House of El Book One: The Shadow Threat

House of El Book One: The Shadow Threat
House of El Vol 1 The Shadow Threat review
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: DC - 978-1-4012-9112-9
  • Volume No.: 1
  • Release date: 2021
  • UPC: 9781401291129
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: yes
  • Positive minority portrayal?: yes

That Superman was born on Krypton is integral to his mythology, and over the years the Kryptonian society in which his parents lived has been explored. However, it’s probably never come under the microscope in such depth as is provided with House of El, with the caveat that DC’s young adult graphic novels veer away from mainstream continuity.

As her starting point Claudia Gray uses Krypton being geologically unstable, and scientist Joe-El the voice in the wilderness when arguing against the ruling council about the danger he sees coming. She builds around that mythology, introducing a Kryptonian caste system, dangerous terraforming of other planets, and foetal genetic programming instilling certain inclinations from birth. While some names that’ll be recognised by Superman fans are introduced, the House of El title is more a commercial concession as Gray builds the story around two of her own characters. Sera-Ur is a brave soldier able to adapt to changes in circumstance, and Zahn-Re is a young member of the privileged upper classes prepared to take action to pass on the truth. Before circumstances throw them together they’re already aware of each other, their attraction crossing class boundaries.

There are hints of John Romita Jr in Eric Zawadzki’s art, and he provides detailed costumes, architecture and technology, while there’s no mistaking one person for another. His spreads showing Krypton and other locations have work poured into them to such an extent it would be nice to see him having a try drawing Judge Dredd’s equally futuristic Mega-City One.

On one level it could be read that Gray is writing about a society where official news sources can no longer be believed by anyone with eyes to see what’s happening themselves. The comparisons diverge, however, when it comes to a soldier’s trade, with those bred for duty not engaging in battle, but civilian protection and planetary exploration, which provide Sera with courage, but no sense of self-preservation. It’s down to genetic pre-determination, and there’s a complexity about the way that’s used in House of El, cleverly integrated, yet never at the cost of providing an action-based thriller. There’s something very wrong at the heart of Kryptonian society, but can it be fixed?

Many of the earliest DC young adult graphic novels achieve a base level quality without fulfilling their potential, but House of El is a step up. The Shadow Threat is the set-up, the first novel in a trilogy that continues with The Enemy Delusion, and it’s well worth getting in on ground level.