Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur

TRoOB: Locke & Key

The comics industry tosses around the term "graphic novel" a lot. One thing you quickly learn is that most of these really are nothing of the sort: they may be large and lovely, but they're usually Graphic Short Stories, really, because in terms of reading time a typical comic page goes a good deal faster than a typical prose one.

Keep that in mind when I say that Locke & Key is *actually* a very good graphic novel. It takes six volumes, collecting 37 issues that were originally done as six mini-series, but this is *not* a conventional comics series, wandering around episodically until they finally decide to end it. Instead, in structure this is *absolutely* a single novel, and a fairly tight and compelling one. Like many good novels, there *seems* to be a lot of randomness in the early volumes, but pretty much all of it turns out to be far more significant later in the story. This is a story with exceptionally little fat for a three-dozen-issue series: not only do many of the amusing one-off panels turn out to be significant later on, you sometimes have to pay close attention to catch details that will pay off several issues later.

Locke & Key is a horror story, although more of the classic Stephen King sort than the modern all-gore-all-the-time one. Indeed, some of the flavor reminds me a bit of Madeleine L'Engle -- not quite so much "terrifying" as "disturbing", illustrating the thin line between horror and fantasy. That said, this story *does* get bloody at times, so take this recommendation with that in mind: if blood and guts are a serious turn-off for you, this may not be your story.

It actually starts with the most horrifying segment, and that almost turned me off right from the outset. This is the story of the Locke family, and in the first issue Randall Locke, the father, is quite horribly murdered in what appears to be a completely random killing. (But remember, *nothing* in this story is random.) After that bit of mundane tragedy, his family moves back to his family mansion, Keyhouse, in scenic Lovecraft MA. And then things begin to get strange.

For the most part, the story is classic fantasy, as the three kids discover that Keyhouse is, indeed, full of keys -- wondrous magical keys, each of which has its own power. There's the Angel Key that gives you wings; the Ghost Key that opens the back door, which lets you walk right out of your body; the Skin Key that changes your skin color; and many more. There's the Head Key that lets you and others literally look into your own head, and add and remove things from it. (Yes, that's creepy -- the Head Key is central to much of the story.) And more as the story goes on. The history of Keyhouse, both ancient and modern, permeates the story, and the backstory unfolds relentlessly throughout.

This is a story about how to cope with both tragedy and wonder, and how they can distract from each other. The reader only learns the backstory as the family does so, one piece at a time, but we *do* get to see all of what's currently happening as it unfolds -- there's a villain to the piece, frighteningly evil and well-disguised in the best horror-fantasy way, and we see his every step, resulting in a lot of "No -- don't go in *there*!" tension. But it's also a story about heroism, little and big, and the way that family, both born and chosen, can save each other even when they sometimes can't look at each other.

Mind, it's not all grim. Indeed, the tone varies all over the map, as it needs to -- unrelenting darkness just gets boring. There are sections of real joy, a lot of friendship, and a fair amount of just plain humor. (The story takes place over the course of a year: the issue of "February" is downright funny, as the weirdness starts to become second nature to the kids.) One of the delights of the story is that it is seen through the eyes of our three heroes, aged 8, 16 and 17, and is full of the amped-up emotions of those ages.

I always focus mainly on the writing and story, but suffice it to say that the art is gorgeous, and well-suited: intricately detailed and expressive, realistic or thoroughly *not* depending on the needs of the moment.

It's beautiful stuff: a gripping novel that left me reading the last two collections straight through because I couldn't put it down. I'm not sure that it's going to make The Shelf (that's a high bar), but it's definitely a series than I'm going to keep permanently; I suspect it reads quite differently the second time, and I look forward to finding out. Recommended, particularly to anyone who likes thoughtful but somewhat disturbing urban fantasy...
Tags: reviews, troob

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