While structure was always a point of interest for Locke & Key, volume four of the six volume series – Keys to the Kingdom – took the comic’s structural experimentation to a new level. This is obvious simply by glancing at the collected editions of all six volumes as they sit on the self: while the other five books have black spines, the spine of Keys to the Kingdom is white.
And it isn’t just the color of the cover that differentiates the fourth volume. While the other five volumes in the Locke & Key series are each comprised of six issues telling a somewhat self-contained story often focused on a single, specific key, Keys to the Kingdom by contrast is essentially five separate chapters, each of which tells a standalone story. Each chapter usually focuses on a single key, and are often experimental in structure.
For example, Keys to the Kingdom #1, “Sparrow,” is a homage to Bill Watterson – specifically, to the Sunday Calvin and Hobbes strip from September 19th, 1993, which depicts the eponymous duo confronting their own mortality after discovering a dead sparrow beneath the window.
However, it’s Keys to the Kingdom #3 that takes the idea of an extremely structured issue to the next level, utilizing multiple narrative techniques that integrate with one another like clockwork.
The main cover of the issue depicts a wall calendar, opened to February, with a bloody handprint smeared across it. The cover is something of a thesis statement: this issue is structured entirely around the days in the month of February.
One of the most appealing aspects of the premise of Locke & Key is it takes something ordinary, something with which we all have experience with – keys – and makes them the foundation for the magic discovered by the Locke family. The strength of this issue lies in exploiting that same relationship between the familiar – in this case, the calendar month of February – and the fantastic.
The story begins on Wednesday, February 1st, a fact the reader is made immediately aware of thanks to a Page-a-Day calendar in the very first panel of the comic. This technique will be the foundational element for the structure of this issue, ensuring that the date is in the forefront of the reader’s mind from the first page to the last.
We open on a hockey game between Lovecraft Academy and Voorhees High (school names are important in Locke & Key; see also: “William Gaines Academy”). Tyler’s coach tells him to get on the ice and “do some damage,” and in the final panel on the page, we see him stammering out a threat to one of the players on the opposing team. This is an important set-up for the turn of the page.
In the very first panel of page two, the Page-a-Day calendar appears again, letting you know that it’s now the next day, February 2nd. But the flip of the page also relies on another tool: in the two panels next to each other at the top of the page, Tyler closes his locker, mimicking the motion of the page turn and revealing the injuries he sustained during the previous day’s hockey game.
In addition to providing a visual gag as Tyler’s hockey injuries are revealed by the locker door, the fluidity between page one and page two underscores the fact that, even though each page represents a somewhat self-contained single-page story, they are nevertheless casually connected to one another, with the second page flowing from the first.
The final panel of the page introduces yet another element that will be used throughout the issue: a single panel referencing a famous comic book splash page. In this case, the panel pays homage to The Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967): “Spider-Man No More” (John Romita, Mike Esposito, Sam Rosen). Tyler abandoning his Oakland A’s fishing cap in the trashcan before turning his back and walking away echoes Peter Parker’s walk away from the trashcan containing his abandoned Spider-Man mask.
The Page-a-Day calendar in the first panel of page three reveals that it is now Friday, February 3rd. The page is comprised of three panels with a static setting, allowing the four characters – Tyler, Jordan, Brinker, and Zack – to provide the movement.
In one of the few instances of a day spilling over into more than one page, February 3rd continues on the next page. While the panel layout is similar to the previous page, the sixth panel of the sequence is split into two, taking advantage of the space vacated by the amorous Tyler and Jordan to add an additional panel focusing on Brinker and Zack.
Once again, the comic is self-aware of the turn of the page, with the bottom panel of Brinker casting his fishing line providing a rudimentary “flip book” (perhaps added as a small bonus for anyone who flips the page back and forth to check after the date). And Brinker makes an off-handed comment to another hockey game against Voorhees High at the end of the month, harkening forward to the very last page of the issue.
The Page-a-Day calendar appears in the first panel and announces that it’s Saturday, February 4th. It’s also worth noting that, just like a real-life Page-a-Day, a fragment of the previous day’s page remains on the corner of the calendar, yet another method of emphasizing the connected nature of each individual day and the cohesiveness of the month as a whole.
The page focuses on a scene between Kinsey and Zack. The top panel spans the entire page, with both Kinsey and Zack sharing the space. However, the next two rows are divided in half, representing the division that comes between Kinsey and Zack over the course of the page: while Kinsey wants to use the Head key to exchange happy memories with one another as a bonding exercise, Zack – who is actually the demonic Dodge – refuses, storming out of Keyhouse and leaving Kinsey to lament the fact that she is unable to cry.
In the first splash page of the issue, set in the greenhouse, the three Locke kids face off against a black rose plant creature that appears to be Dodge using an otherwise-unmentioned Flower key. Presented without dialogue, it is clear from the shape formed by the plant creature’s thorny vines that it wants the Omega key.
According to the Page-a-Day calendar – which is located lower in the panel, so it might not be the first thing the reader notices – the scene takes place on Sunday, February 5th.
Page seven is dedicated to the fallout from the battle with the plant creature. The top panel, which is labeled Monday, February 6th by the Page-a-Day, shows Bode making excuses to his mother. In the center panel, labeled Tuesday, February 7th, Tyler makes similar excuses to Jordan and Brinker. And in the bottom panel, labeled Wednesday, February 8th, Kinsey offers her own excuses to Scot and Jamal.
In addition to the visual trick of having each of the three Locke kids neatly (and narratively) aligned in the center of a page of three stacked panels, placing this page depicting the fallout directly across from the splash of the attack that caused the injuries is a neat visual depiction of cause-and-effect.
Page eight continues from the final panel of the previous page (Wednesday, February 8th). Like pages three and four (depicting Tyler and his friends in conversation), the conversation between Kinsey and her friends is set in six panels that each depict a static setting, allowing the characters to provide the movement within those panels. The echo between Tyler’s conversation with his friends and Kinsey’s conversation with her friends emphasizes the parallel nature of the two siblings’ storylines in this issue.
Page nine is set on Thursday, February 9th. In the first panel, Nina remarks that she loves all the space in Keyhouse, a seemingly innocuous statement that serves as something of a mission statement for this page. In the next row, a smaller panel is inset into a larger panel, which mimics Bode’s discovery: keys stashed inside a hollowed-out book.
In the three remaining panels on the page, Bode explains to Tyler and Kinsey how the Jester key works. He demonstrates that while opening the Jester cabinet with a regular key reveals the contents that Nina placed in the cabinet in the panels above, opening the Jester cabinet with the Jester key is akin to “opening the door to the Batcave,” revealing a closet filled with magical artifacts.
Page ten utilizes a similar idea as the one used to bridge page one and two: just as Bode opens the door to the Jester cabinet at the bottom of page nine to reveal what’s inside, turning the page is like the reader opening the door to the cabinet themselves. In a page split into two panels, we see the Locke kids involved in adventures with the magical artifacts Bode found inside the Jester cabinet.
In the top panel (Friday, February 10th), Kinsey wears the wings activated by the Angel key while soaring above Lovecraft. She holds Bode and Tyler aloft as a mechanical owl menaces the trio.
In the bottom panel (Saturday, February 11th), Bode wears the necklace powered by the Hercules key, which grants the wearer great physical strength. The panel depicts Bode wielding the Chain key in a fight against the Great Lock in the basement of Keyhouse, which has wrapped Kinsey and Tyler in its chains.
On Sunday, February 12th, Kinsey brings up her idea to swap happy memories again – only this time with Jamal and Scot. The top row is split into two panels, with the division in the center, right down the middle of Kinsey’s face. The gutter emphasizes Kinsey’s internal division, caused by her removal of her fear and tears.
The second row is a single third panel, with both Scot and Jamal sharing the gutter-free space, demonstrating the closeness between the two friends.
The three-panel structure is repeated again for the bottom half of the page, with Kinsey appearing in both panels of the nevertheless still-gutter-divided third row, underscoring the fact that she has created a division within herself by removing her fear and tears.
On page twelve, we see the consequences of page eleven. In the first panel, which is without a date, Jamal tells Kinsey they have to use the Head key to replace Scot’s sanity. In the second panel of the page, we see Scot performing Byron naked in the quad through the window, and the Page-a-Day informs us that it’s Monday, February 13th.
The third panel, labelled Tuesday, February 14th, sees Tyler giving Kinsey a tongue-lashing for her recreational use of the Head key.
Just like the previous page, page thirteen offers two separate days. In the top panel, Wednesday, February 15th, Bode and his friend Jay have used the Giant key to make themselves… well, giant, and are playing cars using actual cars when Tyler discovers them.
In the bottom panel, Thursday, February 16th, Tyler gives Bode a tongue-lashing for his recreational use of the Giant key, echoing the lecture he gave Kinsey in the bottom panel of the opposite-facing page.
On page fourteen, we see three days in three panels.
The top panel is Friday, February 17th. A group of squirrels, brandishing a sword and an Acorn key, menace Tyler and demand he surrender the Omega key. Tyler calls for the assistance of his conspicuously absent siblings over his shoulder, underscoring the fallout from the lectures he delivered to them on the previous pages.
The middle panel, Saturday, February 18th, is the first appearance of the Music Box key, which powers a music box that renders anyone who hears it powerless to resist the suggestions of its song. While this panel reveals that the Locke siblings have made amends with one another, the reunion is somewhat subverted by the fact that the Music Box is commanding Kinsey to stab her brother with a knife.
In the bottom panel, Sunday, February 19th, we get a glimpse of an ongoing storyline from the wider narrative of Locke & Key: Uncle Duncan visits his comatose husband, Brian, while updating someone (presumably Nina) about Brian’s condition. This particular storyline does not reappear in this issue.
Page fifteen opens with the Page-a-Day calendar declaring it’s Monday, February 20th, but this time, the calendar page has been spattered with a drop of blood. The first panel depicts Jordan in a pose that pays homage to another classic comics splash page: Kitty Pryde declaring, “Professor Xavier is a jerk!” in Uncanny X-Men #168 (1983; Chris Claremont, Paul Smith, Bob Wiacek, Glynis Wein, Tom Orzechowski).
While the page is comprised of three rows of two panels apiece, in the top row, the gutter between the two panels falls at the center, denoting the division between Jordan and Tyler. However, as the page progresses and Tyler wins Jordan over by helping her to study for a test, the panels begin to wrap around one another, embodying the growing intimacy between the two characters.
Page sixteen is divided in half. In the top half, which the hastily-torn-away Page-a-Day calendar tells us is Tuesday, February 21st, Kinsey and Scot share a panel as they make snow angels. The second panel is smaller and inset, denoting the intimacy between the pair as they agree to share one of their happiest memories with one another.
According to the increasingly blood-spattered Page-a-Day, the bottom half of the page is devoted to Wednesday, February 22nd. The first panel shows the fallout from the previous day, with Scot floating over the fact that Kinsey shared one of her happiest moments exclusively with him. The second panel, which is the same size as the first, shows the fallout from the previous page, revealing that Tyler has been so intent on helping Jordan study for her test that he’s barely slept.
The entirety of page seventeen is devoted to Thursday, February 23rd. In the top panel, Scot discovers that Kinsey has been using the Head key to share memories with Jamal as well as himself. The second row is evenly divided into two panels, with Scot in one panel and Jamal in the other. The division is an inversion of the layout of page eleven, when Kinsey appeared in divided panels while Scot and Jamal appeared side-by-side to demonstrate the closeness of their relationship.
However, the discovery that Kinsey is sharing the intimate experience of exchanging memories with Jamal as well as Scot has created a division between the two friends. In the final panel, Scot leaves Keyhouse hunched over and in tears.
While the Page-a-Day calendar is increasingly covered in blood and the pages are becoming progressively more tattered, it’s still readable: page eighteen is devoted to Friday, February 24th, and it echoes the previous page: Tyler discovers that Jordan, with whom he thought he was engaged in an exclusive relationship, has slept with Brinker.
The layout of panels on this page are inverted from the previous page: instead of a single panel in the top and bottom row and two panels in the center, page seventeen has two panels in the top and bottom rows and a single panel in the center.
In the top row, the divided panels are used to show the literal division between Tyler and Jordan: he is knocking on her window from outside her house to capture her attention. The lack of gutter diving the center row, in which Tyler sees Brinker in Jordan’s bed, emphasizes the uncomfortable closeness with which the three characters have found themselves in with one another. And the bottom row is divided in two to emphasize the break between Jordan and Tyler, with Tyler’s tearful, hunched-over pose echoing Scot’s on the previous day, emphasizing the similarity between their heartbreak and further underscore the parallel plotlines.
Page nineteen, which the Page-a-Day tells us is Saturday, February 25th, harkens back to Tyler throwing his A’s hat away at the behest of Jordan back on page two of the issue.
In the bottom row, Tyler digs through the garbage truck, and an inset panel shows his discovery of his hat within the garbage (echoing the way the inset panel on page nine that showed Bode discovering the keys hidden inside the hollowed-out book).
Page twenty features three panels covering two days. According to the Page-a-Day in the top panel, which is so bloodied and tattered it is barely readable, it’s Sunday, February 26th. Kinsey and Bode watch dumbfounded as Tyler, wearing the A’s hat he retrieved from the garbage, uses a pair of knives to single-handedly fight off a herd of murderous teddy bears – apparently brought to life by some kind of horrifying Teddy Bear key.
The bottom two panels show us Monday, February 27th. In the middle panel, it’s clear that Tyler has just punched Brinker, whom Jordan is helping to his feet. Outside the window, Scot and Jamal have come to blows in the schoolyard. In the bottom panel, the perspective switches to the yard a few moments later, as Kinsey and Jackie attempt to break up the brawl between Scot and Jamal. Meanwhile, inside the window, Brinker rejects Jordan’s help. The simultaneous fight in the two panels covering February 27th emphasizes how the issue’s parallel love stories have both culminated in romantic ruin.
Unlike the previous few pages, the Page-a-Day that appears at the top of page twenty-one is free from blood spatter, luring the reader into a false sense of security: Tuesday, February 28th. The page covers a conversation between Tyler and Kinsey on the seashore while Tyler fishes.
The conversation itself is an inversion of the lecture Tyler delivered to Kinsey a fortnight earlier, on February 14th, when he chided her for being irresponsible with the keys. On February 28th, Kinsey notes that Tyler is wearing the necklace that accompanies the Hercules Key, imbuing anyone who wears it with triple normal strength. Kinsey cautions Tyler that someone could get hurt, which Tyler says is just what he was thinking.
In a sense, this page is written as though it is the final page, with Tyler’s statement serving as a last line as the month of February comes to a close and the Locke family looks forward to an uncertain future thanks to the machinations of the Dark Lady…
But it’s a leap year. When the reader turns the page, the story isn’t over: there’s one final splash page – this one paying homage to Kirby’s iconic Captain America pose, as seen in Captain America #112 (1968; Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Tuska, Artie Simek). The reader’s eye is first drawn to the top of the image, and then follows the hockey-suited and blood-spattered Tyler down the ice to where the final calendar page sits, at the center of the bottom of the page.
The date on the Page-a-Day calendar is nearly obscured behind several splatters of blood, but it’s readable: Wednesday, February 29th.
While there’s a sense of surprise contained in turning to the final page, especially when the penultimate page seemed like an ending, there’s also a sense of inevitability: of course an issue that’s called “February” and structured around the calendar month would end on a leap day. Go ahead, flip back to the cover – it’s been clear since the very start that this particular February ran to 29 days. And yet, with the myriad narrative devices at work and the frenetic pace of the issue, the reader can’t help but fall for the misdirection, leaving the final page to serve as both a surprise and an inescapable conclusion.
Locke & Key: Keys To The Kingdom #3
Storytellers: Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Colourist: Jay Fotos
Letterer: Robbie Robbins
Avery Kaplan has written for sites including The Beat and The MNT. For more, you can find her twitter page here!
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