A gateway drug has to be a considered choice. Some will vehemently argue the classics. The Killing Joke. Watchmen. Maus. Transmetropolitan. All fine titles don’t get me wrong. But one shouldn’t just mainline that stuff right into a beginners eyeball. Its irresponsible. You need to ease them in, similar in fact to boiling a frog. You can’t hit them with a sledgehammer like Maus and I’m pretty sure you have be hopped up on Psilocybin to appreciate Transmetropolitan on your first* read through. You should also avoid stuff thats been made into a movie, you don’t want contamination, so nothing mainstream. Definitely no Batman. Your gateway needs to have an amazing story, great hero characters and a dastardly villain. But its also needs to be beautifully drawn and have a great ending.
*First, seventh, whatever.
Joe Hill is the pen name for Joseph Hillstrom King. The progeny of Stephen and Tabitha King. That should give you an idea about what sort of story this is. He wanted to succeed on his own merit and not because of who his father is, hence the nom de plume. Kudos to him. Joe writes and Chilean phenom Gabriel Rodriguez pencils and inks. Together they form the greatest duo since Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar. We are NOT worthy.
The comic is quite dark. But not so dark that it will leave you disturbed, sleeping with the lights on and nursing your new found fear of circus performers and Saint Bernards. Its more like a really dark shade of gray.
The story takes place in a fictional New England county called Lovecraft. A homage to the master horror writer that brought Cthulhu Elder Gods fame. The Locke family return to their old ancestral home after a recent tragedy and from there on bad things ensue. A mandatory requirement, great characters, is fulfilled by the deep, complicated protagonists, some of whom are deeply flawed. Even the supporting cast of characters is richly detailed. By the end of the series you feel like you know them all and you’re concerned by the nagging premonition that not all of them are going to make it.
The story ticks along nicely. When it began there’re was an agonizing wait between each comic being released (The series ran between 2008 and 2013). Now you can just buy the omnibus and binge read it all in one go. Therein lies its only real weakness. Being a comic book that was released bi-monthly you tended to pour over each release, finding all the nuances and re-reading each episode multiple times. It might lose something with a binge read. Still, I am confident in my recommendation.
It is the ending however that delights me the most. A lot writers tend to fluff their endings, bending towards weird finales that don’t seem to fit with everything they’ve crafted so meticulously up until that point. It’s like someone else swoops in and writes their final scene to appeal to some broad proletariat that would never have liked their work anyway. Locke and Key ends like it’s supposed to.
Comic books are a phenomenal medium for art and storytelling. Unfortunately many though beautiful suffer from an unforgivingly poor narrative. Others have a great story but look like they’ve been thrown together by a three fingered alcoholic with a crayon suffering from late stage Parkinsons. A vast swathe of comics straddle some form of middle ground between the two and meld into a giant sea of beige. All nondescript offerings that vaguely resemble each other, like songs on the Nickelback discography.
(For a while I ponder if that last paragraph violates my policy of not being mean. I decide to give myself a penalty for high sticking but rule that play should continue)
Locke and Key stands comfortably apart. It shows you what’s possible. And then leaves you wanting more. An exceptional gateway drug experience.