Tomb Raider: Inferno, An Archaeologist’s Take

Tomb Raider: Inferno, Vol. 4

Michael Atiyeh (Colors), Michael Heisler (Lettering), Collin Kelly (Script), Jackson Lanzing (Script), Phillip Sevy (Line Art), and Hannah Templer (Front Cover Art)
Dark Horse Comics
January 9, 2019

A copy of this comic book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Tomb Raider: Inferno is another comics mini-series based on the 2013 Lara Croft Tomb Raider reboot. As an archaeologist, I can’t help pick it up with fascination, to see what’s going on in the world of Lara Croft.

tomb raider

Unfortunately, of the comics reboot series I’ve read, this is the weakest. Like the previous series, Lara chases after a big bad and there’s generally an archaeological thing involved. Lara’s investigation causes a violent altercation between her and the villains. Regardless, Lara escapes with help from a friend, who she swears she won’t abandon. Until the next time she does this. I point this repetitive narrative out because there’s little actual archaeology or artifacts in this book, and the story has Lara come off as uninformed about her own specialty making the book hard to enjoy.

While previous Tomb Raider comics focused on artifacts, this one focused on what archaeologists refer to as features. These are, generally, immobile archaeological finds. We get layers of Vatican architecture, on top of 14th Century Thai architecture, on top of ancient Egyptian architecture. While a cool concept, Sevy’s line art for that architecture is not specific enough to each culture it’s referencing. Either the shots have vague objects, such as columns that could be from a variety of periods, or they are not specific to the culture they are from, such as the Buddha hands, which have shorter fingers than Thai styles do. Those pages make the backgrounds feel stereotyped, rather than simplified impressions of the real thing, which other Tomb Raider comics have done effectively with artifacts.

Furthermore, while seeing archaeological features like this in real life would be awesome, the fascinating thing for an archaeologist about the Tomb of Eden would be the immense project of digging and building it. Such as project would take thousands of person-hours and innovation in travel and technology. For any archaeologist, the question would be: how did they get the things down there, how was all the information about its creation lost between three different civilizations, and then what is in this?

We see these features as Nadija Katlego, our villain, lowers a captured Lara and herself into the Tomb. At the bottom, there are animals frozen in ice, another fun background piece. Specifically, there’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a woolly mammoth. My first thought is: this is an archaeology book, not a paleontology book. Archaeology focuses on the human past, in contrast to paleontology whose focus is non-human animals in the past.

My second is, well those animals didn’t live at the same time at all. Woolly Mammoths lived from about 400,000 until about 4000 years ago, within the lifetime of Homo sapiens, and the T-Rex lived from 83,600,000 until about  66,000,000 years ago, before anything approaching humans existed. Take note of the magnitude of the difference in zeros.

My third is, after reading Kelly and Lanzing’s dialogue accompanying the page, that those animals are not Precambrian. Sorry, Lara. Precambrian is defined as 4,600,000,000 years ago until 541,000,000 years ago. Once again, note the zeros. During the Precambrian, the Earth begins to develop multi-cellular life, and there’s maybe a jellyfish-like animal. It’s possible she saw a frozen or fossilized jellyfish in the ice, too, and was specifically referring to that, but I didn’t see one.

Mistakes like this make me think, for the love of Google, GOOGLE THIS. As previous critiques of archaeology-in-comics have mentioned, basic archaeological terms are searchable. Also, there’s a lively archaeotwitter community that includes myself. If you tweet @ an archaeologist, and you aren’t asking them for hours of unpaid labor, someone will answer your question swiftly. It’s not hard, and by keeping the dialogue’s word choices accurate, between text and art, writers like Kelly and Lanzing can keep my disbelief suspended, ensuring that I don’t roll my eyes when Lara speaks.

The one thing that was refreshing about the book was the villain. While I’m not sure about probability of Sevy’s and Atiyeh’s choice to have her be a black woman from Bosnia, Nadija survives a traumatic experience (because all smart strong women in comics do), gets a PhD at an early age, and is fascinated by ancient arcana. The book sets her up to be an interesting villain and foil to Lara. Unfortunately, after spending most of the story developing her backstory, she dies. So near the end, the readers see the blood of a woman of color seep beneath a door, and I-never-actually-address-my-privilege-Lara reburying/destroying an ancient tomb.

Overall, the mini-series does have a tomb, though we see no one buried there. Lara doesn’t take anything from it, but does go in, so I’ll consider it a Tomb Raider comic. The series also had a sequence of scenes that occur in Lara’s mind after she eats from the Tree of Life that I enjoyed. While that was where we got a complete rehash of the Tomb Raider series from 2013 to present, to remind us of Lara’s trauma, it pushed Atiyeh and Sevy’s work out of their realistic style, in line and color art, into a more surreal style. It played with gutter placement, color tones, perspective, and imagery from the previous stories to convey the mental trip Lara was on after eating the bark.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to erase the blandness of the action plot or increase the accuracy of the comic’s archaeology. The trade for Inferno releases January 22, 2019, and, in the meantime, I hope they consider Lara’s future. Particularly, I hope to see the comics address her ongoing psychological stress and giver her the chance to demonstrate her knowledge through accurate archaeological dialogue.

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.