BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Five More to Go: Margaret Atwood and Reneé Nault’s The Handmaid’s Tale [in The Booklist Reader]

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Reneé Nault

In the decades since its 1985 publication, Margaret Atwood’s dystopic classic has spawned audio, film, radio, theater, opera, ballet incarnations, and, most recently, the wildly popular television series (which veers significantly from the original, ahem). Given the evergreen veneration for the story, the graphic novel version was inevitable. Canadian artist Reneé Nault is credited with the illustrations, while both Nault and Atwood appear on the copyright page for adaptation; with a faithful narrative ensured, Nault spectacularly transforms lines and color into fear, resignation, desperation, and the tiniest glimmers of hope. If graphic adaptations are intended to target young adult audiences, Nault has certainly hit the bull’s-eye.

Handmaid Offred, in her sweeping red robe, must survive her third posting. She’s manipulated by the Commander husband, disdained by his former celebrity wife, and coerced into dangerous, destructive cooperation in exchange for any news about her young daughter from “before.” Whether her work is contained in panels (the orderly march to the shops) or across a double-page spread (the hanging bodies against the Wall – “we’re supposed to look”), Nault draws with precision; most piercing throughout are her affecting use of color (red – “the colour of blood” – and its portentous hues of orange, crimson, rust) and scale (the indistinguishable handmaids trapped in plain sight). She adds a softness when Offred recalls her past, offering less saturated colors for happier memories, and thickened, darker lines for the repetitive nightmares. With Atwood’s announcement of a September 2019 sequel, The Testaments, fans might find Nault’s vision to be an ideal refresher.

Below you’ll find five more electrifying graphic titles (and series) that offer alternate, often all-too-believable versions of disturbing, dangerous, dystopic worlds, set both in the present and future.


20th Century Boys and 21st Century Boys (part of the 20th Century Boys series, 24 volumes) by Naoki Urasawa with the cooperation of Takashi Nagasaki, and various translators, with an English adaptation by Akemi Wegmüller

Once upon a time, Kenji wanted to be a rock-star guitarist. But somehow, in 1997, he’s ended up managing a convenience store with his cranky mother. Then he gets word that his childhood friend Donkey has committed suicide. Flashback to 1969: Kenji, Donkey, and the best of the neighborhood boys had a secret club, complete with hidden hideout and mysterious symbols. All of a sudden, back in the present, a book they wrote as kids, the “Book of Prophecy,” is making news as a faceless cult leader sets out to destroy the world. Then, Kenji disappears on Bloody New Year’s Eve of 2000, leaving his niece and de facto successor, Kanna, to somehow save what’s left of humanity.


Attack on Titan (series, 22 volumes) by Hajime Isayama and translated by Sheldon Drzka

The series opens with “To You, 2,000 Years From Now,” and the future is not looking good. Humanity’s survivors have been relegated to a heavily guarded three-ringed fortress. Outside this “Human Territory,” the Titans – a behemoth anthropomorphic breed that lumber naked, lack genitals, and live to feast on screaming human flesh – run free. Although they nearly wiped out the entire human population 107 years ago, the remaining survivors have since lived a century in relative peace. But suddenly, the Titans are back on the attack, and a battle of man vs. monster ensues. The series’ success made significant publishing headlines in 2014. In addition to the industry-boosting manga, various spin-offs continue to appear, including related “light” novelsanime seriesanimated feature filmvideo games, and a live action film.


Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (series, 10 volumes), by Motoro Mase and translated by John Werry, with an English adaptation by Kristina Blachere

“To make people value life,” one in 1,000 first-graders receives a fatal nanocapsule in his or her mandatory immunization. Notice of that predetermined death is delivered via ikigami (literally, “death paper”) to the victim, aged 18-24, exactly 24 hours before their timed demise. Any hope of escape is impossible. Since each chapter is a stand-alone episode of an arbitrary victim’s final day, readers can choose to peruse the volumes in any order. But reading serially has its benefits; audiences will follow the prevailing narrative of ikigami messenger Kengo Fujimoto, discovering his initial misgivings about delivering death through his tenure with the National Welfare system, and being privvy to affecting glimpses into his personal relationships, career challenges, and the unsettled state of his questioning conscience.


Letter to Survivors by Gébé and translated by Edward Gauvin

Once upon a time, they were “that happy family”: two parents, two children, one dog, all living in “the house of [their] dreams.” And then they added a coastal apartment, a mountain escape (traversed via luxury car), and an adventure mobile. But they kept needing more. That is, until their world implodes, and the foursome – minus the dog – are buried deep below, connected through an air vent to a mysterious voice above. What they can’t see is the speaker: an amorphously garbed postman in a gas mask, coveralls, and boots, who delivers letters filled with disjointed stories he reads aloud. Who’s controlling the narrative is an eerie reveal. Originally published in France in 1981, the late Gébé’s almost 40-year-old post-apocalyptic warning remains preternaturally timely.

Sweet Tooth (series, six volumes) by Jeff Lemire

The future is diseased: a worldwide plague has damned most of humanity to gruesome deaths. Among the few survivors is a hybrid race: young children who are part human, part animal. Sheltered by his father, young Gus – who’s half deer, half boy – has known only the protection of the deep woods. But after his father, too, succumbs to plague, Gus is forced to accept the help of a gruff stranger, Jeppard, who promises to deliver Gus to safety. Nothing, of course, is at all straightforward; there will be entrapments and rescues, betrayals and murders, before questions can be answered, plans can be executed, and, finally, peace can be achieved. Eisner-winning Canadian creator Lemire’s full color, multidimensional, disquieting series is a can’t-turn-away, glorious achievement.

Published: “Five More to Go: Margaret Atwood and Reneé Nault’s THE HANDMAID’S TALE,” The Booklist Reader, April 15, 2019


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