Lake of Fire is thoughtful high concept genre material. It dabbles in genre. It never really engages it. Writer (and colorist and letterer) Nathan Fairbairn does a lot more with the history aspect of Lake of Fire than anything else.
So, real quick. Lake of Fire is a story about some knights of the real history Albigensian Crusade (1209–29) who fight aliens. These aliens are bugs, which is gross, but gives Fairbairn and artist Matt Smith to do a queen. I mean, it’s not really an Aliens reference, but Lake of Fire is very much a product of pop culture. It’s just a really good way of being a pop culturally accessible product. Fairbairn leverages the history–which is kind of pitch perfect for being culturally relevant today, at least teasingly, because Fairbairn gets to have a female action hero. A historically accurate one.
But Fairbairn does still make a religious judgment. It’s very strange, because there’s a lot of obviously bad religious stuff. There’s an obnoxious, evil friar out to burn the female action hero–who’s even got a cool sounding name, Goodwoman Bernadette, and then a cool sounding title, prefect–and Lake of Fire sort of comes down in the middle between the theologies. And it never questions that center space. It’s just a comic about knights versus aliens; that absence is a simultaneously a subtle weakness for Fairbairn and a strength. His characterizations of his extremes are fantastic.
It’s just his “leads” who have problems. Maybe because no one is going to find them interesting. There’s either a slight hint of romantic interest or young French knights in the thirteenth century kissed each other’s cheeks. I don’t know. It’s actually kind of frustrating, because it’d change the story a little if there were some kind of romantic interest between the leads. Anyway, those leads are teenagers Theo and Hugh. Theo is a bland, blond rich hipster bro. And probably historically accurate (enough). He’s going to be a lord someday but he wants to be a knight before then so he runs off to join the Crusade. Hugh’s his sidekick. He’s the smart one, who sees the good in Theo where everyone else sees a callow fool.
Except they’re only the leads for the first half of the first issue of Lake of Fire. Once Goodwoman Bernadette and Baron Raymond Mondragon arrive, it’s basically over for Theo and Hugh. They’re still around, but they’ve lost all agency.
Baron Raymond Mondragon, besides sounding like a Bond villain when you type out the full name, is the jaded, drunken old Crusader who gets stuck babysitting Theo, Hugh, and the aforementioned friar. There are some more people on their field trip, but they’re inconsequential. Fairbairn uses the supporting cast mostly for texture. Texture and exposition. Textured exposition.
Mondragon’s an okay de facto protagonist. He starts out as a deglamorization of knighthood, then ends up being a relic–regardless of the theological dismissal, Fairbairn loves writing Goodwoman Bernadette, so there’s a lot of hard banter between the two characters. Baron Raymond Mondragon’s gritty, Goodwoman Bernadette’s pure, but they both know the aliens are the real enemy.
But, even with that double-sized, almost entirely expository first issue, Lake of Fire ends up being an action comic. It’s a knights versus alien bugs action comic. Smith does a great all action issue, he does all the talking heads with the same frantic energy though. The comic opens with spaceship meets medieval farmer and the first issue and a half have a very jaunty pacing. Fairbairn’s doing big repetition beats and it’s like Smith is just trying to keep things going smooth. It works out, it’s just a surprise when Smith finally gets to that smoother pace in the script and lets loose on his layouts. Smith loves expression and relies heavy on it to move between panels. It’s great; cinematic and detailed but still nimble thanks to cartoon influences. And those influences aren’t just in a lack of realism, it’s in how Smith composes those panels too. It’s awesome art.
The aliens are a red herring. Them being bugs is a bit of a red herring too. It could be considered a narrative shortcut, but Fairbairn really wants to keep things mysterious. The opening spaceship could’ve been cut and they easily would’ve gotten away with the “demons are actually aliens but the knights don’t know about spaceships” moment. Fairbairn’s got a good distance with the characters, but not as much with the reader. You lose the coy privilege when you do knights versus aliens, which Smith seems to get. Hence the inherently humorous, thoughtful, deliberate facial expressions.
And, to be fair–maybe Lake of Fire is meant more as a showcase for Matt Smith’s art. He gets top billing on the credits page (not the cover, but the credits page, which is more imposing).
Anyway, Smith makes Lake of Fire, but Fairbairn’s attention to historical detail and thoughtful application of it–along with the somewhat topical setting–makes it a lot more. Comics do these genre Blizzards better than any other medium, especially the historical ones.