Thursday, August 19, 2010

Shawn O'Rouke Does Locke and Key

Locke and Key written by Joe Hill. Reviewed by Shawn O'Rouke.

The back-cover copy of Joe Hill’s horrifying bestseller, Heart-Shaped Box - recently and superbly reviewed by Doomwench - has a blurb from master-storyteller, Neil Gaiman. You open the book and there prefacing the first chapter is a quotation from Alan Moore, author of The Watchmen, V for Vendetta and countless other seminal works of graphic fiction. It certainly doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to realize that the author must be a fan of comic books. This deduction is only reinforced when one reads the author’s earlier collection, 20th Century Ghosts, in which one story, "The Cape", offers a dark re-imagining of the superhero story. With such obvious connections to the medium, it seemed inevitable to fans of Hill that the writer would eventually find his way into writing comics. Fortunately, their wait was a short one. Hill made his first foray in the comic book world with the Eisner-nominated series, Locke and Key. Published by IDW, an imprint noted particularly for its horror comics, the series is broken into books, the third of which has just been released in a collected edition. 

Locke and Key is the story of a family trying to rebuild itself in the wake of tragedy, plagued by ghosts from the past - both real and internal - and seeking refuge in a magical house called Lovecraft. The story is terrifying, with its foundation firmly embedded in the horror genre but also cleverly weaving in the tropes from fantasy and young adult fiction. While some prose writers rely on assistance from established comic book creators to guide them while taking their first tentative steps into the medium, Hill shows that his skills as a creator are equal to the task, and he handles the transition with ease. His narrative style flourishes in the comic book medium where the artwork is able to capture the nuance and emotional depths, delving deeply into the nature of grief, fear, and guilt with a subtlety that demands the reader’s involvement in a way denied by limitations of prose. In a very real way, although Hill’s books are wonderful, a part of his creativity has not just found a home in comics, but been liberated by them. 

The artwork by Gabriel Rodriguez expertly captures the surreal sense of unease that permeates all the panels, ubiquitous and ever-present even in the sequences that are not overtly meant to frighten. To some degree, he does his job too well. The story has many plots that involve scenes of extreme violence, and Rodriguez captures those moments in a way that is not just terrifying, but disturbing. These moments are not meant to be voyeuristic like cheesy slasher films where the viewer can experience and explore violence as both perpetrator and victim in a safe fantasy world; these are all-too-real and force the reader to confront a brutality that while contextually fictional, painfully replicates a very present part of the world.

Despite the artwork that sometimes makes you want to put the book down and go outside into the sunshine, the story keeps demanding that it be completed. Although replete with fascinating characters and evil villains in extreme situations, it also meditates on the themes of loss and regret in a way that is immediately relatable. Hill explores these crucial emotions by examining the nature of memory with the visual symbolism of the locked doors and the keys which open them. 

For those who enjoy complex characters, Locke and Key has plenty to offer. The story jumps between a multitude of different perspectives, including the villains’, and gives the requisite time and attention to explore their motivations and make them real. Hill expertly divides the majority of his time to the three protagonists, seamlessly transitioning between the angst of teens - which has been compounded by a past tragedy -, and the whimsy and naivete of youth, with its surprising ability to endure even in the darkest times. Such is the level of genuine care in the construction of these characters, that there is no blurring of the respective rolls accorded to each: you hate who Hill wants you to hate, and you love who Hill wants you to love. 

With Locke and Key, Joe Hill has been able to make a transition that is no doubt the envy of many fanboys and girls (including myself); he has left the world of the comic book fan, hinted at with his earlier works, and become a highly acclaimed comic book creator. This story is a wonderful synthesis of the skills he honed as a writer of prose, wedded to the style and structure of the medium he clearly loves. Thus far three collections have been released, Welcome to Lovecraft, Head Games, and Crown of Shadows - all excellent reads, well-worth your time and money.

Final Thoughts:

This review is a little more gushing than the ones I typically write. There is a school of thought in criticism that admonishes the writer to separate the critic in them from the fan - as if to enjoy something is somehow an abdication of the roll we’ve been assigned (or assigned ourselves). While I don’t necessarily subscribe to that interpretation, I don’t completely eschew it either. However, when given a chance to write something for the folks at Girl on Book Action, I decided to review something I genuinely loved as a thank you for the opportunity. Consequently, I wrote with a little more fanboy enthusiasm than I might have normally, but I assure the readers that the book is truly worth the praise I’ve given it.


When Shawn isn't being wrangled by crazy women into writing for their blog, he's writing his own at the Uncertain Future of the Printed Word or other comic reviews at Popmatters. We heartily endorse his efforts and so should you.

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