Comic Review: Locke and Key – Keys to the Kingdom

Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos ~
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2011

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics[xrr rating=5/5]

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.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 3 Cover 'February'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.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 2 Incentive Cover 'White'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.

[amtap book:isbn=1600108865]

The Friday Linkfest (1/4/2011): Links on my Mind

Justice League of America adaptation film for 2013 news Batman Superman Wonder Woman

Warner Bros are aiming for a Justice League of America movie by 2013. The question has to be asked – what the hell is going on with the Warners and DC-related superhero films? They’ve previously said that ‘we’re not doing crossovers’ – that the Nolan Batman films wouldn’t cross over with any other motion pictures, and that neither would Snyder’s Superman – each series would tackle them as the only superhero in their world. Now, this is a step away from the Marvel ‘grand plan’ to culminate in The Avengers (which hasn’t always worked – Iron Man 2 being a case in point), but did seem to make sense at the time (especially with how aggressively realistic the Nolan films have been). Now, however, they’re saying they’re aiming for a JLA film in 2013 (which is absurdly quick), and that the JLA will feature Batman and Superman, but not Henry Cavill as Superman, and not whoever inherits the Bat-cowl when the franchise is rebooted following The Dark Knight Rises (which I’m willing to bet will embrace a slightly more comic-booky direction once Nolan departs).

Now, if they weren’t going to use Batman and Superman, I could understand it – while they’re the two big heavy-hitters, it would be possible to cope without them (in a similar way to how Marvel Studios films have to cope without crossovers with Spider-Man, the X-Men or The Fantastic Four, because they sold the rights). It’s also not impossible to have two different live-action versions of the same character around – Superman Returns was made while Smallville was on the air, and if the Wonder Woman TV series is a success, there could be both a TV and a film version of Wonder Woman, as one concept is for the JLA film to launch characters that could then go on into standalone movies. But this has never happened in movies before – two different versions of the same character, possibly appearing within months of each other? Warners experimented with this in 2008, when a JLA film came very close to being made (and which would have mostly starred unknowns, including The Social Network’s Armie Hammer as Batman) – it was a weird idea then, and it’s a weird idea now. Presumably, any spin-offs from JLA would be taking place in the same universe – so some DC films will cross over, but others won’t? Are they seriously trying to create an onscreen version of the DC multiverse? Are they out of their minds? Well, 2013 is a very optimistic date for a film that big (It’ll be interesting to see how well Green Lantern does on release – that could have a major effect on how the DC Universe films progress, especially if it doesn’t end up doing well…), and I suspect minds could be seriously changed if The Avengers turns out to be a giant-sized monster hit…

Green Lantern’s publicity is being delayed by the extensive effects work. Some recent superhero films have been quieter in the pre-publicity stakes than others – Captain America only just unveiled its first full trailer, while Thor has been giving us all kinds of images and trailers since late last year. Green Lantern hasn’t exactly been doing brilliantly – the first trailer has its moments but didn’t exactly blow me away, and given that this is a long, long way from the relatively earthbound action of Iron Man or The Dark Knight, you’d think they’d be doing more to sell the film. Well, they would be, only the combined problems of major sequences taking place on fully CG alien planets, plus the added problem of doing all this in 3-D, means that the whole process has been delayed, and the next trailer for Green Lantern won’t be ready until the release of Thor on May 6th – and that’s only about six weeks before the movie itself is out on June 17th. They’re even still casting voice roles (with Michael Clarke Duncan strongly tipped for the slightly-awkwardly-named Killowog), and given that the summer is already stuffed to bursting with blockbusters, it does at least put a big question mark over whether Green Lantern is going to sink or swim.

The Wonder Woman costume for the TV pilot has been modified – the version spotted in a location shoot doesn’t have funky PVC trousers, and the boots are red now, instead of blue. Now, this may be as a result of the ludicrous level of fan complaints when the costume was unveiled, but it of course hasn’t done anything to quell the somewhat hilarious tide of people bitching online that “it still looks like a Halloween costume” (because of course, the Lynda Carter 70s TV costume in no way looked ridiculous) and generally moaning about how of course the show’s guaranteed to be completely terrible anyway. There are times when I love fandom, and there are times when I don’t.

Amy Adams has been cast as Lois Lane in the upcoming Zack Snyder version of Superman. Now, this is both really good news – Adams is a great actress, and a surprisingly good choice for Lois Lane – and really annoying, as I’d much rather she was appearing in a Superman film not directed by Zack Snyder. At the least, it’s a surprise to have a Lois who’s actually eight years older than the guy playing Superman (Adams is 36, Henry Cavill is 28), plus it’s really nice that Adams will actually look old enough to be an experienced reporter (as opposed to poor old miscast Kate Bosworth in Superman Returns, whose version of Lois looked about twelve years old).

And, to coincide with this in a rather sadder way, Deadline posted a letter from Joanne Siegel – widow of Superman creator Jerry Siegel, and original model for Lois Lane – written two months before her death, asking the head of Time Warner to actually pay the money the company legally owes the Siegel family (and to stop the crappy legal delaying tactics they’ve been using). Yes, we all know that most corporations are going to act in crappy underhand ways – but the Superman legal saga is an epically complicated one, and it’s just a pity it couldn’t have been resolved before Siegel passed away.

Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who episode is called – shock, horror – ‘The Doctor’s Wife‘!  Now, I’m pretty sure, if I’m remembering correctly, that this is a bit of a meta-in-joke as well, as the production team did at one point (in the classic era) try to identify a leak to the fan press by falsely putting out the completely bogus title ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ just to see what happened. It’s certainly not what I expected – the initial thought is that obviously, it’s going to be another ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’ where it turns out that the Doctor hasn’t actually had a secret daughter stashed away all these years, and it’s unlikely to be a River Song-centric story considering Moffat’s bound to be handling that side of things. Actress Suranne Jones is playing the character ‘Idris’, so I’m mildly perplexed – especially considering that Gaiman has actually said that his story brings back someone (or something) we haven’t seen since the Sixties (or, to be more precise, the 1969 story The War Games). Of course, the Doctor has actually already been married onscreen – he accidentally acquired an Aztec wife in the sixties historical story ‘The Aztecs’, but I can’t imagine Gaiman is constructing a whole story around that. I guess we’ll wait and see…

Also Gaiman related – his novel American Gods has been optioned, apparently by a director with ‘many, many Oscars’. Who knows what this means, but it’s a challenging idea – American Gods is a fascinating, occasionally tricky book (one I struggled with on my first reading, but eventually came to really love), but it doesn’t strike me as especially filmable. But then, neither did Stardust, and look what happened there…

Continuing the recent theme of Hollywood adaptations that completely miss the fecking point of what they’re supposed to be adapting, Hollywood are plotting a modernised version of Miss Marple – and have cast Jennifer Garner. Yes, the star of spy action series Alias. My mind is reeling at exactly how much of the original material just got thrown out of the window. Alright, Twin Peaks co-creator Mark Frost may be involved, but will someone please find the other people who are involved in this and then punch them? (And then sit them down in front of the BBC Joan Hickson Marple adaptations and go “LOOK!”?)

And as if that wasn’t depressing enough, the Terry Gilliam film Time Bandits may be remade as an ‘action franchise for kids’. No. No. NO. I’m sorry, but that’s entering territory where I may have to hunt down and kill anyone who’s responsible for bastardising the wonderful, quirky and barmy world of one of my favourite films. And again: NO.

HBO drama series The Wire, re-imagined (rather well) as a Victorian-era novel.

The BBC4 pilot episode adaptation of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books has been comissioned for a series of 3 1-hour episodes. As you’ll see from my review of the pilot, I’m not exactly delighted by this. I guess it’s possible that writer Howard Overman might iron out the issues with the first episode given more time, but I doubt it. Whether I have the patience for another three hours of vaguely tiresome comic shenanigans that bear a vague passing resemblance to books I really, really like remains to be seen…

And finally, news of a slightly more promising movie remake – director David Gordon Green is helming a US version of utterly barmy Italian Horror movie Suspiria. Now, this would normally strike me as a bad idea, especially since Suspiria is a genuinely demented, eye-searingly colourful and hyper-violent movie, one of the few horror movies I’ve seen that genuinely qualify as nightmarish, but David Gordon Green strikes me as a director capable of bringing something interesting to the table (especially in the way he’s bounced from lyrical arthouse dramas to stoner action comedies like Pineapple Express). He’ll have to go some to match the sheer lunacy of Suspiria, but at least he is planning to use significant amounts of the original progrock-tastick Suspiria score by Goblin, a major element of the original’s unique atmosphere, as you can hear from the attention-grabbing, barmy and deeply unsettling main theme:

TV News: Preludes and Nocturnes (Or, the Disappearing and Reappearing TV Adaptation of The Sandman)

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News

Scarcely have I stopped talking about how happy I am that the mo-cap Yellow Submarine remake isn’t happening, when another project that I’m slightly concerned about starts hovering in the Schrodinger’s Box of Cancelled/Not Cancelled reality. In this case, it’s the potential TV adaptation of one of the most successful and well-known graphic novels of all time – Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Dave McKean TV Adaptation News Cover ArtA 75-issue series that started out as a top-down remix of an old DC Comics character and went on to redefine much of what you could do in comic books, all while delivering stories that were dark, melancholy, funny, twisted and utterly distinctive, The Sandman is a hell of a comic book. One of the most high profile successes in the comic industry over the last twenty five years, Hollywood has been circling it for a very long time – but the distinctive style of The Sandman is also the thing that makes it incredibly hard to adapt. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories are lyrical and odd in construction, often using fairy tale logic or confounding the reader with deliberately anti-climactic endings, while the protagonist,  the moody and aloof immortal being known as Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams, is often more of a background presence. There are very few genuine villains in The Sandman’s world, and even the ones that are there don’t function the way you expect them to (or don’t actually receive any come-uppance), and the whole thing is about as far from Hollywood storytelling as it’s possible to get.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Sam Kieth TV Adaptation News ArtThere have been attempts since the early Nineties, but none have ever come to fruition – Roger Avary, Gaiman’s collaborator on Beowulf, came closest to managing a fairly faithful adaptation, but even his attempt eventually floundered, and ever since it’s seemed that there’d never be a way of reconciling The Sandman’s deliberately offbeat storytelling with the money it would take to actually make.

Then, in the middle of last year, rumours of a TV series started to circulate. Given The Sandman’s deliberately long-form storytelling structure, a TV adaptation isn’t an insane idea, and would certainly give the concept much more room to breathe. Plus, there’s much more potential to acheive something closer to the comic’s unique flavour on TV, rather than trying to do such a kooky story in the increasingly homogenised world of Hollywood Blockbusters. In an ideal world, a Sandman series developed by someone like HBO would be ideal – the original comic wasn’t afraid to go in some very dark, graphic and adult directions, and a series that was just as free to explore that kind of territory (along the lines of the recent AMC TV adaptation of The Walking Dead) could be a genuinely promising prospect.

Unfortunately, it seemed that Warner Bros were actually hoping for a replacement for their absurdly long-in-the-tooth ‘Young Superman’ series Smallville, and the Producer who was possibly going to transfer Gaiman’s work to the small screen was Eric Kripke, the creator of long-running fantasy/horror show Supernatural. This didn’t fill me with confidence – I’ve only seen one episode of Supernatural (and that was a long time ago) so I can’t judge Kripke’s suitability or not, but the idea of aiming The Sandman at mainstream network TV seemed, well, odd to say the least. It’s not impossible that such a project could work, but the potential for massive compromises and creative disaster was pretty damn strong, and it went down as something that I wouldn’t be upset about if, as with so much in the long history of proposed Sandman adaptations, it came to nothing.

Sandman Neil Gaiman Marc Hempel The Endless TV Adaptation News ArtSo, when I woke up this morning to find the internets ablaze with the announcement that Kripke had announced that it didn’t look like The Sandman was happening “at least for this TV season”, I have to admit I breathed a small sigh of relief. A TV version of The Sandman would be massively risky, and I’d far rather see it not happen than for a watered down, diluted version to shuffle its way onto the screen. The Sandman does strike me as one of those stories that, like Watchmen (despite all of Zack Snyder’s efforts) works best as a comic – its structure, its weirdness and its limitless imagination is simply ideal for the comics medium, and crowbarring it into another form risks breaking what makes it special in the first place.

However, it looks like I spoke too soon. DC’s Creative Chief Officer and Head Writing honcho Geoff Johns went on Twitter today, and tweeted: “Correction to world: The Sandman is AWAKE! Psyched to be working with @neilhimself on developing one of the greatest series ever!” It’s especially interesting, considering that according to Kripke, he had talked to Gaiman (aka @neilhimself) about the project, but wasn’t actually working directly with him. Of course, this could be general PR just to prevent people mistakenly thinking the project was actually dead, but for the moment it looks like the project is certainly active. Which means I get to keep being mildly concerned. Oh, hooray…

Of course, one interesting factor is whether or not a similar project makes it to the screen. Joe Hill’s brilliant dark fantasy comic book Locke and Key has been developed into a TV series – a pilot episode has been shot (directed by music video supremo and Never Let Me Go helmer Mark Romanek), and if it gets the green light, it’ll be going to a full series for the September 2011 TV season. If a project as dark and interesting as Locke and Key gets onto TV screens still with its weirdness and character intact, then I’d say the possibility of getting a Sandman TV series will definitely go up – but I’ll still remain to be convinced that this isn’t going to be anything other than yet another disappointing comics adaptation…

Comics Review – Locke and Key : Welcome to Lovecraft

Writer: Joe Hill ~ Art: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2008

Locke and Key - Welcome to Lovecraft Gabriel Rodriguez

[xrr rating=5/5]

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.

Locke and Key page art - Gabriel RodriguezIt 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.

Locke and Key - issue cover - Gabriel RodriguezThe 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.

[amtap book:isbn=1600103847]