The Nice House on the Lake #1 is a fantastic first issue, paced by sharp writing and clear, evocative art. Everyone who reads the issue will want to talk about the seismic, M. Night Shyamalan-style twist at the end, but the stellar creative team — anchored by writer James Tynion IV and artist Álvaro Martinez Bueno — is too skilled for this to be a one-trick show.
I’ll start with some general thoughts about the issue before discussing the twist and what it portends for the rest of this 12-issue series.
SPOILERS AHEAD for The Nice House on the Lake #1!
The premise is simple enough: Ryan, a twentysomething artist in Brooklyn, receives an email from Walter, a mysterious man she met once at a bar who teased her with ominous questions about how the world would end. “There was this look in his eye, a kind of…I don’t know. A mischief to him,” she remembers.
They lost touch until that message showed up in her inbox, asking her to join him and several other friends for a summer getaway at a lake house in Wisconsin. Tynion layers on the suspense until it just about bursts, interspersing Ryan’s tour of the (very beautiful) house with glimpses into Walter’s thinking.
“The house was meant to have room for a few more, but we’re down to ten of you coming for the week,” he later tells Ryan in a later email. “Disappointing, but I think the others will be more disappointed in the long run.”
Something is clearly not right and Tynion does not wait long before revealing what exactly Walter—and his creepy eyeglasses—have planned. The road to getting to that final twist can be a bit laborious, though Tynion’s sly dialogue and use of interstitial images and documents — similar to the “data pages” in Marvel’s current X-Men books — help to spice up the proceedings.
What bogs the otherwise excellent issue down slightly is Tynion’s need to introduce the nine other guests staying at the house. Each helpfully receives their own short bio, nickname, and logo (which Walter explains in another fun “data page”), but their conversations are too shallow for us to learn much about them. (There are only so many ways one can express how beautiful the house is and how crazy this vacation sounds.)
More valuable to the reader are these capsule introductions, which are inserted into the page itself. If Tynion chooses to shift the viewpoint away from Ryan in future issues, it will help to remember how these characters relate to each other and to Walter. They appear to have been written by a bot, each identifying the person’s relevant “cluster” (college, high school, etc.) and what year they were “chosen” by Walter.
This is all familiar territory for horror fans, reminiscent of a movie like The Invitation or any number of stories that depend on a beautiful, too-good-to-be-true location and its creepy owner. Tynion is smart enough to know when to lean into these tropes and when to (eventually) pull the rug out from under the reader.
Key to this effort is the issue’s outstanding visuals, which continue a trend of colorist Jordie Bellaire being DC’s closest thing to a Swiss Army Knife. From Wonder Girl to Detective Comics and Catwoman, her versatile style has made the company’s best books look more distinctive than anything else on the stands.
Her collaboration with artist Álvaro Martinez Bueno works from the first page, which shows Ryan in media res with a bandage across her face and flames engulfing the area behind her. That post-apocalyptic future could not be more visually distinct from the looming dread evinced by Walter’s house, which Bueno beautifully introduces in a two-page spread.
For this book to work, the house has to be as picturesque as advertised while maintaining the creepy aura incumbent to every convincing house in a horror movie. Bueno and Bellaire hit the mark on every note. The house is sleek and modern, but flanked by a dark, imposing lake and tree-lined mountains that evoke the opening of The Shining.
Even before the twist happens, it is clear that Tynion, Bueno, Bellaire, and letterer AndWorld Design are in sync on what they want the mood of this book to be at every page turn. A scene of Walter arriving with bags of food reads as more foreboding than almost any other moment in the book.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a horror writer…I like taking the things that I’m afraid about and turning them into monsters for my characters to grapple with,” Tynion said in a recent DC press release. “In superhero comics, you can always turn away at the last minute, and boil that conflict down into people in fun costumes punching each other. The Nice House On The Lake is trying to hit at deeper nerve, and the goal is to reach that final last moment and sit with the horror rather than turning away.”
The final twist certainly accomplishes that feeling—and, on that note, let’s dive into some spoiler territory.
Again, if you do not want to be spoiled, please come back to this review later.
OK, ready now?
Walter did not round up Ryan and the other guests with designs on killing them. He was protecting them, he says, from “what my people were going to do to your planet.”
Remember that fiery apocalypse from the opening page? It looks like Walter’s people (presumably aliens?) brought about some hellish apocalypse, leading Ryan’s Twitter feed (in yet another great data page) to burst with people posting things like “THE PRESIDENT IS ALREADY DEAD” and “I just watched Anderson Cooper burn to death on live television.”
The news predictably causes chaos among the houseguests, one of whom attempts to slash Walter with a knife. How he responds to that attack is one moment too good to spoil and a picture-in-miniature of Bueno and Bellaire working in tandem to make an unbelievable image.
The twist is brilliant, not only in how it inverts the typical expectations of experienced horror fans, but by forcing the reader to reconsider the slant with which one approaches earlier events in the issue. No one would be shocked if these jockish guests from Walter’s college and high school days were revealed to be bullies. Ryan, however kindhearted a protagonist, admits to falling out of touch with Walter after a failed attempt at a few dates.
But that is not the case at all. “I’d rather you all think of me as the man you always knew me to be,” Walter tells the guests. “You friend.” He genuinely appears to want to protect them from what his people have wrought on the world. What they learn about him — and how it unfolds over the next 11 issues — is sure to be fascinating.
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