Introduce the subject of race and slavery into a work of art, and that subject may as well be what the work is about, since it’s all that most people will be able to discuss. Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 film Django Unchained sparked many comments—some from people who hadn’t seen it—about whether or not Tarantino had a right to make a work about slavery, whether the graphic sequences showing the suffering of slaves constituted truth telling or a form of pornography. And yes, slavery is, at least on the surface, the subject of Django Unchained. But at bottom Django, in both its film and its new graphic-novel versions, concerns other matters. It is a story about, among other things, the necessity of adopting guises to achieve one’s purposes; the danger faced by those who cannot or will not do so; and the equal danger of letting one’s guise define oneself. The slave-turned-gunfighter Django steers a course between these two pitfalls, into which the story’s other two most interesting characters disappear.
The first of those figures is the improbable King Schultz, the German-born bounty hunter and former dentist who first encounters Django—as do we— when the title character is one of several bare-chested slaves being led in chains through the wilds of Texas. Schultz needs him to identify three outlaws who were once overseers at the plantation where Django was a slave. In Schultz’s interactions with Django’s two captors, the Speck brothers, we see an early indication of what will ultimately bring this manhunter down. Schultz loves to talk, and his loquaciousness does nothing to endear him to the Specks; unwilling to dumb down his flights of gab for them—unwilling, that is, to appear to be other than what he is—he provokes the brothers into a gun battle, defeating them. The other slaves are left in charge of their own fates while Django, unchained, rides off with Schultz—first to settle a score with his onetime overseers, then to join Schultz in the bounty-hunting business.
And he must attend to one other item of business. At the plantation where Django suffered at the hands of the overseers, so did his wife, Broomhilda—who has since been sold to others, and whom Django must now find. (Broomhilda’s last name, von Shaft, is a shout-out to the Blaxploitation film genre of the 1970s, as is all of Django Unchained, which is, like Blaxploitation, a revenge-of-the-oppressed narrative. Classic examples of this genre include the Shaft trilogy—Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, and Shaft in Africa,— Foxy Brown, Coffy, Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Black Caesar, Hell Up in Harlem, The Legend of Nigger Charley, which had two sequels, and Superfly, which had one. These films combined elements of pulp fiction, sexploitation, and the theme of revenge as justice, with tough black heroes or heroines saving the black community from exploitation by rapacious whites, mostly in contemporary urban settings, although the Nigger Charley films were westerns. All of these films, and more besides, were made between 1970 and 1975. Tarantino is a big fan of this genre.) With his freedom and his mission, Django discoverers, if not quite consciously, that he now needs something he didn’t as a slave: a philosophy. When it comes to having a system for operating in the world, he is like a newborn, as he demonstrates when he clothes himself at Schultz’s expense and chooses a true-blue outfit with an outrageous bow that makes him look like a man-sized baby. Ironically, it is Schultz who initiates Django into the practice of playing characters—adopting guises—to achieve his ends, and who schools him in moral relativism: maybe it is not nice to kill a man in front of his young son, but it is permissible when that man is himself wanted by the court for cold-blooded murder. Not only permissible: it is what the job requires. Purpose trumps feeling.
One could argue that the graphic-novel version of Django exists to bring the powers of a different medium to bear on an important story—though that argument would be easier to make had the novel not been preceded by other Django-related items, including, bizarrely, action figures.
For Django and Schultz, all of this—the ability to adopt guises, to practice moral relativism—is put to the ultimate test when the search for Broomhilda leads to the plantation of Calvin Candie, a mandingo-fighting enthusiast, and the story enters its darkest chapter. It is here that Schultz’s inability to play a character sufficiently, to ignore the horror around him in order to achieve his purpose, brings about his demise. And it is here that we encounter his antithesis, the figure who plays his role so well that he is finally unable to escape it. This is Stephen, Candie’s HNIC (Head Nigger in Charge), who has learned to survive by being as cruel to the fellow blacks under his thumb as he is devoted to his master. In the end there is no distinction between Stephen and the system that has victimized him his entire life—no distinction, at least, that Django feels obligated to recognize in his bloody vengeance.
Graphic novels and films have in common that they are hybrid art forms. Both employ narrative, words, and visuals—frames in the case of films, panels in the case of graphic novels. With sound, films might seem to have a greater number of dimensions, but whereas films are almost always viewed one (rapidly moving) frame at a time, a reader can see multiple panels of a graphic novel at once, sometimes to terrific effect. The art in the novel version of Django Unchained is credited to a team—R. M. Guéra, Jason Latour, Denys Cowan, Danijel Zezel, John Floyd, the colorists Giulia Brusco and Jose Villarubia, and the letterers Sal Cipriano and Taylor Esposito; the panels are uniformly good, evoking by turns the Texas wilderness at night, a rustic small-town saloon, the faux gentility of a French-style saloon frequented by slavers, and the inside and outside of a Mississippi plantation, as the story winds its way through diverse physical and emotional landscapes. The artists use the panels like cinematographers, zeroing in or pulling back as the action dictates.
In his 1888 essay “Style,” Walter Pater wrote, “If music be the ideal of all art whatever, precisely because in music it is impossible to distinguish the form from the substance or matter, the subject from the expression, then, literature, by finding its specific excellence in the absolute correspondence of the term to its import, will be but fulfilling the condition of all artistic quality in things everywhere, of all good art.” In other words, the style of a work should reflect what the work is about. If Django Unchained is about the need to adapt oneself to a given situation, that theme has a parallel in the different visual styles seen in the pages of the graphic novel. The problem is that the shifts appear to be arbitrary; in the middle of the book, a darker-toned, more textured, more painterly style is used for scenes of comparatively little dramatic significance, while the grisliest, most disturbing parts of the story—two mandingo fighters in a death match, a third torn apart by dogs after begging not to fight anymore—are illustrated with the outlines and bright colors of a Superman comic book.
Another quibble: Reginald Hudlin’s adaptation of Tarantino’s screenplay has occasional moments of tone-deafness. This mostly comes down to omissions of lines that nullify or change the meanings of passages that are left in. For example, during a flashback in the film version, when Django pleads with an overseer not to whip Broomhilda, the overseer replies, “I like the way you beg, boy” (though he doesn’t like it well enough to call off the whipping). Later Django tells the same overseer, whom he is in the act of killing, “I like the way you die, boy.” In the graphic novel, the first line is left out, making the second sound a tad gratuitous. Similarly, the film shows Django in his true-blue clothing at the outset of his bounty-hunting days but later has him say, “Burgundy is my color”-burgundy being true blue, the color of virtue, when it is mixed with blood. But the line about burgundy is missing from the book. Also, the most hilarious scene in the film—involving poorly made Ku Klux Klan hood—comes across with curious flatness in the graphic novel, perhaps because so much depends on actors’ inflections.
Execution is one thing, of course, and purpose is another. One could argue that the graphic-novel version of Django exists to bring the powers of a different medium to bear on an important story—though that argument would be easier to make had the novel not been preceded by other Django-related items, including, bizarrely, action figures. The outcry over the marketing of toys in connection with a slavery-themed movie led to their being withdrawn, but the question remains: Why were they introduced in the first place? Rather, the question would remain, were the answer not so obvious. Where does this answer leave us with the reading of Django the novel, with our ability to enjoy it? Here, like the character Django, the reader confronts an ethical puzzle he must solve for himself.
On the whole, Hudlin does a good job of capturing the essence of Tarantino’s film, a story about a good man’s education in what it takes to survive in a hard world. And while the illustrations’ relation to the narrative is sometimes uncertain, the book can be enjoyed for its art alone, by turns spectacular, intricate, and brooding—a beautiful smorgasbord, much like the work that inspired it.