This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on August 3, 2016.
Comics do not lack for high concepts. The market has been flooded with wild elevator pitches from creators turned out in the hope of finding the next big thing by publishers like Image, Oni, Dark Horse, Black Mask, and many others. Whether a concept sounds good is no longer a signifier of whether it is worth checking out, what really matters now is whether a comic can effectively discern the promise in its premise and deliver on it.
Lake of Fire #1 is one such comic.
The story takes place in France during the Crusades, except in this timeline an alien ship has crashed in the countryside. A group of crusaders including young idealistic knights, grizzled veterans, unenthusiastic protectors, and one sadistic inquisitor are sent on a purposefully time-wasting mission to seek out heretics, but find something far worse instead.
It’s a concept that sounds good, but what makes Lake of Fire stand out is its thematic core. This is a comic about a quest for order and good confronting real evil. You can easily compare it to the popular television show Game of Thrones in this regard. There is a diversity of motives and personalities on display, and each character has their own reasons to be on this particular crusade, most selfish and some altruistic. They are in battle with their fellow man though, planning to use swords and steel to carve flesh in order to uphold their own version of the word of God. Yet here they are confronted with something that holds far more in common with visions of demons and hell than any heretical imagining. It is a confrontation between the ideals espoused by man and something truly dangerous to mankind.
Every element of Lake of Fire #1 is devoted to developing this conflict and investing readers in what it means to be on any side of the fight to come. Over the course of this double-sized first issue, characters, combat, setting, beliefs, setting, and monstrous entities all contribute to establishing what Lake of Fire is actually about, and why comics readers should be interested.
One of the most striking elements in this first issue is the enormous cast of characters. Rather than focusing on a singular hero or central party, comics veteran and freshman writer Nathan Fairbairn opts to introduce what appears to be the entire cast of Lake of Fire. An extended length of 44 pages is helpful, but there are still a lot of people alive at the end of the first issue. The deft hand with which Fairbairn presents each of these characters and makes them memorable is a testament to his previously untested skill in the writer’s role.
Before the “To Be Continued” caption appears, it is a cinch to name more than half a dozen characters along with their roles, central motive, and a handful of traits. Much of this detail comes from the action of the story itself. Conversations held over a campfire and reactions to a badly damaged village are every bit as focused on revealing character as they are on the action and tension to be displayed. Some amount of politicking is built into the plot and loaded into early pages of the book though, where characters speak their roles and relationships to make it clear just how this place and period function.
This amount of exposition leads to several pages in the first half of the issue that are at risk of being consumed by dialogue. Rather than accept the necessary evil of coating good art with words, Fairbairn and artist Matt Smith shatter these pages into 9 or 10 panels. They alternate perspectives and distance, allowing for characters to react to each new turn of conversation in layouts as dense in art as they are in dialogue. This strategy mitigates the effects of long conversation in a visual medium and make for a much more palatable flow to conversation.
Smith makes it easy to track the various members of this godly entourage as well with character designs that focus on facial types and body mass. This is significant given the matching armor and outfits of many crusaders (white dressings with red crosses were the fashion of the day). It is impossible to confuse any of the named characters presented in the first issue. Smith also is sure to provide each character with close ups and opportunities to observe key characteristics.
Only once does this approach fall short, in the introduction of Brother Arnaud. He is left in the background for much of the issue and when pointed out in conversation is juxtaposed with another man who looks far more frightening. Readers will only be able to tell which man is Arnaud based on their knowledge of the period and ability to define “shavepate”.
This is a criticism that reveals Smith has room to grow as a visual storyteller, but should not be used to understate the discovery of his skill as a comics artist. It is a flaw in an otherwise stunning first entry from an artist I (and I assume many others) were unaware of before today. Smith’s character work is noteworthy, but so are his depictions of setting, designs of monsters, and portrayal of action.
While many may be quick to compare Smith to Mike Mignola for his fascination with European architecture and landscapes and James Harren for his truly horrific monsters, I find the most interesting comparison exists with Cameron Stewart. Smith’s greatest skill is perhaps his ability to include so much on a single page. Whether it is the dense conversations of early pages or the summaries of dense scenes later in the first issue, Smith comfortably combines 9 or more panels in a variety of scenes. He utilizes space well to control time and focus, packing detail into small panels and allowing the largest elements of each page to breathe. There is a sense of balance to his work that allows for a great density of storytelling.
A key component of that density comes from his artistic collaboration with Fairbairn, who is the series’ colorist as well. Every setting has a unique palette designed to establish tone, and that in turn often establishes character and theme. Early in Lake of Fire #1 there is a shift from a rural farmer’s encounter with aliens to the introduction of two young fighters. Both present a hilly, pastoral countryside, but the coloring of the two scenes radically changes their effect. The former occurs at night, but is also tinged with reds and purples that hint at pain and discomfort. The latter reflects the sun in the grass and shines gold from both the young knight’s armor as well as their faces. This is not only the dichotomy of night and day, danger and peace, but reflections of the characters present. You can see ugliness and optimism in these color choices, both cast in the countryside of France.
Lake of Fire #1 is the best debut issue to be published by Image Comics in 2016. It establishes its characters, world, and, most importantly, themes in a clear manner. Fairbairn and Smith are sure of what they want to say and make it clear in this introduction. There is a long road ahead for the crusaders of this comic and their allies. The questions asked here will not be answered for some time, much less the question of who will remain and what will be left of them. One thing is for certain: Lake of Fire is a devotion to the conflict between ideals and reality distilled in artwork that will chill you to the bone.