I’m going to start this article with a simple sentence: I am absolutely addicted to this comic book, similar to how I imagine crack addicts are addicted to crack.
Let’s discuss hyperbole after the cut.
A long, long time ago, I read a comic book called Planetary by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday. This is a book that showed me what comics are capable of, a book that really attacked and did all that was possible with genre-fiction. It defined the general idea of what superhero comics are capable, and in doing so informed the way I look at a lot of comic books. I was obsessed with Planetary, and in many ways I still am (I’ve bought several copies of the book, finally resting with my Absolute editions and framed final issue). Planetary, to me, is the perfect comic book.
I haven’t really felt that way about any comics since. I love comics, and frequently find books that I adore, but not to the extent that I adored Planetary. There was never a book that I could’t put down in the same fashion, a book that demanded my attention or drew me in so succinctly. There was never another comic that changed the way I look at a specific type of comic books to the great extent that Planetary did (considering Planetary took after the biggest comic book genre of all time).
That is, not until Locke & Key.
This is one of those books where I actually feel quite disappointed in myself for having taken so long to check it out. I’d been told quite frequently how good the book was, but for whatever reason I never quite got around to it. Generally speaking, I think that if your first thought when reading a new book is “What is wrong with me for never having read this before?”, then that book is on the right track.
(Although, I suppose if you were already reading Locke & Key, and have been since the beginning, then you’re probably pointing and laughing at me. And rightly so. Just do it at a different time, ok? I’m going to talk to the people who still haven’t hopped on this happy wonder train.)
Locke & Key follows the adventures of the Locke children after their father is murdered by a former student. The children, along with their mother, move to Lovecraft, Massachusetts to take up residence in the Key House, a giant and mysterious old mansion that has been in the family for generations and is currently inhabited by their uncle. The kids then begin adjusting to their new life: a new school, new friends to meet, a girl in the well outback; just your average everyday set of problems, right? (It’s funny – the book would be a great All Ages comic if it wasn’t so damn violent out of nowhere.) But as the girl in the well starts yearning for her freedom and the keys begin start discovering the mysterious secrets of the keys to the house, the comic goes from 10 to 11 in a complex and mysterious piece of fantastic horror fiction.
In all reality, the fact that this is just an amazing horror book really shouldn’t surprise anyone. It is written, after all, by Joe Hill, son of acclaimed master horror writer Stephen King. While Hill certainly doesn’t actively want to be compared only by his lineage, I suppose it is at least fair to mention that I find Hill’s writing in this title more accessible than I’ve ever found King’s. Hill has a modern voice, attuned to the world we live in that results for an engaging read. More than that, though, Hill’s story is masterful. The story sucks you in from the initial issue, and Hill never misses a beat throughout. The book is rich in its own personal mythology, and fans of mystery horror a la the Orphanage will find themselves more than at home in the world Hill has created, where something as mundane as a key in a lock is suddenly the most magical and intriguing thing in the world.Continued below
There are two issues that I feel speak volumes beyond any other in the entire series: the last issue of the third volume and the first issue of the fourth volume. Both are fantastic for very different reasons; the first example is one that shows the book’s strength in forms of story, and the second in it’s execution. If you view each volume as seasons for the book, then the season finale for the third volume is one of the few comics that really packs a major wallop in what it offers to the reader. Many comics like to throw the idea of “game changer” around, but Locke & key v3 #6 is one of the few that I think actively fits that description — and upon realization that this is actually the halfway point of the story (Locke & Key will run for a planned six volumes), it’s very interesting to meditate on the notion of how much Hill has accomplished with the book in such a relatively short time (a year and a half’s worth of storytelling, give or take a few month breaks).
Locke & Key v4 #1 is an entirely different story, however. If for no other apparent reason than Hill and series artist Gabriel Rodriguez want to, half of the issues narrative as told through one of the central characters emulates the work of Bill Watterson. Hill and Rodriguez frequently reinvent their book, using different narrators as well as randomly changing up artistic styles in any given issue, and v4 #1 is the perfect example of the effectiveness of such an endeavor. Whenever a change in the visual narrative occurs, it always amazingly balances the story being presented, and in the case of Sparrow — that picks up some time after the shocking events of the volume three finale — it illustrates several narratives at once and allows Rodriguez to flex is illustration muscles. It is arguably one of the most perfect modern examples of storytelling only available in the sequential art form, and without completely spoiling the experience of the issue I will say this — it deserves every award.
I suppose, on a basic level, it’s easy to compare Locke & Key to something like LOST. LOST is perhaps my favorite go-to example of storytelling that is only available in one specific medium. It’s also happens to be a great longform mystery placed out over six seasons. Where LOST really succeeded, however, is in it’s character work. You very quickly learned to love the various characters on the show, and the mystery of their situation eventually became a side note to their personal adventure. At the end of the show, it didn’t truly matter exactly what was going on, but rather where the characters ultimately ended up (although an additional answer or two wouldn’t have hurt). With Locke & Key, we’re given the same thing: affable characters who we very quickly attach to in a mysterious setting, where Hill and Rodriguez have combined efforts to create a shining example of storytelling that is fairly specific to the comic medium. While a show was in the works, it’s fairly noteworthy to say that the Bill Watterson tribute issue of volume 4 could never be emulated in any setting other than a fellow comic, and that helps Locke & Key stand-out rather succinctly on its own.
I reiterate my earliest point: I am absolutely addicted to this comic book, similar to how I imagine crack addicts are addicted to crack. I caught up with the first four volumes scattered over the course of a weekend (with breaks for sleep — horrible, horrible breaks for sleep) after an impulse binge buy in a used book store, and I have an annoyed and upset feeling in my stomach that I don’t have more to read now. The fifth volume of the story is two issues in, and it will assumedly be quite some time before the hardcover collection of it finds it’s way to my bookshelf. But I will say this: I want it now!
You’d do well to read this shining example of horror-fiction presented in sequential art now, rather than read another silly superhero comic. Seriously. Just go do it. We can talk about how I’m right later.