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Writer Joe Hill Talks to About Locke & Key From IDW

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Oct 26 2009 at 9:18am

Posted in General News,Interviews

One of the most exciting new series of horror comics is Locke & Key, from Joe Hill, a relative newcomer to comics who also has a successful career as a novelist (Heart-Shaped Box) and short-story writer (The Living Dead). Locke & Key focuses on a family that, after a horrific tragedy, moves to an old family manse in New England and tries to start over. However, the kids, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, keep stumbling over magical keys–keys a malevolent being, Dodge, is determined to get. Dodge transforms himself into a seemingly normal American teenager named Zach and befriends the family, but he also appears to be the reincarnation of a high school friend of their father’s named Lucas Caravaggio.

Full of humor, pathos, and truly unique supernatural elements, Locke & Key has been nominated for an Eisner, and two story arcs, Welcome to Lovecraft and Head Games, are available as graphic novels. The first issue of the third arc, Crown of Shadows, will be released by IDW on November 25. Fortunately, we were lucky enough to be able to speak with the very enthusiastic Joe Hill and pick his brains about where Locke & Key is headed, and what he’s liking from the horror genre in general: Where did the genesis of Locke & Key come from? What inspired it?

Joe Hill: Basically, the long-form genesis of Locke & Key is, I had written three or four novels that I was never able to sell, including one that I had spent three years on, and it was a total heartbreaker. I sent it to every publisher in the US and Canada and England, big press and small press, and everyone turned it down. So I was a really unsuccessful writer, and the only thing I had had any luck with was my short stories, and there wasn’t any money in short stories, and it’s not like many people read them. But there are some passionate short story fans, and I had written some good ones and had won a couple prizes, and got in a year’s best collection.

A talent scout at Marvel Comics had spotted one of these stories and had got in touch with me and asked if I had any interest in writing about men in tights hitting each other, and I thought it sounded pretty great to me. So I wound up writing a one-shot, an 11-page Spider-Man story, that’s easily the most horrendous thing I’ve ever had published, it’s just a terrible piece of writing. Basically, I choked. I blew it. I really wanted to do well, and wound up not doing a very good job. And the funny thing is, it sold pretty well, because it was saved by the art. The late Seth Fisher did the illustrations, and he made what wasn’t funny very funny, and what wasn’t tense very suspenseful, and so he kind of saved my ass on it.

It was a strange experience, because I knew I hadn’t done a very good job, but I found the act of writing a comic script strangely addictive, and I had always had a comic book imagination. Most of my favorite writers were writers who had come out of comic books. Alan Moore, and Neil Gaiman. And a lot of my most important reading experiences had been in comic books, whether it was Watchmen, or Swamp Thing, or Dark Knight Returns, or Sandman. Like a lot of men of my age, I think for a whole generation of writers, the Vertigo imprint loomed large in our imaginations. So I didn’t do a very good job with the Spider-Man story, but the hook was in, and I wanted to redeem myself and do something better and keep writing in comics, so I came up with all these pitches, and I sent them around, and nothing ever happened with them. No one was much interested.

One of the concepts was for a kind of off-kilter haunted house story called Locke & Key, which involved this family settling into an old New England home, which was full of keys with unnatural powers attached to them. And that idea wouldn’t leave me alone for years afterward. I would keep thinking about it, sometimes having new ideas about characters, and keys, and events that could happen, and eventually I had some good luck, and my first book of stories came out, and I sold my first novel, and around that time, Chris Ryall at IDW got in touch with me about maybe adapting some of my short stories into comic books, and I came back to him and said, “Wait, I think I have something better.” And that was Locke & Key. One thing that really sets Locke & Key apart from other horror comics is it’s as much a family drama as it is a horror tale. What attracted you to that combination?

JH: One thing that often happens, when people do a horror movie, or a frightening TV show, or a horror comic, one mistake which often gets made is, there’s a big focus on the supernatural element and on the bad guy, but there’s no effort made to make the main characters likeable and unique and sympathetic. A lot of times they’re just types, and this is why so many of the slasher films are such a joke, why everyone laughs at them. Cause, you know, the teenagers in a Friday the 13th movie have all the emotional power of a paper target in a shooting gallery. No one really cares about them, they’re just there to be struck down by Jason.

For me, the first step to making a successful horror story is making sure the characters matter and are emotionally real and unique. You want the reader to invest in those characters and care about them, because then, when the guy shows up in the hockey mask, they’re really frightened for the main character, as opposed to just waiting to see how they get cut down.

So my intention was always to slow the pace down a little bit and focus on character as best as possible, and try to get the reader engaged in who these people are and see them as unique human beings, as opposed to types. But I think that’s true not just in horror–that’s true in every sort of storytelling. The first key element of telling a story that people care about is engaging them, making sure that they invest emotionally in the characters in the story. Because if you don’t have that, you don’t have anything. So Dodge is the ghost or the demon form of teenager Lucas Caravaggio. What was Lucas like? Was he always evil, and was he ever actually a teenager?

JH: In one sense, Dodge is the resurrection of Lucas Caravaggio. In another sense, he’s something quite a bit more, and quite a bit different. And we’re sort of revealing his true nature in the very first issue of Crown of Shadows.

You know, I was a big X-Files fan. Loved the X-Files, and I loved the first couple of seasons of Lost, but I think one problem with ongoing series, one way they sometimes go bad is they keep piling on the mystery. They keep piling on the questions. And after awhile there’s too much mystery. They raise more questions than they could ever possibly hope to answer. And so one thing I’m committed to with Locke & Key is making sure that when I raise a question, I have an answer, instead of continuously heaping on mystery after mystery. In each arc, some of the major questions get answered, so hopefully when we come to the end of this thing, the very final page of the very final issue, it will be about tying up the story for a final emotional resolution, as opposed to cleaning up messes. That would be terrible. No one wants to be in that kind of situation.

So in the very first issue of Crown of Shadows, one of the things that will be revealed is why Dodge is the way he is, and why he’s capable of such terrible things. Especially considering that once upon a time, Lucas Caravaggio was actually a heroic figure. Not a bad guy at all, but one of the best of the good guys, which is pretty strange to think about, considering how we met him and what he’s done since we’ve got to know him. In many ways, Dodge was as likable as Kinsey or Tyler. Speaking of Kinsey, in Head Games, she literally removed her fear and her ability to cry from her brain. Would that essentially lead her down the same road that Lucas went?

JH: I’m not gonna say anything about where Kinsey’s headed as a character, looking ahead. I will say that, one of the things that I think is important when you’re telling a fantasy story or a horror story, is that it’s more satisfying for readers if that element of fantasy somehow raises bigger questions about real life.

So in the case of Kinsey losing her fear and her ability to cry, it’s an exaggerated look at what happens anyway to a lot of teenagers. At some point in high school, kids will often become very reckless, and develop a willingness to engage in very dangerous behavior, and take risks that they should probably know better about. So now we have that with Kinsey in exaggerated form, and it’s just an interesting way to look at a very common passage for most teenagers–a very common life passage. Can you tell us more about the questions that will be answered in Crown of Shadows?

JH: Let’s see. Well, we’re going to see a lot more of what makes Dodge tick. And we’re going to find out a little bit more about Sam Lesser. And we’re going to learn a little bit more about the Omega Key, which opens the black door. I don’t want to give it away–I want to avoid saying too much and telegraphing what we’re going to do. What I will say is there’s a big reveal on the last page of the last issue, and we’ll get an answer to one of the big questions that has been hanging around the story. Can you tell us whether Sam is there as an agent of Dodge or if he has his own agenda?

JH: Well, I’ll say this. When we first met Sam, Sam was being sort of manipulated by Dodge, and Sam is sort of a pathetic, frightening character, although I like to think it’s possible to have some sympathy for him, even though he’s committed terrible acts. But when we meet him again, his relationship with Dodge is going to be radically changed. I’ve heard that Locke & Key is going to be six miniseries. Do you think it could continue past that, or is that the end?

JH: Well, once I tell the story of Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, I’ll be done with that. That doesn’t necessarily mean there will never be any more Locke & Key stories, but I will have told the story I want to tell. It’s important to remember that when I started Locke & Key, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I was still very green with this, I had only written three 11-page comic book stories, and when I did it, I had two notions. One was that it could be a continuing thing that would run somewhere between 36 and 48 issues. And I had a lot of the story plotted out. But I also wasn’t sure it would succeed–it could have tanked, or been a big bomb–so I also had a plan for six issues, and then if this thing had completely tanked, I had an escape hatch where I could finish the story in another six issues. And it wouldn’t have been very good, but it wouldn’t have been shameful, either.

Fortunately the comic did well, it’s been well received, it’s continued to build its readership, so I get to do the daydream, and I get to explore these stories in a very full kind of way. It’s taken me a little bit of thinking to figure out how many issues it’s going to take to tell the story, but I don’t like it when things are stretched out. So it’s possible that the series could go as many as 48 issues, but I’m aiming for 36, and I think it’s possible. I think I can tell everything I need to tell in 36. We’re going to see, though. What was it like switching from writing prose to scripting comics?

JH: I find writing comic book scripts incredibly addictive. I think it’s because the comic book form really plays to my strengths as a writer, while sort of hiding my weaknesses. It allows me to play with big, weird concepts and to build stories around dialogue and action, and I don’t have to worry about the stuff that really makes me sweat, stuff I really fret over as a novelist and short story writer–the sound of my prose, and finding a balance between description and forward motion. Because comic books are all about forward motion. Every comic book has the gas pedal pushed to the floor. As a writer and as a reader, I love that.

Another thing that attracted me to comics is I felt it would be an extension to something I had already figured out. I had already figured out how to write a pretty good short story, so I felt that comic books would offer me a chance to expand on that, maybe with a larger audience. I feel like the first really successful script I wrote was the first issue to Welcome to Lovecraft. Do you think you will stick with horror in the future, or will you branch out to other genres?

JH: I don’t know, exactly, that’s a hard one to answer. One thing is, because I do do other kinds of writing, I’ve always got a novel, I’ve always got a couple short stories I want to work on, so I try to strike a balance. I don’t think I’ll ever be carrying four or five comics at once. I’ve never been a guy who’s really hung up on cape stories. It’s been years and years since I followed the continuing adventures of super anything. I read a lot of comics–I generally read about a comic a day. But the comics I tend to read are Ed Brubaker’s Criminal and Darwyn Cooke’s Parker, Wormwood. It’s very rarely the superhero stuff. So I don’t know. But I love to write stories that have a big engine in them. I like to write stories that are suspenseful. I like the keep the gas pedal down, so I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll always write horror comics, but it’s important that there always be an element of suspense. This interview is for horror month, and there’s been a big upswing in horror lately, in movies, and TV, and things like that. What are you attracted to in horror stories in general?

JH: I like when there’s something fresh. I like going and seeing something new and unexpected. I think that what makes Zombieland such a blast of a film, is that the suspense and the action are tense and very well paced, but it also takes the audience in very startling and unexpected directions. I don’t need a rehash of something I’ve already had. So that’s one thing I look for.

And you know, it returns us to where we started our conversation: I also look for a character I can latch into. If I really care about that main character, I will read almost anything. So Zombieland was great. The remake of The Last House on the Left was pretty awesome. It’s brilliant, and very upsetting. It was cool because no one called it in. No one treated it like they were making trash. They all acted like they were in a straight drama, and it made it much more intense. So that was good.

In terms of what’s going on in comics, I like a lot of the crime stuff that’s going on right now. I really like what Ed Brubaker is doing. I think Criminal is great, and I liked Incognito a lot. He’s put together a great body of work. Well, thanks so much Joe!

JH: Bye!

If you haven’t checked out Locke & Key yet, be sure to browse Welcome to Lovecraft and Head Games, and make sure to pre-order Crown of Shadows now to get 20% off!

What’s your take on the horror genre? Any other questions we should have asked Joe Hill? Post them below!