Locke & Key and the Poetics of Space

“In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” – John 14:2

Last month’s final issue of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key was a suitably emotive and heartwarming ending for this frequently chilling, imaginative series.

It was also – for the duration of its several volumes of portal magic and high school supernatural melodrama – one of the most tightly paced comic series on the stands. Much of this can be credited to the sense of place given the series by Rodriguez’s detailing in his art. His illustrative versatility was further demonstrated by an issue that mimicked the style of Bill Watterson, which came close to showing off!

Given Rodriguez’s training in architecture, it is no surprise that the “Keyhouse” quickly becomes a character of the series in its own right. The house and its environs, such as the sinister Drowning Cave featured in the penultimate issue’s action-packed climax, are beautifully brought to life by the artist.

The hidden mysteries behind the locked doors of the ominously looming Keyhouse – well, locked to anyone who does not possess the correct key – become a metaphor for a family haunted by tragedy and repressed emotions. In fact, Hill’s script even occasioned a title drop while spelling out this very idea. Paging Gaston Bachelard!

Just as Rodriguez gives a sense of tangibility to the fictional New England residence at the center of the book’s events, the story also benefits from an equally well-constructed overarching plot.

“You can’t understand because you’re reading the last chapter of something, without having read the first chapters.” – Zack “Dodge” Wells, Locke & Key

On reflection, it is remarkable how well Hill’s story structure sustains its plot momentum for the duration of the series. He peppers the early volumes with hints and asides as to what is really going on, before the late reveal of the Locke family’s history courtesy of a time travel key. This is a series that takes the concept of a deus ex machina – here represented by the magical keys – and gives it a good couple of laps around the track. Every reveal has its place in order to lead the reader further down the rabbit hole – but the hook is Hill’s character work on the Lockes themselves.

Ty, Kinsey, and Bode could well have been the heroes of an insipid Enid Blyton meets H.P. Lovecraft mash-up. However, Hill spends the time on each of them so we get to know them. They each respond very differently to the traumatic death of their father Rendell and are forced to effectively raise themselves while their mother Nina retreats into alcoholism. (The Keyhouse has a very well-stocked cellar.)

The focus on the younger members of the Locke household again is itself a plot point. The house, through a series of safety measures introduced by previous generations, only reveals to children its cache of magical keys that unlock supernatural powers, as adults have no appreciation of power beyond using it to acquire more power. This also leads us to the motivations of antagonist Dodge, who poses as teenage boy Zack Wells and gains the trust of the younger Lockes in order to control the Keyhouse.

Nina is often on the sidelines of the story, half-mad with grief, or in drunken hysterics, for the majority of the run. Adults in the world of Locke & Key are said to be unable to see magic – Zack comments that their thoughts are gray, unlike, say, the colorful vistas hidden in Bode’s mind (stunningly realized by Rodriguez) – so a divide has been deliberately maintained here. Nina is like Susan in C.S. Lewis’s children’s saga, moving on from Narnia due to an interest in “nylons and lipstick and invitations.” Hill plays hard and fast with this rule, as occasionally adults witness the use of the keys and remain oblivious. At other times, Zack murders witnesses to his various demonstrations of power using stolen keys – such as the scene with the lighthouse.

Each generation of Locke children, flush with youth and imagination, experiment with the keys and expand upon the experiences of their predecessors, revealed through hidden diaries or journals. Then, shortly after they hit the vague point of adulthood, they forget. Zack has the advantage of being a demon who witnessed the adventures of Rendell Locke. Anyone else who took part is dead, vanished, insane, or simply oblivious.

Locke & Key’s central concept, therefore, can be plugged into any time period for a fresh set of adventures. It is an endlessly repeatable formula. Indeed the failed television series had reportedly planned to base its storylines around “key of the week” plots.

Hill and Rodriguez instead delivered a self-contained epic that ends on the touching grace note of a son’s relationship with his father.

Locke & Key is that rare thing in comics; a story with a beginning, middle, and end. It also teaches the value of how rewarding that structure can be, with publisher IDW managing the series over a limited run of six-issue “seasons” since 2008.  While so many comic titles perpetuate themselves beyond the natural life of their original concept, it is fantastic to see the creative team of this book deliver a short, compelling tale that is immediately accessible and emotionally rewarding for the reader.

Perhaps there’s a lesson there for other publishers.

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Emmet O’Cuana is a freelance writer, critic, and podcaster based in Melbourne.

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Also by Emmet O'Cuana:

Waxing and Waning: Essays on Moon Knight


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1 Comment

  1. I openly wept at the final issue. I don’t care. That was a fantastic ending to a fantastic series. I wrote an article for Sequart about the use of panels in Locke and Key. There is just not enough room to discuss how phenomenal this series is/was. There is such a beauty to ever aspect: characters, Key house, the demons, the keys, covers. I feel like Locke & Key is the creation of hard work and intelligence. It is elegant as it is horrifying. A true gem. Glad to see others writing about an important work.

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