5 out of 5
Cowboys and Aliens. The Dark Age. We’ve been here before, many a time. But: Lake of Fire is, bar none, the best aliens-out-of-time mash-up I have yet to experience, marking it as not only a perfect outing for the subgenre, but a damned excellent piece if comic work on its own merits.
There are so many story-telling aspects creators Matt Smith and Nathan Fairbairn nail, but the keystone is what ends up being underplayed: Lake of Fire manages to sidle between character focus without pausing for backstories or making any one issue have a clear “star,” and yet we get a full sense of who these people are and how they could end up where they are. Similarly, our alien creatures – though mostly treated as simply a menace – get the same shushed world-building treatment when our hero party descends into the guts of their ship; for all intents and purposes they are still just menaced, but there are details during the sequence that bring us to question the events that brought them to where they are, and all, again, without narrating these questions to the reader. As I rounded the bend into the fourth issue and realized that we’d essentially abandoned the character whom the first chapter had set up as the lead – and that I didn’t feel led astray, but rather gripped by investment in all the main characters, I accepted that this was some epic comic writing, with my only reservation (at that point) as to how things would end.
That reservation went away. Smith and Fairbairn (with Jason Kapalka assisting on story in the later chapters) take the story to a fitting and stirring conclusion; it’s too base to say they took it to a logical end, but rather by extrapolating the reality they’d established, they bravely followed the thread to what made sense. And I turned the pages, blow by blow of the story beats, fantastic synthesis of visual/narrative elements, marveling at both the entertainment value and power of what I was reading. A first response might be: This would make an epic movie, but even that’s selling it short, as it’s perfect as it is.
It’s the age of the Crusades, and Theo and his squire Hugh are out to join the fight, Theo restless at the thought of returning to his privileged upbringing. The tone is light; their reception at Lord Montfort’s camp comedic. LoF is set up for a romp as Montfort sends the duo off on a time-wasting chore with the town drunk as a guide. Our first taste that we’re in for something special occurs when the party arrives at their destination, which has suffered a violent attack, and the remaining locals reporting sightings of demons. But the real surprise is when Smith and Fairbairn waste no time in revealing the demons – aliens – in all their glory, removing the fallback option of doing a horror setup of picking off people one by one from the shadows; nope: It’s an all-out frenzy from that issue onward, with breaks in the battle used for the subtle world-building mentioned above.
While Matt Smith’s name seemingly gets top billing and his art and characterizations on the book are phenomenal, Fairbairn’s awareness of the page as colorist – besides his excellent coloring in this book – must certainly have leant the cadence of his writing to amazing possibilities for Smith to embellish. As with the tone’s seesaw from light-hearted into nigh tragedy, Smith’s figures have a Tintin innocence to them, which is then filled up with personality as the story churns along. Some of the extras in the issued show us his design sketches, which suggest how much thought went into elements that are only glimpsed; more behind-the-scenes world building that solidified the whole. And it’s a common misstep in comics with several people wearing similar garb – a la knights – to not make them distinguishable from one another without obvious clues like skin color or build, but we get a range of folks who could be mistaken for one another in a lesser artist’s hands, but are instantly identifiable – again, via subtle personality cues – throughout the story. Nothing breaks immersion.
With movies, I know I’m watching a successful flick of, in this age of multi-tasking, I’m halted by whatever’s on the screen. The comic version of this has me turning pages and reaching for the next issue without worrying about whatever I was doing before I decided to crack the cover. Yes: Lake of Fire has that. It’s also fulfilled the ideal, for me, of this spin on an alien tale, and went ahead and made it a masterful comic book in all other regards to boot.