Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke and Key book covers

Here’s all you need to know: not since Neil Gaiman’s brilliant Sandman series have a I found a work of graphic fiction to be so engrossing and moving as I find Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke and Key to be. Joe Hill’s story and Gabriel Rodriguez’s art come together in a way that I’m not certain any other collaborative comic project will be able to match.  If you like brilliant, emotional, and very dark, creepy storytelling at its finest, you must start reading Locke and Key right now.

This review was originally set to cover only the fifth volume of the series, Clockworks, but I really do need to give a rundown of the entire series.  Locke & Key is the story of the Locke family whose father, Rendell, is brutally murdered by a student at the school where he worked as a counselor.  Rendell’s wife, Nina, and his three kids, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, move back to  the Locke ancestral family home, the Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts.  Once there, Bode, the youngest of the three, discovers a special key that unlocks a black door in the house which turns people into ghosts when passing through it, leaving their bodies behind to be reclaimed later.  Which is a tough act for Bode to sell, initially.

But there is more to the story than a simple though tragic murder.  The murderer, Sam Lesser, was being manipulated by a mysterious and demonic woman trapped in the wellhouse on the Keyhouse estate.  She also helps him escape imprisonment and leads him to the Locke family once again.  The woman in the wellhouse wants a very special key like the ghost key that Bode discovered, only one with a far, far darker purpose.  

The story is being told over a total of six mini-series story arcs consisting of six issues each, which are later collected and published as one volume.  Over the course of the series, Bode, Tyler, and Kinsey discover dozens of different keys all over Keyhouse: keys that turn you into a giant, keys that turn you into animals, keys that let you travel in time, change gender, go anywhere instantly, control shadows, and even, literally, open a person’s head to add or remove memories, ideas, and emotions.  But none of these is the key that the woman from the wellhouse is looking for, and she will stop at nothing to get that key, going so far upon her escape as to use the gender key and befriend the Locke kids in disguise.  

Joe Hill is the pen name for Joseph King, Stephen King’s son.  But don’t choose to read or not read Locke & Key based on Joe Hill’s lineage.  Although he writes horror like his father, it’s safe to say that his style is 100% his own. The way he weaves together stories and history from  the modern day, from Rendell’s past, and even from the American Revolution--revealing just enough about each character to keep you reading--is masterful.  

Not every author can write kids' characters very well, but I think Hill pulls it off nicely.  “Believability” is a hard commodity to come by in a work of fantasy horror, but for all the keys and magic and blood, Tyler, Kinsey, Bode, and all their friends all click for me in their particular age groups.  And they’re all wonderfully unique in the ways in which they deal with their grief over their father’s death and their current battles. Still, while the main characters may be kids, these are not kids' books, with enough gruesome blood, foul language, sexual innuendo and horrific imagery and ideas to keep any pediatric psychologist busy for years.  Which, of course, is part of what makes them so great.  Though I’m mooning over Joe Hill’s writing (for which he won an Eisner Award), I absolutely cannot say enough about Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork.  I’ve never seen any of his other work, but if I never saw any again I would be devastated.  As I wrote above, his talent combines so perfectly with Joe Hill’s words, well, I’m at a loss for my own.  I’ve been trying to decide what about his style is so special.  He does a spectacular job of bringing the disturbing imagery behind Joe Hill’s words to life, but what really gets me is the eyes.  So many graphic novelists pass over the eyes of their characters, but Gabriel Rodriguez has obviously made a study of human expression, particularly the eyes.  I care for the characters as much as I do because I can see their hurt, their pain, their joy, and love so clearly in their faces and their eyes.  That anyone has the ability to put pen to paper and draw people whose emotions I can read so well just astounds me.

There is still the sixth and final volume left to be published in the Locke & Key series.  Mentally, I’m stamping my feet and muttering, “It’s not fair!” because I don’t want to wait for them to start it, but the final chapter will be all the sweeter for the wait.  Obviously I’ve given you precious little detail about the story, but if you like comics, dark fantasy horror, and bold, emotional, and innovative storytelling, Locke & Key is the series for you.