Review: Locke & Key Master Edition: Volume One by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodríguez (2015)

Locke & Key Master Edition: Volume One

Locke & Key Master Edition: Volume One
IDW, 2015 (containing material from 2008-2009)
Writer: Joe Hill
Artist: Gabriel Rodríguez

Review by N Emmett.

Locke & Key Master Edition: Volume One collects the first two books in the Locke & Key series by writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodríguez.

The first book, “Welcome to Lovecraft”, begins with the Locke family moving to a New England town named Lovecraft (one of multiple shout-outs to various horror writers to occur in the series) after the household patriarch is murdered. While Mrs. Locke and her teenage children Tyler and Kinsey try to pull their lives back together, the youngest child in the family, Bode, makes a peculiar discovery. Dotted around the house are various magical keys, each with its own properties…

The first key which Bode comes across allows him to have out-of-body experiences. When his family members ignore his stories of whizzing around the house as a ghost, he goes looking for new friends – and finds one, in the shape of a mysterious woman who lives down the well.

Locke & Key is an intricate piece of storytelling. “Welcome to Lovecraft” has a straightforward narrative backbone – one of the murderers responsible for killing Mr. Locke has escaped from jail and is on his way to the Lockes’ new house – but this is just one part of a more complex plot. The comic successfully juggles past and present as it introduces the central characters and their backstories, taking time to fully develop the cast in between the bouts of violence and flights of loc1fantasy.

Youthful quests for identity form one of the main themes in Locke & Key. In an early scene, Tyler sees his past selves reflected in a pond: one wears a loud Hawaiian shirt while the other has a skull tee and spiked collar, both contrasting with his plain contemporary style. Kinsey starts the story sporting a Rasta-wannabe look, with dreadlocks and crocheted cap; she ditches this for a more restrained look, and later experiments with dyed hair.

But it is Bode’s transformations around which the story revolves.

From It to Pan’s Labyrinth, childhood fantasy is a recurring motif in horror fiction. Such works frequently draw on the fear that is often associated with these fantasies – the basic fact, which we so oloc3ften forget, of just how scary it is to be a child. However, Locke & Key takes a very different approach. Bode’s adventures in the mysterious house, which are dismissed as mere fantasies by his elders, are presented as a fun-filled respite from the stresses and pains that surround him.

This is best illustrated in the second book, “Head Games.” Bode finds a key which, when inserted into the back of his neck, causes his head to open up and reveal a hollow, bowl-like cavity. Bode considers this cartoonish occurrence to be “so awesome” and eagerly shows his siblings, who react with horror.

When they look inside Bode’s head, Tyler and Kinsey are given a look into his imagination: a colourful and carefree world of crayons, toy dinosaurs and whizzing superheroes, where even the most sinister aspects – the two men who killed Bode’s father – are rendered as crude drawings, too goofy to pose a threat. Childlike innocence, quite literally, has its own little safe area amidst all the loc4turmoil.

But what is harmless fun to Bode is something else entirely to the older characters. The central antagonist is a deceptively young-looking man who spent the previous twenty years in a limbo, and who quickly sets about using the keys for his own sinister purposes.

Locke & Key is very much a story about the contrast between childhood innocence and disillusioned, cynical adulthood. Childish fantasy exists as object fact, but this allows it to be misused by the older characters – as when the story’s villain uses the head-opening key to manipulate people’s memories. Joe Hill’s plotting often works by introducing an element of hope only to send it crashing down again. However, when all seems lost, hope can be found again in the most unlikely places. The cliffhanger to “Head Games” suggests that seemingly the most powerless character will be the saviour of the tale…

loc2Gabriel Rodríguez draws the cast as wide-eyed caricatures, with more than a hint of Disney about them. But Disney would not pay such close attention to heavy eyelids, furrowed brows and bags beneath the eyes. The people who populate Locke & Key resemble children’s characters who have started to get weary, who have seen a little too much. The New England backdrops – both the sprawling, mystery-riddled mansion and the idyllic nature that surrounds it – are beautifully realised.

It is not easy to maintain a genuine, childlike glee in the possibilities of imagination while simultaneously exploring the seedier side of human nature, but Hill and Rodríguez have accomplished this feat.

Locke & Key is an example of the horror comic at its most playful an intriguing, and Locke & Key Master Edition: Volume One makes for a handsome introduction to the series.