Welcome to Comics Are My Religion, a look at theology through the lens of comic books. There are some basic ground rules about engaging in respectful dialog about religion in this column. There be spoilers ahead, so beware!
Every once in a while, I have to scrap what I was planning to do for my column because I have just read something that caught my attention and stirred my imagination.
Today I picked up Locke & Key: Guide to the Known Keys, a special one-shot by Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez, and Jay Fotos. I was not expecting much out of this issue, as I thought it would be a recap of things that we have already seen in the Locke & Key series thus far. However, I should know better. This series has been nothing short of fantastic, and I give special thanks to Decapitated Dan for introducing me to it.
One thing I am utterly fascinated by in my study of religion is the idea of the afterlife. I have gotten to a place in my own faith journey where concern about what happens after we die is nothing more than an afterthought. I believe more than ever that the life we live today is much more important than one that may or may not happen after we die. Today is all we’re promised. In fact, in my faith tradition, I believe that Jesus cared much more about what we do in our lives as living people than whether or not we go to heaven or hell. Jesus speaks of a kingdom that is just at our fingertips here on earth if we all just love one another. It’s really rather simple.
But despite my theology concerning the afterlife, I do enjoy dreaming of what it might be like. The truth is that none of us really knows what will happen after we die. We are left with our hopes and dreams, and this can be a fun exercise of faith. I have found some really excellent depictions of the afterlife in film. Two of my favorite movies are What Dreams May Come and Big Fish, both which use the beauty of art and story to cast a vision of what it’s like on the other side.
Today I was surprised to find a similar beauty in this issue of Locke & Key. The issue begins with an historical tale of the descendants of the current Locke family. For those who may not know the story of Locke & Key, it’s very simple. There is a family who lives in an ancient house which contains numerous mystical keys. These keys are tied to a war between good and evil that has existed for generations. The main story focuses on Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode Locke as they deal with the violent murder of their father.
However, this issue sheds some light on the vast history of these keys, and one in particular. It’s 1912, and Chamberlin and Ian Locke are gazing at the full moon, wondering what is holding it up. Ian dreams of taking a balloon up to the moon to find out, but is crippled by a tumor that causes incredible seizures. His father struggles with Ian’s disease, wishing for a way to cure him. Chamberlin tries the Mending Cabinet, but it doesn’t seem to help little Ian. Finally, Chamberlin asks his friend Harland to craft a key from the mysterious metal in the Locke house, which will allow them to unlock the moon itself and see what lies within.
Chamberlin purchases a hot air balloon and gathers Harland and Ian into it on the journey upwards. The moon key allows reality to bend a bit, enabling the trio to fly up to the moon, as if it were hung on a stage, and unlock it. Behind the moon is a backstage area, just like in the thoughts and dreams that Chamberlin and Ian discussed. Ian is able to see wonderful and amazing things all around the world from his perch on the moon. Soon, they are greeted by other long-dead members of the Locke family who join them in the wonder of their heavenly seat.
We then realize that Chamberlin has brought his son here as a final destination spot, where he will remain, with Harland, who has an injury from the Civil War that he also cannot heal from, and the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Locke family. Chamberlin says goodbye to his son and flies back to the earth in tears.
Hill, Rodriguez, and Fotos tell this story in such a brief and beautiful way that it gives the reader hope even though the story is sad. There is an elegance to such tales, which have us teetering on the edge of joy and sorrow. We root for the one who gets to experience the wonder of life-after-death, while also grieving the loss of that special person.
Ultimately, while I don’t think concern about the afterlife should be the main motivation for how we live our lives, dreaming of such a poignant and satisfying end to life gives great comfort. There is something special about being greeted in the afterlife by those who have gone before. I find that when creators can craft a story like this one, without using the usual tropes of a heavenly realm with clouds, angels, and harps, it points to a much deeper and satisfying metaphor for what might be when we die.