Welcome back to the reread of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s dark comic series, Locke & Key! The fourth installment, “Keys to the Kingdom,” picks up very closely on the heels of the third. This reread contains spoilers, so proceed at your own risk. This one’s going to be broken down a bit differently than previous rereads, since this storyline was structured like connected stand-alone episodes.
What Happens: The first episode, “Sparrow,” is a wonderful tribute to Bill Watterson, creator of the great Calvin and Hobbes comic strip. We see the story from two perspectives on a snowy day: one from the young Bode drawn in homage to Watterson’s style with Bode looking very much like Calvin, while the other perspective follows the other Locke children. Bode’s teacher speaks with Nina about Bode’s lack of friends, despite his imagination and intelligence. Kinsey, meanwhile, blurts out her love for Zack Wells and argues with her brother.
Bode finds the Animal Key, which allows him to take the form of an animal—in this case, a sparrow. After Zack and Kinsey break away from each other, Zack/Dodge finds the Animal Key Door and emerges as a large black wolf. When one takes the form of an animal, Bode and Dodge realize, one can communicate with that species. As such, Dodge and some other wild dogs attack Kinsey and Ty after feasting on a doe. Bode becomes a member of flock of sparrows, hundreds of them, and sees the canines attacking his siblings. The flock attacks the wolves, sacrificing many of the birds to save Ty and Kinsey. When Bode sees the dead birds, he weeps and his siblings embrace him. This first chapter/issue ends with young Bode making friends and playing in the snow.
In the second episode, “White,” the Locke children and Zack/Dodge are walking past an old black woman in a wheelchair, being wheeled by a black nurse, who blurts out the name “Rendell.” When the nurse asks the old woman, Mrs. Voss, to calm down, Kinsey recognizes the name from the wall of the Drowning Cave. Kinsey realizes she might be able to learn more about her father, but the two orderlies outside inform the kids that Mrs. Voss is a patient at McClellan Psychiatric Hospital by pointing to the sign. Kinsey can’t initially figure out a way to get into the institution until Bode shows her the Skin Key, which allows a person to change their skin color. Dodge also realizes he must address the situation of Mrs. Voss recognizing him—he can’t allow any loose ends in his quest for the Omega Key. Using the Gender Key, he visits a bar the orderlies frequent and entices them to help gain entrance to the hospital; he can then use the Anywhere Key to enter the hospital in secret. When the Locke kids arrive after using the Skin Key to disguise themselves as black, they find the orderlies with whom they spoke the previous day murdered. Kinsey uses the Head Key on Mrs. Voss and sees a white empty void, except for the recent murders and two names on a wall in blood: Dodge’s name with an omega sign and Rendell’s name with his face in a heart. A nurse sees Kinsey as the black girl; at the end of the episode, Kinsey’s disguised face appears on the news as the main suspect for the murder of the orderlies.
The third episode, “February,” takes place over the course of the month and begins quite bloodily during one of Tyler’s high school hockey games. A goon has taken out a few players and Tyler is asked to get on the ice. When next we see Tyler, he’s broken and bruised.
Over the course of the issue, more keys are discovered, through each is seen for at most a page, and some only a few panels. There’s the Hercules Key, which imparts great strength and power; the Acorn Key, which allows the bearer to control plants; the Toy Key (which looks like a Jester’s Key actually), which opens into a treasure trove of wonderful toys; the Angel Key, which a confers wings upon its bearer; and the Music Box Key, which paralyzes those within range of the magic music box. Each of these keys is used to combat or escape from further plots by Dodge to acquire the Omega Key.
Throughout February, the Locke kids have some relationship issues: Lindsey causes strife between her two friends Scot and Jamal; Ty discovers his girlfriend Jordan is cheating on him with his best friend. In the end, Kinsey and Ty have a bit of a reconciliation and February ends with Tyler using the Hercules Key during a Hockey game.
The fourth episode, “Casualties,” focuses on Bode and Rufus, Ellie’s mentally handicapped son. They play with Rufus’s toys and dub themselves Squadron Strange—a tribute to 1960s war comics featuring (from Marvel) Nick Fury and (from DC Comics) Sgt. Rock. Here it is revealed that Rufus can speak to Sam’s ghost, which has been wandering around for a few issues now. Sam warns Rufus that Zack can’t be trusted and also reveals more of his own past. Zack returns and intimates that Rufus should keep his mouth shut. The episode ends with a few panels featuring Duncan visiting his boyfriend Brian in the hospital. Brian wakes and asks about “the kid” who was in the house when he was injured, referring of course to Zack.
Also of note in this issue: Tyler begins wearing glasses and also starts to realize Zack is not all that he seems.
The last two issues tell a connected story entitled “Detectives” where Tyler comes into his own. Although he had previously suspected Zack of mischief (to say the least), Tyler now takes a hands-on approach to learning about the young man who would be his friend and begins piecing together the evidence of Zack’s strange behavior and appearances. When Dodge/Zack is partaking in a fencing tournament, Tyler visits Ellie’s house, where Zack has been residing. Dodge/Zack arrives home via the Anywhere Key and quickly uses the Music Box Key to freeze Tyler.
While Tyler is frozen, Dodge/Zack goes downstairs to deal with Detective Mutuku, who arrives asking questions. Dodge fully reveals his nature, attacking Mutuku as well as stabbing Ellie and biting off her lip. However, we do see a glimpse of Zack when he apologizes while stabbing Ellie. When Bode stumbles into the fight, Dodge takes Bode as his hostage and leaves Rufus to hold his dying mother in his arms. Dodge escapes via the Anywhere Key and allows Sam to take over his body while Dodge takes conrol of Bode’s. This all part of Dodge’s plan to have Zack’s body killed, leading all to believe that the threat of Dodge has ended. The very last image is of Tyler with his back to the reader holding Bode, who is grinning quite evilly with the amber eyes of Dodge.
Commentary: Well, by the end of “Keys to the Kingdom,” a sense of overbearing dread is drapes itself over the tale, to a greater degree than before, as the monster the Lockes thought they destroyed is now inhabiting one of their own. But let’s take a few steps back, first. That first issue, “Sparrow” is a beautiful tribute to Bill Waterston’s Calvin and Hobbes. With Bode as the centerpiece, the common theme between Calvin and Hobbes and Locke & Key could not be highlighted more strongly: children see things very differently than adults, and adults lose something when they leave childhood.
In the second issue Hill & Rodriguez touch on race, and give us the mystery of Mrs. Voss. Hill takes a deft hand to the issue as the kids discuss the implications of Kinsey’s use of the Skin Key. She clearly recognizes Zack and Tyler (at least his resemblance to his father), but why would such an older woman know Zack? You’ll have to wait until “Clockworks” for that to be fully revealed.
“February” was a lot of fun and allowed the story to move forward, while introducing more keys giving the kids super-hero like powers. All the glimpses of the keys could be spun out into more lengthy stories on their own. It was a smart way to show that Hill & Rodriguez aren’t revealing the full story, which adds a greater depth to the tale.
The friendship of Bode and Rufus is highlighted in the fourth issue, “Casualties,” featuring Squadron Strange. Rufus may play a larger role in the conclusion of the series, but here he is threatened by Dodge/Zack. Hill & Rodriguez also managed to give more sympathy to Sam Lesser both by revealing his past and his willingness to help Rufus, even if it is mostly out of revenge.
“Detectives” is where shit really hits the fan as Tyler confronts the enemy but loses a potential ally as a result. As I said, the closing scene of the Dodge-possessed Bode serves to increase the level of dread and tension that will hang over Tyler and Kinsey in the future. A brilliant plan by Dodge and beautifully executed by Hill and Rodriguez.
Angel Key: Gives the bearer wings and the ability of flight once inserted into the harness with the wings.
Animal Key: When used in conjunction with a small door on the outside of the house, allows the user to enter the room and emerge as an animal that is able to communicate with other members of that species.
Chain Key & The Great Lock: Like the Vine Key, this one is glimpsed only on one page but shows Bode using the Hercules key to escape their combined embrace.
Harlequin Key: Opens a magical toy chest.
Hercules Key: Confers great strength and near invincibility on the bearer. In short, turning the bearer into Hercules.
Music Box Key: Like the Shadow Key, this is a two part device. When used, plays a song freezes all who hear its tune except the one he turned the key.
Philosphoscope Key: Permits the user to spy across long distances
Plant Key: This one is shown only on one page but it seems to give the bearer control of vegetation since the Locke kids are battling wild vegetation.
Skin Key: Allows the user to change their race/skin color when used in conjunction with its mirror.
Squirrel/Undertree Key: This one has something to do with squirrels and is shown only in a panel.
*Because some of these keys make their lone appearance in the one panel or page in this storyline, there isn’t any confirmation of the power for each key.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog and only has keys to his house and car. He hasn’t found any keys made of whispering iron yet, but he’s not giving up hope. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff and writes “The Completist” column for SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, beer, and hockey you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.