Saturday, February 23, 2013

Comic Recommendations for the Whedon Fan Episode One - Scott Allie Talks 'Locke & Key'

Long before Buffy Season 9 began, we'd had a plan to advise fans of the Buffy comics on what other comics they might enjoy reading. After all, part of the beauty that is the Buffy comics is that it opens up the medium of panel to panel art for a whole new audience. While Season 9 had begun, we still wanted to get to this series.

We'd mentioned the idea to Scott Allie and he leaped at the chance to talk about one of his (and our) favorite current series, Locke & Key. If you like in depth analysis with your recommendations (and I know you do), then you'll find no better than what follows. Without further ado, take it away, Scott!

LOCKE & KEY series review by Scott Allie

I got a preview of the Locke & Key one-shot that IDW’s printer keeps bumping, delaying you fine folks from one of the best reads of the year. This one’s getting an Eisner nom, for sure. It’s also one of those perfect entry points for the new reader that marketing departments are always asking for. The one-shot won’t tell you everything you need to know about the series, but it will give you a concentrated taste of how amazing Locke & Key is. In this new one-shot, which hopefully comes out November 23, the seamless creative team of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez evoke Maurice Sendak and Winsor McKay to create a touching and inventive piece of comics art. It also introduces new, fully realized characters while broadening the series mythology—two things Locke & Key seems capable of doing just about every issue.

I first picked up Locke & Key because I’d heard it was a solid supernatural horror story. That it was set in a coastal Massachusetts town like the one where I grew up ensured I would at least read the first miniseries. What hooked me were the characters: Hill and Rodriguez have created an incredible cast in the Locke family. The three children, Kinsey, Ty, and Bode, have seen their father killed and their mother crippled, and have so far spent four graphic novels dealing with the strange mysteries they encounter in the family home that they’ve been forced to move back into.

However, I didn’t get the horror comic I was looking for. Locke & Key is an intricate dark fantasy story that seldom seeks to scare you. Instead, it tickles your brain with a complex magical system expressed through an unfolding mystery, as the Locke children try to understand the rules at work around them, while their lives (and more than that, I think) hang in the balance. Locke & Key is the best dark fantasy story you could ask for, but it doesn’t do for me what I really want out of a horror story. I don’t mean to write one of those reviews that complains that the book doesn’t try to be something it’s not, but I do want to take a moment to explore the difference between a story that scares and a story that deals with scary things.

I wasn’t sure at first which one this was going to be. In the first volume, a voice in the well speaks to Bode, the youngest child from the Locke family, and it’s pretty damn spooky. However, once the spirit behind that voice is revealed, it stops being frightening—the first mystery is solved. Although Bode remains in danger, the writer sacrifices the kind of mystery and atmosphere that can scare the reader, in order to explain an elaborate supernatural back story.

As a comparison, I found the first half of the recent film Insidious downright terrifying. However, it quickly lost that effect as it stumbled through a complex exposition of ideas that could have been left mysterious. Another example is the FX television series American Horror Story, which I’m watching with great interest right now. The creators have built an incredible sense of mystery thus far, and I’m hoping they can maintain it through to a solid season finale.

Locke & Key doesn’t ever actually kill the mystery—it uses the mystery to propel the story forward by constantly doling out new revelations, uncovering new secrets, and posing new questions. It’s an utterly modern occult detective story. Like so many modern detective stories, the investigators are not actual detectives, and there’s an emphasis on detecting in a way MR James or Manly Wade Wellman never would have done. Rather than using the mysterious material for atmosphere, Hill and Rodriguez engage the reader in figuring out the rules behind the keys found in the Locke family house, the means by which spirits and intelligences interact with the living. Frankly, I find it hard to keep track of it all. Fortunately, the characters are so compelling that I don’t care. Hitchcock built mysteries around MacGuffins, structured so the viewer would be more interested in the characters than in solving the puzzle. Hill and Rodriguez split that focus—they give you great character stories, but require a lot of attention be paid to the complex riddles of the plot. I wish that the supernatural in Locke & Key was allowed to be more mysterious and vague, but I understand the appeal of putting the pieces together.

And there are good spooky moments throughout. The attack on the family and the death of their father has traumatized the children, leaving them haunted in more ways than one. A dream that Bode, the youngest, has in Volume I is downright scary, in large part because of how deeply we relate to him.

Bode’s nightmare is beautifully executed by Gabriel Rodriguez. I’ve heard people say that art as cartoony as Gabriel’s can’t work for a serious, dark story like this, just like I’ve had Hellboy readers tell me that Corben’s work is too cartoony for the character. I could not disagree more. Exaggerated anatomy, cartoony shapes, and animation-style character design can be used to great dramatic effect. Mignola’s own art is far from realistic. While I don’t think that scary scenes are the most important part of Locke & Key, there is a great deal of emotional darkness, and Rodriguez delivers it perfectly. Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips’s Criminal is one of my favorite comics, and I’d say Sean represents the apex of realistic comic art. Some horror fans might rather see Sean drawing Locke & Key, but there’s a heightened level of reality gained by art like Gabriel’s. Sean’s work looks more like a movie, and there is a lot that movies can do that comics can’t. But it’s important for comics to do the things that movies can’t, and Gabriel’s art, just like Mike Mignola’s, allows a comic to be more than a film.

The art helps makes the characters relatable here, but it’s certainly not the sole element. Today I was talking to B.P.R.D. writer John Arcudi about how few comics writers really aim for or achieve an emotional effect in the work—John is one who can. But so many comics plots play out like clockwork: characters react “rationally,” for good or for ill, in their own best interest, to the best of their ability. In Locke & Key, as in the best fiction, characters’ actions are determined by their emotions, their judgment is impacted by their moods, and conflicts lead not only to action, but to mistakes. Honest, unpredictable, emotional reactions keep the plot unpredictable. Characters don’t always do what we expect them to, or what other characters expect them to. This is a big failing whenever genre fiction isn’t truly driven by character, but by the writer’s concept of plot. When Tyler Locke decides to share the family secrets with a girl he likes, she runs screaming from the house, surprising everyone in the story. It’s the kind of thing that could have surprised Joe Hill; this is what some writers mean when they say the characters took the story out of their hands. Locke & Key has those kind of characters.

The children in the book are beautifully written, Bode, the youngest, maybe best of all. The interaction between the siblings, Bode’s wisdom within the limitations of his limited experience, Tyler and Kinsey’s self-loathing over what they’ve been through, and their difficulty in making and maintaining friends is all conveyed through nuanced characterization, both visually and verbally.

The ways in which they’re haunted by their experiences build the characters up over time. Kinsey observes Tyler working out his frustration by building stonework, but she can’t see that while doing it, he’s reliving the time he beat their attacker, Sam Lesser, near to death with a stone to the head. Later Kinsey, paralyzed by fear, vomits when she sees and smells white paint, reminding her of the day her father died. Her fear leads her to make one of the most questionable decisions in the series. The buildup of the guilt and emotion of what the kids lived through—survivor’s guilt in a supernatural setting—and how it’s all tied up in the villain Sam Lesser propels Volume I forward.

Sam Lesser himself is a great character. With four volumes complete, Sam Lesser stands revealed as a minor villain, although he holds center stage in the first book, when he kills the Locke kids’ father, cripples their mother, and traumatizes the children. He returns late in the volume, the pawn of the real villain of the series (so far), the Dark Lady (or Dodge or Lucas or Zack). In one of my favorite panels of the entire series, when the Dark Lady is trying to explain the complexities of Sam Lesser to Bode, Bode simply replies, through tears, “He killed my dad.” The Dark Lady says, “That’s not the only thing about him that matters, you know.” It’s almost besides the point that Bode says, “Yes it is.” The Dark Lady could have just said, “That’s not the only thing that matters,” and his reply would have been the same. After all the trauma we’ve seen, the pain Bode and his siblings live with, we share his ideas about what matters.

The climax to Volume I is beautifully structured, with all our expectations as readers keyed up around a showdown with Sam Lesser, even as the real villain, Dodge, has come into focus. Sam, the villain set up from the very beginning of the book, is dealt with (though he’ll be back), but the real villain has emerged to make readers eager to read the second book. It’s an elegant sleight of hand. We know Sam’s not the real big bad, but we’re satisfied by this resolution. (The actual showdown could have been staged more dramatically, but that’s like complaining about the fight scenes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, ignoring the fact that everything else is done better than most any previous superhero film.) The way Sam Lesser is used in Volume I is one of the things that proves the brilliance of Locke & Key. The reader’s focus is constantly maintained on the three Locke kids, building up other characters to just the right degree (although Uncle Duncan and their mother sometimes seem to fall out of the story, as if by accident). Sam Lesser is developed just right, humanized enough to seem real, fleshed out as a villain, but never made so interesting that our focus goes away from the kids.

One of the things that defines Locke & Key is a tricky, sometimes gimmicky approach to storytelling, and this is the one thing that does sometimes take me away from the characters, out of the story. The cleverness that drives the complex magical system also compels Hill and Rodriguez to do things that they couldn’t do in any other medium, like static backgrounds—consecutive panels using an unchanging background with characters and foreground objects moving incrementally. The technique was made popular by Watchmen, although it goes back further than that, but is often used badly to imitate some of the less interesting qualities of film. Alan Moore once told me that he might be guilty of focusing too much on being clever in his work. I agree that a lot of smart writing can be used to cover for writing without soul, just as that cleverness can get in the way of writing that does have soul. This is something Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Joe Hill can sometimes fall prey to. In Volume II, Joe indulges in a heavy-handed series of dialogue segues, where the line in one scene is repeated as the first line in the next scene. He does this a few times in Volume II, chapter 2, then stops suddenly, mid-issue, perhaps having decided that he was forcing readers to focus more on the dialogue trick than what the dialogue meant, and what the characters were going through.

The visual storytelling tricks are the most notable, though. The static backgrounds are mostly used to great effect, and for a reason—focusing attention on the little movements, or building suspense around a setting. Splash pages are also used mostly to great effect, particularly in a sequence when Tyler becomes a giant. Usually the splash pages are used for pacing, for throwing emphasis on a moment, but occasionally they’re overused, perhaps trying to make a scene feel momentous when it’s not. There are a lot of other visual tricks particular to comics, and unique to Locke & Key, and they’re almost always effective, if a little distracting.

After a second volume that feels very much like a middle story, fast and fun without a great sense of consequence, Volume III comes back strong, with a huge climax. Part of the effectiveness of Volume III might come from less tricky storytelling—as if when Hill and Rodriguez know they have a deeper story to tell, they don’t lean on the Watchmen-like tricks. With solid characterization and a big finish, as their mother really starts to fall apart, the only flaws I saw in Volume III involved extended silent scenes that didn’t always communicate as smoothly as they could have with a little dialogue to create flow, and characters who seem to be forgotten. Ellie Whedon, a friend of the children’s father who’s fallen under the influence of Dodge, disappeared for so long I really worried about what happened to her: nothing much, as it turns out when she finally reappears.

Locke & Key Volume IV, the latest collection on the shelves, was a little frustrating, only in that Hill and Rodriguez have perhaps the best story to tell since Volume I, but are so caught up in elaborate narrative tricks that the characters take a back seat. We miss out on scenes that we know this team could have knocked out of the park, had they simply taken the time to tell them in a straightforward manner. The first chapter is an homage to Calvin & Hobbes, a brutal story in which Bode is weirder than usual, and harder to relate to. Hill’s masterful kid dialogue takes a backseat to the Calvin references. Another chapter is deliberately disjointed, with every day of the month of February represented, usually in only a few panels. Given what happens in this chapter, it could have been the most crowd-pleasing sequence—or three or four—yet, but the fun stuff is glossed over, the most dramatic physical confrontations the kids have ever been through are breezed through in single panels. We also brush past some of the hardest moments Tyler’s been through. I know these characters well enough to know that this stuff must have been emotionally draining on them, but I would’ve really loved to have seen it, rather than have it summarized. Throughout the volume, friendships are falling apart, relationships eroding, and it goes by too fast.

Not every chapter is like this, though. The second chapter once again introduces new characters and new wrinkles to the mythology, and a terrific mini-mystery, all while getting into Kinsey and Bode with the same level of intimacy as the best parts of the series. In the fourth chapter, Sam Lesser’s return to the book is amazing, visually wild, and—most surprising after all that we’ve seen—sympathetic. With Volume IV, chapter 5, we get all the goods that Locke & Key is great at serving up: the characters are at their absolute limit—I was shocked to see such a showdown between two central characters, and how intense it became. It made an amazing conclusion to Volume IV, but the structure was complex enough that it became hard to follow. In chapter 2, when we followed the days of the calendar, the calendar itself came back into play two issues later, justifying the storytelling device. I can’t see the reason for breaking the climactic chapter in half, in two parallel timelines, but I’m willing to wait for the next volume to see if Hill and Rodriguez surprise me. They’ve got a pretty great track record so far.

For more genuinely scary stuff, check out Joe’s prose work. But for one of the most lovingly crafted and emotionally engaging comics on the stands today, you can’t go wrong with Locke & Key.

-Scott Allie, Senior Managing Editor - Dark Horse Comics

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