Joe Hill writer
Gabriel Rodriguez artist
Jay Fotos colorist
Robbie Robbins letterer
Shawn Lee letterer
$29.99 / 264 pages
“The violence of the fight shall wake man from the bad dream of history, and there will ever after only be peace.”
- Chamberlin Locke (…In Pale Battalions Go…)
“The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”
- Francisco Goya
Locke & Key: The Golden Age serves as a portrait of an extraordinary family in some difficult times. It is the latest book collecting two stand alone issues (Small World from 2016 and Open the Moon, Guide to the Known Keys from 2011) and two recent mini series (In Pale Battalions Go, and the Hell and Gone crossover with the Sandman Universe) along with publishing for the first time a story titled Face the Music which introduces the new Orchestra Key into the much beloved comic book franchise. People who are familiar with only the Netflix adaptation may not be aware of the long history of Keyhouse or the many generations of Lockes who have called the Lovecraft, Massachusetts estate home since before the Revolutionary War. Fear not! The lives of Chamberlin and Fiona, Chamberlin’s uncle Harland, and children Ian, John (AKA Jonnie and Jack), Mary, and Jean are just as fantastical and thrilling as the Lockes you already know!
Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez travel back to the tumultuous years of the early twentieth century with its astounding technological advances, expanding empires of the robber baron elite, and a soon to be shattered peace in Europe leading to a great war mistakenly believed to end all war. None of these achievements compare to the magical keys forged the unearthly Whisp’ring Iron metal which are secretly housed within the Locke home. As with every family, each generation has their expectations and ambitions, struggles and accomplishments, happiness and sorrow, an occasional betrayal, a rare redemption and even a heroic journey.
Readers may be excited to dive right into the Hell and Gone crossover into the Sandman Universe and you’ll definitely enjoy it. However, the author has stated the collection has a definite reading order starting with Small World, followed by Open the Moon, Face the Music, In Pale Battalions Go, and finally Hell and Gone. The order also reflects the passage of specific events and aging of the family members.
In Small World Chamberlin presents to daughter Mary a most extraordinary gift for her tenth birthday: a doll house sized replica of Keyhouse with miniature Locke family automata, powered by the Small World key. Father and daughter think of it quite differently. Mary perceives the dollhouse from a viewpoint of power, like Zeus and Hera looking down from Mount Olympus, while her father intends the gift as a method for Mary to learn her womanly place — “to keep house and watch over a kitchen and children” while also imparting such “proper womanly lessons” (my words) to sister Jean. At dinner while shadow beings solemnly stand in wait, son Ian talks excitedly about the soon to be completed Titanic while the elder Locke opines “The 20th century will be an era of enormity: enormous machines, structures, and ideas!” Fiona’s secret yearning for a cigarette is a sly nod to the once taboo practice being viewed as an advance toward equality and women’s suffrage. Young Jean mischievously gives into tempation with the doll house and sends her bath tub soaking father for wild careen down the stairs. Hill and Rodriguez lay the groundwork for Mary’s heroic transformation when with decisive action and a clear head she protects her family against a menace created as a unforeseen consequence of the doll house’s capability.
“What’s a flamdoodle?” Ian asks his father, telescope in hand. They’ve been gazing at the moon as Chamberlin weaves a story about why only one side of it can be seen but Ian won’t be fooled, countering that Harland has told him about Galileo. “There can’t be more than one kind of truth,” Ian replies to which his father asks if the things we understand in our dreams are not a truth. Their father-son moment outlines the premise of Open the Moon – the “flamdoodles” people often tell themselves as a temporary salve to dull the painful reality. For Chamberlin it means telling lies both big and small and doing everything within his power to make terminally ill Ian’s life comfortable and meaningful. A heartbreaking story made all the more so by the Windsor McKay style flourishes Gabriel Rodriguez wove into the art work.
Companion mini series In Pale Battalions Go and Hell and Gone are the main attraction of this collection. Each story examines the motivations an individual may have for heroism through twins John and Mary. Hill and Rodriguez show the horrors of war and the folly of words and deeds when uncoupled from reason through the philosophical differences between father and son about the Great War. John believes using the keys will end the fighting and save countless lives while the elder Locke is adamant the keys want to be used as weapons and is convinced humanity will rise from its violence in the war’s wake and commit to living peacefully. Alas, neither are fully right resulting in death and despair come to settle upon the Locke home which drives Mary to undertake the biggest challenge of her life a decade later in the quite literal Hell and Gone conclusion to rescue John from the underworld. Hill’s decision to subvert the damsel in distress trope by inverting its gender roles is one to be applauded.
The second quote at the top of this review – “The sleep of reason produces monsters” – is the title of a print by Spanish artist Francisco Goya.The work is one in a series of prints collectively titled Los Caprichos (The Caprices or Follies) begun in 1799 which were sold to people via subscriptions, the 19th century version of Patreon. Goya worked as an artist under the patronage of Carlos III who was an adherent to Enlightenment principles but after the country quicky descended into the Reign of Terror after the king’s death. To my mind it’s worth mentioning because I see parallels with what I glean to be John’s mental state, the monstrous atrocities he wants to end, and Chamberlin’s steadfast beliefs ideas about humanity and its potential in the early twentieth century. The analogy may be fuzzy but something in my reading evoked Goya’s prints and now it’s stuck in my mind.
In a prior review of Hell and Gone #1 I wrote that Hill and Rodriguez had seamlessly woven together the world of Locke & Key and the realms of the Sandman universe in a way that felt simultaneously fresh and familiar. That opinion has only been reinforced with my recent rereading. It’s a brilliant example of how to write a crossover story that not only preserves the integrity of the characters/properties but also enhances them.
Hill and Rodriguez take Mary on a thrilling quest on various stops through the Sandman landscape: Wych Cross which imprisons Morpheus from whom Mary hopes to gain an advantage to the Dreaming where she encounters Cain, Lucien, Brute and Glob, Fiddler Green, and a dangerous altercation with the Corinthian and then to Hell where the Demon – spell bound by Mary no less – aids her fight against Lucifer Morningstar himself. John and Mary are twins but Hill and Rodriguez leave no doubt in how they differ in psychological temperament. In A Small World they depict John as impetuous, reactive, and eager for a fight when the family is threatened by a menacing creature. On the other hand in the same story Jean wants to gather information to make a plan and when she has it she’s unflinching in her thoroughness. In Pale Battalions John’s heroism is fully revealed to be rooted in his ego. He used people close to him to achieve his goal and that hubris leads to tragedy and regret and his downfall. By contrast, the love Mary has within herself becomes the source of her heroism. Brutal honesty compels her to enlist help. She may have doubts but even so in her selflessness she is determined to protect her family and her determination is rewarded with success…that comes with a cost.
At this point you may be wondering about the unpublished Face the Music tale that was intended to be part of a vinyl record project which didn’t materialize. The publisher did not include this story in its review copies. Regardless, Face the Music should make for good reading given the creative team’s record of engaging storytelling since Locke & Key’s inception.
Now much has been said about the plot and characterization. The stories would still be compelling if they existed only in prose form and fortunately they do not. Rodriguez and Foto are a quintessential component of Locke & Key’s success. In the first two stories Rodriguez’s linework and draftmanship create a feeling of popular art from that time period. With the closing pair of stories though there is a fluid elegance to Rodriguez’s lines, the compositions feel fuller but not overcrowded; a variety of perspectives highlight a dramatic eye and makes for an engaging visual experience. After this I can not imagine any colorist except for Foto to work with Rodriguez. They simply belong together. To my eye the finished artwork here ranks up at the top with the likes of P. Craig Russell.
While an essential component of comics the work of letterers is often overlooked because its main goal is to be clear and concise without drawing attention to itself. At other times there are indulgences, for lack of a better word. Take Open the Moon for example. For the first half of the story Robbie Robbins uses contemporary oval shaped word balloons but once the scene takes an imaginative jump the word balloon shape changes to squares and rectangles with rounded corners. This example by Shawn Lee from Hell and Gone #2 is simply brilliant.
Lee also made an excellent choice in conveying the English translation of the German dialog from In Pale Battalions #3 in the style of movie sub titles.
Locke & Key and Sandman are both well known franchise comics for good reasons. Readers of one but not the other will find much to like and become curious with. Whether you’re a trade waiter, completist, or simply a new reader who appreciates fantasy and horror you’ll find a great treasure of storytelling in Locke & Key: The Golden Age.
Look for Locke & Key: The Golden Age at your comic shop or local bookstore or ask for it to be ordered with the ISBN 9781684057856. Comicshoplocator can help you find a comic shop. Indiebound and Bookshop are good sources for indy bookstores. If all else fails, the book is available on Amazon.