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Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez end Locke & Key with tears, hope, and magic

Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Locke & Key: Alpha #2. Written by Joe Hill (Horns, NOS4A2) and drawn by Gabriel Rodriguez (Beowulf, Clive Barker’s The Great And Secret Show), this finale brings surprising optimism to the best horror comic of the past decade. (Warning: Spoilers ahead.)

The door is closed, the key is turned, and the lock is fastened. Locke & Key is over. After almost six years of guiding readers through Lovecraft, Massachusetts, and exposing them to the magical secrets of Keyhouse Manor, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez end their horror saga with a quiet issue that’s a welcome change of pace from the tragic events of the series’ final act. Everything has gone wrong for the Locke family and the innocent bystanders unlucky enough to cross its path, but this conclusion offers new hope for the future of these characters as they grieve over what they’ve lost and discover that not everything is as final as it seems.

At the end of the last issue, Bode, the youngest and most innocent of the three Locke children, was dead after having a demonic soul expelled from his body, and Keyhouse was burning to the ground. The day was saved, but at what cost? Locke & Key: Alpha #2 picks up a few days after #1’s devastating cliffhanger, showing the town of Lovecraft coping with the tragic night that also saw the deaths of 45 teenagers, who drowned in the “Cave Rave” that nearly served as ground zero for the invasion of Earth by hellish beings from another dimension. There’s plenty of eulogizing and tear-filled reminiscing, but while the rest of the community is suffering from circumstances they can’t reverse, Tyler Locke has a key ring full of dei ex machina to help him solve his family’s biggest problem.

There’s always been an out for the death of Bode Locke, because while his body may be dead, his spirit has been kept safe behind the Ghost Door. That still doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing his funeral and the way his family reacts to the reality of his death. The storytelling is incredibly effective in those first four pages showing Bode’s funeral, highlighting the somber stillness that has overcome the Locke family through Rodriguez’s page layouts, which use multiple widescreen panels with static camera angles to show how time is passing around these characters while they’re frozen by emotion. Hill has made it very easy to invest emotionally in these characters over the course of this series, and because the story was serialized, some readers have been investing in these characters for years. Locke & Key will read amazingly well in one sitting because story details will be fresher in the memory, but there’s a different kind of pleasure in reading the book on a semi-monthly basis over a long period of time.

The lives of these characters are changing with the life of the reader, and people that have been reading this series since the start are going to be in a much different mental place when they finish six years later. That extended time spent with the story changes the relationship between the art and the observer, adding an element of nostalgia that is absent when reading the book in one sitting. That’s a great quality to have when the plot is all about change and showing how people adapt to increasingly fantastic yet terrifying circumstances. First, the Locke family loses a husband and father in a horrific murder. Then the Locke children discover their new house is full of magical keys and doors. That opens up a whole can of worms that includes the fate of the entire planet, but what matters is how these events impact the characters. That’s why Locke & Key has become a phenomenon. These characters are relatable people that you want to see succeed, and by the end of the story they’ve seen hell and survived. And more importantly, they’ve changed.

The monthly superhero-comic audience is used to the illusion of change while characters largely remain the same, something that is made possible by the nostalgia cultivated by the relationships readers create with characters they’ve been following since childhood. In Locke & Key, there is no illusion. The Tyler Locke that appears in the final issue isn’t the adolescent boy that started the series, having undergone a life-altering experience that has given him strength in the face of overwhelming grief and made him the rock his family needs. Hill’s story has given ample spotlight to the entire Locke clan, but big brother Tyler has always been the focal point. The series charts his growth from the grieving teenage son wracked with guilt over his part in his father’s death to the stoic adult protector of his family and Keeper Of The Keys, and this issue is about Tyler tying up the loose ends of his adolescence to truly mature.  

The last few miniseries had especially erratic shipping schedules, making each new issue of Locke & Key feel like an event. When the comic is good enough, delays can actually work in its favor, giving the title a near mythical quality as it takes longer to hit the stands. When an issue of Locke & Key comes out, it’s something to get excited about because it doesn’t happen all the time. (Planetary was the same way, and Hawkeye looks to be going that way for the foreseeable future.) If IDW wants to publish a 48-page prestige format final issue with glued cardstock binding and charge $7.99 for it, it can. People are going to buy it. Hell, they might buy all seven variants, too. In fact, they can buy all seven in a leather slipcase with pewter foil if they want.

Eight bucks seems pretty steep for 32 pages of story; a bunch of pictures of Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, and company at the real-world inspiration for the book’s locales; and a preview of an upcoming Joe Hill comic; but those first 32 pages alone are worth the cover price. Hill begins the final chapter with sadness by showing the emotional toll of recent events on the remaining living characters, but things begin to move in a more optimistic direction once Tyler finishes one of the main goals he’s set for himself. Lucas Caravaggio was an innocent before he was possessed by a demon and ended up causing this big mess, so Tyler sets out to free Lucas’ soul in the same way he saved the possessed teenagers in the Drowning Cave.

Without going into heavy spoilers, Tyler’s encounter with Lucas in the Wellhouse is the start of things finally going right for these characters, leading to a new beginning for one of the book’s most tragic figures and a revival that uses the keys in a clever way that calls back to one of the title’s most innovative issues. It’s an immensely satisfying finale, wrapping up one of the year’s most devastating comics with a happy ending that still maintains a hefty dose of melancholy thanks to a poignant father-son conversation that brings Locke & Key full-circle to the relationship that began the comic.

Meticulously detailed yet highly animated, Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork perfectly suits the tone of Hill’s story, bringing a youthful exuberance that contrasts with the ominous atmosphere to heighten the story’s more gruesome moments. His character work is hugely expressive, and he’s been instrumental in conveying how the cast has evolved over time. This book has given Rodriguez the opportunity to really stretch his creative muscles with wildly imaginative visuals, but his greatest strength has been in creating a strong sense of location. His architecture skills are astounding, making Keyhouse Manor a valuable character that the reader gets to know as well as the Locke family, with a history and personality of its own. The full-page splash of Keyhouse Manor’s burnt frame is as heartbreaking as the full-page splash of Bode’s funeral, maybe even more because it’s such a concrete reminder that readers won’t be revisiting Keyhouse’s halls anytime soon.

I read the first two collected volumes of Locke & Key sitting on the windowsill of a Borders, and after finishing Head Games, I knew I needed to own this series. Like Fables, Y: The Last Man, and Alias, Locke & Key became one of my go-to gateway titles for readers unfamiliar with the medium. Each of those series tells stories set in a recognizable environment populated by multi-dimensional characters, but also features an element of fantasy that provides the big hook, giving new readers a taste of what comic books can do. An ending can make or break a story, and with Alpha #2, Hill and Rodriguez deliver a conclusion that shuts the door on a modern masterpiece by tapping into the heart and magic that has made it such an unforgettable journey.