New England Red

This blog, originally dedicated to superheroes and their weekly shenanigans, has morphed into a catch-all for the best comics I can find. And as you’ve likely noticed, I’ve chosen to ignore the dross that irritates me. While full-on bashing is easy fun, it’s nevertheless an advertisement for creators whom I’d rather didn’t get any. Here and there I’ll drop a name, pin it to the internets with a smart-ass remark, then move on. By and large, though, I prefer celebrating comics I love.

“Duh,” say you loyal readers, “start discussing Locke & Key already!” I just wanted to acknowledge that writing about comics has changed my reading habits. Weekly superhero titles, especially the icons published by Marvel and DC, are extremely tough to unpack in two or three paragraphs. To maintain my own writing’s freshness, I’ve been searching for interesting stuff ever further afield. Which brings me to-

Ah, there it goes. That’s my shame floating away, now that I’ve sampled the gothic tonic that is Locke & Key. Published by IDW, this is a comic that’s crept below my radar for years simply because it doesn’t feature capes and domino masks. It’s about the Keyhouse mansion in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, the many doors of which open with supernatural consequences. Locke family siblings Bode, Kinsey and Tyler (a boy, a preteen girl and a young man) move back to their ancestral home after their father is murdered by a psychotic high school student.

After picking up the 2011 Free Comic Book Day issue, I fell hard for this anything-goes, exquisitely drawn title. Novelist Joe Hill (Horns) and artist Gabriel Rodriguez capture New England in all its beautiful eeriness. They fan suspense from a series of sparks, and never dampen it with needless flashbacks. The characters- including the kids’ parents, uncle Duncan, and the murderous Sam Lesser- develop with a craftiness not often seen in comics.

Welcome to Lovecraft collects the first six issues, and immediately there’s a voltaic thrill created by text that challenges the art. The opening scene introduces us to Mrs. Locke as she answers the door of the family’s summer home in Mendocino Valley. Scuzzy, mullet-wearing Sam and his crony Al Grubb stand by, and we can see the axe and revolver hidden behind their backs. “Mister Locke showed me a picture of your place last year,” Sam lies to the mother of three, “and said I should come up and say hi sometime. Maybe hang with Tyler.” Her husband being the high school guidance counselor, this does actually sound like him. “He did? I like your pick-up.” Close view on the weapons, “It isn’t ours. We jacked it.” Then, in a full page of the truck’s rear, we see bloody bodies wrapped in canvas. “From my uncle,” says Sam. “He doesn’t mind.”

Amid funeral scenes, we get the fractured, tragic events that move the survivors to Keyhouse. Grubb attacks and rapes Mrs. Locke (don’t worry- she gives him his axe back, through the skull). Sam shoots her husband, only to be bludgeoned by Tyler with a brick. All of this is preceded by the brief flitting of a death’s head moth. It returns later, once Bode stumbles upon the key that opens a black door. As he steps through it, the youngest Locke’s spirit leaves his body.

Throughout, the depiction of a grieving family is incredible. Tyler walks with shoulders slumped and cap pulled low. Kinsey starts off wearing dreadlocks, then realizes, “…you only advertise your political beliefs with a T-shirt if you’re seriously insecure…” Their mom is always haggard, dressed in black, and tipsy from the generously stocked wine cellar.

Artist Rodriguez combines the bug-eyed emotional range of Humberto Ramos (The Amazing Spider-Man) and the meticulous draftsmanship of Howard Porter (The Flash). His flair for illustrating gardens and architecture (both wooden and stone) is exceptionally thrilling. Two or three issues in, these elements gel for some of the spookiest scenes this side of Watchmen. One shows Sam in Mr. Locke’s office at the high school. A painting of a well-house on the wall fascinates him, and we soon see a woman- trapped inside- asking for help. This is the same well-house that Bode’s been investigating, physically and as a ghost.

This first story arc climaxes with Sam’s escape from prison, a demon’s escape from the well-house, and (gulp) a change of sex for one of them. It’s all I can do not to stay up zipping through that second Locke & Key trade sitting a foot away from me. Without even knowing it, this is exactly the kind of comic I’ve been wanting to read. Hill and Rodriguez have wrapped their excitement for the medium in a tale that’s contagious to the touch. At its best, the Buffy TV show was like this. Claremont and Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men was like this. Brilliant work cracks you open, changing the light by which you see everything else.

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