I was worried, for a while there, that LOCKE & KEY had lost its way. The incredibly taut character drama with its ingeniously parceled out bits of mystery and revelation that kept us hungry, baffled and grasping had given way to some soap-opera plot lines and fun but extraneous formal experiments. Take its much-lauded CALVIN & HOBBES issue, for instance — while it was in and of itself a fine & charming piece of comic-craft, it seemed to have no legitimate reason for being. It didn’t serve the plot, or underline any of the larger themes of the story. It didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, and it could have been easily cut out with no real impact on the larger picture. It seemed to exist only because its authors wanted to pay tribute to Bill Watterson — a noble cause, to be certain, but also a sure sign of the diminishing returns of a series that used to be perhaps the most riveting, magnetic thing on the stands.
And now that they’ve proven me wrong, sticking a flawless landing with neither a bow nor flourish, I find myself wishing they had done a little more dicking around, just so I could have stayed in the beautiful, frightening, richly layered and realized world that they created for a little while longer.
LOCKE & KEY is a horror series from IDW with an elegantly simple if somewhat cliched premise: after the shocking & unexpected murder of Adrian Locke, his survivors — grieving wife Nina, surly eldest son Tyler, sensitive daughter Kinsey and six-year-old dynamo Bode — return to live in Keyhouse, the creepy old New England family manse. There’s a dark presence in the spooky manor, some spectral thing that wishes them harm. Their only weapons are the mysterious keys that they keep finding, which grant their users terrible & wondrous powers, with unpredictable consequences.
I am trying to keep all of this vague for the benefit of new readers, but there is one moment in particular when I fell in love with this book, when I realized that it was much more than merely the well-wrought horror series I had taken it for, and to describe it requires a minor spoiler: the Locke children discover a key that opens up the tops of people’s heads. But what you find inside isn’t a mass of grey tissue — it’s their thoughts, visually depicted. A nightmare might be a demon, or a mad dog. Hope, to echo Emily Dickinson, might literally be a thing with feathers.
It takes an artist of the caliber of Gabriel Rodriguez to take a concept this preposterous and clever and make it work on the page. He has an enormous capacity for abstraction, for drawing demons in the bubbling thousand-eyed darkness of a Lovecraftian void, but he restrains himself admirably. His greatest strength is the matter-of-factness that sells the wild magic of Joe Hill’s story, the kids who grow to 100 feet tall and pop their skulls open, the shadows that grasp and bite. He establishes a rock-solid cinematic style, and finds just as much magic in the facial expressions of his characters as he does in the special effects of the keys. He repeatedly uses one of my least favorite tropes of modern comics: the static shot that is repeated, panel after panel, to create the beats of a film sequence. Usually it just seems lazy on behalf of artist and writer — the artist only has to draw one background, and the writer can think like a scriptwriter instead of engaging with his chosen medium. But in the hands of Rodriguez, it becomes a potent tool — it allows us to see the subtly variations of expression, to watch these richly layered characters while their faces move and they give themselves away.
And that, really, is what makes LOCKE & KEY such a profoundly wonderful comic: its rich, generous humanity, its subtle & empathic treatment of its characters. Though the plot is executed with the ruthless, hypnotic efficiency of a John Grisham pot-boiler, the characters are treated with the sensitivity and psychological depth of a literary novel. Nina, for instance, is an alcoholic who we often find drunk and self-pitying when the horrors come for her children. That the book finds this a forgivably tragic character flaw, that your heart breaks for Nina as you watch her try and fail to get her shit together, that you understand the bottomlessness of the grief that has broken her and rendered her useless to the people that need her most, speaks to the huge hearts of the storytellers at work here.
Which I think is why you just want to stay in this world a little while longer, which is not something you normally say about a horror story. In its essence, this comic is about learning forgiveness, for yourself and others. It denies none of the darkness, the selfishness and hard-heartedness and grief of its characters, but it finds ways to redeem them all. The story itself is pure pulp, but the characters are shaded & complex, good souls shrouded in shadow and cold hearts woken by love. It portrays a world as contradictory, as hopeful and as fallen as the one we live in. For all the talk of demons and dark magic, nothing in LOCKE & KEY is black & white.