Locke and Key (reviewed by Brian Ruckley)

When Brian Ruckley asked me if he could review graphic novels, I was all for it! Ruckley is the author of the Godless World trilogy, which is comprised of Winterbirth (Canada, USA, Europe), Bloodheir (Canada, USA, Europe) and Fall of Thanes (Canada, USA, Europe). His newest work, The Edinburgh Dead (Canada, USA, Europe) will be published in 2011.

To find out more about Brian Ruckley and his work, check out his official website.

Ruckley reviews the three collected editions of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke and Key:

- Welcome to Lovecraft (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Head Games (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Crown of Shadows (Canada, USA, Europe)
- Keys to the Kingdom (Canada, USA, Europe)


Joe Hill’s probably best known in these parts as the author of acclaimed prose fiction – both short stories and novels – but he has yet another string to his creative bow: Locke and Key, a comics series that is assembled for your reading pleasure in rather gorgeous collected editions. Three have been published so far, with – I believe – another three to come in future years. A TV adaptation is already on the way, with a pilot due to start filming in January. That must mean it’s good, right? Let’s see ...

Locke and Key has some of the trappings of horror, and tends to be marketed as such, but is really more in the dark fantasy vein if you ask me. It is also, I reckon, a pretty remarkable achievement. Prose writers often seem to struggle with the transition to writing comics and graphic novels, as the latter make a radically different set of demands on the author. If Joe Hill found it a struggle, he’s concealed the fact quite brilliantly; and in Gabriel Rodriguez he’s partnered with a seriously gifted artist who brings his scripts to vivid life.

The story revolves around the bereaved Locke family – three children, Tyler, Bode and Kinsey, and their mother, all struggling to come to terms with the violent death of their father and husband. They move to Keyhouse, a rambling mansion in the town of Lovecraft, Massachusetts. As you’d expect in a town with such a name, unpleasant secrets abound.

Keys are the central fantastical conceit of the series, and a very clever one at that. Their number and nature is only gradually revealed as the plot – and the Locke children’s exploration of Keyhouse – progresses, and the reader shares in the curiosity and surprise (and sometimes alarm) each successive discovery engenders. One key turns its user into a disembodied ghost, another opens up heads and objectifies the memories and feelings within, a third allows instantaneous travel, and so on. It’s all good stuff, but it’s only part of the story. There is an evil presence in Keyhouse, too, which we’ll call Dodge, though he/she seems to wear a number of different names, and Dodge has his own plans for the keys, which he pursues with ruthless cruelty.

Much of this sounds like a sketch for a children’s fantasy. In fact, I’d say it’s a potentially inspired set-up for a series of children’s or young adult novels: a mysterious old house, magical keys, children competing with a bad guy to find and use them. Come to that, there might be some folk who imagine that because it’s in the form of comics and graphic novels, its intended audience is in that younger age range. But no: this isn’t for the kids. The violence is at times extreme and explicit – though not tipping over into gratuity – and the treatment of psychology and emotion is mature and unflinching. I don’t know whether Hill is deliberately playing with expectations by making something decidedly adult out of parts that seem superficially suited to the more juvenile, but either way, it works well.

The story is more complex and nuanced than it at first appears. I won’t say any more about the actual plot, as discovering those complexities and nuances is one of the great pleasures Locke and Key offers, so let’s just say that there is a lot of history behind the strange events taking over the lives of the Locke children, much of it rooted in their father’s own youth. The past is never far away; it overlaps with the present, both visually – flashbacks and memories are deftly interwoven with the present narrative – and in plot terms, since everything turns back on itself and joins up in a finely woven mesh. A density of connection and consequence and coincidence is built up in a way that could only be achieved in prose at great length; here it is knitted together with great economy, and because these are graphic novels, a great deal of it is shown, not told. These are books that expect and reward the reader’s attention.

The writing is enormously accomplished. Dialogue is crisp, clear and very effective in conveying character and unspoken emotion. The characters themselves are nicely constructed, and Hill writes the three children particularly well, capturing each of them as very distinctive voices that convincingly fit their respective ages. The children’s widowed mother is trapped in a struggle with grief and incipient alcoholism that is moving to observe. All of the Lockes are, in their different ways, engaging characters that feel entirely real, are convincingly wounded by the horrors they have experienced, and demand the reader’s affection and sympathy.

A word about the art: lovely. By which I mean technically accomplished, beautiful to look at, interesting, and expressive. Some readers may find that the style takes a bit of getting used to. It’s unusual, combining a rather European attention to realistic detail and clean lines with what looks to me like a faintly manga-influenced approach to figures and faces. (Rodriguez is in fact Chilean, so there may be entirely different South American influences in there that I’m missing). It has a clarity and precision that is slightly out of tune with how horror is usually illustrated, but any doubts are, for this reader anyway, negated by Rodriguez’ sheer craftsmanship as an artist and visual storyteller.

There’s a double page spread revealing the contents of Bode Locke’s imagination – literally, since his skull has been opened with one of those magical keys – that is as good an evocation of the inner life of a young boy as you could ever wish for. It’s an astonishingly intricate piece of illustration, crammed with beautifully observed details that are clever, funny and moving all at once. It’s something that could not be done in quite this way or with quite the same effect in any medium other than long form graphic fiction, and Hill and Rodriguez make it special. Later, in dramatic contrast to that intimate vision, there is a battle between a giant and a gigantic canine shadow monster that is eye-boggling.

All in all, Locke and Key is a package of goodness. Perhaps there are one or two sections that feel slightly less energetic and immediately relevant than most of it, but they are few and brief. Now and again the slight disjunction between the ‘feel’ of the art and the events it is displaying may resurface, and slightly dissipate the intended sense of threat, but to be honest the images are so interesting and appealing that you’re carried along quite smoothly.

For anyone curious about what the comics medium can do when it distances itself from capes-and-tights superheroics, this is as good a place to look as any. You’ll find fine writing, striking art, intelligent storytelling and an outpouring of. The first three collections – Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games and Crown of Shadows – are all available now, and the fourth – Keys to the Kingdom – will be out early in 2011.

5 commentaires:

Anonymous said...

You truly created a desire to read this comic. Thanks for the introduction to this series and the well written review.

Some call me Tim said...

This is *hands down* the best comic series I have ever read. Couldn't agree with the review more. The writing is some of Joe's best and I have never seen illos the likes of Rodriguez’ before. Nothing short of breathtaking.

redhead said...

I recently read just the first volume of Locke and Key. I adore the concept of the Keyhouse, I could read an entire novel just about that house! The artwork was perfect, and I love Bode.

I agree that although the graphic novel is advertised and marketed as horror (Lovecraftian horror at that!), for me it was just dark fantasy, not really horror, and I didn't get anything Lovecraftian out of it. Great story, great characters, beautiful artwork, but I felt a little misled by the advertising.

I am every curious about this tv adaptation! Keyhouse in the flesh? Sign me up!

Michael said...

I really liked your review.

This is one of my favorite series to come along in a long time. One of my favorite parts is that the plot resembles a story for children/young adults but it is definitely adult material.

I should read more by the author.

Unknown said...

Michael, I highly recommend that you pick up anything by Joe Hill. In terms of writing style (if not in ability), I think he far exceeds his father Stephen King.