06th Jan2021

‘House of El: Book One – The Shadow Threat’ Graphic Novel Review

by Dean Fuller

Written by Claudia Gray | Art by Eric Zawadki | Published by DC Comics YA

One thing DC has always enjoyed has been to reinvent and revisit some of its characters, and reinterpret them for various reasons. When comics began of course, the primary audience was young boys, so they tended to be pretty simplistic stuff with good guys punching bad guys. Times and demographics change, and now the readership is older and more diverse, with more female and minority readers. The DC Young Adults books, of which this is the latest, have also been pitching mainly to one of those newer demographics, teenage girls. Not being a teenage girl last time I looked, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by both the general quality of the books, and how much I have actually enjoyed them, once I read them with an open mind.

This book I’m really looking forward to reading for the reasons above, and for the added small matter of Superman being my favourite character. This is the first of three House of El books, all of which take place on a pre-explosion Krypton. Nothing new there I hear you cry, DC have been telling stories based on Krypton pretty much since Superman’s arrival. Yes they have, and quite a difference in tone too, with those early warmer visions of a utopian society on Krypton giving way to the more sterile Krypton in the Superman movie and in John Byrne’s reboot in the 1980’s. These books are going to take a slightly different tack by not just focusing on Jor-El and Lara and Krypton’s destruction, but also on other main characters, on Kryptonian society and values, and identity in a society where you have little individual choice.

Although Jor-El and Lara are pretty significant characters in this story, they are not the main focus. That honour goes to Zahn and Sera. Zahn has been born into the highest level of Kryptonian society, predestined by birth for a high role in government. Sera is one of the lower level Kryptonians, born to be in the soldier class, and therefore expendable. Krypton, it seems, has achieved great technological progress at the cost of selling its soul. Not everyone is happy with this situation. More than a few people are starting to question the ruling council, called the tribune. Despite a growing chain of groundquakes across the planet, they maintain there is nothing wrong with Krypton, and stamp down increasingly hard on any dissidents.

Another familiar face, General Zod, while the face of the military and seemingly loyal to the tribune, is also asking questions. He knows the increasingly desperate attempts to hurry up terraforming attempts on planets that aren’t ready, and sacrificing his soldiers to do it, mean the tribune privately know the situation is dire. Krypton’s greatest scientists, Jor-El and Lara, are also equally discontent with things. Zahn, Sera, Zod, and the El’s are going to ultimately cross paths in their opposition it seems, though their approaches will be very different. Zod is a friend and colleague of Jor-El, and is the boss of soldier Sera. Zahn is Lara’s cousin. Although they are all challenging Krypton’s failings in some way, they are not all aware of each other’s actions.

Zahn gets involved with an organisation that is fighting for the rights of lesser citizens, though he draws the line at violence. Is it as well meaning as its seems? Is Zahn a valued upper elite recruit, or have they recruited him as a stooge? Jor-El and Lara have decided the way to save Krypton is to do away with its practice of genetically breeding people to fulfill certain roles. Soldiers like Sera for example are bred to be strong and loyal, though the traits like compassion and the ability to question are removed from them. No one on Krypton is complete, all have been manipulated in some way and the El’s believe Krypton is headed for disaster. They have also secretly decided to have a real birth, the pregnant Lara having conceived naturally, something no elite woman has done in generations. Zod is content to work from the shadows, help others further his agenda until the time is right.

As this book is the first of three nothing is of course resolved, but Claudia Gray does a fine job of setting up the chess board and pieces, and then moving them around nicely. We get the distinct character story arcs, but they organically cross the other storylines to form a nice overall storyline. I like the fact that although this all takes place on a seemingly alien planet, many of the issues are similar those that we face. Unquestioning following of authority, the pressure to conform in society, the urge to find your own identity, all against a backdrop of political intrigue and personal hope. Really well written stuff. The art by Eric Zawadzki is also very nice, especially the frequent double page spreads which I especially enjoyed. Panel choice and layout pacing were always great too. Both a great choice to tell this story.

As I’ve said before, the fact these books aren’t aimed at my demographic and yet I find them so good tells you everything. They are not dumbed down, or simplified, but adapted to the present time and audience, something storytellers have done since Greek and Roman times.

I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the two remaining House of El books.

**** 4/5

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