One of the hottest comics when I got into the medium was Locke & Key, written by horror author Joe Hill and illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. At the time (about four years ago now), it was far enough along in its run that it would have been silly verging on impossible to attempt to find single issues, so when I came into a gift card, I bought the first trade. From the slew of awards it had won or at least been nominated for, and the strong recommendations from both friends and comics personalities whose opinions I trusted, I started to read it expecting to have my socks knocked clean off… and never finished it. This week, it caught my eye from between my Sandmans and my DC Bombshells on the shelf, and I figured, welp, might as well try again.
Time and distance, apparently, do not make the heart grow fonder. Maybe I have bad taste in comics, but I have no idea how this won an Eisner or anything else. Locke & Key Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft did absolutely nothing for me.
Spoilers for the first volume after the jump!
Following the brutal murder of their father, a guidance counselor, by Sam Lesser, a student who was gifted intellectually but emotionally disturbed, the three Locke children move with their mother and uncle across the country, from California to the old family estate, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, MA. Keyhouse is pretty creepy to begin with, and the three siblings come with their own boatload of issues. Older brother Ty suffers from overwhelming guilt (he constantly fought with his father), middle sister Kinsey is desperately attempting to reinvent herself into someone different from the girl who hid while her father died, and youngest brother Bode seems to be coping in a way that disassociates him from reality. In actuality, though, Bode is playing with fire he doesn’t realize is real: Keyhouse is definitively haunted by a well-dwelling spirit who is bound and determined to get what it wants, and it’s using Bode to get there.
As the story progresses, we discover that this spirit has haunted the Locke family for generations and that it was the impetus that pushed poor, brilliant, horribly abused Sam Lesser to snap and kill the Lockes’ father, in retaliation for something Mr. Locke had done to the spirit as a kid. It’s searching for a variety of magical keys that the young Mr. Locke had hidden. Going through a door that’s been unlocked with one of these keys can have a variety of effects depending on the key used: it can turn you into a ghost, change your gender, or any number of other mysterious things. The spirit helps Sam escape from prison and tells him where to find the Lockes, and the teen murders his way across the country to the Locke house, threatening the whole family. He is only ultimately stopped by the spirit, who forces Bode to find it one of the keys it seeks or lose his whole family to Sam’s rampage.
I had so many issues with this I’m not sure where to start. Let’s begin by saying that if my credentials as a comics fan depend on having liked this comic, I’ll be happy to send in my metaphorical card at once. First of all, the pacing is just so slow. The first trade collects six issues, at the very end of which we see a magical key being knowingly used for the first time. In publication terms, that means it took six months for this series to get past the setup and to the actual plot when it was in single issues. I have given up much more interesting and nicely drawn comics for much less.
The spirit is shown as using the gender key (which only has two options, of course) to change from female- to male-presenting when it escapes from its well, making this the only example of gender variance in the volume and therefore kind of shitty cissexist representation. It doesn’t particularly make up for this in other realms of representation, either; pretty much everyone of note in the comic is white and straight. The notable exception is a Black police officer, who is portrayed as being from Africa, having a quaint accent to his English, and explaining to a random group of white people the ~tribal meaning~ of his last name.
And it’s ableist as hell too. Sam is to some extent a victim himself: when we finally learn his backstory, we find that he’s an incredibly intelligent student who is abused at home, and that he was gaslit and prodded to take the actions he did by the spirit in the well. He’s further marked out after the murder because his face is horribly scarred. It’s still kind of a case of “cool motive, still murder,” but the short of it is that Sam is not a well kid. The reason he was mad at Mr. Locke in the first place was because he suggested Sam needed therapy, and he clearly does. Instead of Sam getting any help at any point, the comic instead doubles down on the tired horror movie tropes, and when Sam’s imprisoned for his crimes, it’s in a weird, old-timey stone-walls, iron-bars kind of jail cell.
Finally, the art bothered me as well. Frankly, I found it a bit gross-looking. The characters have weirdly shiny skin, buggy eyes, and oddly built faces. I had a hard time telling some of the male characters apart at first. The story is hard to follow, as it’s interspersed with a lot of flashbacks that aren’t distinguished particularly well visually from the current day. For a while I assumed past Kinsey (who had, ugh, white-girl dreads) and present Kinsey (who’s thankfully washed and conditioned her gross “dreads” back into straight hair as part of her self-rebranding) were two completely different girls. Plus, the story is graphically violent enough that I felt uncomfortable reading it on public transportation—in one scene Sam escapes from juvenile detention by stabbing a guard in the eye with a pair of scissors, which is shown in its full gory nastiness.
Looking back, I’m still just not sure what it is about this series that draws people to it. Women who are treated with the bare modicum of human respect? The cachet of a famous author’s name? Maybe the whole magic keys thing gets really cool in the next volume and I’m just not giving the story enough time to spread its wings. Whatever it is, I don’t feel particularly compelled to give the second trade a chance. If putting Locke & Key in the bad comics column makes me a bad fan, then so be it.
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