I’ve greatly neglected this blog. I can’t guarantee that’ll change, but I’ll try.
In the meantime, I released the second installment of my video essay series, Series Consideration. This time, I’m covering LOCKE & KEY, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez.
Like last time, I’ll leave the full essay behind a page cut for those interested.
Locke & Key Essay, Series Consideration
I’m sure it goes without saying that doors and keys have a symbolic connection. Doors can symbolize transition; in moving from one state to another. A locked door symbolizes privacy, withholding secrets, and providing safety. In this sense, doors are empowering. But keys also represent power; they unlock secrets and open new passages. A loved one holds the key to your heart. Christianity mentions the Keys to the Kingdom, referring to passing through the pearly gates. Like doors, keys symbolize an ability to move from one state to another. Moving through a doorway could also represent a transition from childhood to adulthood. Which brings me to Locke & Key.
Writer Joe Hill describes the series as “kind of a modern Grimm’s fairy tale, about the way young people discover and construct their own identity.” (Newsarama) Artist and co-creator Gabriel Rodriguez believes that it’s a “story about growing. About discovering death, leaving childhood behind, and shaping your own self. It’s about secrets and guilt, but also about love and friendship. It’s about empty people who become enraged because they can’t deal with their pain. It’s about facing fear. It’s a story in which magic is the key to new possibilities, but never the answer to problems that matter. And a story about opening scary doors, and taking responsibility for the consequences.” [MTV] Rounding out the creative team is Jay Fotos colouring, whose work one reviewer described as a “muted palette [that] captures the gloominess of [Locke & Key],” letterer Robbie Robbins, and series editor Chris Ryall.
Locke & Key introduces us to the Locke family. After the brutal murder of her husband, Rendall, Nina Locke moves her three kids to an old family home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. Her hope is that they can get away from all of it start fresh. But each of the kids – Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode – deals with the loss of their father differently. When they discover Keyhouse holds many fantastic and horrific secrets, they face unexpected, life-threatening adversary that will forever change them.
The comic opens with a closed door and a butterfly, images that tell us what to expect: transformations and mysteries. And believe me: Locke & Key is filled with mysteries. Keyhouse holds as many secrets as it does fantastical keys. Just to name a few: the Ghost Key allows you to astral project; the Wellhouse Key invokes the ghost of whoever’s name you speak; the Anywhere Key teleports you anywhere via any door; the Head Key lets you look into your own head to remove memories or emotions; the Hercules Key grants supernatural strength. And of course: the ominous Omega Key. Each key creates inventive and fun moments, but also informs the characters with who hold them and how they’re used.
The Lockes are a broken family unit. During and after a major family fight, the panels resemble jagged shards of glass, running parallel to the family’s own broken nature. But each member of the family is broken in their own way. Tyler (or “Ty”) juggles with being thrust into a father figure role, feeling guilty over his father’s death, and worries over who he’ll become. Kinsey is an emotional wreck who can’t decide who she wants to be. Nina is alcoholic, unable to cope with losing her husband and being a single mother. Her children are forced to be the adults in the family, often cleaning up after her. Bode is an adventurous little boy who wishes he had his happy, healthy family back. This is a stressful situation even for a regular family, but the addition of cosmic horror magnifies it.
Telling horror stories in comics can be tricky. According to Joe Hill said, “It’s hard […] to produce the right combination of suspense and moral shock that makes for great horror.” It’s not surprising, then, that Locke & Key – rather blatantly – takes its inspiration from Lovecraftian horror, elements of which include a New England setting, unimaginable otherworldly creatures, and a strong sense of helplessness, hopelessness, and vulnerability. It’s less about fighting monsters and more psychological horror. As Hill says, “The key […] is to push the limits psychologically…to bring the heroes, and the reader, into an uneasy, uncomfortable place, and force them to live there a while.” One of Locke & Key’s biggest strengths in building tension is Keyhouse itself. On the one hand, it’s a foreboding mansion with secrets in every nook and cranny. On the other hand, the old house has such a presence that it’s a character all its own. Using his background in architecture, Gabriel Rodriguez brings the house to life. By the end of the series, we’re just as familiar with every room and hallway as the Lockes. So when something horrific happens, that familiar setting becomes unsettling for the characters. The deceptive safe haven of locked doors is, in fact, a prison.
One question haunts everyone in Locke & Key: “Who am I?” They struggle with their identity: who they were, who they are now, and who they might become. This is especially apparent in the comic’s recurring theme of reflections. Often, characters will look into reflective surfaces: windows, pools, sinks, eyes; and of course, mirrors. Lots and lots of mirrors. Appropriately, the key players in the series are teenagers. Questioning your identity is a common trait among teenagers; they’re figuring out what kind of person they are or who they want to become as they transition from childhood to adulthood. And that’s an understandably stressful period. Kinsey best exemplifies this. In the first story arc, Welcome to Lovecraft, she reflects on her identity: “Except now and then when I notice my own reflection and jump because I don’t know who’s standing there. It’s funny when every time you look in the mirror, there’s a face there you don’t expect to see.” Similar to her mother’s alcoholism, Kinsey bottles up her emotions. In a foreshadowing line, she says, “I wish I could forget how to cry.” (Vol 1, Issue 2) In fact, Hill & Rodriguez apply this idea literally. In Head Games, Kinsey recklessly uses the Head Key to remove her fear and sadness, because “I am so fucking sick of crying.” Hill describes this behavior: “At some point in high school, kids will often become very reckless, and develop a willingness to engage in very dangerous behavior. […] We have that with Kinsey in exaggerated form, and it’s just an interesting way to look at a very common passage for most teenagers–a very common life passage.” Indeed, in removing her fear and sadness, Kiney becomes more reckless, to the point of endangering herself and others. She learns hard lessons because of this, but even by the end of the series, she clearly still has some growing up to do.
Ty, who is arguably the main character, struggles not just with who he is, but also with his father’s legacy. Rendall’s death haunts him with flashbacks and nightmares, and with others often comparing him with Ty. In the beginning, he says, “I would rather be anyone than who I am and anywhere but here.” (Volume 1). Later, when his Uncle Duncan says Rendall “didn’t want you to come out of childhood with guilt or secrets or regrets,” Ty quietly responds, “Too late.” Through these hardships, Tyler changes from an impatient (show “seven more months panel), angry jock (hockey panel) to a quiet, contemplative young man (reading in bed). Even his Uncle Duncan jokes, “Stop thinking so goddamn hard all the time. You’re a teenager. It’s unnatural.” (Omega, Issue 3) One of Ty’s ultimate epiphanies is in saying, “I wouldn’t underrate the power of regret. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s hard to learn anything important without it.” (Omega, Issue 5) For Ty, character growth means learning from your mistakes. Appropriately, he took his father’s own advice: “Kids, if you’re here with me now – don’t do any of the shit you see me doing. Try and learn from my mistakes.” (Vol 5, Issue 3) It’s funny that Rendall unknowingly addresses Ty as “a kid” since Ty is nearing adulthood when he hears it.
The idea of childhood fantasies is strongly challenged in Locke & Key. There’s no better embodiment of this than in Bode. He’s your average little boy: energetic, adventurous, inquisitive. But like his siblings, Bode faces more reality than perhaps someone that young should have to. Like other kids his age, though, he bounces back from tragedy faster than the grown-ups and still enjoys the pleasures of play. While he doesn’t necessarily consider the consequences of using the keys, he doesn’t use them for personal gain like everyone else. As Rendall, points out, “The house has a way of picking a kid to show the keys to. Someone with…no malice in them. Whoever is least likely to do harm to another.” (Vol 5, Issue 3) One of Keyhouse’s built-in security measures is the “Hans Riffel Rule,” named after a previous resident and inventor. Erin Voss describes the rule: “No one who enters the front door of this house as an adult can see the power of the keys. Not directly.” (Vol 5, Issue 3). Seeing that Bode doesn’t abuse the keys like the grown-ups, maybe it was a good rule to implement.
However, given the book’s theme of growing up, it’s interesting that Bode maybe suffers more than any other character. One could read this as punishing childhood, but I think it’s the opposite. Compared to the others, I don’t think Bode develops far as a character. Despite all the hardships, he’s still an upbeat child by the end. And I think that’s the key. Bode’s arc tells us to embrace your childhood and don’t grow up too fast. One of the most memorable issues is a tribute to Bill Watterson, best known for Calvin & Hobbes. Mimicking a newspaper strips’ 4-panel layout, Rodriguez’ style strikes an uncanny resemblance to Watterson’s style which runs counter to the rest of the issue’s horror. The Watterson style only appears when Bode is alone, highlighting his childlike enthusiasm. In the issue’s final panel, though, Rodriguez draws him in the series’ regular style, showing that Bode may have learned a lesson and endured another horror, but remains a boisterous child.
If any character actively fights growing up and refuses to develop, it’s the main antagonist, Dodge. He worms his ways into the family’s trust, pretending to be a friend, unbeknownst to them that he has a much older history with the family and Keyhouse itself. Dodge represents someone stuck in the past and as a lingering, painful memory. He’s the ultimate example of a youth with the worst stereotypes: manipulative, egocentric, a feeling of invincibility, a desperate need to be noticed and recognized. He uses, abuses, or kills every adult he encounters, like bastardized version of a rebelling youth. Like a scornful child, he doesn’t like being told no. (Vol 6, Issue 5) It’s also fitting that his master plan boils down to egocentrism. Rendall had the idea of creating a Glamour Key, which could “change the way people saw us? […] “It would make people want to…like us.” (Vol 5, Issue 3) Dodge takes this plan to the Nth degree, wanting everyone – even his own kind – to worship him. He refuses to learn any life lessons unless it directly benefits him.
Locke & Key’s ultimate mystery is whether the characters will hold the lessons they’ve learned through to the rest of their life. Adults, like Uncle Duncan, remember their experiences with Keyhouse “like games of make-believe.” So it’s unknown how much the Locke family will remember as the age. Are the memories the key to the lessons learned or will they create another locked door? The first door we see is in a flashback. The last door is of the Wellhouse, which is linked with echoes of the past. However, we see Ty walking away from those echoes, putting the past behind him without regret. As he says, “Keys turn both ways. You can lock something away…but you can also throw a bolt and set something free.” (Vol 6, Issue 5)