Comics You Should be Reading: ‘Locke & Key’
Welcome to the Keyhouse, a place of mystery and magic. The comic industry was built on superhero capes, but that is not the only genre to thrive in this medium. Back in the day the horror genre made its mark in the regulation free days, but the Comic Code Authority put a stop to that. For many a decade it was just the superheroes bringing home the bacon. As comic readers grew up the writers grew up with them and started to produce content more suitable to the readership. We’ve had some great horror stories in recent years such as The Walking Dead and Changing Ways but few have proven to be quite as unique and absorbing as Locke and Key.
Initially it comes across as a straight up horror but Locke and Key felts more comfortably into the genre of thriller. It opens with the Locke family at their holiday home. Teenaged Tyler is struggling with his sense of identity and his teen angst is beginning to distance him from his slightly younger sister Kinsey and his kid brother Bode. Their father, Rendell, is a high school psychologist and the story begins when one of his charges, Sam Lesser, pays them a visit. Sam Lesser and his accomplice Al have murdered their way up the coast with Rendell Locke being the ultimate target. After witnessing the murder of his father Tyler beats Sam with a brick and his mother Nina attacks Al with an axe.
Trying to pull together after this tragedy the family drives across the country to New England to stay with Rendell’s brother Duncan. On the small peninsula of Lovecraft (and that should be ringing warning bells already) they make their new home at the ‘Keyhouse’, childhood home of Rendell and Duncan. More than just a name, the house is home to a collection of keys that hold special properties. Bode makes the first discovery – the Ghost Key. When opening a particular door with the key Bode finds that he can literally die and become a ghost and return any time he wishes. Meanwhile Sam Lesser has escaped from prison and is heading their way, and a mysterious entity trapped in the well house has befriended Bode. Both Sam and the woman in the well have something in common – they are looking for the ‘Omega Key’.
This summary is barely scratching the surface of a rich and complex story told over three acts, each comprising of twelve issues. What appears to be a tragic death at the hands of a deranged individual in the first few pages is revealed to be events set in motion decades previously when Rendell and his friends discovered the keys and their powers. After Sam’s second attack on the Locke family and the mysterious woman from the well reveals herself the Locke children begin finding more keys – the Everywhere Key, the Gender Key, the Head Key, the Shadow Key, the Omega Key and others, each one opening up a new world of possibility and madness.
The supernatural elements of the story are woven throughout a drama story that could hold its own even without the keys. Tyler and Kinsey are trying to fit in at a new high school where everyone knows them as the victims of tragedy, while the young Bode finds that his brother and sister no longer have time for him. Their mother Nina descends in drink and can barely look after her family while their uncle Duncan is torn between staying to help look after them and returning to his boyfriend and regular life. Melding the drama and the horror together so effectively is one of the reasons this is such an effective series.
In part the motivation to keep reading comes from discovering the what the next key will be and what it can do, and there’s some truly imaginative work is one display. The Head Key in particular opens up a world of possibility as it unlocks the top of a person’s head and allows them access to their mind. The images depicting the minds of the characters are detailed and fantastically conceived. Writer Joe Hill explores fascinating territory here when Kinsey removes the demons representing her fear and crying and traps them in a bottle, living without fear from that point. Some of the abilities of the keys are told from different perspectives, such as the discovery of the Animal Key being shown from Bode’s perspective and turning the world into a Calvin and Hobbes style strip.
Readers are kept on their toes by the narrative switching back and forth through time periods, especially in the most recent trade edition that sees Tyler and Kinsey discover the Timeshift Key and discover the origins of the house. The reader is let in on more information than any of the characters, generating an almost uncomfortable level of suspense when we are fully aware of who the real enemy is and what they’re capable of. The truth behind the keys and what lies beneath the Keyhouse is only revealed in the third act, allowing the sense of mystery to become the over-arching driving force of the series.
The real genius of the story comes from how well everything ties together. Unlike regular superhero comics that are revised and left open to maintain a decades-long print run Locke and Key has been planned out from the beginning, and rereading the series shows how meticulously plotted the story is. Many different narrative threads exist and they all tie together in ways that you would never suspect from the outset. Writer Joe Hill (son of Stephen King) has done a remarkable job and building this unique thriller and artist Gabriel Rodriquez couldn’t be better suited to the task of visualizing this gothic tale.
With five trades collecting the story currently available the story is going to be wrapping up very soon. If you haven’t yet taken the time to set down and absorb what has revealed itself to be an epic supernatural fable in comic form then you need to put that time aside. Best you get onto that now as you’re going to want to reread it again to fully appreciate the details before the final book is released and story of Locke & Key comes to a final close.
Although it seems perfectly suited to a television format the pilot episode produced by Fox has not been put into production as a new series. Although it has a talented cast, received solid reviews and was directed by Mark Romanek it has been left hanging.