Writer: Joe Hill ~ Art: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2008
The Low-Down: The first volume of a major work of dark fantasy from the acclaimed author of Heart-Shaped Box, this is a gripping and superbly crafted comic book (currently being adapted for US television) that will have you genuinely gripped and hungry for more.
What’s it About?: Their father has been brutally murdered. Now, the Locke children and their mother are living in the old family home outside the town of Lovecraft, and trying to piece their lives back together. Problem is, their house has secrets. There are the keys that open doors in weird and magical ways – turning you into a ghost, letting you go anywhere, and many, many others. And there’s monstrous evil lurking in the shadows, waiting for the chance to find the key to the Black Door…
The Story: A piece of advice – if you’re ever looking for a place in the country to recuperate after a devastating personal loss, don’t even think of moving to somewhere called Lovecraft. Of course, the characters in this opening instalment to the dark fantasy saga Locke and Key don’t know their 1930s pulp horror authors, leading to a whole heap of trouble and one of the most distinctive comics of recent years.
What’s most surprising about Locke and Key – especially in this opening six-issue arc – is how it takes incredibly familiar fantasy/horror tropes and makes them feel fresh, new and accessible. Scriptwriter Joe Hill (author of horror novels Heart-Shaped Box and Horns, and also son of Stephen King) isn’t afraid to use a very traditional setup to tell what turns out as a surprisingly characterful and layered story. Locke and Key is, in many ways, a typical kids adventure story filtered through a brutal, adult perspective – there’s magic and weirdness to be discovered, but at a cost that’s traumatic, often bloody and leaves a difficult aftermath in its wake. The Locke kids each have to deal with their loss in different ways, and the story is just as much about them gradually coming to terms with their father’s death as it is about magically empowered keys. Hill’s characterisation work here is exceptional, giving every character depth and layers, making us care for them while slowly ratcheting the suspense up as the story marches inevitably towards a tense and violent conclusion.
It also helps that he’s got a great understanding of how comic storytelling works. Writers best known in other mediums don’t always get comic books, and will often make them over-wordy or rely too much on narrative caption boxes for comfort, but Hill gets the pacing and rhythm of the story exactly right, and also knows the kind of tricks you can pull off with the comics medium – creative flashbacks, juxtaposing scenes, and manipulating time in a number of creative ways. He’s able to be inventive, while keeping the drive of the story going, and the end result is a collection that’s extremely hard not to power through in one sitting.
This isn’t the full story, of course. Welcome to Lovecraft is a scene-setter, a suspenseful curtain-raiser for the slightly more slow-burning but still brilliantly crafted main event, the long-form story that continues through the following volumes Head Games, Crown of Shadows, and Keys to the Kingdom (still being published in issue format). Hill has a big story to tell, and he’s willing to take his time – there are only hints of the bigger picture here, but they’re all intriguing enough to almost guarantee you’ll be hooked by the end of this story. Horror comics very rarely manage to be genuinely scary, but Locke and Key pulls it off thanks to brilliant characterisation, sharp storytelling, and a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.
The Art: Plus, there’s the simply awesome artwork from Gabriel Rodriguez. Showcasing a stunning level of design and detail, Rodriguez has a really interesting visual style that’s almost like a cross between Frank Quitely and Richard Corben, cartoony yet rooted in a very firm and physical sense of realism. The nuances and body language of the characters are all incredibly well portrayed, while he also throws himself into the darker, more horrific material with serious gusto. From full-page splashes to some eerie dream sequences this is great, atmospheric stuff that’s fully supported by some artful and delicate colour work from Jay Fotos. It’s massively impressive, attention-grabbing work – and, amazingly, in comparison to his work on the later volumes, this is just the warm-up act…
The Verdict: An enthralling mix of dark fantasy and horror, this is a characterful and gripping piece of comic-book storytelling that will have you instantly hooked. Yes, there’s a US TV adaptation in the works, but do yourself a favour and get reading the original as soon as is possible.