Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos ~
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2011
The Low-Down: The fourth collection of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s dark fantasy is the best yet – a pitch-perfect example of horror storytelling combined with inventive concepts, brilliant characterisation and yet more jaw-dropping artwork.
What’s it About?: Their father was murdered, and the Locke children have returned with their mother to the old family home of Keyhouse. There, they’ve discovered a whole collection of magical keys with bizarre and unearthly powers – and they’ve also come under threat from the creature that used to be trapped in the Keyhouse well. Unfortunately, they don’t know that the creature is now posing as their school friend Zack Wells, who’s starting to lose patience in his quest to find the mysterious Omega Key…
The Story: Ah, expectations can be a killer. Tell a longtime comics fan that his favourite series’ next six-issue outing will consist of four one-part stories and a two-parter, and disappointment will almost immediately set in. Modern-day mainstream comics (especially superhero stories) often seem structured more as six monthly chunks of the final graphic novel than instalments in their own right, and often don’t even work on their own terms as a single instalment. Single issue stories – they’re supposed to be the exception, not the rule. Aren’t they?
However, Locke and Key is a different matter. Ever since volume 2, Head Games, the series has placed just as much emphasis on the character-centric single issue stories as on the bigger, pacier tales (like the three-part Crown of Shadows adventure in volume 3), and while volume 4 does mainly consist of character-driven single done-in-one stories, this is a long way from being filler – in fact, it’s the most inventive and adventurous collection of Locke and Key to date, advancing the story in a number of critical ways, giving us a whole selection of new keys, all while building up to a shocking climax and a mother of a cliffhanger.
A tremendously skilled writer, Hill continues to serve up outstanding characterisation, adding nuances to character with carefully chosen details, and paying off emotional plotlines with massively affecting consequences. Of course, to anyone who’s read his fiction this is no surprise (Hill’s second novel, Horns, remains the only novel I’ve ever given up on part-way through simply because I knew it was going to upset me too much), but one of the most impressive things about Locke and Key is that, unlike some novelists who end up writing comics (and who often end up producing fine work), Hill really does understand how comics work as a medium, and that they let you do things you simply can’t do anywhere else.
There are points in Keys to the Kingdom where Hill cuts loose with a more daring and experimental approach (from the brilliantly compressed storytelling of ‘February’ to the wonderful and utterly unexpected Calvin and Hobbes homage in ‘Sparrow’), all the while understanding when to let the visuals tell the story. Locke and Key is a comic with a really distinctive identity, and the tonal shifts between off-beat dark children’s fantasy and outright horror just get more and more effective and disturbing. Indeed, it’s incredible exactly how much plot Hill manages to cram into these six issues, while he also gradually cranks the tension up to almost unbearable levels and shows no compunction in going for genuinely horrific violence when it’s required.
Hill’s already declared that Locke and Key will be ending in twelve issues, and the first issue of the fifth miniseries ‘Clockworks’ will be appearing in comic book stores soon – but while the story may be heading towards it’s end, it’s obvious there are plenty of shocks and surprises to come. The long-awaited TV adaptation may have failed to get beyond its unaired (and highly acclaimed) pilot episode, but Locke and Key remains one of the most well-crafted and compulsively readable comic books currently being released.
The Art: He started strong, and has been getting better and better through every series, but Keys to the Kingdom sees Gabriel Rodriguez go even further than before. His controlled, cartoony yet distinctive style is still as sharp as ever, as is his design work (virtually every one of the Keyhouse keys is a genuine work of art), but here he also takes on some serious challenges, whether it’s the brilliant war comic homages in chapter four, or the daring and wonderful Bill Watterson homage in chapter 1. Each one of these he pulls off with a major amount of style, while also matching Hill’s script in terms of portraying the character’s emotions (especially in the wonderful third chapter). Combined with Jay Fotos’ gorgeously creative and subtle colour work, and Locke and Key remains a seriously good-looking bit of comic art.
The Verdict: If you like dark fantasy or horror, and you’re not reading Locke and Key, get a move on and catch up with the story so far – you won’t be disappointed. One of the best comic series currently being published is going from strength to strength, and looks to be powering its way towards one hell of an ending.