For a while now people have been recommending Joe Hill's writing to me as a possible foray into the "horror" genre (which I don't often read). On a whim, I was in the graphic novel section and I stumbled across Locke & Key which is written by Joe Hill with art by Gabriel Rodriguez. It's been a bit since I'd read a new graphic novel, so I picked it up and started thumbing. Soon thereafter I had the book and home and was thoroughly engrossed in reading.
First let me say that even though this is a "comic book"…a "cartoon"…it is definitely NOT FOR KIDS. There is some strong language (teetering between PG-13 and R rating) and smatterings of heavy violence. So don't leave this lying around for your kids to accidentally stumble across.
From a high level, elements of the story were fairly corny and predictable. The family's last name is "Locke" and they move to a place called "Keyhouse" with mystical keys and doors. The town/island they move to is named Lovecraft (thus implying plenty of creepy craziness). The psychopathic murderer's backstory shows a well-meaning kid driven to demented violence because of physical and emotional abuse from his drug addicted parents. None of this was particularly compelling.
Where the story got interesting for me was both in terms of the psychological character development of the kids as well, the intriguing potential of the mysterious keys, and the strange shadow plot of the "echo" character who is communicating both with the murderer and with the youngest child in the family.
While a lot of the actions and behaviors of the kids were expected, I really liked the way the story, dialog and art interacted to really help me see and feel what these kids were going through. I thought that the daughter's (Kinsey) transition from rebel to ~semi-preppy was interesting and felt justified in a sense to maybe clean up and live up to her father's expectations. I enjoyed the older son's (Tyler) struggle with guilt (for previous bad relationship with his father…as well as a comment from the murder) and his responsibility to now be the "man of the house." I had fun with the younger son (Bode), but his behavior was a little more difficult for me to swallow. He seemed a little too carefree still considering what had just happened. Still, it could be realistic given that he's younger and his attention span allows him to escape more easily into fun and play but then crash back at times when he dwells on the reality.
One disconnect I did feel with regards to the family was the fact that they didn't discuss the idea of going into therapy to try and deal with their issues. Granted, that may not be something every family might consider at a time like this, especially when all four of the survivors are in shock. But this particular family has a close relationship with psychology and therapy…the father was a counselor. It just felt strange that they didn't go in for some family therapy sometime. Admittedly that likely would have pulled the story in a strange direction…but I would have liked to see someone pressuring them perhaps and them resisting.
The concept of Keyhouse and these magical keys is compelling. In this book we generally only get to see the actions of one key…a key that opens a door which, when you walk through it, separates your spirit from your body and allows you to flit around in ghost form. Kind of interesting. But then later in the book we learn about other keys and find that a big motivation is the "Anywhere Key" that lets you use it on any door and makes that door become a portal to anywhere you want to go. The potential for cool keys is huge but I worry that subsequent books will focus less on the development of other cool keys and keep them (as in this book) as a minor player that's mostly for fun but with the main focus being to find and hold the Anywhere Key.
Related to the finding of the Anywhere Key is the overarching meta-plot that takes this book and makes it a long lasting series. In this book the main plot involves the murder of the father and trying to stay safe as the murderer hunts down the rest of the family. Behind this main plot we have a larger plot that is given to us only in mysterious bits and pieces. There is some mystical being/spirit/demon (?) behind the scenes pulling various strings to try and motivate characters to do different things. The exact motivations and history of this character are unclear but it is clear that he/she/it is imprisoned somehow and looks to escape and (presumably) exact some sort of revenge or power struggle. Even at the end of this book, the exact nature of the meta-plot is unclear and it's even given new twists at the end to make it even more open to strange speculation. I must say I am very curious as to how this plays out.
Even as an adult, I have to admit that the violence was over the top for me. The art style is smooth and cartoony, but realistic enough to be disturbing (i.e. - this isn't "Looney Toons" style violence). The book starts out with a flashback to the grizzly murder of the patriarch of the Locke family. His wife and children are present and have to flee the murderer who is quickly brought down and imprisoned. The scene is creepy and suspenseful and includes a brutal display of the husband/father being shot. As gruesome as the sight is, it was over quickly enough that I pushed through and was pleased to find that I read on and on without additional scenes of violence. However as the book approached its climax, it was apparent that something bad was about to happen and the violence at the end of the book was even more gruesome and drawn out than the initial killing.
I really enjoyed the nature of the story and the tone and feel of the artwork with the exception of what I felt to be excessively graphic depictions of violence. Even though I am very interested in finding out how the overall story plays out and I am very curious to see what sort of cool and imaginative keys turn up in Keyhouse, I am unsure whether or not I will actually read the rest of the books. I thumbed the first bit of volume 2 and didn't find comparable violence, but I suspect it's there and just as graphic (or potentially more so…as often these things push the limit as they go on). I personally felt like the actual display of the violence was taken to an unnecessary extreme. I felt like the same tension, suspense and fear could have happened with the violence being 90% "off-page" and left to the reader's imagination instead of being glorified in large full-color illustrations. This is in no means a criticism of the artist's talent…it's more a criticism of the willful choice to showcase the violence in this way. I've read other comics and graphic novels with violence handled "off-page" and found them much more enjoyable since I didn't have to cringe in disgust.
So yeah, I really enjoyed the storytelling (and will likely seek out some of Joe Hill's non-graphic-novel writing) but the graphic violence was a bit too over the top for me. Even though I would love to know what happens next, I will probably go for the less artistic method of "reading" the story by seeking out wikipedia summaries. Overall an enjoyable read but pulled down in enjoyment by the need to look away rather than fully engross. While I would love to rate this higher, I just personally can't do it. If you don't mind graphic depictions of violence, you'll likely enjoy this…but for me, it's too much.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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