Spice flows again: ‘Dune: House Atreides’ has rocky but promising first installment

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Grade: 2.5/5.0

2020 has been a disappointing year for the Dune franchise. With the star-studded movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s original novel delayed until October 2021 due to COVID-19, many fans have been distraught over potentially waiting an entire year before diving back into the beloved science fantasy epic. 

While originally coordinated with the December release of the film, BOOM! Studios has moved forward with “Dune: House Atreides,” a limited run comic book adaptation of the prequel novel of the same name. It follows a young Leto Atreides — father of Paul, the franchise’s main character — set a generation before the titular royal house would inherit the desert planet Arrakis. The planet and its main export — the life extending drug spice melange — is still under the haphazard control of the cutthroat House Harkonnen, and Leto must learn to navigate the politics of the galaxy without provoking their aggression.

The first issue of the run is a somewhat rocky start, seemingly unsure of its target audience. “House Atreides #1” no doubt has the surface aesthetic of a Dune novel: There’s intrigue, heroics and — most importantly — giant invulnerable sandworms. And with the prequel’s author, Brian Herbert, heading the writing team for the comic series, there’s good reason to expect it to be a compelling adaptation in a new medium. But for established fans, there are several elements of this first issue that are sure to feel palpably off about how it tells this familiar story. 

For one, the comic’s writing simply lacks the immersive tact of the original prose. The issue understandably devotes most panels to some amount of exposition, which is to an extent expected for a world as expansive and complex as this one. But where the original prequel novel assumed its readers have a cursory knowledge of the basic concepts, factions and politics of the universe, this adaptation seems to expect a less enfranchised audience, incorporating more overt explanation in its rendition of this complex, parallel narrative. 

It’s an appreciated gesture on paper, surely meant to make the comic a more approachable entry point into the franchise, but a clunky one in execution. Much of the charm of the original novels is this difficulty, which trusts readers to be able to read between the lines of underhanded courtly banter and candid worldbuilding setpieces — characters in this adaptation, by contrast, are more prone to awkwardly over explaining. Also jarringly implemented are the characters’ internal monologues, which, while an essential and candid feature of the original novels, lack any sense of subtlety here. It’s conceivable that these clunkier approaches to worldbuilding may fade as the series progresses, but they’re enough to make this first issue feel quite abrasive.

That being said, the issue redeems itself somewhat through its compelling visual polish. The grandiose style of illustrator Dev Pramanik is a new but exciting take on Dune’s part sci-fi, part sword-and-sorcery iconography. From dwarfing, panel-dominating architecture to dynamic and sensational action sequences, “House Atreides” brings a pulpy vibrancy to both Dune’s slick tech and traditional fantasy elements. The visual highlight somehow isn’t the opening scene’s sandworm attack, but the later bull fight featuring Leto’s father. Though his figure is dwarfed by the massive bull and the even larger coliseum, Pramanik’s eye for dynamic staging keeps to the original novel’s portrayal of the Atreides patriarch.

Also worth noting is just how expressive these characters are: Though their facial contortions border on cartoonish at points, it’s cohesive with the extravagant setpieces, as well as with colorist Alex Guimaraes’ vivid, technicolor palette. One standout panel is a full frame closeup on an utterly furious Emperor Elrood Corrino IX, whose comically over-the-top outbursts are rendered in great detail and vibrant color. 

All things considered, “House Atreides #1” may fall short of many expectations. It’s simply a weaker first installment than its source material in terms of exposition, which is sure to leave new and old fans unimpressed and perhaps even feeling spoken down to. But if the series can leave these introductory issues behind in this first issue, “Dune: House Atreides” may prove in time to be just the visual adaptation that fans are looking for.

Contact Olive Grimes at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.