The Issue: 28 Days Later in ‘Locke & Key: February’
Welcome to The Issue, where we look at some of the strangest, most interesting and most distinctive single issue comic stories ever to grace the medium. You know the ones; silent issues, sideways issues, backwards issues... and issues that tell a whole month's worth of story, day by day.
“February” is the third issue of Locke & Key's fourth volume, Keys to The Kingdom, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Given the way the comic plays around with its format, trying to match it seemed like the right thing to do. So here are 28 reasons this issue is great:
1. It's such a neat fit. A standard issue of comics is twenty-something pages, your average Locke & Key is a little chunkier, so there's just enough room to fit in the year's shortest month.
2. Okay, so the conceit isn't a hundred percent new. There's that one great Mark Millar/Ty Templeton Adventures of Superman issue, “22 Stories in a Single Bound”, but “February” does something different with the idea. It's much looser, confining some days to single panels and letting others run over a couple of pages, and very few of them tell standalone stories.
3. In fact, the whole issue is pretty tangled up in Locke & Key's overarching story, but if you thrust it into the hand of a new reader, it does a pretty good job of setting up everything you need to know: This is Tyler. This is Kinsey. This shady dude with the black hair is his best friend and her boyfriend. There are magical keys and they do some truly weird stuff.
4. Speaking of which: there's apparently a key which brings flowers to life, leaving the kids to fight off an infestation of evil roses with the face of their nemesis, The Dark Lady. Which makes for a rather incredible spectacle.
5. But the story still stays grounded in its characters, given chunky humanity by Gabriel Rodriguez's art and flawed charisma by Joe Hill's writing. You don't need even the entire issue to start caring about these kids.
6. In fact, part of what makes “February” so enjoyable is that it splits Locke & Key right down the middle. On one hand, you get the series at its most soap-opera: teens falling in and out of love, compressed into a small space that captures the high emotion of those experiences. The first page is dedicated to an ice hockey game against a school of really bad dudes. It could almost be a more sweary Archie comic.
7. On the other, it dials up the fantastical elements more than the series ever has up to this point. Most times, a key will get an entire volume, or at least an issue, dedicated to exploring the metaphor behind its power. Here we get a half-dozen quick ideas that couldn't support entire stories but make for incredible one-off visuals.
8. Like this:
9. These glimpses are smart because, with the back half of the series pushing deeper into out-and-out fantasy, they help the reader acclimatize.
10. By alternating the two elements, angsty melodrama and thrilling action, you pretty much get a perfect microcosm of what Locke & Key is. If you're not going to start at the start --- and you really should --- then you could do worse than checking this issue out as a sampler of the entire series.
11. Okay, it's probably time to mention the acorn key and the evil squirrels:
12. Check out that one angry little guy wielding what is either a really tiny sword or an especially sharp letter-opener.
13. Under the cover of these kinds of wacky adventures, Hill and Rodriguez sneak in elements that will be vital to the plot issues and even volumes later. The new keys. The fishing lure. The dates.
14. That last one is particularly smart. A few issues later, Tyler looks over a calendar of this month's events, and spots something that --- unless you're paying really close attention --- you likely missed: all the action happens on the weekends. It's a key plot point hidden right in the format of this issue.
15. It's also a metaphor, probably. "All the action happens on the weekend" sounds a lot like I remember the school week feeling at the time.
16. At its best, this really does feel like the passage of days and weeks. The segments are uneven --- some days nearly empty, others packed, especially similar to the way time feels in your memory. At the same time, the details of Rodriguez's art give a smooth impression that these are concurrent days. Characters visibly heal from injuries, the winter snow slowly thaws in the background.
17. Speaking of Rodriguez, those single-image adventures feature some of the most remarkably compact storytelling you'll find in comics. He crafts panels that encourage you to study the details and infer how the characters got to this point, and what might happen next.
18. On the other end of the spectrum, he also does a great line in simple wide shots where the framing doesn't change for a number of panels, putting the emphasis on characters' smallest actions.
19. ... Seriously, though, evil squirrels.
20. I said earlier that the keys in this issue couldn't support their own stories, but then there's the mind-controlling music box, playing a song that must be obeyed until the music stops. That concept is at very least worthy of its own Buffy episode, but honestly it could probably support an entire horror series.
21. The issue also finds space to explore an old idea from a new angle. The Head Key is probably the series' best invention --- a key that unlocks the top of your skull so all your personality and memories are visible, ready to be plucked out. Here, it's used as a way of sharing memories, the ultimate form of intimacy between two characters. Exposing your secrets and your body to someone for the first time, all in one handy evocative metaphor.
22. Throughout the issue, tension keeps building. There's an implicit promise, or threat, in the ticking clock of those dates. And just in case you missed that, the calendar pages announcing them start to get flecked in blood as the end of the month approaches. It's like Watchmen's Doomsday Clock, squashed into a single particle of page furniture.
23. When this pays off, it turns out the blood doesn't come from the horror or action parts of the comic, but from the soap opera, as the romantic complications turn to good old-fashioned fisticuffs. The tension is relieved by diverting from one genre to another --- these are characters you care about getting hurt, but at least they're not being hurt.
24. Have I enthused about the squirrels yet? Okay, but what about the evil teddy bears?
25. Actually, I could have picked almost any of the chapters from this volume of Locke & Key to have focused on. Keys to The Kingdom mostly consists of one-off issues with a single tight concept --- which, in case you haven't noticed, is precisely my jam. And they're almost all playing around with the fact that they're comics. There's one issue that pastiches comics like Weird War Tales, and another centered around a Calvin & Hobbes homage.
26. In fact, this very issue features riffs on "Spider-Man No More" and Kitty Pryde's classic anti-Xavier exclamation:
27. The comparison I often reach for when recommending Locke & Key is a great TV show, especially when you're mainlining its trades back-to-back. After a failed pilot back in 2011, a TV version is apparently in development again --- but what really works in this issue wouldn't really work on screen. From the calendar pages to the single-image action scenes, it's dependent on being a comic.
28. That even seeps into the conceit of the issue, which transmutes time into space. It's kind of what comics always do, but it's more tangible here than usual because the dates draw our attention to it. And it does that, of course, by borrowing from the other object that turns time into visual space: a calendar.
29. Surprise! Because of course, having set up the 28th instalment as the issue's climax, this February turns out to be in a leap year. The 29th comes as a punchline, a final formal twist, because you've been quietly internalising the format the whole time. Hopefully, it feels weird, and that plays into the ambiguity of the comic's final image: Tyler Locke, smashing those steroid-taking hockey bullies from Voorhees High with the help of a magical amulet, splashing those calendar pages with yet more blood.
At first glance, it's a cathartic sight. But in the context of an issue where violence is a constantly threatened presence, it's actually a little unsettling. The book's de facto hero is sublimating all the emotional toil we've seen him go through in the past month into violence against relatively innocent strangers. As we saw one of his friends saying a few weeks earlier, “anyone who'd artificially pump themselves up to win a meaningless high school hockey game is beyond pitiful.”
It's also essentially Tyler taking the soap-opera elements of this issue and ramming them into the action and horror and fantasy of its other half. Given some of the places the book heads to thereafter, that's not exactly something to celebrate.