When Joe Hill, the son of horror legend Stephen King, first came on the comic scene in 2008 with his series Locke & Key there may have been an impulse to dismiss the series as another novelist trying to make a quick buck “slumming it” in the world of comics. With just the first issue of the initial miniseries, “Welcome to Lovecraft,” Hill silenced any credible criticism that he doesn’t belong in our rough and tumble neighborhood, and in 2009, “Welcome to Lovecraft” was nominated for Best Miniseries and Hill himself for Best Writer.
This week, “Keys to the Kingdom,” the fourth Locke & Key miniseries hits the stands, continuing the story of the Locke family. Each miniseries has acted as a chapter of the ongoing saga, which pits the three Locke children against supernatural forces that want to claim the various magical keys that are scattered through the family’s ancestral home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts. This structure makes the “#1” on this issue a little misleading, as there aren’t very many specifics in the recap of the previous chapters included on the inside cover, nor is there a firm “jumping on” point in the context of this issue. The terse recap on the inside cover does give you all the basic facts of the series, and those looking for more information can seek out the $1 “Legacy Edition” of the first issue of “Welcome to Lovecraft” that shipped this week. It also includes a recap of the series thus far in a photo montage featuring Hill himself. Even if you don’t pick up the Legacy Edition this issue stands very well on its own, and is perhaps one of the best single issues of this (or any other) series.
The entire issue is told in splash pages, with a series of four panels set vertically down the center, which creates a wide scope for artist Gabriel Rodriguez to show his amazing talents, as make some unique storytelling choices. Even more amazing is the way that Rodriguez’s artwork turns on a dime to a Calvin & Hobbes-eqsue style for pages featuring Bode, the youngest Locke, as he experiences not just adolescent fantasy but the thrill of transmogrifying into a sparrow. Several of the Bode-centric pages even manage to work on their own as single page comic strips (enhanced by the issue’s specific layout structure). All of this is made more stunning by the switch from free-wheeling bird stories to a savage and bloody sequence with a wolf leading a pack of vicious stray dogs in an attack on the other two Locke children and even a page of sadistic daydream by Zack, the Locke’s hidden nemesis.
Hill’s writing is effortless, and there isn’t a single wasted word or panel. While the issue stands on its own, there is plenty of set-up for the ongoing story that Hill has said will continue for another 24 monthly issues (again, broken up into 6 issue chapters) before the entire saga is wrapped up in a stand alone graphic novel.
Keys to the Kingdom #1 is one of the best single issues I’ve read all year. Effortlessly moving through humor, thriller, teen angst, sudden loss and ending with a note of hope and the invigorating power of imagination.
4.5 out of 5 cartoon sparrow dive-bomb attack squads.