Tome Raider: An Archaeologist’s Take on Lara Croft

Tomb Raider library edition cover banner, Dark Horse

Tomb Raider: Library Edition Vol. 1

Gail Simone and Rhianna Pratchett (Writers), Nicholas Daniel Selma, Derlis Santacruz, Andrea Mutti (Artists), Juan Gedeon, Andy Owens, and Pierluigi Baldassini (Inkers), Michael Atiyeh (Colorist)
Dark Horse Comics
February 28, 2018

Obviously, “if you’re looking for archaeology in the world of Lara Croft you won’t find it,” and if you are picking up this particular volume (aka the library edition) you know this and have accepted that as OK. The library edition compiles the 2013-2015 Dark Horse series, issues #1-18 and The Beginning prequel, into five-hundred pages of adventure and will set you back $50. If that’s your jam, cool— and please consider doing something for a local National or State park or other cultural heritage monument to support archaeology near you.

If you aren’t familiar with these collected stories there are four main sections: why Lara and company went to Yamatai (before the first game), the repercussions of that trip (after the first game), fighting Trinity (referencing the second game), and a trip to save Grim. As an archaeologist, there are many details that I could harp on. But I’m going to focus on the rewriting of Lara from graduate student to impromptu TV researcher, her ethical inconsistencies, and the lack of archaeology-based plot points that limit the possibilities for depicting prehistory.

Lara taking responsibility for wanting to find Yamatai even though The Beginnin suggests it was all Dr. Whitman from pg. 70 of the Library edition, from issue: #1 Season of the Witch, pencils: Nicolas Daniel Selma, inks: Juan Gedeon, colors: Michael Atiyeh, letters: Michael Heisler
Panel three from page 14 of the Library Edition (The Beginning); pencils by Nicolas Daniel Selma and Andrea Mutti, inks: Juan Gedeon and Pierluigi Baldassini; colors: Michael Atiyeh; letters: Michael Heisler; and script which clearly outlines how Dr. Whitmans is the instigator for going to Yamatai rather than Lara

My first problem is the disconnect between the prequel story told in The Beginning and the first game, similar to the Mad Max tie-in comics. In the game, the story suggests Dr. Whitman agreed to bring a TV crew on an archaeological survey he planned and that Lara was one of his students, working on a project there. The Beginning contradicts that, having Dr. Whitman be a TV archaeology personality that Lara volunteers to be a researcher for when the show’s funding falls through. Rather than exploring her own research, she’s the back-up researcher on a failing TV show aiding the white male in finding his “breakthroughs” to keep his career afloat. It removes Lara’s agency in discovering Yamatai for the purpose of expanding her own archaeological knowledge.

My second problem is with that archaeological specialty. Sam (Lara’s best friend from college) tells Lara  “…you don’t see a cost, you don’t see the monetary value”, but Lara agrees to sell artefacts from Yamatai to fund the trip in The Beginning, which is the exact opposite of what Sam describes. The next page then has an image of a prehistoric community that Sam claims Lara cares about— and then we remember The Beginning, where she only became interested in Yamatai because it would be a “breakthrough,” not for its community. While not everything belongs in a museum, archaeologists do not sell artifacts and we care about sites whether or not they are breakthroughs. Yes, the series is called Tomb Raider, but when there are no tombs being raided all we’re left with is the archaeology the character claims to care about.

Issue: The Four Guardians Issue #2 Pencils: Nicolas Daniel Selma Inks: Juan Gedeon Colors: Michael Atiyeh Letters: Michael Heisler
The small figurine is identified as in the text as a Makara, part woman part crocodile part elephant,
Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images
These three figures were found at the site of Begram and are identified as Women standing on Makara. Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

Lastly… there are no tombs in the series. The closest we get are three artefacts in the pre-Trinity plot (which is a crash course on Yamatai for readers who didn’t play the game). These reference antifaxes from Afghanistan, a figurine from Begram, and a golden dragon figurine. The art for those artefacts and the depiction of Maya ruins later in the volume are done well, distilling the complex designs they are based on (and taking some liberty with the details around the objects), but the artists do not get the chance to depict more archaeology because rather than center Lara’s curiosity about the past, all of the plots revolve around a dude, stopping Mathias, remembering Alex, or saving Grim. These are fine reasons for action but if there are no tombs or other types of archaeology in the comic, in the prose or art, how are these Tomb Raider stories?

If you enjoyed the comics as they came out, this volume is a great collectors edition for your reading/sitting-impressively-on-a-shelf pleasure. For me, they depict Lara Croft, mentally unstable murderer, occasional archaeological specialist, saving the men in her life.

While these comics improve on her previously “bewbs” focused design in games and comics with clothing tailored to each environment, after five hundred pages of comics it is unclear as to why the series is called Tomb Raider. This is unfortunate because Lara Croft is one of the few pop-culture archaeologists we have and comics are an amazing medium to help us tell the stories of the past— it’s a shame that this series does not do much more than put her in cargo shorts in front of some Maya ruins. Dark Horse continues to improve upon work of the games, but there’s more that they can do to flesh out the archaeological base that is at the root of what makes Lara Croft the Tomb Raider.

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina Przystupa

Paulina (aka @punuckish) is a Filipine-Polish archaeologist and anthropology graduate student who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and loves comics and pop culture. Her academic work focuses on how buildings and landscapes aid or impede the learning of culture by children. In general, she is an over-educated fan of things; primarily comics, comics-related properties, cartoons, science-fiction, and fantasy. This means she takes what she knows and uses it to critique what she loves. Recently, she has brought such discussions to the public by organizing and moderating panels at comic cons centered on anthropology/culture related topics.