truths of the supernatural world. Chioma is first stalked by a spectral boy — the double of a youth she saw die back in Chicago — and then tortured by a horde of traditional Igbo spirits called Mmuo. “They had large eyes, wide-nostriled noses, cheekbones like granite,” Chioma says. “Many of them were familiar to me, also. Even more were not … Spirits, masquerades, ghosts and ancestors — these were deep, deep Mmuo! I was actually seeing Mmuo!” Chioma’s ordeal is harrowing, but with the help of her grandmother and great-aunt, she comes to see why it was necessary. Eventually she’s able to face long-buried memories and imagine a radical new destiny for herself.

Jennings is credited with writing After the Rain, and Brame with illustrating it. As such, it’s hard to know who’s responsible for the book’s most interesting aspect: Its unorthodox treatment of the comic’s panels. Panels are, of course, central to the look of a comic — sometimes they’re the only way you know it’s a comic at all — and critics talk a lot about how the little squares set the medium apart. They give the reader a lot of agency, for one thing: It’s up to you how long you linger on each panel and how you choose to imagine (or ignore) what might be happening in between them. Their orderly geometry is subconsciously reassuring, too. They serve as boundaries for the eye, containing and controlling everything inside.

The overall effect is of a primal struggle between sense and chaos. You don’t simply observe Chioma’s unwilling confrontation with the world her ancestors mythologized, you experience it.

In After the Rain, though, the panels wake up and run amok, just like the Mmuo who torture Chioma. Jennings and Brame continually vary their size, arrangement and number. Sometimes the panels are scattered across the page at weird angles; elsewhere they vanish altogether. Even the spaces outside the panels’ borders are crowded, so the reader gets no breathing room. Weird, organic growths fill every cranny and press on every edge, just as the spirit world presses up against civilizati1on in Okorafor’s story. The overall effect is of a primal struggle between sense and chaos. You don’t simply observe Chioma’s unwilling confrontation with the world her ancestors mythologized, you experience it. The art is very straightforward otherwise, with conventionally accessible character designs and a palette (by Jennings) that’s both vivid and expected. And yet, thanks to the compositions, every page seems to seethe with primordial energy.

Abrams’ editors and designers deserve mention alongside the artists for all they’ve done to make After the Rain appealing on a strictly physical level. The book’s brilliantly colored jacket adorns a coordinating cover, with black-and-white-patterned endpapers further heightening the sense of drama. Inside, the pages are printed on heavy paper that’s matte — not shiny, as has been the case with too many comics aimed at mainstream audiences lately. Besides giving the colors depth, the subtly textured stock embraces the gaze in a way shiny paper almost never does. As a result of such choices, After the Rain has an aura of heft and potency that’s disproportionate to its length.

Etelka Lehoczky has written about books for The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books and The New York Times. She tweets at @EtelkaL.

Real-World Experience Gives ‘The Nightworkers’ Its Punch

By Gabino Iglesias

Brian Selfon’s The Nightworkers is a dark slice of Brooklyn noir with a family drama at its core. Noir is frequently about people caught in bad situation,s and tends to focus on the actions they take to cope or to escape; Selfon has altered that equation and turned the focus inward to explore the psychological effects of stress and fear. Here, crime is often the result of circumstances that have nothing to do with evil.

Shecky Keenan lives in Brooklyn with his niece Kerasha and nephew Henry. Together they run money bags and make deposits for a growing list of sleazy clients. On the surface, they’re getting along, coping with the hands they’ve been dealt — but when your work is all about hiding and secrets, trust is fragile and things can go wrong at any moment. When one of the runners Henry was training, someone he got too close to, goes missing while moving a bag with $250,000 of dirty money, the family structure threatens to collapse. Shecky, Kerasha, and Henry end up facing possible consequences, an encroaching investigation, and the ghosts of their pasts.

The Nightworkers is a literary crime novel that’s all about the details. Descriptions of events, people, feeling, and places abound, and they do a marvelous job of placing the reader in the story and ramping up the tension. The quarter million dollars, the death and questions surrounding that money are at the center of the narrative, but Selfon also focuses the inner lives of his characters, and the world they live in.

The story kicks off with a deconstruction of how the money-laundering business. Selfon, who has worked in criminal justice for almost two decades and was the chief investigative analyst for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, understands the hustle well:

It takes a lot to make a NYC noir feel fresh, and this one does. Selfon understands that criminals are frequently good people forced to do bad things to survive — and that’s more important than his knowledge of the crimes themselves.

While it might not lead to empathy, Selfon’s understanding of how psychogeography shapes criminals is what drives the development of those characters — and the characters are what turn The Nightworkers into a great novel. Kerasha is an ex-con who reads constantly, stalks her psychologist, and is an artist at breaking, entering, and stealing — even from cops. But she got her start in the world of crime from growing up with a mother who was hooked on heroin.

Just like Kerasha, Henry and Shecky also come from backgrounds that play a huge role in who they are today. And Selfon never uses their circumstances as an excuse. These people know what they’re doing and willingly participate in it, but who they are and where they came from help readers understand how they ended up where they are.

Besides superb character development, attention to detail and the presence of art set this novel apart from a lot of what’s happening in contemporary crime fiction. (There is a lot of talk about art and literature.) However, it all eventually become too much in a narrative that juggles three main characters with rich backstories and a host of possibilities, fears, secret agendas, and subplots.

Selfon wrote a commanding debut in The Nightworkers, but then he overwrote it a bit. The philosophical morsels, like Henry learning how the death of a loved one works in multiple tenses (“Present: your special someone is gone. Future: they’re never coming back. Past: you never knew them in the first place.”) are superb. Also, the conversations about art and the multilayered nature of every character are outstanding on their own, but together they can lead the reader off onto tangents that draw attention away from what’s actually going on.

The Nightworkers is complex and possesses great rhythm, accentuated by chapters that range from several pages to just two. Selfon’s prose is elegant, but he clearly understands how much noir relies on detail and economy of language to deliver tension, surprise, and violence. This is a thriller about missing money — those that lost it and those that come looking for it, but it’s also a novel about family, loyalty and the effects of addiction and poverty – and the arrival of a promising voice.

Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

It’s Not Just A Phase: ‘How To Build A Girl’ Is About A Teen Still Figuring It Out

By Ailsa Chang

Beanie Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan in How To Build A Girl, adapted from Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel.
IFC Films

Beanie Feldstein does not like the way teenage experimentation and growth gets dismissed as just a phase. “There tends to be the sort of stigma or judgment,” she says, whether it’s about dress, mood, makeup, or music choice.

What she loves about her latest film, How to Build a Girl, is that it gives teen phases the respect they deserve. “Those phases matter,” she says. “It doesn’t mean they’re going to last, but they do matter. … I think we could all be reminded of that lesson — especially adults.”

How to Build a Girl is a film adaptation of Caitlin Moran’s 2014 semi-autobiographical novel about an awkward teen turned music critic. Feldstein stars as Johanna Morrigan, a 16-year-old growing up in England in the 1990s. Johanna “hasn’t found her people yet,” says Feldstein, and her closest confidants are her heroes (Julie Andrews, Freud, Sylvia Plath, Karl Marx) whose pictures are taped to her bedroom wall.

Feldstein admits she sometimes felt nervous during filming, but found thinking back to her own teenage years helped: “I would just say to myself: Imagine if someone had done this for you — or if this film had an opportunity to be made — when you were 14,” she says. “It would have changed my whole understanding of myself.”

Interview Highlights

On what guides her in choosing projects

I was a sociology major in college. And I think that side of me — that side of my brain is really on high alert every time I read a script. … I might … be kind of enthralled by the idea of this director, or this actor, or this DP, or whoever it might be that is kind of intoxicating. But is this script important for the world? Is this story important to bring into the world? Is it going to change things? Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? All of those things. … I really do make an effort to always come back to those questions that I feel like the sociologist in me would ask — or would hope that an actor would ask.

On her character Johanna

She’s genuinely a happy and joyful, optimistic, imaginative young girl. But she’s also fed up. … She’s busting out of her skin. She’s busting out of her circumstance. She wants more. But at the same time, she’s so joyful and she loves the world. And I think that was something I really related to. I think the most prominent connective tissue between me and the character are that I am also very, very naturally optimistic … but that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen sadness or tragedy in my life. … The film itself and the character, they just give you permission to feel multiple things at once.

On playing a teen character who hasn’t found her people

Johanna is a young woman without her tribe. … I was lucky; I had my musical theater-loving tribe. … I was so lucky to find my people so early and to have a really loving, attentive, supportive family. But not everyone is that lucky. And that ebbs and flows throughout your life. And so I love How to Build a Girl because it celebrates those that had to go at it alone during their adolescence, and were kind of out there and paving their own path and being their own best friend.

On what the film taught her about forgiveness

I think [it] gives everyone permission to make mistakes and not feel defined by those mistakes. But to feel sort of empowered — to fold them into the identity of who you are so you can become stronger and learn from them. I feel like I learned so much from doing this movie in that, you know, you can be a little more forgiving of yourself sometimes — and it doesn’t mean that you’re excusing the behavior or the decision — but you can just kind of forgive and learn from it. … You have to apologize when you’ve done something wrong, profusely and honestly, and then just continue to lead your life with kindness and just know: This is who I am today and you don’t have to have it all figured out.

On Caitlin Moran’s guidance about how to inhabit the character of Johanna

She said to me … ‘This is loosely based on my life, but it’s not my life. And I am here for you whenever you want me, whenever you need me. … But I also want you to feel free to create her as you inhabit her.’ … I just couldn’t have been more lucky in that way. Because every question I need answered, she has answers to — and lived answers to — which is sort of the greatest gift to an actor. But at the same time, both Coky [Giedroyc, the director,] and Caitlin and the whole creative team never sort of said: Well, we need you to be like Caitlin.

On the day Moran came to rehearsal

I just froze. Like, I’m not being self-deprecating. I was awful. I was so nervous to have her in the room … I was shaky and not locked-in. … And Caitlin emailed me about an hour after we finished rehearsal and it just said: Do you like to swim? And I emailed her back, and I was like: I love to swim. And she was like, meet me at this place at this time on Saturday. And I met her at … a women’s only swimming pond. … And we didn’t talk about the movie. We didn’t talk about the characters. She just got me out of my head. We just had, like, a heart-to-heart, a true friendship conversation where we got to know each other on a more personal level. … I had this sort of remarkable, magical day with her. … And I think it really kind of relaxed my soul and my heart. … It was so unspoken and quiet, but it was really beautiful.

On why she wanted to make this film

I never saw a young girl who looked like me … I never saw anyone with my body on-screen and I never saw anyone with my ethos on-screen. … I just think there’s so many aspects of Johanna’s story that were never, ever given to me when I was younger. And whenever I was nervous, I would just think about if I could have had that film, how much it would have changed my sort of understanding of where I fit in the world.

A Big, Complicated Family — And Their Mistakes — In ‘All Adults Here’

By Scott Simon

Author and bookstore owner Emma Straub’s new novel reminds us how lives can change in an instant — not that we may need that reminder too much right now.

All Adults Here is a modern family saga of three generations thrown together, whether they like it or not — and a lot of the time, they don’t. It begins with a bang, when Astrid Strick sees a lifelong friend she’d never much liked get hit and killed by an empty, speeding school bus. And at the age of 68 she realizes — as she tells her children — that “there are always more school buses.”

“Really what it does is it makes Astrid, who’s the main character of the book, realize that there are a lot of things that she wishes she’d done differently as a parent,” Straub says. “And the book is really about how the choices we make and the mistakes we make stay with us for decades, if not forever … It’s a big, complicated family book. So it’s equal opportunity for choices and mistakes. They’re all doing things their family members would rather they do differently.”

Interview Highlights

On being an independent bookstore owner

… the book is really about how the choices we make and the mistakes we make stay with us for decades, if not forever.

You know, somewhat miraculously, business is actually pretty good. And that sense of community is absolutely buoying us right now. I will say that in the last three years, since we’ve opened the store and I’ve been writing this book, the thing that I think about the most is that sense of community, because the neighborhood where our bookstore is, and where we live is the neighborhood where I went to school, and my children go to the school that I went to. And so all day long, I see people from all these different periods of my life — my 10th grade poetry teacher, and my friend’s parents and a person I made out with in high school. And I you know, I see all these people every day.

‘Normal People’ Is A Love Story To Cherish

By Linda Holmes

It’s a blessing to meet very special people when you’re young and dumb. You’ll get older either way, but without them, without how hard you will try to deserve them, how will you ever get less dumb?

Of course, on the other hand, as you make and probably break your bonds with them, you will still be dumb, and you will still be young. Your odds of making a mistake with them are high. Perhaps that’s why so many of us lose some of those relationships in time. Not the ones that are casual and simple, but the ones with people who break us open in the best ways but also cut themselves on our rough edges and bump their heads on our limitations. The ones where we do the same in return.

Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, Normal People, is about one of those relationships, the ones where we hurt and we get hurt and we try, perhaps unwisely, to hang on. And Hulu has made a genuinely beautiful 12-part adaptation, all of which is available Wednesday, April 29.

‘Ohio’ Is A Wild, Angry, Devastating Debut

Ohio, the debut novel from author Stephen Markley, begins with a parade, but it’s not a happy one. The town of New Canaan has gathered to salute Rick Brinklan, a native of the city who was killed in action in Iraq. The novel then jumps in time to 2013, six years after that parade: “It’s hard to say where any of this ends or how it ever began, because what you eventually learn is that there is no such thing as linear,” Markley writes. “There is only this wild … flamethrower of a collective dream in which we were all born and traveled and died.”

Ohio, though, is more of a nightmare than a dream. Markley’s debut is a sprawling, beautiful novel that explores the aftermath of the Great Recession and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a powerful look at the tenuous bonds that hold people together at their best and at their worst.

Markley follows four characters, all of whom knew one another as high school students in the fictional city of New Canaan. The first is Bill Ashcraft, who returns to his hometown on a mysterious errand; he’s agreed to deliver a package from Louisiana to Ohio, although he doesn’t know what it contains. While in town, he happens upon some old classmates, with whom he feels a particular affinity: “Once handsome, marbled, small-town athletes who couldn’t understand why they hadn’t conquered the world.” Bill was an always an odd fit in his high school: a popular jock who embraced left-wing politics with a fervor that annoyed his friends.

The second character is Stacey Moore, a graduate student who’s come to New Canaan to meet with the mother of her ex-lover, a mercurial student named Lisa Han, who’s been out of contact with her friends for years. Stacey isn’t thrilled to come back to her hometown; it reminds her of her youthful awkwardness: “That’s how teenagedness works: everyone lives in a bubble of their own terrifying insecurities oblivious to the possibility that so does everyone else.”

Markley then turns to Dan Eaton, a soldier who lost an eye in Iraq, who comes back to visit his parents and his ex-girlfriend. Dan was always on the edge of the in-crowd in high school, brainy but athletic, and he has mixed feelings about running into his old friends. He complains to one about “how this town sucks you in. Keeps you doped on its own mythology.”

Finally, there’s Tina Ross, whose life has been marked by tragedy. She was abused by her high school boyfriend, a cruel linebacker named Todd Beaufort; after years of struggling with an eating disorder and self-mutilation, she’s come back to town to confront him. She knows she’s not the only one of her cohort haunted by old ghosts, unable to explain to her current boyfriend “the sadness somehow born in their high school days that could reach out and touch any of them at random.”

The four acquaintances all return to New Canaan on the same night, but for very different reasons, and none of their homecomings go exactly as planned. The novel ends with a terrifying act of violence, the culmination of a set of lives that have been destroyed by abuse, drug addiction, hatred, war and poverty.

Markley intersperses the stories of the four Ohioans with flashbacks to high school, and his portrayals are horrifyingly accurate. He does a perfect job examining the casual cruelties teenagers inflict on one another, and how those cruelties never really end, but perpetuate themselves well into adulthood.

There’s a lot going on in Ohio — a sprawling cast of main and supporting characters, and a series of interconnected events that doesn’t come together until the book’s shocking conclusion. But Markley handles it beautifully; the novel is intricately constructed, with gorgeous, fiery writing that pulls the reader in and never lets go. It’s obvious that Markley cares deeply about his characters, even the unsympathetic ones — he treats them with respect, never writing condescendingly about these people whose lives have been battered and bruised by circumstances they don’t quite understand.

It may sound like an odd thing to say for a book that’s so unflinching in its look at violence, but Markley’s novel is, in the end, about love — how it can unite and divide, sustain and destroy. “Love was what God gave you to make you both unbearably strong and intolerably weak,” he writes. “Love was the ghost of yourself, a mirror image you saw in a crowd — different life, different ideals, different map of the world — but somehow still you.” Written with a real love for its characters, Ohio isn’t just a remarkable debut novel, it’s a wild, angry and devastating masterpiece of a book.