House of El: Book One – Claudia Gray, Writer; Eric Zawadzki, Artist; Dee Cunniffe, Colorist
Ray – 9/10
Ray: Many of the DC graphic novels go back to the earliest days of our heroes, but few go back as far as this one—to before Superman was born, in the dying days of Krypton. There have been comics and even a TV series dedicated to the last days of the planet, so there’s clearly interest here, but I don’t know if the concept has ever been done as well as it is in this new graphic novel by novelist Claudia Gray—a high-octane fusion story that combines elements of Romeo and Juliet with the conspiracy thrills of 1984 and the class struggles of Upstairs/Downstairs.
This story unfolds through dual perspectives that illustrate the cruel, strongly divided class structure of Krypton, where your destiny is often determined by your genes. The first lead is Zahn, a young elite born to a powerful and educated family. He feels an urge to fight for justice—even speaking out in court in favor of a vandal who is on trial for trying to bring attention to Krypton’s unstable core—but finds that few people have any interest, including his own family. It’s a good depiction of how hard it is for one person, even an elite, to make a difference.
Sera, meanwhile, has even less power to fight against the end. She’s a young soldier in General Zod’s terraforming corps—sent to hostile planets to try to start Kryptonian colonies. She and her fellow soldiers are trained from an early age to think of themselves as a unit, not individuals—even making jokes about their own impending deaths with little emotion. The missions are getting more and more dangerous, the planets are looking more hostile, and Sera is starting to question her mission even as it goes against all her programming.
There’s hints of a romance between the two of them, namely something that happened off-screen before this story began, but it’s not the focus of this book. This is the first part of a trilogy, and the two leads only spend a short time together in this installment. It’s really about their own awakenings, as they both start to question the system they were indoctrinated in from birth. Zahn tries to alert his older siblings to the problems in their society but is laughed off, and Sera doesn’t dare speak up at first. This is a subtle but creepy take on what a totalitarian society looks like with a slow creep of oppression.
While Zahn and Sera are compelling leads, I don’t think this story would be nearly as effective without the other, more familiar leads. Lara, a pregnant scientist with her more radical husband Jor-El, is trying to solve not just the threats facing Krypton’s structure but the mental poison linked to their genetic experiments. Zod, meanwhile, is a far more nuanced figure than he usually is. This is a man who clearly knows something horrible is coming, but is constrained by the strictures of the government he serves.
As Zahn slowly turns towards radicalism and falls in with a lower-caste militant group targeting one of Krypton’s central landmarks, Sera undergoes a radical experiment that threatens to change the way she looks at everything. Both are very different characters at the end of the first volume than they are at the start of it, and keeping them mostly apart for this volume pays off—we can look forward to seeing how they complement each other now that they both have a wider perspective on their world.
Eric Zawadzki’s art is strong, perfectly capturing alien landscapes, glittering cities, and the gritty interiors where the Labor class spends their lives. It’s no more colorful than other DC graphic novels in this style, but the subtle art shifts somehow manage to deliver very nuanced and engaging art in diverse settings.
I do have two small quibbles. First, this is very much a book one—it’s more Empire Strikes Back than A New Hope, and there’s no resolution of any kind, just a cliffhanger. Second, it’s the Titanic problem—we know these kids probably aren’t going to have anything resembling a happy ending and they probably only have a few months to live. But those issues aside, this is a fascinating book that broadens the scope of the DC OGN line and shows once again why it’s where DC’s best stories are being told.
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GeekDad received this comic for review purposes.