Pipeline #1008: Lake of Fire

Lake of Fire cover detail
(Photo: Nathan Fairborn and Matt Smith)

Picture Guy Davis mixed with Jeff Smith and a dash of Mike Mignola. Maybe a smidgen of Craig Rousseau or Mike Wieringo.

That is Matt Smith's art on "Lake of Fire."

Honestly, that should be enough to get you jumping to buy this book. The first issue came out last week through Image Comics, and it's the most excited I've instantly become about a series in 2016.

Because I'm so excited by it, though, I'll give you some more reasons. Read on.

What It Is

Written, colored, and lettered by Nathan Fairbairn, he describes "Lake of Fire" like this:

"LAKE OF FIRE is the story of a small group of crusaders who find themselves on the front lines of an alien invasion when a spacecraft crash-lands high in the French Pyrenees."

So, yes, it is another Image Comics series featuring aliens or demons or werewolves or some genre element added on top of something otherwise more mainstream or mundane. It's too early to tell whether those aliens are worth a story, but their initial appearance in the first issue is appropriately exciting and terrifying. They make a good first impression.

Lake of Fire demons
(Photo: Nathan Fairbairn and Matt Smith)

The Whole Package

The thing that separates this book from the rest, however, is the whole package.

For starters, it's a double-sized first issue for $3.99. You'll get 44 pages for the price of a usual single comic. It's a good thing, too, as the story part with the alien demons doesn't kick in until the second half. Stopping this story after 21 pages would be to risk dropping readers who were waiting for something else. It would have given them all an exciting second issue to stick around for, but that would have been too late.

Most importantly for me, however, is that the book feels like it's packaged to be published as a European album. From start to finish, this is a book that should have been in France, first. The subject matter of The Crusades is a natural fit. The story, itself, is set in France. The pages are packed full of panels, usually in four or five tiers, filled with plenty of backgrounds, though perhaps too many close-up and medium shots to look like a true French drama comic.

The word balloons are not round, but square, with a little extra white space on either side for padding. The font inside those balloons even reminds me of that style we inevitably see when Euro-albums are translated and reprinted in North America.

There are no cheats in this book. Yes, sometimes the "camera" stays a little too close to the action for too long, but Smith proves on plenty of occasions that he can draw backgrounds and strongly composed images.

Smith is an amazing artist. I don't know where he came from, but he's a breath of fresh air at Image right now, which is all too lacking in this more open style that that has such economy of line. He has moments of Mignola when he fills in solid black areas. The final ink line screams Jeff Smith to me, whose smooth line has not just the perfect weight fluctuations, but also the right spare markings to create texture and interest to anything from a person's face to the bark of a tree.

His character designs remind me of Guy Davis', with the right mix of cartoony elements and solid anatomy. They can also act, often showing a story beat with just the cock of an eyebrow or the turn of a head. I'd be all for having a silent issue in this series just to see what Smith could do with it.

All This, and Color, too? You Bet!

I already mentioned Fairbairn's lettering, but his "regular" day job is as a comic book colorist ("Scott Pilgrim" and "Seconds" for the most obvious two). It shows. The colors in this book are brilliant, as well. They're bright and open. Best of all, they server the art instead of fighting with it. Fairbairn isn't trying to add detail to the art with his coloring. He's playing along with the art, following its lead and highlighting it without overpowering anything.

"Lake of Fire" is book that could have been muddy-looking. There are a lot of horses in the forest and people talking inside tents. A lesser colorist would have worked hard to make that all "realistic." A dozen shades of progressively darker brown would not have flown well. Fairbairn's color scheme doesn't care about that realism. He makes sure the colors are light enough that the reader can see a scene instantly. Layers are clear, the ink line is respected, and the colors enhance the story, not try to make everything look "real."

Lake of Fire fields
(Photo: Nathan Fairbairn and Matt Smith)

There's some amount of contrast at work, naturally, with lead characters in white Crusader gear being in the woods, but then Fairbairn uses a variety of lighter tones to fill in the spaces. Yes, they're browns, but they're tans instead of muddy colors. The darker tree off to the side isn't dark enough to compete with the black lines that make up the tree. I'm sure if you converted some of these pages to black and white, you'd see that the majority of the dark backgrounds never exceed 50 percent black. It makes everything so easy to read on the page.

In panels where the backgrounds are entirely absent, Fairbairn leaves them white or colors them in with a very pale color that keeps things interesting, but doesn't compete with anything in the foreground.

He's particularly careful about coloring dramatic shadows over the characters, particularly in the latter parts or the book. When the shadow is a part of the story, Fairbairn carefully draws it in over the art in shapes that resemble the tree branches that are causing them.

Most all, the style is simple. It's not over-rendered or overwrought. It has lots of very subtle shading cut into the art, but no phoney airbrushing/modeling to turn Smith's art into something that looks more sculpted and three dimensional. That's the key. He colors this book in the same way the book is drawn. It blends beautifully with the art.

Yes, There's Also a Story

Fairbairn's story is strong due to its character work and sly sense of humor. Crusaders versus aliens could be a straightforward pitch. But Fairbairn's cast all have their own motivations and shortcomings.

Lake of Fire mission
(Photo: Nathan Fairbairn and Matt Smith)

The two lead characters we're introduced to first are clearly in over their heads. One is overly confident, while the other is tagging along and playing along with him. When they meet up with the people in charge who see them coming and know what they're about, the dynamic between the characters is sparkling.

You get things at two levels -- the surface level of what is being said, and what each side is (temporarily) hiding from the other. It ends quickly, but it's a great short cat and mouse game for a page. Later on, other characters are similarly not one dimensional. The leader of the scouting party clearly has issues in his past and drinks to cover them up, but he also knows the true nature of his assignment, and why it might still be dangerous even though it's all a feint.

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So, highly recommended. Check it out on store shelves today -- either physical or digital. Yes, I'd also encourage you to buy the oversized hardcover album, should that ever happen. My fingers are crossed.

In the meantime, buy this one to make sure you get the chance to read the story today.