REVIEW: The new DUNE graphic novel is a stunning but very streamlined introduction to the world

Let's be honest: the first half of the original Dune is weird. Not because of the Bene Gesserit, or the vaguely-alluded-to Butlerian Jihad, or how Baron Harkonnen evilness is uncomfortably correlated with his weight and sexuality (seriously, WTF).

No, it's a curious piece of dramatic writing because you're basically from the start "This is all a setup!," and then you spent the next 200 pages getting to know the world and the characters as they all think either "Well I'm walking into a trap" or "Hooray we're setting a trap!" Don't get me wrong, the political intrigue is fascinating, and Herbert does an excellent job of worldbuilding through in-scene dialogue rather than exposition — an admirable feat in-and-of-itself. But the real dramatic tension of those first few hundred pages comes from the fact that you know there's an inevitable betrayal waiting on the horizon. And when it finally arrives, it plays out almost exactly as expected.

It's in that "almost" that arrives halfway through the book—Paul and a pregnant Lady Jessica surviving the Harkonnen assault, and being taken in the Fremen—where the story really takes off. But of course, you can't start the story there, either; all of that "Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal!" build-up is crucial to the story.

The new Dune graphic novel from Abram ComicArts covers this first half* of the story. There's an inherent challenge there: comics are a dramatic medium, but a lot of this first half is comprised of people sitting around rooms and talking, taking turns to share their internal monologues. As a result, the adaptation—by Frank Herbert's son, Brian, and his frequent collaborator Kevin J. Anderson, who have written numerous Dune sequels and prequels over the last few decades that expand the universe—trims the story down to its most iconic touchstone scenes. (They choose to focus on a lot of the same scenes as David Lynch did with his gloriously messy film adaptation.)

After a one-page opening of scene setting to juxtapose the planets of Arrakis and Caladan, the graphic novel immediately gets to the iconic Gom Jabbar/Litany Against Fear scene. It's a bold move, though it's certainly satisfying—and a good indication of just how swiftly this story is going to move. We meet Baron Harkonnen; we meet Gurney Halleck with an obligatory shield fight; the Reverend Mother scolds Jessica; Paul and Leto have a nice father-son talk; and bam, we're off to Arrakis.

The downside of this is that there's little time to invest in the characters or world-building. Herbert and Anderson do their best to compensate for this by paying homage to the original book's use of a shifting omniscient narrator. Differently colored caption boxes present inner monologues from different characters like voiceovers so as not to interrupt the scene. It's an effective and economical narrative choice. If you're not already familiar with the story, however, it might seem a bit bizarre. You might find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the rapid flow of exposition (What's a Sardaukar? If these guys are all Dukes and Barons, where is this "Emperor" they're talking about, and why are they changing kingdoms? Who's "Duncan?" Wait, Jessica chose to give birth to a boy? How does that work?) The "voiceovers" in some of those early scenes don't really seem to add much, either. The introduction of Dr. Yueh comes to mind here; while it's ultimately important to establish his character early on, his first appearance feels kind of boring and unnecessary, especially as we've already introduced to so much else to keep track of.

These kinds of hiccups are inevitable when trying to adapt something as dense as Dune into a different medium that has to be more visual and more dramatic. Luckily, Herbert and Anderson are aided in their endeavor by the gorgeous artwork of Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín (the inimitable Bill Sienkiewicz, who drew the 1980s Dune comic book for Marvel, did the cover). The vistas of Arrakis and Caladan make for gorgeous pinups, and the regal attire and settings evoke a perfect blend of medieval fantasy and futuristic worlds, perfectly placing the world somewhere between Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica. The carefully chosen color palettes are particularly compelling, conveying the perfect sense of mood in every situation.

Allén and Martín are also careful not to take too much freedom from the descriptions presented in the text. ("We kept a watchful eye on the Dune canon that Frank Herbert laid out, and made certain that the art matched the vision he had for his incredible universe," Herbert and Anderson write in the intro.) The ornithopters, with their feathery wings, are simultaneously alien and also exactly how I never knew that I imagined them to look like (I swear that makes sense to me). Arrakis, with its palm trees and turban-clad denizens, is unashamedly reminiscent of many Middle Eastern cities, complete with a wide range of skin tones. In fact, Allén and Martín seemed to be conscious about racial presentation (or at least complexions) throughout the book; the Caladonians, by contrast are mostly pale white, fitting with their rainy home planet, except for Duncan Idaho, who's presented as black; even Baron Harkonnen is notably less grotesque than he's typical been portrayed in adaptations (fitting with my earlier criticisms of the gross-fat-gay-means-evil shorthand).

For the most part, the panel layouts are fairly simple and straightforward as well—which makes sense, given the Herculean task of trying to adapt such a sprawling novel into a singular cohesive graphic narrative. But that makes it that much more resonant when Allén and Martín do get a chance to cut loose—for example, with the Gom Jabbar, or that stunning first reveal of Shai-Hulud. There are some occasional stiff-looking figures; but, again, there's a lot of talking heads here, and I can't commend Allén and Martín enough for the ways they did manage to spice that up when possible.

This Dune graphic novel is the first of 3 planned adaptations, covering the complete first book. While the characters and political intrigue and world-building might not be as rich as what you get in the original book, I think the creative team here ultimately did a good job of distilling the story down to its essentials. The graphic novel is certainly no replacement for the book, but it's a good gateway into the world of Dune. If you're one of those completionist geeks who insists on reading the book before or after seeing the movie, I wouldn't recommend this as a substitute for the larger Dune experience. But if you or someone you know is intrigued by the world, and feel hesitant about investing in 500ish pages of dense economic treatise disguised as a space opera—well, this graphic novel is a good place to start.

Dune: The Graphic Novel—Book One [Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, Kevin J. Anderson, Raúl Allén, Patricia Martín, and Bill Sienkiewicz / Abrams ComicArts]

How 'Dune: The Graphic Novel' Gives the Classic New Life [Graeme McMillan / The Hollywood Reporter]

*This decision further supports my long-held theory that the upcoming Dune movie will cover this period, too—ending, like the graphic novel did, on the cliffhanger of Paul and Jessica stranded in the desert of Arrakis.