For a beat or two, Keys to the Kingdom might convince readers that Locke and Key is becoming a typical, ongoing comic series. By which I mean, the story could continue indefinitely, allowing Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, and the Locke children to live in the book’s premise for as long as sales or Hill’s interest allowed.
But believing anything about Locke and Key is typical would be a mistake.
The first four chapters of Keys to the Kingdom are seemingly disconnected stories that showcase the creators’ influences and let them explore several unique premises. The first chapter of Keys may, in fact, be my favorite, as I’m a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan.
What I had not properly appreciated about this story, I think, until re-reading it for this review, is how each page works as its own complete comic strip. The Bill Watterson-esque pages starring Bode sublimely function as individual narrative units, including both a setup and an end-of-page punchline, while also driving the issue as a whole forward.
And that, actually, is what the entirety of the first four chapters of Keys to the Kingdom are secretly doing. Each chapter is its own complete, one-off story. You could sit down, read any one of them, and then set Keys down – feeling satisfied that you’d gotten something out of the book before diving back in at your leisure. But in each, there are threads that lay the groundwork for this volume’s shocking conclusion.
The next chapter, in which Bode and Kinsey become Black in order to approach a woman who knew their father and is seemingly afraid of White people, is an intriguing, updated take on “I Am Curious (Black)!”. It is also, unfortunately, possibly more relevant today than it was in 2011. The final page, in which Tyler and Kinsey discuss the aftermath of Kinsey and Bode’s excursion, may come across a little heavy-handed, but there is a moment in this story that has stuck with me since the first time I read it. I think it continues to be the story’s most powerful moment:
The next story is no less shy about showing Hill and/or Rodriguez’s comic influences, as the pair upgrade Kitty Pryde’s famous declaration that “Professor Xavier is a jerk!” for the 21st century:
But really, this chapter is a Locke and Key clip show. Over the course of 22 pages and 28 days, Hill, Rodriguez, and co. get to go nuts showing how zany and how personal Locke and Key can get. The Locke children are attacked by the Dark Lady several times (on dates that will … well, we’ll discuss that later). But what might be more threatening is what the children are doing to themselves and their friends. In this chapter, Kinsey wrecks two of her strongest friendships and Tyler turns ever further inward, laying the groundwork for what is to come in chapters five and six.
But before we get to that, Hill and Rodriguez have one more detour to take us on. The Locke children barely feature in “Casualties,” but important plot points abound as we reconnect with both Rufus Whedon and Sam Lesser. In a story that takes inspiration from the DC and Marvel war comics of the 1960s to 1980s, we watch as Rufus and Sam join forces, uniting against a common enemy who is seemingly unaware of their alliance.
And yes, despite what you may think, the story does deliver on its first page promise that “SOMEONE DIES!”
Of course, Jack Nife’s is not the only death that features in this volume. Because while you and I have been blissfully basking in the one-off premises and neat references that Hill and Rodriguez have been throwing our way, Joe Hill has secretly been seeding every minor element he needs to turn Locke and Key toward its endgame.
Chapters five and six of this volume return Locke and Key to form, reminding readers that they’re reading a very different kind of comic than those the rest of the volume has referenced. Unlike Calvin and Hobbes, this book has a longer, overaching story to tell. And unlike most DC and Marvel comics, it is not afraid to completely upend its status quo as it tells it.
You see, Tyler has been turning inward, but not entirely out of anger and depression. He’s turned inward because he has realized he cannot trust one of his closest friends. Clues scattered throughout Keys to the Kingdom have turned Tyler’s attention onto Zack Wells, and by the volume’s end, Zack is dead.
The Dark Lady, however, (in a twist I will not reveal here – suffice it to say that it is clever and also foreshadowed) lives on. She lives on in a way that will affect the Locke family forever and alter its very core, setting up a new dynamic that can only drive Locke and Key toward a conclusion.
By the end of Keys to the Kingdom, the time for the Locke children to live in the premise is over. Now, their real war against the Dark Lady begins.