Sunday, September 14, 2014

Comics You Should Read - LOCKE & KEY


- I feel like I've already talked so much about Locke & Key to friends and fellow comics geeks that it almost seems redundant to write about it here. But having finally just finished the complete series, I feel compelled to post about the book. Why? Well, not only is Locke & Key one of the best comics I've read and a legit modern classic, but it's also one of the best gateway comics to come along in quite some time. I would put it right up there with acknowledged must-reads like The Sandman and Y: The Last Man, and in terms of being the perfect comic to hand to someone who's new to comics. So if you're reading this, and you've thought things like "hmm, I wish I could be cool and get into comics, but I'm not sure where to start ..." - well, you could do a lot worse than with the superlative Locke & Key.

Fun fact: Locke & Key is written by Joe Hill, who is in fact the son of the legendary Stephen King. Over the last several years, Hill has become a celebrated author in his own right, penning many acclaimed novels, as well as comics. Hill has his own unique style, but there is also an unmistakable King quality to his writing. Hill shares his dad's affinity for horror and weirdness - especially when that weirdness finds its way to ordinary-seeming places and all-too-relatable people. To that end, Hill also shares his dad's knack for writing fantastic characters. No matter how crazy or strange the horror becomes, Hill's stories always feel humanistic.

And such is Locke & Key. In many ways, it feels like vintage King: a rustic New England setting, a distinctly slice-of-Americana vibe, and an existential horror that creeps its way into these characters lives and starts profoundly changing their worlds.

The series tells the story of the Locke family. After the horrific murder of family patriarch Rendell Locke, his surviving wife and three children move across the country, back to their family home in New England - an old manor known as Keyhouse. Gradually, the Locke kids - teenaged Tyler and Kinsey, and younger sibling Bode - discover the secret of the house and how it relates back to their father's death. The house sits beside a series of caves, inside of which lies an ancient portal to a dimension of demons. Centuries ago, during the American Revolution, rebels hiding in the caves discovered the portal, and also discovered that when demons crossed over through the portal, their essence was transformed into a magical metal, that the rebels used to fashion a series of keys - each with a special power to "unlock" some hidden ability or transformation. Now, the Locke kids begin to discover these keys, and also unravel the mystery of what their father and his friends knew about them when they were young. Meanwhile, a demon named Dodge - years ago - found a way to cross over to our world intact, by taking human form. He has long plotted to use the hidden keys to bring his fellow demons to earth. And now, just as the Locke family (whom he has a long history with) move back to Keyhouse, Dodge's plan is able to fully be set in motion.

Joe Hill has created an incredible and fascinating mythology around this world. He brilliantly interweaves the backstory of the keys and Keyhouse with the modern-day saga of the Locke kids. Some chapters of the story take us back to the Revolutionary War era, some to other decades in American history, and some to the 1980's, when a teenage Rendall Locke and his friends discovered the keys and had adventures of their own. However, the heart and soul of the story are the characters that exist in this mixed-up world of magical keys and heartless demons. Tyler and Kinsey Locke - and their mother, Nina - are such fully-shaped characters that they are practically living and breathing people. Tyler is the rugged, All-American kid with a big heart and a lot of grit. Kinsey is the artsy proto-punk who stands up for her beliefs and does her own thing. Nina, meanwhile, is struggling with the death of her husband and battling more personal demons.

All the same, Hill also creates a truly, epically vile villain in Dodge. The character's M.O. is that he inhabits the bodies of various people, and uses his charm to ensure that most are oblivious that their charismatic new friend or lover is not who he or she seems. In the Locke & Key saga, only one character, Rufus - a mentally-challenged boy and playmate of Bode's - truly sees through Dodge's deceptions. This makes Rufus' predicament quite terrifying, as his mother has a long and strange history with the demon. Like Tom Cullen in The Stand, Rufus plays a crucial role in the story of Locke & Key, and his adventure is one of the story's most riveting and heartfelt.

In many ways, Locke & Key reminds of The Stand - the great masterwork of Stephen King. Like The Stand, Locke & Key tells an epic story at a very personal level. It places ordinary people in a battle against ancient evil. I weaves a gripping tapestry of interrelated characters and backstories. Locke & Key is an even more personal story though. The stakes are less about the world, and more about one family's struggle for survival. Locke & Key is a story, first and foremost, about fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, friends and lovers.

The art by Gabriel Rodriguez is quite simply phenomenal. His line work has a classic animation aesthetic, but put through a twisted Halloween filter. The art is clean, bold, and yet incredibly expressive. What's more, Rodriguez excels at both smaller moments of real emotion and pathos, and with scenes of trippy, dark-magic insanity and chaos. Rodriguez draws just about the entirety of the series, and I couldn't imagine the book without his distinct, fluid, evocative art.

Locke & Key is exciting in that, on one hand, it's clear that this is potentially just the tip of the iceberg for Joe Hill. On the other hand, this already feels like a magnum opus of sorts. It will be hard for Hill to top this, as this really is one of those rare gems that has a little of everything, and something for everyone: horror, adventure, heartbreak, hope, and a lot to say about the human condition.

There's already been a lot of talk about turning Locke & Key into a TV series or movie franchise. FOX did a Locke & Key pilot a few years ago that ended up not going to series, but it's worth tracking down as a glimpse of what might have been. The material here seems a natural fit for adaptation, no question. But I don't like to get too hung up on that stuff, as I am perfectly content with the amazing source material. As you should be, too.

The saga of Locke & Key wrapped up last year, but now is the perfect time to dive in, given that the entire story is now available via a series of six handy volumes/collections. This is one of those books that you won't just want to read for yourself - guaranteed, you'll have a strong compulsion to hand it off to anyone and everyone. And if you yourself have been on the fence about comics - looking for just the right gateway into the medium - look no further. Locke & Key is the perfect place to start.

Read it if you like: Stephen King, Joe Hill, modern horror-fantasy.

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