Lake of Fire, by Nathan Fairbairn and Matt Smith, seems to be mixing what we would expect from a “crusaders vs aliens” storyline (lots of fights, strange eruptions from wounds) with a fairly robust and interesting critique of the men who went on crusade, what they stood for, and how they operated in the world. That blend of fantasy with history is always compelling to this reviewer (check out Manifest Destiny if you’re also a fan), as it allows storytellers to re-frame the familiar and key into the social and psychological (even religious) issues in play while still delivering genre thrills. It’s the kind of genre hybrid that’s right at home in comics (although it does crop up elsewhere from time to time), and this is one of the best examples.
Issue #2 opens right in the thick of it, with Montaillou openly threatened by strange monsters and the townsfolk hiding behind gates and walls. (At one point, one of the crusaders asks how strong the gate is, seeing as it is the only thing between the people and certain death.) Like fools everywhere, the Inquisitor can’t handle the situation right in front of him, so instead he focuses on who is to blame for it. Naturally, he points to the usual suspect (a woman – and an unmarried one at that, the most terrifying thing in the universe to the church) and a stake is quickly erected so they can burn their witch. What use this will be to the situation at hand is a question only Theo asks, and Lord Henry replies with clear-eyed wisdom about the crusades: “What were you honestly expecting?”
The harsh reality is this: the crusaders were about killing people. Lots of people. And enjoying it. “That’s what we came here to do,” the veterans say. “This is who we are.” The church just provided the moral justification for what was in fact Killfest 1220, sponsored by the people who brought you the Holy Inquisition. It was not, to put it mildly, Christianity’s finest hour. The creators of this comic understand this implicitly, and show us that alien dragon/snake-like beings still scare a bunch of conservative men less than a pretty young unmarried girl. The psychology here is rather obvious and doesn’t bear mention, but we still hear echoes of that thinking today when someone utters, “She shouldn’t have been wearing that.
However, the creators here also understand that, for all their moral flaws, the crusaders were also brave in a fight and committed to their cause. When the time comes for them to go mano-a-mano with the aliens, they more than hold their own. Sir Henry himself performs like a hero here, and our main characters, Theo and Michel, also find their courage in the face of a horrible threat. Henry reminds Theo of his oath and his vows, showing us that at least some of the crusaders had the true faith. Theo’s faith, for the record, is in his society of men and fighting and heroism, not necessarily with God or the church or any of its rituals. But the oath that crusaders took was really about channeling their violent tendencies into something a little more positive — protect the poor and the church from all enemies. (Since the church itself named the enemies, the whole endeavour was going to be morally problematic.) There is room, in that world, for moments of small but genuine heroism, and we see some of those moments here.
Infused with moody and atmospheric snow and bringing up complex issues of history, religion, politics and morality, Lake of Fire continues to be an impressive new title.