Locke & Key/Sandman: Hell & Gone #1 Review: An Unfocused Dream

Locke & Key/Sandman: Hell & Gone #1, the first chapter in the initially unexpected and then hotly anticipated crossover between two fantasy comics titans, is here. Beyond bringing these two series together, this story is also the end of Locke & Key's Golden Age saga, chronicling the tragic tale of Chamberlin Locke and his family living at Keyhouse during the early 20th century. With Locke & Key creators Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez telling the story, it fits right in with the tone and style they've established for the series. It's a tale buoyed by outstanding artwork and cartooning that gets somewhat distracted towards its end.

Hell & Gone #1 picks up years after the previous Locke & Key miniseries In Pale Battalions Go. Chamberlin Locke, nearing the end of his own life, is still grieving the loss of his son, Jack. He's become increasingly unable to move on after receiving a letter from Jack postmarked from Hell. Hill and Rodriguez center the story on Chamberlin's grief immediately by opening the issue with the ailing patriarch summoning Jack with the Echo Key, an act he's done repeatedly, thus witnessing the continued deterioration of his son's soul firsthand. With Chamberlin seemingly unable to resolve his grief, the point of view shifts to his daughter Mary, who, like her siblings, is a good bit more adventurous and reckless than their father.

Locke & Key's Golden Age fits easily into the established Sandman timeline, taking place early in Dream's captivity in Roderick Burgess's basement. Mary takes a trip to visit Roderick, having heard that he keeps a powerful being under his thumb, hoping that the entity will provide the means to save her brother's soul.

In this first half of the story, Rodriguez and colorist Jay Fotos juxtapose the world's natural beauty against the arcane. Chamberlin's visit to the wellhouse takes place on a bright, beautiful day, but all Chamberlin can focus on is his son's tortured soul. Meanwhile, Mary uses the Anywhere Key as simply as if she were opening the front gate and is unstartled when greeted by a child wearing the king of dreams' helm.

Locke and Key Sandman Hell and Gone Preview
(Photo: IDW)

The standout scene of the issue is Mary's trip to the Burgess manor. Hill's dialog serves the back and forth between Mary and the magus well. After that, Rodriguez alters his style in some significant ways to make Mary's visit to the captured Morpheus something special. He cloaks the panel of Burgess and Mary descending into the basement in darkness, letting the negative space and heavy ink convey the foreboding Mary herself must feel.

Rodriguez uses a four-tiered structure for almost the entirety of the issue but drops the form for the issue's single splash page, depicting Morpheus in his domed prison, Burgess and Mary in its reflection, and the prison's keyhole pointedly on display. Rodriguez's Dream is something special and unlike anything else from Locke & Key. He appears strong but lean, unkempt but with starlight still in his eye, almost unperturbed by his situation. Solid lines and Fotos' crisp coloring help define Rodriguez's artwork, but here the art team presents Morpheus in an almost creamy, painterly white with light grey linework. It's as if Dream pushes not against the boundaries of his prison but the boundaries of reality itself. The following page shows Morpheus again, this time from behind as if turning his back on Mary as she pleads her case in scattered panels across the page.

Rodriguez's brilliant cartooning skills are also on display in the following scene, as—with subtle movement—he shows Mary using the Anywhere Key to sneak into Alex Burgess's room, converse with the child, send him on his way, and then gradually fall asleep. It's all nuance and subtlety, small movements as he depicts the simplest motions to enhance the moment's intimacy, including the strange sensation of falling asleep.

Things change as Mary enters the Dreaming. Fotos alters his colors slightly to embrace Morpheus's realm's moodiness, which adds something distinct and different to the atmosphere, but the narrative seems to get distracted. The latter part of the issue reads like a sprint through the Dreaming, meeting as many characters as possible but not establishing why they matter. Abel and Cain perform a cartoonish routine, and Brute and Glob make an appearance, but it's unclear what, if any, real contribution these characters are making to the story.

Any Locke & Key fan who doesn't already know what an Endless or a Corinthian is may find themself lost during this segment of the story as Hill does not attempt to explain Sandman's mythology. For those who are familiar, there's a particular delight in seeing first hand the kind of trouble these wayward nightmares were up to during Morpheus' exile, something that The Sandman only tells us about while depicting the aftermath. The last page is a subtle Sandman callback that will put a smile on the face of anyone with the story fresh enough in mind to catch the reference.

While it's apparent that Hill and Rodriguez are having fun with Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, and Mike Dringenberg's creations, it's unclear if it amounts to anything more than fan service. Perhaps the second issue of Hell & Gone will tie Cain and Abel, Brute and Glob, Fiddler's Green, and the rest together in a meaningful way. However, we know from covers, promotions, and interviews that the key to Hell is central to this story's plot, yet the artifact receives no mention here. That suggests that the second issue has significant ground left to cover. Until then, this issue will best serve those who've read at least the first few volumes of The Sandman, but Rodriguez's outstanding artwork will delight any reader.

Published by IDW Publishing

On April 14, 2021

Written by Joe Hill

Art by Gabriel Rodriguez

Colors by Jay Fotos

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