The comics one year in: reviewing Tomb Raider #1-12

The new Tomb Raider comic book series from Dark Horse is now officially a year old. We’re also less than a week from the release of Issue #13, and the start of a new story arc that will (reportedly) lead directly into the highly anticipated next game, Rise of the Tomb Raider – out for Xbox One and Xbox 360 consoles before Christmas 2015.

So, with 12 issues on the shelf, what can be said of the new Tomb Raider comics so far?

In the plus column, the new Tomb Raider books are far removed from the typically exploitative Top Cow series that ran from 1999 to 2005. Under the watch of writers Gail Simone and Rhianna Pratchett (yay for female creators!), we have yet to endure a single gratuitous shower-monologue scene, shirtless beefcake love interest or panel centred on the heroine’s perfectly shaped posterior, or, uh, other jigglier assets. Oh, and for the record, Lara’s bedtime attire this time around is a very practical lounge pants and tank top combo as opposed to a Victoria’s Secret bestseller.

Lara in comics a decade ago.

The new comics retain the “realism” introduced in the 2013 video game reboot. Although she is terrifyingly efficient in combat, this Lara Croft is a fledgling adventurer prone to nightmares, doubts and mistakes. She looks and acts (for the most part) like any 21 year old uni graduate at a life crossroads.

Now I’d love to call the new comic series a welcome case of sense and sensibility (readers of Issues 11-12 will know exactly why I make this comparison). Sadly though, the books are let down by a lack of the former. I know this is Tomb Raider we’re talking about, and the 2013 reboot clearly positioned itself as being the game equivalent of a “Leave Your Brain at Home” Hollywood blockbuster, but that doesn’t mean the logic gaps don’t still grate on the printed page.

Highlight for spoilers:

Example 1:
Why would a cult exist that reveres the worshippers of a far more powerful entity? Why not just worship the entity too? And how could the cult revere worshippers that nobody knew existed until, like, last week?

Example 2:
Considering how dangerous they are, and considering that she encountered evidence of them even on Yamatai, why hasn’t Lara ever asked Kaz what Trinity is?

Even more frustrating though is that in the case of both 6-issue story arcs to date, a fantastic set-up has been hurt by a too-abrupt conclusion.

Now I suspect part of the problem lies with the medium. I see comics as a storytelling form where it can be difficult to strike a balance between action-adventure and contemplative character-developing moments when you only have 24 pages to work with. Add to this the assumption that the Tomb Raider comic series is a tie-in and apparent narrative bridge between games, and there’s the additional complication of information clearly being saved for on-screen revelation. The games are the franchise’s most prominent medium after all.

But let’s assess the first two story arcs, shall we?

Season of the Witch

The biggest problem with the first Tomb Raider arc, Season of the Witch, is that it ultimately feels like padding, with no overall narrative and character advancement. Forget for a moment that the book never bothers to explain why, after her striking “I’m not going home” insistence at the end of the 2013 game, Lara does the exact opposite. We meet her living back in London, evidently more concerned with everyday mundanity than humanity’s greatest historical mysteries.

In short, the plot for Season of the Witch comes across like a workmanlike retread of past events.

Highlight for spoilers:

Sam is kidnapped. Lara returns to a still top secret Yamatai with the other Endurance survivors. Mathias is back as a threat…

Sure, there are some gratifying moments of Lara being badass, along with insightful, shipper-friendly scenes that highlight the most important relationships in the archaeologist’s life. The arc also ends potently, with our heroine declaring that she is done with self-doubt and underestimating herself. Still though, the overall impression remains one of pointless filler content…

VERY action-packed filler content, but still.

In fact, that is one of my biggest gripes about Season of the Witch. It just feels so overstuffed and unfocused. There are red herrings left, right and centre. At the same time, tantalising plot threads are barely explored and the arc ends with several left dangling.

I’ve always felt that Gail Simone is stronger in terms of writing character than story. I also know she’s a very busy, in-demand lady, and I get the impression that she wasn’t able to give Season of the Witch the attention that it deserved. The same goes for artist Nicolas Daniel Selma, whose line work becomes a lot choppier and stripped of detail as the arc progresses.

Inevitably it’s quite frustrating because there is so much potential in the set-up, paired with gratifying flashes throughout the run. The payoff though feels rushed, and damn if the illogicality of it all doesn’t make my head ache.

Secrets and Lies

Moving on to the second arc, Secrets and Lies is a big step up all around. Writer for the new Tomb Raider games, Rhianna Pratchett officially joins Simone as co-scribe (Pratchett was apparently offering uncredited advice during the first arc). This change brings an authentic British voice – not to mention sense of humour – to the book.

Secrets and Lies is playful at times; not to mention more emotionally engaging. There are even some heartfelt flashbacks to Lara’s childhood. For the first time in the comic series we actually start to feel something for the heroine. Of course she still has a terrifying Terminator mode that she can enter without warning, but Lara is allowed to appear like a normal uni graduate – meeting her friends for a pint, and throwing up from nerves, for example.

Helping to add emotional heft is artist Derlis Santacruz, who brings his beautiful, detailed pencils to the first half of the arc. For the record, Nicolas Daniel Selma is back with his Season of the Witch inker for Issues 10-12, but even he has upped his game. There is a noticeable improvement in terms of how Selma depicts facial expressions this time around. As a result, Secrets and Lies looks great throughout.

The problem though is that while Season of the Witch tried to stuff too many plot elements into six issues, Secrets and Lies has too few. The chief narrative thrust ends two comics too early, and the reader is left with a very unexpected two-issue epilogue where Lara is recruited for a stage production of Pride and Prejudice.

It’s bizarre – ship’s cook and rugby enthusiast Jonah is even shoehorned into the story as a theatre director! – but it’s also, admittedly, loads of fun. Yet again though, the final issue disappoints. Despite the ominous build-up, the end confrontation plays out pretty much like this.

Highlight for spoiler:

Villain: You’re a cold-blooded killer, Lara. Let me train you.
Lara Croft: No.
Villain: Okay. Bye. [Commits suicide]

Something like three pages of Issue #12 is devoted to the technicalities of how Lara breaks into the bowels of the London Underground. This when the precious page space could have been better used fleshing out the face-off. In the published book, Lara doesn’t ponder the villain’s troubling assessment of her at all. She just carries on, evidently unfazed by the implications.

Even with this unsatisfying conclusion, though, Secrets and Lies has enough going for it to make a worthwhile read – although for max enjoyment you should really stop reading with Issue 10. It does make me hopeful, however, that third time will be the charm for the new Tomb Raider comic series.

Predictions for the third comic arc

So now, starting 25 February, we come to the third story arc – leading directly into Rise of the Tomb Raider. Rhianna Pratchett is on solo writing duty for Issues 13-18, with Derlis Santacruz providing pencils again.

The third arc has been called “a great starting point for new readers” and the per-issue plot synopsis so far is as follows:
Issue 13:Lara’s quiet life working at the British Museum is shattered as she finds herself drawn into a dangerous game with her friend’s life at stake—a friend who was thought to be already dead!
Issue 14:Lara and her friends must leave London in order to save a friend’s life from a mysterious organization! However, there is danger lurking in the shadows that threatens to destroy them all! 
Issue 15:While using the cover of a fake documentary about the legendary Chupacabra, Lara and her friends are drawn into a missing-child case while hunting the organization holding their friend hostage! 
Issue 16:In the Tomb Raider #16 comic: Lara finds a missing child in a seemingly haunted jungle who leads her to the organization holding her friend hostage! Can Lara infiltrate their stronghold and rescue her friend?
Which friend is in peril this time around, I personally have no clue. Of the dead crowd, there’s Alex, Grim and Roth. Alex is most likely as he has made several posthumous appearances in the comic already, but perhaps it is another character entirely.

Regardless, given what has been revealed about the plot of the game sequel already, whatever happens, Arc 3 should include two things:

1) An event or encounter that triggers Lara’s obsession with immortal life.
2) Lara doing, saying, or being blamed for something that results in mandatory therapy sessions.

In terms of the first point, up until now in Lara’s story, immortality has been of little interest to the fledgling archaeologist. Actually, in the rebooted franchise to date, answers for answers’ sake are not a particularly big motivator for our heroine. The only thing that seems to jab her into action is the kidnapping of a friend, or a flaming corpse warning her that one of her friends is in peril. Yeah, perhaps the poor girl needs some therapy after all...

Lara may not be shown brooding over it in the comics, but she has had several brushes with “immortal” beings up to this point in her Reboot timeline.

Highlight for spoilers:

On Yamatai, Himiko using a transference ritual to remain alive, simply moving her soul to a new host body. Mr Cruz seems to be practically immortal in the Secrets and Lies comic arc, and insists on his ability to surpass bodily limitations through faith.

Meanwhile, in tie-in novel Tomb Raider: The Ten Thousand Immortals, Lara’s interest in immortality is far more pronounced. Her quest to help Sam has her researching various myths and legends on the topic. Plus she encounters the mysterious organisation of the book’s title – which has created the impression that its members live for centuries.

As to why Lara develops an obsession with immortality, I think at this point we can put it down to three compulsion-triggering possibilities:
1) A need to save a friend (as usual).
2) A life-changing encounter with an eternal entity.
3) Some connection to the as-yet-undiscussed disappearance of her parents.

What also seems possible is that there is a link between Lara’s obsession with immortality and her unwilling stint in the psychologist’s office – depicted in the Rise of the Tomb Raider announcement trailer.

Simply speaking about the existence of eternal beings would raise questions about her sanity, although events are likely to play out far more dramatically if the arc is going to end with Lara forced into therapy.

Perhaps the archaeologist takes the blame for an immortal hurting or killing someone. Her insistence of that fact – “It wasn’t me; it was the 780-year old man!” – could easily earn her a diagnosis of psychosis triggered by Post-traumatic Stress. It wouldn’t take much for others to think she needs psychiatric help. After all, she’s already ranted about seeing Alex, right in front of Reyes.

This kind of situation would explain why Lara is petulantly attending sessions and lying about agoraphobia, while in actual fact she’s courting danger out in the wild as she hunts down the truth.

Another more straightforward option to explain Lara’s counselling is that she lashes out and hurts a loved one while in survival-killer mode. She still has answers to uncover but she is also paying the shameful, court-appointed, price for her actions.

There really are dozens of ways the third arc could play out to position Lara as she appears to be in Rise of the Tomb Raider – better equipped, more confident but also isolated and emotionally skittish; all while she treks across some of the most remote, treacherous environments on the planet.

It’s still mostly speculation at this point but the next step in Lara’s quest for understanding –
on the page, and on the screen – is certainly rich in possibility. Here’s hoping for a satisfying journey that builds on everything that has preceded it so far. And actually include some titular tomb raiding. 


Deberzer said…
There is actually a far simpler (but very likely - in my opinion) explaination for the councelling: It's completely unrelated to the comic series. I'm pretty sure only a small part of the TR'13 playerbase actually reads the comic, so SE/CD can't expect people to know what has happened there when they dive into RotTR. So if you don't take the comic into account, that trailer could simply pick up right after TR'13, reinforcing CD's new take on Lara (as not an immortal badass who gives no fucks), showing she has PTSD after Yamatai and how she handles that ("I become what I'm meant to be blabla." - Oh wait, she's becoming an immortal badass who gives no fucks again; hello new classic Lara.) I don't know anymore when that trailer was released (E3 last year?), but it's likely it had been produced before any thoughts about the third comic arch have been made. That would also explain some other points that have been bothering me: For example that part in that article saying that Sam is a mess far worse than Lara whereas she seems to be just fine in the comics (except for that one tantrum she has in the very first issue). (If that's the case, it makes me wonder how much of a challange for Pratchett it is to create a story arch that is relevant to RotTR but not relevant enough that you need to know it.) Anyway, just saying that there's a possibility that you might be making connections where there are none. I guess we'll find out in half a year.
Frank Rudy said…
I have the Top Cow comic books. I thought they were great back then but after reading this article I realise that they were actually quite cheap. This version of Lara Croft looks cleaner and more realistic. I haven't been following any story arcs whether in the game or the book but I'm still a Tomb Raider fan. Great article.
Jun Jun Miller said…
Do you have a blog/review for the last 6 issues? Because I am still trying to connect the comic book and the new RISE, somehow I don't quite understand whether Rise was picked up from the Comic book or somewhere else ?

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