Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s supernatural tale about family, love, loss and magical keys comes to its end here. While I wasn’t blown away by it at first, subsequent volumes did an excellent job of deepening the characters, raising the stakes and telling some very compelling stories with lots of clever twists. After reading vol. 5, waiting for this final volume to come out in hardcover exacted a special kind of patience from me. Now that it’s here I have to say that it’s not quite the complete home run that I was expecting. Yet there is so much more good than bad here that it’s easy to forgive the book for the minor stumbles it makes.
One thing I was expecting from this volume is that it was going to be an extremely dark, pitiless affair considering the state of things at the end of vol. 5. Now that Dodge, still hiding out in Bode Locke’s body, has the Omega key and is able to move around without anyone suspecting his true motives. He’s holding all the cards and is set to unleash his demonic friends upon an unsuspecting world. Or at least, that’s what you’re led to believe his plan is.
Even with this dire threat hanging over the narrative by way of dramatic irony, the first few chapters of this volume are surprisingly fun and full of great little character moments between the cast. Scot’s video diaries, Kinsey’s trip to the prom with her friends, the shirt Duncan gives to Tyler and Jordan’s reaction to it. All of these serve to lighten the tone and re-establish relationships between the main and supporting cast that seemed to be gone forever. Even the bits with the mentally challenged Rufus, the one man here who knows the score and pays the price for it, have a lightness of touch to them. That’s not only due to how he sees his escape from the mental institution as a continuation of the WWII epic in his mind -- complete with Nazi dinosaurs -- but in the way his singleminded determination to get back to Lovecraft and help out the Locke family becomes admirable in and of itself.
With all of these good things happening in the volumes first half, it only makes the events of the second hit that much harder. The full extent of Dodge’s plan is revealed and a whole lot of kids wind up paying the price for it. Don’t expect the entire cast to come out unscathed as everyone will have something to suffer over by the time the story is done. Yet even in the book’s darkest moments, there are real moments of ingenuity and genuine surprise to carry the reader through. Seeing Tyler and Duncan’s resourcefulness in the face of the shadow creatures, Nina’s moment of real inspiration to save her son, and the encounter in the cabinet are immensely satisfying and some well-done bits of storytelling on Hill’s part.
Of course, moments like those only make the book’s stumbles that much more visible. As good as the writing is for much of this volume, Hill does over-write a few key scenes here. The most notable of these being Dodge’s big speech to Kinsey and Jamal about his plans for the world which reach “Bond Villain” levels of over-the-top-ness and length. I realize that the explanation was necessary, but the way it’s done here grinds the narrative momentum to a halt. It also happens again in Tyler’s final conversation with Dodge. Most novelists who transition into comics often fall into the trap of cramming too much text on a comics page or feeling a need to spell everything out in their dialogue. Hill managed to avoid this trap for most of “Locke & Key” so it was a bit disappointing to see him succumb to it here.
There’s also the fact that while Tyler’s plan to defeat Dodge is certainly clever and leads to some of the volume’s most heartbreaking moments, the mechanics behind it feel quite arbitrary. While we haven’t been privy to the explanation of how the keys in this series perform their specific functions, it hasn’t been necessary to enjoy the narrative. In this volume, though, things hinge on Tyler creating a very specific kind of key through means which are never explained less we assume that the key’s creator just has to “think” its function in during the forging. If you can accept that, or are able to find a better justification for yourself, then you’ll be able to forgive this particular plot hole.
Also, I’m not ashamed to admit that I had to go online to figure out just how that scene involving the sparrow worked out in the way that it did. Once I found the explanation, it makes perfect sense. However, in re-reading the scene it’s clear that it desperately needed more panels in order to explain things.
That being said, I think that’s the only problem involving the art that I can think of for this volume. Rodriguez turns in some phenomenal work that’s not only rich in detail, but very stylish and clever at times as well. The use of “widescreen” panels makes a return here in one scene, yet it proves to be a clever way of showing the passage of time and allowing the reader to recognize something is up in the same way the characters on the page do. There are also visual callbacks to the funeral in the very first issue, which make for a great way to frame Tyler’s growth, and lots of little visual “easter eggs” to be found in some of the most densely illustrated panels. It’s doubtful anyone will miss “Evil Kinsey” holding Jamal’s severed head, though. Really, I could keep going on about Rodriguez’s emotional character work, his designs for the shadow monsters, the fight against them in the Keyhouse, but I’d just be restating the obvious. The man is an A-list talent whose work here enriches an already great story.
Even if “Locke & Key” didn’t revolutionize the medium it stands as a fantastic example of a good story told well. Maybe the beginning wasn’t quite as compelling as what followed, but this was a narrative that kept picking up steam as it went on. We learned more about their characters, saw them change over the course of several volumes, and when they reached their (sometimes tragic) fates it felt right. At least it did for me. I can see some people having issues with the end given the title’s frequent dalliances with the horror genre, but I felt that the Locke family had earned this particular ending with their struggles against the darkness (supernatural and personal) in their lives. Plus, you’d have to be a grade-A asshole to have an issue with Tyler’s final conversation in the series.
In short, I certainly hope that this isn’t the last extended work we see from Hill or Rodriguez either together or solo. Though it’s easy to imagine Rodriguez finding other top-flight work at IDW or elsewhere in the industry, I think I’ll have to take some time off from reading comics one of these days to check out one of Hill’s novels. After “Locke & Key” I’d follow them just about anywhere.