Sometimes all that’s necessary for a new project to pique your interest is to see a familiar name in a new and unexpected place, so when I noticed that veteran comics colorist Nathan Fairbairn was going to be writing a new series for Image, my curiosity was sufficiently stoked — doubly so, in fact, given that the first issue of his ongoing title with artist Matt Smith (sorry, Doctor Who fans, not that one), Lake Of Fire, was being solicited as a “double-sized” 44-page comic for only $3.99. Honestly, at that price, they’re practically begging you to give their book a chance — why not take them up on it?
The “pull-quote” featured on the cover from the usually-reliable Comics Bulletin website calling it the “best debut issue to be published by Image Comics in 2016” was high praise indeed considering that said publisher has already given us finely-crafted opening salvos from The Black Monday Murders, Renato Jones: The One %, Midnight Of The Soul, and Kill Or Be Killed, among others, just in the last handful of months alone, and so suddenly my expectations were very much in line with my level of curiosity — and Fairbairn and Smith found themselves with a mighty pair of four -dollar shoes to fill. Would they be able to do it?
In three simple words… “oh, hell yes.” This story about a rag-tag band of misfits with seriously conflicting agendas sent on a wild goose chase to keep them off the battlefields of the Albigensian Crusade in 1220 A.D. France is instantly addictive stuff, as Fairbairn gives each of his ensemble clearly-delineated backstories, well-defined personalities, and believable motivations — and then sets all of them into conflict with a force from beyond the stars that none of them could have seen coming when they set out on their “find the heretics!” mission. The dialogue here is witty and engaging, the story moves at a pleasing clip (even some of the dialogue-heavy pages in the middle of the book don’t seem “slow”), and by the time our squad of “expendables” is thrust into action, you actually care about all of ’em , from the gung-ho incompetent knight-come-lately and his loyal squire to the noble combat veteran protecting them to the disgruntled former “golden boy” thrust into a babysitter’s role to the sadistic “witch-burner” monk to the lonely girl in the woods branded a spawn of the devil — these are all seriously intriguing folks to one degree or another, and watching how they deal with a situation well beyond any of their pay grades promises to be a real treat for readers in the months ahead.
Okay, fair enough, the introduction of one of the principal players (our aforementioned over-enthusiastic inquisitor, who is at least given his proper due as events progress) is handled in an off-handed fashion that suggests Fairbairn may simply have forgotten to mention him earlier, but aside from that, the rest of the cast are given proper set-ups and the decision to send them all on a bona fide “time-waster” makes plenty of sense. A strong sense of time, place, and purpose goes no small way toward fleshing out this issue’s necessary “world-building,” as well, so if you’re looking for a genuinely immersive reading experience, congratulations — you’ve come to the right place.
Of course, all this damn good writing doesn’t mean squat if Smith — whose prior work I confess to being unfamiliar with — can’t deliver the goods visually, but there’s less than no need to fret on that score : on top of everything else, this book looks really good. There’s a bit of a Mignola influence on offer here, to be sure — as well as some stylistic flourishes that seem torn from the Cameron Stewart playbook — but each character looks physically distinctive, small quirks like facial “tics” and expressions are used to develop individual personality, and the action scenes are fluid and expressive in the extreme. Smith even goes the extra mile by delineating his backgrounds in reasonably solid detail, as well, and his keen eye for everything from pastoral countrysides to period architecture shows that he’s giving it everything he’s got in every panel here. All in all, then, this is a very nicely-rendered comic.
So — what the heck have you got to lose? Especially considering the extra page count, Lake Of Fire #1 gives you plenty of bang for your buck, and in this day and age when even the best comics feel a little bit over-priced, that’s really saying something. I’m not quite ready to agree that this is the best Image debut of the year, but it’s certainly right up there, and it offers more than enough reasons to stick around for a good long while to see what develops.