If 2020 teaches us anything, it is to find hope in darkness. That hope comes in many forms, even from the past. Roxane Gay’s 2013 short story “We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness” is a story of a world plunged into literal perpetual darkness and one family’s hopes to overcome it. Now a graphic novel from BOOM! Studios, The Sacrifice of Darkness expands on the original prose at a time when we need it most.
Here, Roxane Gay, writer Tracy Lynne Oliver, and artist Rebecca Kirby discuss with WWAC the story’s themes, artistic inspirations, and the comfort it provides to a pandemic-weary world.
For those not familiar with the short story “We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness” that this graphic novel is based on, would you be able to give us a brief summary of what it is about?
Gay: Hiram Hightower is a hardworking miner who loves his job as a miner, loves his wife and child, and is living the life of his dreams. All that changes when the mine owners demand more and more from the miners who spend so much time underground they start to crave the sun, a few free moments for themselves and their families. Hiram becomes so overwhelmed by the burdens of his job that he buys an air machine and flies it into the sun so that the growing darkness in him might be filled up with light. The sun disappears and the world becomes shrouded in darkness. We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness is the story of what happens to his wife and child when they are forced to answer for Hiram’s actions, in a world where there is little light to be found.
What led you to adapt this story for the graphic novel medium?
Gay: This is one of those stories that felt visual as I wrote the original and a graphic novel seemed like an amazing pairing for it.
Roxane, how did you find your co-writer and art team for this story?
Gay: I have been a fan of Tracy Lynne Oliver’s work for years. We’ve been close friends for more than a decade, she is one of my favorite writers, and I knew she had the imagination and familiarity with my voice to take this on. Whatever expectations I had, Tracy exceeded, and then some.
Tracy, in bringing this story to a graphic novel, was there anything that didn’t seem to translate from the original work? And how much freedom did you have in expanding the world from the original story?
Oliver: The original work translated beautifully. The only thing that frustrated me was not being able to carry over all of the beautiful texture, depth, and beauty from the long-form story into the graphic novel format. My hope was that the visual form would convey those elements and as it turns out, Rebecca’s art most certainly did.
In regard to freedom, I wasn’t given any restrictions. I had Roxane’s full trust and I wasn’t about to let her down. Her original story was set primarily in the “after” when Hiram had taken the light away. What I wanted to explore was what happened in the “before.” What was the story of Hiram and Mara? How did they come to be together? What would drive a man to such desperation when he had so much to lose? I enjoyed finding that out.
Food and meals play an interesting role in this story. Hiram and Myra’s early dates revolved around picnics. And when Claire first meets Hiram and Myra’s son Joshua, she offers him a sandwich. Do you see food as a way of not just nourishing physical life, but mental and emotional life as well, in this story?
Gay: Food is one of those nearly universal pleasures. It certainly is a source of all kinds of nourishment in this story. These characters often use food to express, in part, the depth of their feelings.
Oliver: Food definitely conveys many emotions in this story. From the apples Hiram eats while waiting to run into Mara—their cores piling up in the place where he sits each night just wanting a glimpse of her—to the biscuits made with love for one child and given to another to sow the seeds of friendship, to the picnics where love blooms, food definitely frames caring, family and bonding in this story.
Rebecca, what are some of the inspirations you looked to in order to bring this story to life, artistic, literary, or otherwise?
Kirby: As a group, we’d discussed some references before I’d even started drawing. We talked about how the cityscapes might be informed by Metropolis, how the walkways could be wooden and raised off the ground, how the world could borrow aesthetic and functional elements from different time periods and environments. My own surroundings — Pennsylvania — informed the look of the world a lot, I think, too.
Rebecca, there’s something peaceful about your art, which reminds me of watercolors, even in the times of the perpetual darkness. With the choice of this style of art, what mood and tone were you hoping to set?
Kirby: When I was reading it, it felt a lot like a personal recollection — like someone telling a story from their own memory, I think. I tried to draw it how I imagine a real person would want their own closest-held memories shown.
Let’s talk a little bit about the colors of this story. It’s a very monochromatic work, leaning into pastel peach and grey tones early on, and then bright reds, browns, and yellows when the world descends into the perpetual darkness. What meaning do you see in the choice of colors for each of these timelines?
Gay: Both Tracy and I wanted the color story of this book to follow the narrative arc. Early on, the softer colors reflect the warmth of the story as we learn about Hiram and Mara’s courtship and the joy of their life together. When the sun disappears, the world becomes a harder place, and the color story shifts to reflect that change and the challenges Mara and Joshua face.
Oliver: Given the nature of the story and the darkness throughout, we couldn’t have the book looking like an ink spill. Our colorist, James Fenner, really did an outstanding job of using beautiful tones to frame the different timelines of the story. When I saw the finished work I was astounded! The way he incorporated so much light in a book that is about darkness and finding light despite that darkness, was truly magical.
The parallels to 2020 in this graphic novel are rather eerie: scientists on a frantic race to solve a crisis, calls to understand and accept “the new normal” of living without the sun. Even the use of “corona council” takes on a whole new meaning from when the story first came out in 2012. And of course, themes of prejudice and class struggle resonate even more so this year. Do any of you read any aspects of this story differently today than when you first came across it?
Gay: This is one of those stories that was unexpectedly prescient given everything that has happened in 2020. At the same time, the conflicts in this story are rather universal. There has always been a stark divide between the haves and the have nots and the wealthy have always exploited the working class in unconscionable ways. I wish the themes here weren’t timeless, but alas, we have not yet learned how to create and nurture an equitable world.
Oliver: This aspect was kind of creepy given the year we’ve had. Roxane wrote this story more than eight years ago and the parallels to what 2020 has wrought (so far) are uncanny. This novel couldn’t be timelier. I hope, perhaps, it can help someone or even young kids, cope better, after reading this story and knowing that even in the darkest of times, you can persevere.
Roxane describes this story as a story of faith in dark times (literally and metaphorically), of love when love would seem nonexistent. It echoes the sentiments many of us feel in 2020, like we’re living in the worst timeline. So the timing of this release cannot be better. Do you hope it provides that message of comfort and hope that many of us crave in our current moment?
Gay: I tend to be more of a realist than an optimist but I absolutely believe in surrounding a dark story with the light of realistic hope. I don’t want to give the ending away but I hope the reader can find solace and know that even when the world is at its darkest, change can happen when you have nearly given up hope.
Oliver: See above answer.
Pick up a copy of The Sacrifice of Darkness today, either digitally or at your local comic shop or bookstore. The original prose story “We Are the Sacrifice of Darkness” is available in Roxane Gay’s 2017 anthology Difficult Women.