There’s been quite a lot written about The Crusades, but it seems like modern historians agree on one thing: they were a great excuse for Christians of a certain persuasion to engage in some serious head-busting, sin-free. Or, to put it more generally, not everyone who took the cross saw it as a sacred religious duty. That didn’t seem to matter much to Pope Urban II when he ordered the first Crusade in 1095. His whole motivation, again, according to most modern historians, was to give the Christian armies of Europe an enemy other than each other. Violence between Christian nations was wasteful and damaging both to the faith and to the psychology of the faithful, never mind the economic costs and the trauma inflicted upon innocent peasants. But by issuing a carte blanche call to arms against the Muslims in the east, under the guise of answering the Byzantine Emperor’s request for troops to defend Constantinople, he set in motion forces that would have consequences right down to our own time. When you ask for everyone, you get everyone, the good, the bad and the ugly. A new comic from Image Comics, Lake of Fire, dives knowingly into this world with all its diverse characters, and adds a science fiction twist. But at its heart, this book is a wonderful way to explore the complex and rapidly evolving world of the Crusades.
The first title card places the action in 1220, long after Urban’s initial call, when Crusading had become big business, and something a knight (or wannabe knight) did to help their “careers”. Operating under the enduring promise that killing the enemies of the church would wash away their sins and give them a free ticket to heaven, a Crusade became something that anyone who could afford some chain mail would undertake.
The dichotomy between the idea of being a fierce fighting solider and, ostensibly, a penitent monk is made clear in the first pages of the action, where we’re introduced to two friend who are flying the flag of convenience: Sir Theobald the Second of Champagne (aka “Theobald the Singer”) and his squire, “Hugh”, who is actually Hugh I, Count of Blois (a famous contemporary figure and a nice easter egg for us history nerds). Hugh is more humble and more sincere than “Theo”, who is doing all of this to make a name for himself, but nevertheless both are willing to put themselves in the service of the most powerful Lord and do whatever mission will bring them the most notoriety. Before too long, they’re swept up in a special mission to investigate “heresy” (a very loose term in those days, used to target anyone the church didn’t like) in a nearby village. A action movie-worthy rogue’s cast of characters is assembled, including the obligatory “tough guy” Raymond Mondragon, who we meet passed out in a stable with a prostitute and an evil representative of the Holy Inquisition.
And here’s where the twist comes in: the “heresy” under investigation isn’t anything like the usual woman with the black cat who commits the ultimate sin of not getting married, but something far more genuine and threatening. We, the audience, see in the first pages that a spacecraft has crash-landed on earth in the early morning hours, releasing the usual monsters on a unsuspecting shepherd. In the town of Montaillou, the people have taken refuge in their Keep, which manages to shelter them, for the time being, from strange giant alien bugs that would be a formidable opponent for any science fiction hero, and here test the strength and courage of the Crusaders. The good news is that, for the most part, they rise to the challenge.
The main problem with writing any story set during the Crusades is how to draw the moral lines between “good guys” and “bad guys”. It would obviously be tremendously unfashionable, not to mention disrespectful, to depict the Crusaders as being all heroes (they weren’t) and the Muslims and being villains (they weren’t). Beyond that issue, there’s quite a lot of history, culture and religion that’s well worth exploring in this rich stew of historical elements. Writer Nathan Fairbairn nimbly sidesteps the issue by making this a “Crusaders vs Aliens” story, rather than something with a little more historical precedent. That sets him free, as a storyteller, to explore the tapestry of late medieval life, including such characters as a “Prefect” (a girl so dedicated to moral purity by the standards of her day that she won’t even allow a man to touch her while saving her life) and of course the Inquisitor, who sees everything through the lens of maintaining church control over the population, through fear.
The choice of aliens means that Lake of Fire doesn’t have to deal directly with Islam (at least not yet) but can still tackle all the major forces at work in the Crusade history. It’s a brilliant move that allows this book to stand apart, not just from other comics about Knights, but just about every comic about medieval history. This isn’t fantasy, exactly – the characters and situations are ripped right from the pages of history. It’s just creative and intriguing science fiction, told with clarity and purpose. Issue #2 can’t come fast enough.