Book Club / This Wish Fulfilment, Escapist, Fantastical Approach Is of Course Fine

Locke and KeyLocke & Key: Volume 1: Welcome To Lovecraft
Written by Joe Hill
Art by Gabriel Rodríguez

Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
Brain Teeth

So as far as I can see it – there are three different ways we could approach this.

The first is of course the Netflix series which yeah: is not very good really is it? I mean: it’s very actively terrible of course (I’m not sure that the algorithms would ever allow for that) but it’s also – not really anything that that’s good. Which I’m starting to fear is the future for our televisual entertainment. Anything that ever actually stinks but also nothing that never actually manages to reach the point that’s actually transcendent or hell even worth the time that you choose to give it. I mean that’s all par for the course right? No one ever really expects Netflix to be amazing. That’s not really what it’s there for – it’s the McDonalds of TV after all. But it’s just kinda weird that they managed to do it with Locke & Key which I’ve gotta say – is probably one of the best mainstream comic series of the 21st Century (yep) and is basically just sitting there waiting to be adapted into what could very easily be one of the best mainstream TV series of the 21st Century (yep) and but instead is – just another Netflix show (yawn).

I remember reading an interview with the director of that Jonah Hill thing which the people who took part in an experimental drug thing where all of their minds were connected into a super computer thing (and the fact that I can’t recall what the hell it was even called is so very incredibly telling) and he was saying that Netflix have their algorithms worked out to such a point that they can tell creators “oh yeah don’t do that thing” because they know exactly how many people will switch off their sets at that point – which at the time I read it seemed like a cool obvious thing: but now having watched all of season 1 of Locke & Key (what can I say? I had a slow weekend) I’m now convinced that it means we’re all doomed to a future of TV where nothing actually too much ever happens. And well – if there’s one thing that Locke & Key (the comic) is very much about – it’s doing things which are a little bit “too much.” (which yeah is a big part of why I love it so). But means that the Netflix version is a little like watching a Fast and the Furious film where they’ve decided to take out all of the bits with the fast cars.


I’ve ranted about this elsewhere but for me one of the very best / coolest / creepiest moments of the first volume is when the Well Lady (as she’s known then) first actually comes out the well. I mean yeah ok it’s a little cheap and hokey and obviously someone’s been watching The Ring but I don’t care – it’s a really cool bit and seems like something that would be pretty easy to replicate on a TV screen. Which I guess is why Netflix decided that in their version Well Lady would just… kinda appear there in a really boring way (yawn). I mean: I guess you wouldn’t want anything that would get people’s hearts racing too much or something? I don’t know.
But well yes – The second way to approach Locke & Key would be to go in the direction that I did when I read the first volume and then came to the Islington Comic Forum (it was a while ago) to talk all about how fantastic it was particularly in the way that it felt like “the best Stephen King book he didn’t actually write.” Cut to: amused laughter from one of the other members and then a knowing sigh as they said: “actually… Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.”
Cut to me: holy shit!
And well yeah – no disrespect intended to Stephen King (like everyone else who grew up in the 20th Century: I’m obviously a fan). But I’ve got to say – going from Locke & Key I’ve gotta say that: shit – maybe his son is actually better at doing the writing stories thing? (or shit – is that cultural heresy?). I mean: obviously you’ve gotta love King for the genius ideas and the way he puts stuff together but if anything – Joe Hill is even better. It’s like… well – he got a key to his Dad’s brain and then stole all the good stuff while he was asleep…head

Which brings me to the third approach (which may be the hardest of all) which would basically be to talk about how perfect the storytelling of Locke & Key is. How it starts from this genius little idea (what is there were a bunch of keys that opened – everything) and then just keeps twisting and turning and looping the loop as it goes forwards… I mean: just the dynamics of it and the way this cliffhangers keep piling up on top of each other – the way that the worst thing ever possible happens and then keeps on happening and the way that the knife keeps twisting deeper and deeper. And not only that – but also how quietly experimental it manages to get. A whole issue that’s a Calvin and Hobbes homage?! Another issue that takes place on a different day each month?! Another issue where the characters become giants and so each page is a single panel?! I mean holy fuck – I haven’t read a comic with that kind of gumption since… Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (which is one of the highest praises I know – so). I mean: people talk about Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns or Maus or whatever being the best comic book to show someone who’s never read a comic before – but fuck it: I’d say Locke & Key is probably a better place to start. Yeah it starts off slow and simple (but then not really) but in terms of showing someone what the possibilities of the medium are in a way that’s still actually incredibly fun and exciting to read – there’s not much better out there.

All of which is to say: if you haven’t read it yet – I would very much recommend it.

Barbican Comic Forum

I had heard good things about Locke & Key but I wasn’t expecting so much plot. I just figured it would be key of the week: guys find a key have a few laughs, move on to the next key, maybe Cthulhu is behind one of the doors, that sort of thing. But no, Locke & Key gets really serious really quickly, and does not let go of that.

The result is that these kids are really fucked up worse than Batman about their dad’s murder, and the book refuses to give them a free pass. There is a panel where it says Ty is working himself to distract from the trauma of the incident but then then next panel shows that each stone he moves is reliving how he stoved in a man’s head. Just in that one picture we know everything about what that character did and what he’s capable of doing again. And with that much drama I sort of wonder if you need the whole key thing, because at the beginning it feels kind of frivolous.

best thing for him

But it does mean the tension is turned up to 100 for every scene. It should be enough to have an escaped murderer on your trail looking for revenge; or an evil ghost lady; or to be dabbling with the dark arts in a haunted house; or to have a family screwed up by grief; but what you have from this panel is that while they are in so much jeopardy you feel the characters couldn’t bear another bereavement. So the book carries this tension which is built up throughout and that tension informs the characters choices right up until you think the worst has happened. And that’s the genius of the keys, because without them the story would be stuck in endless moping, because the corner they are in so difficult, really the only thing that can save this family is magic. Sure they try everything else but the book creates its own pressure valve, and then to twist the knife, the keys they depend on are possibly the cause of all their problems.

Although another cause of their problems may also be that their dad bequeathed them a haunted house in the first place. In the of event of my untimely death, I will mainly be leaving this rich literary legacy of my thoughts on popular films and graphic novels. But when my solicitor suggested leaving them a haunted house in my will I said “no, please continue to use my extensive estate as part ancient and secretive sorority house, part insane asylum, and part illicit scientific research facility. I mean it just makes sense to diversify in the property market.” So I feel that Randall Locke may be a bit of dumbass. When I read this and watched the TV show I hadn’t realised Joe Hill was Stephen King’s son, and I think what’s interesting is that by creating an unreliable parent with a cursed legacy of magic and wonder, and another parent who is a damaged alcoholic, it made think “damn, I guess you really went there buddy.”

Barbican Comic Forum

Jonathan wrote: “these kids are really fucked up worse than Batman about their dad’s murder, and the book refuses to give them a free pass.”

At the risk of getting a bit dark:

Murder propels superhero and ‘hero’s journey’ stories pretty often, doesn’t it? Thinking back to previous LGNN discussions we’ve had Batman (parents: murdered), Wicked + Divine (Laura’s family and several pantheon: murdered), Daredevil (dad and several girlfriends: murdered; see also: women in refrigerators trope), The Boys (Hughie’s girlfriend: manslaughtered), Spider-Man (uncle: murdered)…

It’s a common thread – but it feels like these comics tend to avoid digging into the resulting grief in a relatable, realistic way. The grief is there (and for Daredevil it’s overwhelmingly, oppressively present in many runs), but it manifests in superhuman, fantastical ways. A rich young man travels the world learning obscure martial arts and buys himself an arsenal of gadgets and bat costumes to beat up thugs. A plucky teenager with superstrength and spider-senses gets taken under the wing of a group of fellow superpeople and also beats up thugs. A sulky teenager/god-celebrity conjures neon hell vines to beat up other teenagers and explodes a villain’s head with a snap of fingers. And so on.

This wish fulfilment, escapist, fantastical approach is of course fine – and it’s often what I/we seek as readers! – but it’s not exactly relatable or realistic.

By contrast, Locke & Key starts out with a bracingly human response to the trauma of murder. I first read the series a few years ago, not long after experiencing a particularly heinous bereavement of someone very close to me (the panel with Rendell’s injured body, slumped and undignified at the bottom of the ladder is uncomfortably familiar). I was, and am, struck by how well-observed the family’s reactions are. Kinsey wanting people to see her as a whole person (or to not see her at all) rather than label and pity her as a victim – yep, that’s reality. Tyler putting on a brave face for his family but crumbling when alone, unable to escape how his own actions might have contributed – yep, reality. Bode’s unsettling, cryptic nightmares – yep, reality.

I know all the usual wish fulfilment/escapism/fantasy approaches to trauma appear in this series too, but I really appreciate how Locke & Key gives its characters a volume’s worth of space to grieve as ordinary people before that stuff properly sets in.


I don’t want to depress the thread to death, so I’ll leave it on a different note: I’m a bit frustrated with myself for not getting on with the character art (I have no qualms with the layout and structure and colours and the experimentation Joel mentioned; it all flows and tells the story very well in that sense). There is just something about their weirdly enormous eyes and occasional ducklips and the way Sam looks about 40 rather than 17 that I can’t get past, and it’s a shame, because it occasionally takes me out of the story. I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just not to my taste!

Last minute add-on: I really like how a lot of the backgrounds – especially in settings in/around keyhouse, and some of the big setpieces with the well – use that woodblock/engraving sort of effect for detail and shading. It reminds me of Victorian-era illustration and, to me anyway, there’s a moodiness or spookiness to that style that I think works really well for the story.

dont go

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