Title: The 49th Key
Written by: Erika Lewis
Art by: J.K. Woodward
Publisher: Heavy Metal
Release date: December 5th, 2017
The wonderful thing about comics is words and pictures. To paraphrase; you can do almost anything with them. But what about telling a story where music is a key component? Comics can fully engage one of our senses (two if you count holding the book, turning the pages) but sound is tricky. Sure we got onomatopoeia; BAM! POW! BLORG! But that doesn’t quite achieve what needs to be done in a book like The 49th Key.
A brief synopsis: The 49th Key is about a special lost child, a rogue university professor, and Enochian magic or “the voice of angels” as it’s better known.
The story centers on a (thought to be) autistic child named Bohdi. Either Lewis is a serious Point Break fan or his name is pretty on the nose clue to the child’s importance plot-wise. Since the opening page outlines the idea behind the forty-nine keys opening a gateway to enlightenment I’ll guess it’s the latter.
Bohdi doesn’t talk he just fiddles with tuning forks and gazes soulfully at things much to the confusion of his caretaker Elizabeth Young. Elizabeth is also researching an image Bohdi constantly draws that is connected to British Mysticism which leads to Dr. Rhett Kelley. Elizabeth takes Bohdi to meet the doctor. Kelley has a scryer rock that speaks to him in music and when Bohdi touches the rock things get all mystical. Kelley understands that Bohdi must be returned to his real home, Enochia. Then the bullets start flying!
The story is part of the subgenre where smart people unravel clues hidden in artifacts and ancient scrolls while being chased by ruthless, powerful (usually secret society) men with guns. Think Da Vinci Code, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or to a lesser degree National Treasure. The Academic Thriller!
The 49th Key is very much raiding the same forbidden temple here; Queen Elizabeth, scrolls hidden in tombs, kidnappings outside museums, theft of relics, and a climactic scene surrounding the MacGuffins. It is not a bad or overused sub-genre to be sure and there has been a dearth of them recently after the early to mid-aughts peak popularity. So the book offers something out of the run of the mill comics.
This genre lives and dies by particular rules. The Mcguffin has to be catchy, like the Holy Grail or a letter by Thomas Jefferson. The immense exposition required needs to be delivered in an interesting way. The scry stone is visually distinctive and since it shares McGuffin duties with an alien-ish type kid it’s fine. No creaking, cobweb-covered book of secrets but Bohdi as McGuffin also informs the personal stakes for Kelley and Young. The situation calls to mind a different kind of SF movie Midnight Special. 49th Key’s origins pre-date that movie so it gets a pass on that. Essentially the choice works. As for the exposition part, this book doesn’t have Tom Hanks explaining things to us so the writer has to come up with the solutions herself. Two things work in her favor: one is the use of music as the key; by using an abstract concept, virtually the antithesis of the medium the story is told in, a lot of the expositional pressure is released into the ether like the music notes emanating from the scry stone. The Enochian music is such an abstract that you’re forced to fill in the blanks. Two: J.K. Woodward. J.K. is an artist that has an uncanny knack for melding abstract concepts with tense painterly and/or realistic images. Check out his take on Ellison’s original script of City on the Edge of Forever if you don’t believe me. Woodward’s cinematic staging replaces the pressure with the kind the story needs to work.
The 49th Key is, at its core, a pitch book. Meaning the comic is basically a stopping point on the way to a TV or movie. There is no shame in that. In fact a few years ago actor, writer, producer, fixed point in time John Barrowman was developing the story into a mini-series. The fact that the story works in a medium that was not it’s intended final stop speaks volumes.
Some things are taken for granted; the will they/won’t they sexual tension between Kelley and Young would land a lot better in the hands of actors giving flesh to what feels like a required story beat. The mechanizations of the plot asks a lot of the characters whom the reader hasn’t had a lot of experience with, gaps that a mini-series could fill with more time. The bad guys’, while not mustache twirlers, motivations are somewhat vague. Erika Lewis is clearly enjoying herself writing this (the theft of the other scry stones scene ticks with a fun and clever energy). Woodward boosts the book past the narrative shortcomings creating an atmosphere in dusty museum storage rooms, dark cars with evil priests, and a vulnerable child.
In short, there is enough soul for The 49th Key to hang together. A musical style you’re familiar with but still enjoy listening to. A fun, if somewhat familiar, story told in gorgeous images makes The 49th Key a good choice while you’re waiting for that next Dan Brown novel to hit the racks.
The 49th Key is out on December 5th.