Category Archives: Comics

Comics III: Locke and Key

Locke and Key Volume 5

Locke and Key Volume 5

I recently read the fifth volume of Joe Hill’s graphic novel saga, Locke and Key. Hill is the son of Stephen King, and like King he tends to write on dark subjects. But King has never written a graphic novel, and in this way Hill has managed to one-up his prolific dad – Locke and Key is a masterpiece that blends complex, compelling storytelling with beautifully detailed art by Gabriel Rodriguez.

The first volume of Locke and Key, titled Welcome to Lovecraft, shows that the Locke family has just suffered a major loss. Rendell Locke, the reader sees, was violently murdered by two young men. The rest of the family is lucky to be alive. In other hands this kind of subject matter could turn lurid, but Hill and Rodriguez show us the family’s grief, and in so doing craft their characters into people the reader wants to root for.

For example, we’re shown the eldest Locke son, Tyler, at his father’s funeral. He stares in grief at the red urn holding his father’s ashes, then sits on a long bench in the funeral home hallway, while first one, than another of his high school acquaintances speak to him and make inane comments. As Tyler remembers an overheard conversation between his parents, the hallway changes to that of his home, and he sees a much younger self walking to his parents’ doorway. Then the hallway is once again in the funeral home, his uncle comes over and sits with him, and Tyler breaks down in tears.

Locke and Key Volume 3

Locke and Key Volume 3

Once the family has moved across the country from California back to the old Locke family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, we see that the middle sibling, Kinsey, is still reliving the time of the murder, when she held her younger brother tight up on the roof and hid from the killers behind a chimney. She bit her lip until it bled then, and when she remembers, she bites her lip until it bleeds again.

The grief of the youngest, Bode, is strikingly rendered in a panel that shows his reflection in that red crematory urn, holding the hands of his sister and brother. His face, drawn with large staring eyes, is the only one with features – his family’s reflections are distorted and their faces are blank. Bode says, “After my dad died, they put him in an oven and burned him up and stuck what was left in a jar. That’s called cream-making.”

Having made this family’s grief clear, Hill then introduces two tantalizing elements, the first magical key, and a spirit who lives in the wellhouse. As the reader discovers throughout the volumes of Locke and Key, there are many, many keys, and each one does something different. One makes you a giant, one turns you into a spirit, one changes your gender, one fixes what is broken – the list goes on and on. And that spirit in the wellhouse, it wants the keys, especially one key, the key to the Black Door.

Locke and Key Volume 6

Locke and Key Volume 6

Throughout the Locke and Key saga, Hill weaves an amazingly sophisticated tale involving the past of Rendell Locke, the patriarch who dies so quickly in the first volume, as well as the creators of the keys. As his children discover the magic keys, they also must fight the spirit who wants the keys, for the stakes are incredibly high. I myself eagerly await the last volume of Locke and Key, which comes out next year.

Has anyone else out there enjoyed Locke and Key? Any thoughts on the connection between Joe Hill and Stephen King? I welcome your comments!

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Comics Part II – The Sandman

Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman

Neil Gaiman announced recently that he is working on a new The Sandman mini-series that will be set before the events of the first The Sandman comic, published waaaay back in 1988. Since The Sandman is my all-time favorite comic and one of my favorite literary creations bar none, I was pretty excited to hear this news. There haven’t been any new Sandman tales from Gaiman since 2003, when the story collection Endless Nights was published. This new set of stories will come out in 2013 and answer the questions set up by The Sandman’s opening, including how he was able to be captured by humans, and why he was dressed for war.

The Sandman - an early cover

The Sandman – an early cover

So why do I love The Sandman so much? Oh so many reasons. But here’s a couple. For one thing, Gaiman masterfully presents many, many characters, each with their own distinct characteristics and back-story. There’s the Endless, seven brothers and sisters who have existed longer than gods, and are more powerful. The Endless include Dream (Sandman), Death, Delirium, Despair, Desire, Destiny, and Destruction. There’s the inhabitants of the Dreaming, like Fiddler’s Green, the Corinthian, and Merv Pumpkinhead. There’s the gods and demons Dream encounters in his adventures, such as Bast, Lucifer, and the Furies. And finally, there’s the humans that Dream gets to know, including Rose, Hob Gadling, and Nada.

The Sandman - Brief Lives

The Sandman – Brief Lives

Gaiman juggles many characters in this series, but none of them ever bleed into each other. They are all clearly defined, and not only this, but intriguing and surprising as well. And because Gaiman’s characters are so strong, the story seems to grow organically from their interactions. The world-building here is as solid as rich soil beneath your fingers.

Of course, the story in The Sandman is a carefully planned out structure. Gaiman apparently knew where he was heading the entire time, and planned for his series to end around issue 75 (this differs from most comics, which aim to surge forward endlessly – Hellblazer is an obvious example of this, since it’s been published continuously since 1988). One of the wonders of this elegant structure is the implication that there are so many more stories to tell than The Sandman gives us. I always have the sense when reading this series that each character could tell me so much more about their lives than what is contained in the pages. That’s an extremely tantalizing feeling.

So now Gaiman is going to give us a little bit more of the story that’s been hidden beneath those pages. I can’t wait. And if you haven’t given The Sandman a try, I urge you to do so. It’s compelling, terrifying, moving, beautiful storytelling at its very best.

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Alison Bechdel – Homes of Fun

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

I’m in the middle of reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother, a graphic novel by the author of Fun Home. Fun Home delved into Bechdel’s relationship with her father, a high school English teacher who ran a funeral home and was a closeted homosexual. At the same time that Bechdel gradually discovered her father’s sexual propensities, she also realized that she was a lesbian. Bechdel expertly weaves both references to Proust and Fitzgerald and personal anecdotes about her father’s fanatical restoration of their home and affairs with students into her first narrative of family and discovery.

In Are You My Mother, Bechdel’s new book, she uses an almost obsessively psychoanalytic lens to focus on her mother issues. Each chapter opens with the depiction of one of Bechdel’s dreams. This sets the tone for the chapter, exploring unconscious hopes and fears in thorough conscious detail.

As Bechdel dove into writing this book, she shows us, she discovered twentieth-century psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott and his theories about the child, the mother, and the child-mother relationship. Bechdel delves into deep psychoanalytic territory, using terms like The False Self and the transitional object to illuminate moments of interaction with her mother throughout her life. This approach seems both charmingly old-fashioned and sharply perceptive.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Reading this book, I’m reminded of my immersion in psychoanalysis for the thesis I wrote in graduate school. Even with misfires like the Electra complex, Freud stands as a towering intellectual figure to me. His consideration of dreams as completely meaningful and relevant to our lives is a supposition that continues to have ripple effects throughout psychology and beyond. I still wonder sometimes, how did Freud think of that? Not to mention all of the other ideas he came up with – the pleasure principle and the death instinct, the id, ego, and super-ego, the unconscious.

That’s one of the many strengths of Bechdel’s memoirs – they are so richly evocative. By laying her life completely bare and relating her own life experiences to the abstract concepts often contained in books, Bechdel demonstrates how deeply and densely layered our pivotal memories and experiences are. The unconscious keeps the imprint, even if the conscious mind moves on. If you read Bechdel’s two recent books, you’re sure to be reminded of your own childhood and all the permanent neural connections sparked therein.

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Diving into Comics

Sandman by Neil Gaiman

I first really got into comics and graphic novels when I lived in Rhode Islandwith P. Before that, I had read the first Sandman graphic novel by Neil Gaiman, as well as some other Sandman comics, which I loved. But buying that first novel was a bit of an odd experience. I went into Joseph-Beth in Lexington, looked around for a while, and then finally asked someone for help. “Oh, we don’t sell comics here,” he explained, brow creased. 

I replied that this was a graphic novel I was looking for, an actual book. He shook his head and shrugged. On my way out the door I stumbled upon a cardboard display that housed what I was looking for. Shaking my head in turn, I vowed to never bother Joseph-Beth with my comic needs again. 

So, I read the Sandman books (more about those in a later column, as they’re some of my all-time favorite books), and also some of the Kabuki line byKentucky writer and artist David Mack. But that was it. The comics shops inLexington weren’t large, and I didn’t feel compelled to venture into reading other lines. Little did I know what a curious and colorful world lay before me. 

P. told me one day that in his wanderings around Rhode Island he had come upon a comics shop inWarwick that had “Going Out of Business” signs posted. They were selling everything in the store for varying percentages off. This was a key point to P., as he absolutely prized bargains. Also, we were both very poor. He assured me that I should check it out with him. 

So I did. And when I got there, my bookworm mentality took over. There were boxes upon boxes of comics I’d never read, at dirt-cheap prices. I would perhaps never find such a treasure trove again (indeed, dear reader, I haven’t). Since Sandman was a Vertigo comic line, an offshoot of D.C. Comics that bore the “Suggested for Mature Readers” label on their covers, I was mostly interested in reading other Vertigo titles. 

Books of Magic

There were two titles that I tunneled through with the aid of this Rhode Island comics shop with the forgotten name. The first is The Books of Magic. Neil Gaiman wrote an intial four-issue run on this title in 1990-91, centering on the young Timothy Hunter, potentially the world’s greatest magician. I was lucky enough to find the original four issues of this, in each of which Tim takes a journey with a member of the Trenchcoat Brigade. These members include John Constantine (who has his own well-established comic line, Hellblazer), the Phantom Stranger, Dr. Occult, and Mr. E. After these journeys Tim concludes that he is indeed interested in magic, and will do his best to be a force for good. 

Gaiman’s initial foray into Hunter’s life was so popular that The Books of Magic became a regular comic line in 1994, with John Ney Reiber taking over writing duties, and Peter Gross as the series artist (Gross later both wrote and drew the series himself when Reiber stepped away from it). 

To say that this series is massively complex is an understatement. A powerful motif of the title is that there are many possible Timothy Hunter’s, including a twisted version called Sir Timothy Hunter who is under the sway of the demon Barbatos and uses his formidable powers for petty and cruel ends. Tim spends his youth unsure of his true parentage – is his mother the woman who died in a mysterious car accident, or is she Titania, Queen of the Faeries? (Titania herself is never clear on this point). When Tim runs away from home out of fear he will keep hurting loved ones, Tim’s beloved best friend, Molly, is tricked into Faerie Land while searching for him. Her transformation ultimately leads to their separation. Throughout the series, creatures such as manticores, mermaids, fairies, angels, and demons appear. 

The Books of Magic can be seen as a precursor to the Harry Potter books, and the series makes a strong statement on how difficult it is to deal with power. The comic is sometimes a little too convoluted for its own good, but its ambitious scope and inventive plotlines certainly make it worth checking out. 

The Dreaming

The other Vertigo title I discovered that Rhode Island summer is The Dreaming. This comic series basically takes up the thread that Sandman let go. Its main setting is The Dreaming, the land that Dream/Sandman is king of, and most of its characters were subsidiary characters in Sandman. This includes Cain and Abel, the brothers who first crop up in the DC Universe in the 1960’s as proprietors of the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets; Matthew the raven; the Corinthian; Lucien, the librarian of the Dream library (which includes books never written, only dreamed of); Mervyn Pumpkinhead the janitor; Eve, Cain and Abel’s mother; and the faerie Nuala. 

Many artists and writers contributed to this series, but the main writer became Caitlin R. Kiernan. To my mind, The Dreaming did a great job of elaborating upon the characters initially created (in large part) by Gaiman. Particular storylines, such as the Souvenirs and Dark Rose stories centering on the Corinthian (a serial-killer type with tiny mouths set in his eye-sockets), and the Many Mansions story, on the House of Mystery burning down, stand out to me. In addition, Dave McKean, who created all of the stunning Sandman comic covers, continued his amazing work for The Dreaming

There were inevitable comparisons to Gaiman’s Sandman throughout the course of The Dreaming, which was an undue burden on the series. Kiernan had her own vision, and the land of The Dreaming certainly provided ample storylines with which to play. The comic lasted for 60 issues, and I have every one of them. 

Once I discovered there were so many wonderful comics out there, combining artful plots, iconic characters and powerful artwork, I kept up my exploration of different titles. Comics are one of many inspirations I have found, and in future columns I’ll share more of my explorations with you.

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