Locke & Key Vol.1 by Joe Hill – Graphic Novel Review [Shadowhawk]

21 Locke & Key Lovecraft

Shadowhawk reviews the first volume of the runaway urban horror hit series from IDW Publishing.

“I never realised that I could love a horror comic so much, or that I would be so damn creeped out by it. This is fantastic stuff.” ~The Founding Fields

When I read the first two issues of Steve Niles’ Lot 13 from DC last year (review), a friend of mine remarked that horror comics are best read in trades because then you get to maintain that level of excitement and mystery while reading through, and because then the payoff is also “immediate”. Given how many comics I read on a weekly and monthly basis, I’m fairly invested in the “monthly-format”, and so I don’t mind reading single issues. Reading Lot 13 #1-2 back-to-back was kind of fun, but no more and no less than it was when I started reading the newly rebooted cape comics from DC. I have a feeling however, that if I’d read Locke & Key Vol.1 as monthlies, with the implied month-long gap between installments, then I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. There’s a certain power in reading the issues back to back and I find myself that in this specific case, I certainly agree with my friend.

The first issue of the series was kind of a hotch-potch one for me. I found it to be frustrating and annoying quite a bit. Events happened because they were meant to happen by the writer, rather than there being anything organic in the story. There was also quite a bit going on in it and I didn’t enjoy it so much sadly. But there were some really good moments in it, and the shining star of the series of course: Keyhouse itself. I also loved the teasings of the larger premise that were at work, and that is ultimately what hooked me in to keep reading.

Taken as a collection, Locke & Key Vol.1: Welcome to Lovecraft is easily one of the better graphic novels I’ve read in my time. Each issue builds on the mythology that is being created, and each character gets to shine while the overall plot continues to move forward. Whatever concerns I had with the first issue of this series were laid to rest once I got started with the issues that followed. And where I had previously been annoyed with the characters, I found myself really liking them as the series progressed. Bode, the youngest, turned into my favourite character actually and any scene involving him was just pure win for me. In the scene where he has an out-of-body experience and spies on his brother and sister was a highlight. The scene where he shows his sister Kinsey that he can indeed become a ghost was another highlight, for the simple reason that instead of showing it from Bode’s perspective, artist Gabrielle Rodriguez does it from Kinsey’s perspective, and all she says is her kid brother lying on the floor with a choked expression for a few minutes. I laughed at that one.

All the three kids – Bode, Kinsey, and Tyler – are characters who are made sympathetic because of the shared experience of their father’s violent death at the hands of their former schoolmate Sam Lesser. Joe Hill does an excellent job at showing how their lives have changed, and how they have to adjust to a completely new school, new town, new friends, and new experiences. At times, the story gets almost heartbreaking, such as in a rather emotional scene between Tyler and Sam before the latter went all gun-crazy on Rendell Locke and killed him. And speaking of Sam, he is one of the most creepiest comics characters I’ve ever read. That guy, the way he is written, is completely insane and he creeps me the hell out. Its like watching a horror movie where the scene is all dark and then suddenly the movie monster jumps out at you (bonus horror points if you imagine that happening in 3D, which I did).

The most sympathetic character however definitely has to be the mother, Nina Locke. She has it rougher than her kids because she has to be the adult in the situation and has to help the kids adjust, without anyone there to do the same for her. Duncan Locke, Rendell’s brother is there and he helps Nina take care of the kids and move all the way from San Fransisco to Lovecraft and to the family mansion, Keyhouse. Together, Nina and Duncan are the understated characters of the first volume, but there is so much potential in each of them for the writer to explore. Towards the end of the first volume, Joe Hill does exactly that and he shines a spotlight on them both. We get to see how they both react under intense pressure and a near-repeat of the episode that resulted in Rendell getting killed.

Welcome To Lovecraft is packed with a ton of excitement, surprises, reveals, and hair-pin turns that you never see coming. The story goes from one about murder to something more… magical and mysterious. Keyhouse has quite the reputation as a freaky place, as Duncan and the kids constantly remind us, and it is that reputation that Joe Hill uses to great effect here.

The first issue is, as I’ve already said, a bit disorienting. I chalk that down to the fact that I don’t really read all that much in the non-cape comics department, and that my experience with urban horror comics is very limited. So I was a bit unprepared for what’s in the pages. But that changed with issue 2 and continued all the way through to issue 6. In the final pages of this last issue, Joe Hill begins to weave together an even bigger mythology in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. There are some old experiences and events at work here that have led to the Locke family returning to its home-town.

Considering all the issues together as a straight story, I have to say that I found Joe Hill’s approach and execution to be rather inventive. He does not shy away from making the reader uncomfortable, and that lies at the heart of what a good horror story is about. There needs to be a strong reaction by the reader to the material, and that is what I experienced. There were a couple panels here and there which made me put my iPad down because they were just too intense, too… unrestrained in their horror content. That’s a good sign in my book.

Gabriel Rodriguez has done all the illustrations here, and Jay Fotos has done the colours, with Robbie Robbins doing the letters. The art is definitely one of the big selling points of the series. Rodriguez has a good eye (as best as this amateur can judge) for drawing his characters and getting their expressions and body language down correctly to suit the scene. Sometimes there is a slight bit of inconsistency (Tyler looking too big or Nina looking too thin), but for the most part, I like his pencils. With the colours, Fotos has some great balance in the colour palettes to use for any given scene, and he brings out the details in Rodriguez’s pencils-work quite nicely. So yes, the art definitely gets a thumbs up from me.

The ending of Welcome To Lovecraft is an excellent hook into the next story arc, Head Games, and I can’t wait to see what Joe Hill has for this one. The sheer intensity of his work is amazing. He has written characters who are realistic and intelligent all at the same time. He has written characters with intense emotions, characters who have great hurdles to cross, whether they be the good characters or the bad characters. The way that he teases out the larger story at work is also commendable.

So yes, I would most definitely recommend this graphic novel to everybody, especially if you love horror and supernatural comics that involve ghosts and old ancient houses. This should be right up your alley. I’m a fan of Joe Hill now.

Rating: 9/10

Shadowhawk is a regular contributor to TFF. A resident of Dubai, Shadowhawk reads, reads and reads. His opinions are always clear and concise. His articles always worth reading.

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