Comics, Reviews

Pop Culture Update: Locke and Key

One of the genuinely distressing news of 2011 was the failure of the pilot episode of Locke and Key to be picked up for regular programming. This is bad for three reasons – because Locke and Key is one of the finest comic-books being published right now, and the success of the TV show would have no doubt brought in more readers to the series (consider how many people have read Game of Thrones this year, to get an idea of what I mean). Because from what I gather off internet reviews, the pilot episode is really well-made, with superb casting and a great script. But most of all, it sucks because a lot of shitty TV series got green-lighted at the cost of this. Seriously, makes no sense.

But still, the comic stands on its own. It is written by Joe Hill,  a man who, under normal circumstances, be known as Stephen King’s son; but right now, he’s known as the guy behind ground-breaking  genre novels such as Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It is drawn by Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Together, the two are magical. This book happens to be one of the most perfect collaborations I’ve seen, where the art enhances the story and vice versa.

Among the things that I love about Locke and Key is that it’s among the most structured comics I’ve read. Not a wasted, throw-away chapter, page or panel on this one. It helps that the story was already planned out into three acts, each act made up of 2 miniseries. This ensures that Hill knows exactly how his story is being framed, giving us just the right amount of information, teasing us with flashbacks and tertiary characters that flicker into the overall plot at the right time. Currently, we are on miniseries #5, entitled Clockworks, where the mythology of the world is being explained by a series of flashbacks. Which brings me to –

The fact that Locke and Key is one of those rare horror comics that gets horror. Which is not surprising, considering Hill’s literary antecedents. But really, do you have any idea how hard it is to do horror in comics without falling back into icky-gore-territory or ho-hum-shock-ending cliches? This book manages to creep into your head in strange ways – through childhood fears, unexpected plot twists, and by a genuinely frightening Big Bad Villain, one that manages to stay one step ahead of the protagonists at nearly every turn.

The first miniseries, Welcome to Lovecraft, introduces us to the principal cast of characters, the Locke family and the three siblings – eldest brother brother Ty, the sister Kinsey and the youngest, six-year old Bode. The death of their father brings them and their mother to their ancestral family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where strange things begin to happen. Bode, for example, finds a strange lady calling for his help from beneath a well. This is also where we start understanding that the tragedy that has befallen the family is not a random incident, but is connected to keys. Keys that do stuff, like turning Bode into a ghost. Or letting people go anywhere they want, or doing distressing things to their psyches.

Finally, Locke and Key is one smart comic that brings unexpected things to the fore on repeated reads. Small example: the second volume is entitled Head Games, and all the covers have a common theme.

In case the image on the right looks a little familiar, here’s why – it’s a riff on an iconic cover from the 1950s that was used by the US Senate to ban horror and crime comics. This particular cover was printed by EC Comics, run by publisher William Gaines, who founded Mad magazine later on. There is this legendary story of Gaines trying to defend this cover as tasteful in court. He did not do a good job of it – in his defense, he was completely doped up on cough medicine when invited to testify.

Oh, and the college the Locke kids go to in San Francisco, before they move to Lovecraft? William Gaines Academy. Ha!

But the smartness lies not just in homages or sly winks at the audience – the smartness lies in the way Hill seems to know exactly when to let certain characters take center-stage, or to subvert a known trope at just the right time, or to let a throwaway part of the scenery become a crucial cog in the battle between good and bad. The two, writer and artist, seem to have fun when telling their story, and that fun is infectious! One of my favorite single issues deals with epic battles and mundane day-to-day affairs, and there are those single-panel settings that hide worlds and untold stories in them, the kind that would make lesser writers milk them through crossovers and back-stories. Hill and Rodriguez do it in single wordless panels, the magnificent bastards!

All said and done, what is the series all about? It helps that every chapter starts with a one-page cheat-sheet, that tells you the bare bones of what’s going on and where we stand.

Locke and Key, ladies and gentlemen. The best fucking comic being published right now, BAR NONE. It helps if you get all the chapters and read them at one go, because every miniseries ends with cliff-hangers. And these are not your everyday, how-do-they-get-out-of-this-level cliffhangers, these are the holy-shit-this-did-not-just-fucking-happen kinds, the ones that make you grab for the next book in the series at 4 AM in the morning, even though your eyes are puffy and you’ve got to be at work at 9.


Comics you should not read: Shadowland.

Once every 6 months, I get that urge again. The need to sit my ass down with a pile of the latest in buzzword comics that I keep hearing about.

Buzzword comics, you ask?

Blackest Night. Shadowland. Siege. Dark insert-Marvel-title-here. Flashpoint. Final Crisis.

You know, the kind of stuff mainstream comics still keeps putting out, probably hoping that their latest offering will cause hordes of unbelievingly masses – the kind of sinners that do not read comics at all, or worse, read those fancy graphic novelly titles, or horror of horrors – manga – will suddenly discover a copy of Dark Avengers (not to be confused with Dark New Avengers, or Dark Mighty Avengers) in the spinner rack of their local bookstore. And then their eyes will pop and their hearts would beat faster, when they realize what they have been missing all along, at which point they burn their copies of Strangers in Paradise and Azumanga Daioh, and spend the rest of their lives finding out every single issue where the Avengers have appeared in, just so  they can understand Dark Avengers completely.

Yes, I probably went overboard with the sarcasm. But seriously?

Fuck. This. Shit.

My latest incursion into this buzzword comics mess was something called Shadowland. All I knew about it was that it deals with Daredevil being more and more miserable, which has kind of been the theme of every Daredevil comic since 1979 (incidentally, I was born that year. That does not relate to anything I am saying right now, but just thought I would put it out there.) Apparenly this is what happened – Daredevil suddenly figures out that he owns The Hand. Which sounds vaguely dirty, but what we’re referring to here is a medieval group of ninjas that’s been a thorn in Murdock’s path ever since Franky Miller did things his way, mashing up Hell’s Kitchen with repeated readings of Lone Wolf and Cub. Ninjas in the Marvel universe, just so you know, refer to human-looking characters that jump off rooftops and then die. They are also known for talking in genre-speak – the way someone from India thinks  a waitress’s speech patterns by watching True Blood, or an writer from the USA thinks a Ninja would sound like. Or, to put it more simply, Ashok Banker’s writing. Kind of like this.


Something as badly-written as Shadowland does not even require the kind of effort I am putting into explaining it, but let me see if I can break it down easily.

Everybody thinks there is a problem.












Yes, there is a problem. P.S The costume is now black.










Stop! Hammer-time! (Nothing like a fight sequence for plot development)











It's not his fault. He's just possessed.













The Japanese Hangover Part 2





















Oh yeah, and somewhere in the story, just to show how dark and edgy Daredevil has become, this happens.


















Yes. Nothing that says ‘serious comics’ like a big fat kill.

There’re a bunch of tie-in books too, like every self-respecting crossover title should have. Needless to say, they add nothing to the story except for some more convoluted posturing of various characters who nobody would give a shit about. Moon Knight? Power Man?

I hate to think that there are people paying for this crap, or that there will be actual paper wasted to reprint these books as hardcovers and then trade paperbacks. That a bunch of ‘creative’ people still get together to come up with storylines like this, and there are editors who allow dialog and plot twists like this to tell a story, in this Age of Postmodern Irony, shows a lack of storytelling sense 101. Rating: 4 stars, out of a possible 4000.



War and Pieces

If, for any particular reason, you want to stop reading Fables, issue 75 would be a good place to hop off. Because this issue is what it was all leading to. All that build-up, all the peripheral characters, the sidetracked storylines, everything comes together in ‘War and Pieces’, the three-issue storyline that concludes in #75. This is how Bill Willingham would have ended the series had Fables not become the bestselling, spinoff-producing behemoth that it has become . The story will continue, but will it be the same? I really, really hope so. On top of it, James Jean, cover artist extraordinaire – the man responsible for establishing the classical, definitive look of the Fables comic – is bowing out to pursue a career in fine arts. Issue 82 is his last.

The short-term consequence of this is the abandonment of all hope I had of owning an original Jean Fables cover. In the long run, I foresee the end of the five-year Eisner award winning streak that the series has had for Best Cover Artist. Unless they get someone worthy enough to fill Jean’s shoes. The problem is that regular cover artists like Adam Hughes and Brian Bolland, both of whom I adore completely, lack that otherworldly painted style that Jean brought to Fables. Tara McPherson, for instance, who painted that Frau Totenkinder story in 1001 Nights of Snowfall has that special spark. So does Sam Weber, who’s done some amazing work for Vertigo’s House of Mystery, with Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges. Ah, well, we shall see who editor Shelley Bond goes with, the official announcement should be out soon.

And in more news, All Star Batman and Robin #10 was recalled from retailers by DC. Here’s why.


On perfect endings

I read the first 16 issues of Y The Last Man in white-heat mode one 2004 night. After that, every couple of months, there would be an influx of fresh issues that I would consume as soon as I could. I said this then, and I will say it again now – I had no clue of where the story was going or how it would end, Brian K Vaughan’s plots devilish enough to batter my mind into enfeebled submission at the end of every issue. I generally pride myself on figuring out the inner workings of a story, having subscribed to and mapped Campbellian ideas of myths and storytelling from the time I figured out who Campbell was and where I could get ahold of Hero Of A Thousand Faces. ( Damn, I sound like a sanctimonious bastard, don’t I? Nothing new about that, eh? ) But BKV stumped me at every turn of the plot, his characters becoming more than heroes and villains and bad guys and good guys and….uh…I meant bad girls and good girls, sorry about that.

And then I decided, at the end of issue 39, that enough was enough. I couldn’t stand it any longer. None of that waiting business for me, Mr Cliffhanger-Loather. So I gave up reading Y. Let it finish, I said to myself, and then I’ll finish it, in a single session of orgasm-inducing eye-humpery. The series was scheduled to last 60 issues, and that was just another two years or so away.

So issue 60 of Y The Last Man came out this week, and after getting my hands on it today, I sat down and did what I had promised myself I would, and read all 60 issues at one go.

I love you, Mr Vaughan.

What a ride! BKV tells his story as if he has all the time in the world, negotiating a huge supporting cast and a multitude of subplots with the skill of a Chess Grand Master. Needless to say, this series ranks up there with Vertigo’s finest – Moore’s run on Swamp Thing, Gaiman’s Sandman, Ennis’s Hitman and Preacher – the last one having been cited by Mr Vaughan as one of his inspirations for his approach to the series. It shows in the narration of the origin sequences of the characters, as we are given layers of their motivations and lives peeled away little by little towards the beginning, and the denouement that begins about halfway into the series, as small things fall into place. Red herrings and MacGuffins abound throughout, because this series is in part a mystery, or rather, a series of mysterious events unfolding one after the other. When I read issue 1 again today, I was struck by how much of groundwork Vaughan lays down in the very first issue, something Ennis did not do in Preacher until the end of the first arc.

As the series draws to a close, there are single issues devoted to tying up loose ends to EVERY SINGLE subplot and character that was introduced, I kid you not. The most important MacGuffin is revealed, quickly followed by one of the saddest moments in recent comics. The ending to issue 58 – mother of God, Vaughan, how could you??

There was something I had been agonizing over the last couple of months – what if the payoff, the ending to this great series is something that completely pissed all over the reader? The cover to issue 60 really freaked me out, because it can be interpreted in a very very nasty fashion. But you know what? The last issue was Perfect. The last panel actually had me gaping at the page for quite some time and just trying hard not to tear up. I am really really glad that I didn’t read anything at all about where the series was going and avoided all the buzz until today – it helped. A lot.

And oh, let me not give Brian K Vaughan all the credit – it was in equal parts the contribution of the co-creator and penciller Pia Guerra and inker Jose Marzan Jr, supported by occasional guest artists Goran Sudzuka and Paul Chadwick. One of the coolest things about the book is how the art looked remarkably consistent throughout, even with the guest artists around. I suspect Jose Marzan Jr has to be given credit for that, for it was his inking that was the constant all throughout these sixty issues. Major brownie points also to the cover artists who designed such memorable paintings – starting from JG Jones on the initial 20-odd issues, Aaron Wiesenfeld on some of the middle ones and then series regular Massimo Carnivale.

I know you guys are busy and shit with your life and work and your families and about how precious your time is and how you cannot be spending too much money on buying graphic novels, but you know what? Give up a day of your life and read this series. You will be glad you did.