Imagine your childhood best friend. A bit awkward, a little weird and intense; well-liked by all, but only a few can claim to truly know well. A confidant; the best man at your wedding, a sympathetic ear and ever-eager helping hand who’s never farther than a phone call away.
Now, imagine that friend was in fact a ghoulish alien “flesh-tornado” masquerading as a human being in a bid to exterminate humanity, and they’ve chosen you as one of a handful to survive. For the protagonists of The Nice House on the Lake, writer James Tynion IV and artist Alvario Martinez Bueno’s horror series at DC Comics, this hypothetical is an all-too-terrifying reality.
To sum it up through comparison: The Nice House on the Lake is basically Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill by way of Michael Schur’s The Good Place and Stephen King’s It; an apocalyptic mystery thriller that reads like a better version of Lost as told through the medium of comics. The focal point of these disparate influences is Walter, the series’ antagonist and one of the most intriguing comic book villains in recent memory.
The Nice House on the Lake Vol. 1, which collects the first six issues of the 12-issue limited series and is out this week, opens on the image of a woman wrapping a bandage around her head, the background ablaze in a glow of orange and red. She tells the story of how she first met Walter, a friend of a friend, who invited her and a small group of other close-ish acquaintances to vacation at a beautiful lake house in Wisconsin for a week during the precarious upturn of summer 2021.
After they arrive, however, they soon realize the horrible truth: Walter is not human; this trip was the culmination of a decades-spanning plot to eradicate the human race; and everyone they have ever known and loved – save for each other – is dead. Confronted with such an enormous and intimate act of betrayal, each of the ten guests are faced with a defining question: Will they lash out against their benevolent alien jailer in a bid to escape, or make peace with the unforgivable?
The series answers this question, and several more, through a new flashback every issue, each narrated by a new house guest as they reflect on their own relationship to Walter prior to the apocalypse. The tone of these stories feel not unlike eulogies; mourning the death of the world as they know it, as well as the idea of a “person” who once meant so much to each of them.
Pieced together over the six issues, these stories paint a complicated portrait of Walter; a being of immense power conflicted with his own role in the imminent culling of humanity. He admits at one point that he did not think that he would come to like, let alone love, so many of the people he crossed paths with during his time on Earth. Beneath his cool and aloof exterior, there appears to be a war raging inside of Walter; a growing sympathy and compassion for humanity pitted against the ruthless machinations of his unseen superiors.
Sympathizing an inscrutable alien “flesh-tornado” is no easy feat; that The Nice House on the Lake accomplishes this is no small credit to the deftness of Tynion’s writing. But the most remarkable visual design seen in The Nice House on the Lake — already populated with a cast of characters unique in form and dress, and a beautiful mid-century modernist home perched atop a hill whose lush grounds are decorated with ominous glyph-like statues rendered with meticulous attention to detail — is none other than Walter himself.
The human-seeming alien’s eerily calm and bespectacled appearance regularly erupts into a writhing, phantasmagorical mass of gnashing teeth, bone, and flesh. It’s as disturbing as it is visually inspired, made all the more so for the fact that Walter’s eyes, if he even has any, are never seen throughout the series, perpetually obscured behind the eerie reflection of his glasses.
To Walter, saving as many of his close friends as possible is a twisted form of harm reduction. To the guests, it’s unconscionable. What is “harm reduction” in the face of the apocalypse? How can you forgive anyone not only for their role in such an act, but selfishly forcing their loved ones to live with the weight of those deaths on their shoulders? It’s this tension between love and cruelty, friendship and betrayal that drives so much of the drama, mystery, and appeal of The Nice House on the Lake and secures it as one of the most remarkable comic series of 2022.