Book of the Month
What did the
Art and cover by Gabriel Rodriguez
Size: 152 pages
Locke & Key is great and it almost snuck completely past me. It was almost off being great and having a wonderful life all on its own while I trudged through my day to day existence, never knowing what I was missing, never conceiving of all that fabulous times we could be having together.
What I mean by that is that, initially, Locke & Key totally slipped beneath my radar. Sure, I’d begun to hear rumblings about how good this book was early on, even right here on this website, but for the most part, I ignored them. It’s not that I’m against horror, I’m just ambivalent about the genre. I like some horror and I dislike other (most?) horror. It’s not a genre I seek out, is what I’m saying. But I will check it out if I hear it’s good.
And that’s where you fine people come in.
I will be forever grateful to the people of the iFanbase who voted for Locke & Key in our audience choice video show. Because without them I probably wouldn’t have read Locke & Key, and my comic book life would be much poorer for it. Sure, I probably would have gotten around to it eventually, but when you read and talk about comic books for a living the list of books that you’ll “probably get around to eventually” can be as long as your arm.
Published by IDW, and written by Joe Hill and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows collects the third storyline of the series in an absolutely gorgeous hardcover. I don’t often talk about production, but these Locke & Key hardcovers are just beautifully produced (there’s a placeholder ribbon!), as are many of the prestige collections out of IDW Publishing.
As this is the third volume, we’re pretty deep into the story at this point, but for the uninitiated here’s a quick recap. Tragedy strikes the Locke family outside of San Francisco when two teenagers attack the family in their home. The father is murdered, the mother, Nina, beaten and raped, and the three children — oldest son Tyler, middle daughter Kinsey, and youngest son Bode — try desperately to stay hidden. Eventually, the Lockes turn the tables on their attackers — Tyler savagely beats one of the attackers, Sam Lesser, with a brick and Nina kills the second attacker with an axe.
In the aftermath of the attack they move across the country to Lovecraft, Massachusetts to the family estate called Keyhouse. Very quickly we find that not only are there magical keys hidden in Keyhouse that do magical things when placed in certain doors, but there are evil spirits lurking who want to possess those keys (these same evil spirits persuaded Sam Lesser to attack the Lockes in the first place).
The first volume, Welcome To Lovecraft, dealt primarily with setting the scene, introducing the characters, and the struggle over the Anywhere Key (which lets you walk through a door and come out the other side anywhere). The second volume, Head Games, saw the evil spirit take form and insinuate itself into the lives of the Lockes while trying to possess the Head Key (which lets you open up people’s heads and mess with their minds and memories).
In the third volume, Crown of Shadows, the cat and mouse game over who will find the magic keys between the Lockes (all of whom, at least in the beginning, don’t really seem to fully realize that they are in a life and death struggle over these keys) and the evil spirit — originally seen as The Girl in the Well, now appearing as cool, soul patched teenager Zack Wells, though his “secret name” is Dodge — has now turned towards the key that will open the mysterious Black Room. Opening the door that room seems to be Dodge’s ultimate goal.
Reading the last paragraph it occurs to me that from the outside looking in, Locke & Key can seem convoluted and confusing. But it’s not. At all. And that’s one of my favorite things about Locke & Key. Yes, there is a complex struggle over these keys that all look different and all do different things, but ultimately, as with any great story, Locke & Key is really about the people and in volume three that fact is clearer than ever.
One of the most interesting, and often heartbreaking things, about Locke & Key over these last three volumes has been watching how the characters have progressed after the incredibly traumatic incident that kicks off the first book. Each one has dealt with it in their own way. The oldest son Tyler has dealt with the hardship of suddenly finding himself the man in the family at too young of an age. Middle child Kinsey has struggled to find her identity, going from dreadlocks to cheerleader to a hippie-punk hybrid. In volume three she has finally seemed to have found her comfortable place in the world. Youngest son Bode is perhaps the most inscrutable. He’s young; perhaps too young too fully understand what’s going on with his family. But he’s also the Locke who seems to be the most in-tune with what’s going on in the house with the keys, even if he doesn’t really fully understand it. But the most heartbreaking of all is Nina, the mother. She has been on a slow and steady spiral into self-destruction ever since the attack. She drinks. She constantly drinks. As a result of all the booze and psychological pain she has wild mood swings and fights with her kids. Things got even worse for her in this volume and she broke my heart constantly.
Don’t get me wrong, Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows isn’t all arguing and bottles of booze being smashed into walls.
The second chapter (or “issue” if you prefer) is one of my favorite things that I’ve read in a while. In it, Kinsey and some friends from school go exploring an old underground military base near the school because one of the boys (who looks kind of like Spider Jerusalem and is crushing on Kinsey) saw her father’s name written on the wall deep underground. The area is off limits because the base now floods with water at high tide. Of course, it all goes wrong and the four friends get trapped and they have to figure out how to free themselves before they drown or freeze to death or both. There are no demons to defeat here, just regular people put in a bad situation trying to find their way to safety. It was riveting.
And in the action-packed climax, Dodge uses the aforementioned Crown of Shadows to turn all of the shadows of the house sentient so that they can attack the Lockes and try to get their keys, only to be thwarted by Tyler who uses a key of his own to become a giant so he can beat back the shadows (again, this sounds crazy and confusing, but it’s really not).
All of these emotional character moments and scenes of big time action are captured by the amazing Gabriel Rodriguez. It’s funny, way back on the video show where we talked about the first volume, Josh and I raved about Rodriguez and how he was one of the best artists working in comics. Well, he is much better now in the third volume. And the funny thing is that I didn’t even notice how much better he had gotten until I pulled volume one off the shelf to look up an old plot point. It’s not a dramatic improvement, it’s a subtle one, and that’s a good thing. Oftentimes, it’s the subtle improvements that make all the difference in comic book art.
Now we get to the writer, Joe Hill. Oftentimes, writers that come into comics from other mediums (in this case, novels) have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to comics, but not Joe Hill. He seemed to get it right off the bat. The thing that’s most impressive about Joe Hill is that he in addition to building fantastic characters and putting them through a believable emotional wringer, he is fantastic at mood and tone. Above all, Locke & Key is a creepy book; it’s much more unsettling than scary (which, let’s be honest, is really hard to do in comics). There is a pervasive feeling of dread that runs throughout Locke & Key that really sets the mood for the whole book. You just know that you can turn the page at any time and something bad is going to happen. And as a team, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are fantastic together. As a new-ish comic book writer Joe Hill is downright economical with his words and he really lets Gabriel Rodriguez flex his muscles and tell the story. Crown of Shadows is chock full of fantastic usages of silent panels and beats. It’s really a wonderfully formed comic book from a craft standpoint.
I’ve gone nearly my entire review now hoping I’d be able to avoid the cliché but it seems appropriate now. Locke & Key is a horror comic for people who don’t like horror stories (and for those who do). It’s just a flat out great comic book that defies genre ghettoizing.
I'm still creeped out by the Head Key