Even though the comic book medium is primarily known for the legions of superheroes and super-villains, it is still home for many different genres and kinds of stories. In my own studies of the comic book form, I have noticed a specific sort of cycle in the realm of horror/fantasy comics. Every generation there is a horror and fantasy comic book series that comes out of nowhere and reminds us of what the medium is capable of at its best. In the 80’s Alan Moore and Steve Bissette gave us the iconic Swamp Thing. In the 90’s Neil Gaiman crafted what many consider to be the single greatest comic series ever in Sandman. In the late years of this new millenium’s first decade, our generation’s archetype arrived. Unlike Swamp Thing and Sandman, it didn’t come from DC’s Vertigo imprint. Instead it came from IDW and the minds of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.
This week on Most Heroic, we will take a look at what makes the series Locke & Key such an excellent work of art, and why it is worthy of being celebrated.
The Story is Unique and Imaginative
First and foremost among Locke & Key‘s strengths is the complex and detailed story that Hill & Rodriguez have weaved. The primary focus of the series is the Locke family, who have moved back to their ancestral home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts after their father’s horrific murder. Their home, Keyhouse, is an ancient mansion that their family has owned since the days of the Revolutionary War.
It isn’t long before the Locke children discover a series of magic keys hidden throughout the house that do wonderful things once they’re paired with certain doors. One key can separate your soul from your body turn you into a ghost. Another can let you open up your own head, allowing you to put anything you want in, or take anything out. Yet another key can let you change genders once you walk through a certain door, and another will turn you into an animal.
Unfortunately, the Locke children aren’t alone in their knowledge of the keys. They are being stalked by a mysterious fiend called Dodge. Dodge knows far more about the keys than they do, and will stop at nothing to find the Omega Key, and open the most dangerous door of all.
Although most of the narrative take place in the modern day, the backstory extends back centuries and we learn more and more with each passing book. Both the Locke children and their late father fight against Dodge across a period of twenty years, not unlike the events of Stephen King‘s It. Hill and Rodriguez clearly had a master plan from the very first issues of the book, and they have built it like a pair of skilled architects. Once you get far enough into the story and you see just how detailed their blueprints for the story are, you won’t be able to help feeling impressed.
The story is rich and and layered, a delicious red velvet cake you don’t want to stop eating.
But one of the series most admirable traits is the fact that it is genuinely capable of scaring you. In the medium of comics, that is a very, very hard thing to do. Since it is such a very visual medium, your eye can be attracted to the wrong image at the wrong time, and ruin the suspense by missing the build-up. Thankfully, Hill and Rodriguez are clever enough to use the frames without letting yourself get spoiled too quickly.
I can count the times a comic book has scared me or creeped me out on one hand, and Locke & Key earned its spot on that very short list.
The Characters are Well-Developed
Joe Hill is one of those writers who always gives a very special focus on his characters. It can sometimes be difficult to flesh out so many different imaginary people, but Hill makes it look easy. So many of the people he and Rodriguez introduce us to feel like they have souls, and they’re not just made of sketches and so many streaks of colored ink. To illustrate this, let’s examine the core characters.
The central protagonist of the series is Tyler “Ty” Locke, the oldest of the Locke children. When we first meet Ty, he seems like just another typical teenaged jerk, but he becomes so much more over time. After a classmate murders his father, Ty is consumed by grief, guilt, and self-loathing, but he realizes that he has to put those feelings aside so that he can be strong for his family. In the conflicts with Dodge and his minions, Ty displays great bravery in the face of danger, as well as a fierce will to protect his mother and younger siblings. Though he does still have some normal teenage problems, that keeps him human and relatable. Thankfully, he ended up being a hero that his father would be proud of.
Ty’s younger sister Kinsey is equally traumatized by the loss of her father, but in a very different way. She is more sensitive than Ty and she can bond more easily with people. The more people that Dodge hurts and kills, the more Kinsey wishes she didn’t have to live in fear. She may be a bit more emotionally vulnerable than Ty, but that doesn’t make her any less of a hero. Like Ty, she is forced to face her own fears and she’s made stronger for it.
The youngest of the Locke children is Bode, an adorable little six-year-old boy who has a big heart and a bigger imagination. He’s the least traumatized by the loss of his father and the most willing to use the keys. To him, they’re just a set of magic toys that can let him play games on a much bigger scale. His innocence and his sense of fun are truly endearing, and the reader will probably form the strongest bond with sweet little Bode, and they’ll be truly worried when he is put in danger.
Dodge, however, is a different box of demons. I won’t reveal too much about him for fear of spoiling some major details of the story, but I’ll give just a bit of insight. Dodge is the most awful kind of monster imaginable, the one that passes itself off as a normal man. He plays his part so well that the Lockes fall for it hook, line and sinker. Though he’s more than willing to get his own hands bloody, he can also inspire great violence in others. He’s always two steps ahead of you, and he is relentless in his pursuit of his goals. Earlier I mentioned how Locke & Key is a very scary book, and Dodge is one of the main reasons why. He is a villain for the ages.
The Artwork is Phenomenal
To put it bluntly, Gabe Rodriguez is the next big thing when it comes to comic book art. He has a remarkable attention to detail and you can tell that he works very hard with every panel he has to work with. The art is never crude, lazy, or otherwise impolite. It can be very visceral when the story calls for violence, but it is also capable of tugging on your heartstrings just from the way a character’s face is framed. What’s more impressive is that Rodriguez frequently manages to do both in one picture. He is also capable of completely changing his style to suit some of the individual issues. The most effective use of this technique was with a tribute to Bill Waterson in the fourth volume, Keys to the Kingdom. As a Calvin & Hobbes fan, that was a nice little cherry on top.
Honestly, I have absolutely no criticisms to give Rodriguez at all. I’m sure that there are some flaws to his artwork, but I don’t really want to know what they are. In this case, I’d rather be a fan than a critic.
The duo of Hill & Rodriguez work so well together that they are worthy of being compared to the great writer/artist duos in comic history: O’Neil & Adams, Moore & Gibbons, Bendis & Bagley, and yes, even Lee & Kirby. They are that damn good together. They’ll be collaborating again in the future, and I can’t wait to see what else they can do!
Locke & Key has been receiving praise ever since it debuted, and it deserves every bit of it. Joe Hill won an Eisner Award for the series, and Rodriguez been nominated in multiple categories several times in the past few years. They’ve also won at least two British Fantasy Awards.
With all the buzz that the books have attracted, the Hollywood types started trying to adapt into a TV series. And not just any Hollywood types, mind you, but the big dogs themselves. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci signed on to help adapt the project, and Steven freaking Spielberg was on board as a producer! It was screened at the San Diego Comic-Con to a strong positive reception.
Sadly, despite the star power, the pilot episode wasn’t picked up by 20th Century Fox (Yet another brilliant executive decision there!) or MTV. The pilot episode’s trailer actually came online, and now that I’ve watched it, I have no idea why it wasn’t picked up. It could have been almost as good a TV series as it is a comic series.
Here’s the video.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Locke & Key will be finally coming to a close within the next few months. The final issues of the book have been arriving on the shelves for awhile now, but I’m waiting for the trade collection. I’m sure that some people will find it strange that I’ve written this massive tribute to the series without reading the last sixth of the series, but I don’t really care. I’ll say goodbye all at once. Even if Joe and Gabe somehow trip at the finish line, their work thus far deserves to be celebrated. I have complete faith that they will deliver an epic conclusion to their brilliant series. (If somehow they don’t, I’ll cook myself a nice crow pie to eat.)
If you are not reading Locke & Key, then you need to correct that, right now. I’m not kidding. I’ll make it easy for you. Here’s the Amazon link for the first book. Now you have no excuse whatsoever!
As far as I’m concerned, the fact that Hill & Rodriguez made a series this good makes them heroes in my book. Many thanks to both of you!
I’m Jesse Blume, and Locke & Key, Joe Hill, and Gabriel Rodriguez are all Most Heroic!
Next Week on Most Heroic, it’ll be Reader’s Choice! Let me know what heroes, villains, or stories you’d like me to write about! The deadline for suggestions will be this coming Sunday, April 27th.