Imagine the difficulties of designing a house. Change the tiniest detail—add a couple square feet to the closet off the master bedroom, say, or make the ceilings on the ground floor six inches higher—and that decision reverberates through the rest of your plans. An architect, I imagine, must always have an overarching view of the whole.
It’s the same thing with storytelling: the best storytellers plan far ahead, and understand that each decision they make will affect the shape of what comes next and what has come before. The bigger and more unwieldy a story gets, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a clear picture of the aggregate. Too often in serialized media like television or comics, stories get away from their creators, and we, the viewers/readers, start to notice. (Does that doorway look crooked to you? Why would someone put a bathroom there?). A good storyteller must know their boundaries and keep their narrative within a predetermined footprint. A large element of this is simply recognizing when it is time for something to end.
Today marks the end of writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez’s beloved ongoing comic book series, Locke & Key, with the release of its stellar final issue, Locke & Key: Alpha #2.
The series, first launched almost six years ago, tells the story of an old New England mansion in a coastal town named Lovecraft, and the family that calls it home. A quick summary for the uninitiated: following the death of high school guidance counselor Rendell Locke, his surviving wife and three children move across the country to Keyhouse, the ancestral manse that has been in the family since the pre-Revolution days. The Locke children—Tyler, the oldest, Kinsey, the middle daughter, and Bode, their younger brother—soon discover that this creaky old abode houses a fantastic array of magical keys and doors, and that they must contend with a malicious and mysterious force named Dodge, who is desperate to get his hands on one key in particular.
Over the course of more than 35 issues, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez have provided a steady stream of suspense, scares, laughs, and occasional tears. When the penultimate issue—Locke & Key: Alpha #1—ended with an epic battle and the apparent defeat of Dodge, I was left wondering how Hill and Rodriguez would wrap everything up. Would this final issue deliver a surprising twist and one last challenge for the Locke children, or would the series finish on a quieter note? Without spoiling any details, I can say that Alpha #2 is closer to the second option. This is an immensely satisfying, character-driven coda that ties up many loose ends. It has a methodical, almost inevitable momentum to it, as Hill and Rodriguez give us resolution after resolution. As they have done throughout the series, they elegantly echo some of the visuals from earlier in their tale: a young man staring at his reflection, for example, or people assembled at a funeral; and there is a wonderful, moving moment that harks back to the events of the Bill Watterson-inspired “Sparrow,” one of my favorite issues of the entire series. It is largely a happy ending—if at times it feels a bit too pat, everything nonetheless works within the logic of the world Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez have created.
The bond between the Locke children, and Tyler’s unresolved feelings toward his father, are the heart of this series. As Dodge said in Alpha #1: “I guess this has always been about family . . . A small group, helplessly bound together by blood.” We get a satisfying conclusion for all of the Lockes, but Hill and Rodriguez devote the most space here to Tyler’s journey. The character has grown into a worthy hero: not the kind who dons a cape, of course, but someone who makes difficult decisions responsibly, who treats people fairly, who can empathize even with his enemy, and who learns from mistakes (his own and others’). For the first time in the entire series, Tyler sports a few days’ stubble, as though to signify that he has finally come into his own.
Facial hair is not the only thing that is different about this issue. The page layouts in Alpha #2 also diverge from what we are used to. Gone are the interlocking panels that have been a signature visual element of the series throughout. Instead, the panels here are all regular rectangles, perhaps another illustration of Tyler’s newfound assuredness, or the clarity of the Locke family’s world post-Dodge. Within the panels, Gabriel Rodriguez’s art is as strong as ever, with some wonderful character work and his usual attention to detail (just look at his beautiful rendering of the psychiatric hospital on page 15).
In “The Guide to Keyhouse,” a collection of architectural plans and drawings for the building at the center of Locke & Key (published in the 2012 one-shot “Grindhouse”), Joe Hill gave particular praise to this attention to detail—especially in Rodriguez’s rendering of the Lockes’ home. As Hill wrote: “Gabe is an architect by training. This shit matters to him. He has always wanted to know the house inside and out.” I would argue that Hill has been just as meticulous as a storyteller. He must have carefully mapped and remapped this tale countless times, always with the larger footprint—and the end—in sight. Locke & Key: Alpha # 2 puts a fitting cap on one of the best comic book series of recent years, and one of the best contemporary horror/fantasy stories in any medium. We are leaving the strange world of Lovecraft, but with the trade collections in print, we can always return. And with the efforts to make the series into a feature film, I get the sense that this story, these characters, and this house are going to be around for some time to come. Like the best work in the genre—that of H. P. Lovecraft, for example, or of Joe Hill’s own father—Locke & Key was built to last.