Rendell Locke has been murdered and he leaves behind his wife Nina and their three kids, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode. The family is shattered, but Rendell always mysteriously told his wife that if anything were ever to happen to him, she should take the family and move them to his ancestral home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. On their first day in the new house, precocious family baby Bode finds a creepy skull key and a corresponding door. He walks through it and promptly falls down dead. But then… he rises up as a ghost! And being a ghost is totally fun! And he can return to his body whenever he wants to! In fact, the house is filled with weird keys and weird doors that do weird stuff. But of course there’s one door that should never be opened, a door that contains something otherworldly that may be responsible for Rendell’s death…
That’s the pitch for the beginning of “Locke & Key.” It’s a high-concept genre bending 2008 comic by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. It’s also my favorite comic. When I’m asked to list my personal faves I list off a few titles universally loved by comics fans of my age (“Sandman,” “Y The Last Man,” “Alias,”) but “Locke & Key” still is relatively unheard of. Which is crazy, because it deserves to be in the pantheon of absolute classics.
Written by Joe Hill
Illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez
Colored by Jay Fotos
Lettered by Robbie Robbins
Locke & Key tells of Keyhouse, an unlikely New England mansion, with fantastic doors that transform all who dare to walk through them…. and home to a hate-filled and relentless creature that will not rest until it forces open the most terrible door of them all…! Acclaimed suspense novelist and New York Times best-selling author Joe Hill (Heart-Shaped Box) creates an all-new story of dark fantasy and wonder, with astounding artwork from Gabriel Rodriguez.
So why is “Locke & Key” such a classic? For one, it’s really damn good. It helped to pioneer the revival of the genre that I like to call “kids on bikes,” where a gang of everyday youngsters uncover a spooky mystery that’s effecting their town. Think Stranger Things or It. It’s a genre heavily influenced by Stephen King, and it’s no wonder “Locke & Key” shares that influence. Writer Joe Hill is after all, the son of Stephen King, and anyone who has read his novels will tell you that not only does he write in a very similar mode to dad, he’s a more than worthy successor.
Because “Locke & Key” succeeds in ways that those 80s classics often struggle with. It deals in representation in a much more explicit way, simply by drawing three-dimensional characters and including them in the story. There are the smaller examples of Detective Mutuku, who is very much seen as an outsider in the preppy white Massachusetts town, and Joe Ridgeway, a black teacher in a bi-racial marriage in 1967. There’s uncle Duncan Locke, a gay and somewhat goofy artist who has to navigate blue-collar homophobia down on the cape. And there’s Rufus Whedon, an Autistic character who strongly reminded me of members of my own family who I had never seen represented in fiction before. While my descriptions essentially these traits, the story does not. Professor Ridgeway is informed by his experiences, but is the keeper of a vital clue in the mystery. Duncan gets a wonderful arc of his own, as he has to step into his dead brother’s big shoes. Rufus is a central member of the gang who needs to overcome his communication barriers to explain what he’s uncovered. It’s effortless. It’s amazing.
As a work of fantasy, “Locke & Key” is similarly great. There are clear (but complicated) rules, and the story makes the most of them. Ghosts can return to their own bodies… unless another ghost gets to it first! Time travel is sort of possible, but not beyond Y2K. One key let’s you draw strength from shadows, but shadows are only as strong as their light source. As the different keys are discovered, mastered, and combined, the story goes to some crazy places, both predictable and utterly shocking. But the comic makes the most of its own rules, and mysteries come to a satisfying conclusion by book six.Continued below
Actually, the mysteries all but wrap up by the end of book five. Another thing “Locke & Key” excels in is the pacing. Though the series feels a bit like a JJ Abrams mystery box at times, it’s a masterclass in avoiding the shortfalls of that sort of storytelling. The characters always stay front and center, even in the middle of a storm of plot twists. But wisely, Hill and Rodriguez wrap up the mystery plot by the end of the penultimate volume, leaving only one question: what happens now? And boy, does it ever answer.
While Gabriel Rodriguez’s art isn’t always impeccable, it does something I like even more than perfection: it evolves right before your eyes. The art in the first volume is very good, but by the end of the series, Rodriguez has become extraordinary. He does this by tightening up his fundamentals, but he has some talents that are unparalleled in the comics world. He draws some of the best people around. That seems sort of basic, but he proves this by drawing the same people at vastly different ages, or drawing a family resemblance. Rendell Locke is a big, stocky redhead with huge shoulders. His brother Duncan has the same complexion, but is wiry and horse-faced. They are clearly brothers, and the resemblance continues in oldest son Tyler (but Bode takes after his mom).
By the middle of the series, Rodriguez is just showing off. One of my favorite issues alternates pages between one-page Sunday-style “Calvin and Hobbes” gags and a dark fantasy about monster wolves. It manages to tell a coherent story, and it’s stunning. And wait until you see the contents of different characters’ imaginations. Extraordinary.
With a blend of horror, fantasy, kids adventure, American Gothic, and a whole lot of other stuff, “Locke & Key” has a ton going on. It boasts some of the best, deepest, and most diverse characters ever to grace a comics series. It is a technical masterpiece that knows when to throw a big splashy page, and knows when to hold back. It’s the spookiest month of the year, so treat yourself to one of comics’ coolest, creepiest, craziest series of all time.