Exclusive Interview: Locke & Key's Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez

Locke & Key is the best comic book you may not be reading right now, but will be soon. Why’s that? Well, because like The Walking Dead before it, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s insanely creative gothic horror comic will be heading to FOX as a TV series (read all about that today in MTV Splash Page with Hill and Rodriguez).  

So before all your friends are talking about Locke & Key, and how they’re big fans of the show, why not jump into the series? A new issue hits this Wednesday, so to get you all caught up, we chatted with Rodriguez and Hill about how they collaborate, just what they think about pop star Jesse McCartney’s casting on the show, and also threw a few possible keys by them, just to see what they think:

MTV Geek: Okay guys, for those who aren’t up to speed – where are we now in Locke & Key? What’s happened so far?

Joe Hill: In the largest possible sense, Locke & Key is the story of a New England mansion filled with impossible keys. Each key has a unique power which is usually switched on by opening a particular door. The oldest of all the keys, the Omega Key, opens something called the Black Door, located in the caves below the house. And this is a door that’s better off left shut. There’s something very bad on the other side.

Gabriel Rodriguez: Locke & Key is also a story about growing. About discovering death, leaving childhood behind, and shaping your own self. It’s about secrets and guilt, but also about love and friendship. It’s about empty people who become enraged because they can’t deal with their pain. It’s about facing fear. It’s a story in which magic is the key to new possibilities, but never the answer to problems that matter. And a story about opening scary doors, and taking responsibility for the consequences…

JH: On a more micro sense, right now Locke & Key is about three kids, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, who have moved to Keyhouse following the murder of their father. In the first storyline, little Bode discovers a beautiful young girl living in the wellhouse behind the mansion, a girl with incredible powers. This is Dodge, the reincarnation of a murderous teenager who tried to open the Black Door about thirty years before.

By the end of that first story, Dodge is free, and has used a key to change to a guy… His original gender. In the stories that follow, Dodge takes an assumed name, Zack Wells, and befriends the Locke kids, staying close to them in an attempt to find the Omega Key. In the process of looking for the thing, a lot of people get killed. Now, in the most recent issues, Tyler Locke, the oldest, has begun to suspect his good old buddy Zack has been playing him. We’re about to drop the curtain on the second act of what has been a very big three-act story.

GR: We’ve just finished establishing our mythology and our characters. So it’s time to start tying things up, resolving conflicts, and getting some answers. Time to find out what’s behind the mysteries, even though we may not like what we would find there. Getting the answers has a price, and for some it’s going to be really hard to pay…

Geek: You’ve always embraced the comic book form wholeheartedly in the book, but this mini – Keys to the Kingdom – in particular seems like it’s playing with the format. Why was that important to do at this point in the series?

JH: After KEYS TO THE KINGDOM concludes, there's only a dozen issues left before we'll be done telling this story. So KEYS felt like our last chance to do some standalones, and explore the possibilities of all the different keys. Each key is a story; and each story wants to be told a different way.

Also, for me, Alan Moore is the writer I care about the most that I'm not actually related to by blood. And one thing that marks his comic work: he gets form and content to rip off their clothes and perform the Kama Sutra. In Alan Moore's stories, form and content make sweet, mind-expanding love. That's the goal with a good comic: you want both form and content to orgasm at the same time. You know what I'm saying?

GR: We always conceived this story as having a clear beginning and an end, although we haven’t always been sure what that ending would be like. We always had the idea of constructing the story as a three act drama. At one point we thought of building it as a 48-issue series, then decided to compress it to the current 36-issue structure.

Our two basic goals in Keys To The Kingdom were to explore the mythology of the magic keys, without falling into a predictable “procedural” structure (this is especially evident in the third chapter, “February”). We also used Keys to the Kingdom to set things up for our big finale. So it’s not just that we wanted to experiment with the format, but also that we used the format as a creative tool to expand and close the second part of the story.

Geek: Gabriel, you have a pretty distinct style; but you’ve really been put through your paces for this one. What’s the most challenging thing Joe has had you do so far?

GR: Do I have a distinctive style? I try to develop a different look to each story. I do know that we’ve found a distinctive Locke & Key visual language, which I’m aware is pretty different from what’s typical in mainstream comics. I’m even aware that some readers completely hate it, although most seem to accept and enjoy it.

Challenging things to draw: a quiet funeral sequence, a mom hitting a thug’s head with an axe, the expressions of a child’s face, the world inside a teenager or a kid’s head, a Shakespearean play staged with magic powers, lots of trees, a fight between giants in the sea, an army of living shadows, an army of sparrows, an army of squirrels, kids drowning in a pool of living chains, attacking living roses, tender hugs, smoky ghosts, Keyhouse… should I go on?

Seriously, I think the toughest chapter to draw for me so far has been “Beyond Repair” the last chapter of Crown Of Shadows. It involved pretty complex storytelling and rendering a lot of intense emotion. Quite exhausting, but it ended up working the way we wanted, I think.

Geek: Talk a little bit about collaboration. How much do you two talk about, say, the panel structure? What’s the back and forth like?

JH: When we started working together, I'd do six drafts, and describe everything. I'd describe the way dry fall leaves sounded rustling in the branches of larch trees. I'd mention something about how the air smells like apples. If Tyler blew his nose, I'd give Gabe six lines of back-story about Ty's childhood fears of Kleenex.

But we've been writing together for three years now. I've learned a lot about how to put a comic together from Gabe. Now I do two drafts, and I know what I have to describe and what I don't. A lot of my sequences are built around things I'm excited to see Gabe draw, stuff I can't wait to see on the page. We share a single creative brain. We anticipate each other. Our ideas overlap.

We got together in Pittsburgh for three days, to see them start filming the pilot of the TV show, and just while we were hanging out together, we came up with the shape and structure of three different issues... including one that's completely new, and completely unplanned for. Above and beyond all other considerations, we always have fun.

GR: Locke & Key has been, for me, the ultimate collaborative experience. Despite the creepiness of the “single creative mind” thing – this sometimes is disturbingly weird - the most rewarding part of it has been the fact that we care about the same things, we understand the characters and their conflicts in the same way, and share the same sense of drama and fun… Every time we discuss technical elements of the storytelling or illustration, it’s always about what we should do to help the story and characters shine in the best possible way. Everything has come out beyond my highest expectations so far. We’re always determined to keep pushing ourselves to our own limits, because we really love what we’re doing and want to share it in its finest way…

Geek: Also, more general question: why mini-series, rather than one continuous series? Is it so you can release each as an individual trade for SO MUCH CASH???

JH: The answer on this one is kind of terribly unsatisfying. We had to do it as a miniseries ‘cos I have another job as a novelist that requires a lot of my time. Working in short bursts has been the only way to tackle the series. I think it’s been a big plus for Locke & Key, though. We’ve had all the time we needed to think through the mysteries, and to make sure we never raised any questions we didn’t have a satisfying, hopefully elegant answer for.

GR: I know this may be frustrating for some readers, but as Joe points out, I think it really helped the series to become something better than it could have been in a standard monthly format. We’ve had more room to plan the plot, to explore plot twists and to analyze what we’ve been doing and where we want to go next. From the graphic point of view, this has given me time to push the limits of complexity and details as far as the story demands…

In Keys To The Kingdom this has been especially hard. Despite some circumstantial problems, including health issues and natural disasters, this arc has forced me to go to places I’d never imagined possible when we began working in this series. This has a devastating effect on my capacity to meet my deadlines, but from a positive point of view, has given the Locke & Key mythology a unique flavor. And I have to sincerely thank the unconditional editorial support from the IDW crew, which has been amazing, and the patience of our readers. I think that doing Locke & Key as a set of mini-series has made room for better stories and our finest storytelling, and that’s what readers want.

Geek: Okay, back to the most recent issue… Joe, were you a big war comics fan? I was getting a little bit of Haunted Tank in that last one.

JH: My Dad had hardcover reprints of all the old E.C. titles, and I read them all when I was about ten. I particularly remember loving TWO-FISTED TALES, which were mostly realistic in nature, but which sometimes bent into the supernatural. The early seventies had a lot of short-lived, weird-war style comics, all of them pretty hilarious in retrospect. When you’re a little kid, nothing says a good time like a talking ape fighting side-by-side with a big chrome robot.

Geek: We spent a large part of the time, so relatively close to the end here, on two side characters, Rufus Whedon and Sam Lesser. When LOST did this with the episode about the Man in Black and Jacob, people FREAKED OUT. Did you guys get away clean? And more seriously, why was it important to give the focus over to these two, particularly for such big revelations?

JH: Nah, different situation. Locke & Key has a long history of taking apparent side characters and making them central for a single issue. Although I’d note that both Rufus and Sam have been important figures in this thing, going back for a long time (Sam is literally the first character we meet in the very first issue).

That said, the emotional revelations are more important than the plot revelations, at least to me. Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode remain at the emotional heart of this thing, and their hardest moments are still ahead of them, in these last 14 issues.

GR: We also want to think that there are no “side characters” in Locke & Key. We have bigger and smaller roles here and there, but every time we introduce a new character, we try to make them feel real and appealing, and try to make them full participants in the story. We’ve always had a strategy of bringing in some characters that maybe didn’t, at first, seem very relevant, but which may have important things to do before the story is over. We’re aware that’s a risky move, because it may or may not work sometimes, but hope the readers will play along with us and have fun…

Geek: Speaking of amazing segues, we’re coming up on some huge changes in the next issue – talk to us about Tyler figuring out Zack Wells secret.

GR: We can’t say much about this without spoilers, I guess, but there are a couple facts we can mention. One is that I love the way in which Tyler has matured and changed. Maybe he’s a jock, but he’s also fragile, sensitive, and smart. He’s observant enough to start tying things together that have been in front of the Locke kids all along. Sometimes you can’t bear to see what’s right in front of you because of the emotional repercussions… We all fool ourselves many times in our lives, not wanting to see what’s displayed before our own eyes. And the other thing I want to mention, is that in Locke & Key, figuring out a secret is just not enough sometimes…

Geek: This is also ending with a two-parter, which breaks the one-and-done format of the rest of the mini. Joe, can you talk about this approach – why did you want to do that, structurally?

JH: There was nothing all that clever about it… the last story was just too big to tell in 22-pages.

GR: This is an example of settling on a format for creative purposes, but not being obsessively attached to that decision. We wanted to tell the stories of this fourth act as self-contained episodes, but if one of those requires more room than a single issue work properly, that’s not a problem for us…

Geek: You’re still two minis from the end, but at the same time… You’re two minis from the end. How set in stone is everything at this point? How far ahead are you on Clockworks? And how about the last series, any teases?

JH: The back-story is set in stone and has been since the first issue of Head Games. And by the end of Clockworks, the reader will know where the keys came from, why Dodge is the way he is, and what happened back in the 80s. Time for all the secrets to come out: Keyhouse’s secrets, but also Rendell’s. I’m a guy who believes that stories should start with chaos and complexity, and move forward into simplicity and elegance.

The back-story is, I hope, satisfyingly clean. As for the last six issues, most of it is set in a single night. Oh and I will say Gabe and I figured something out together, in Pittsburgh, that adds a really clever twist to our final story. We’re excited. It’s been a fun ride. Sticking the landing is always the trickiest part.

Geek: Okay, let’s talk about keys: there are keys that make you grow in size, keys that show the inside of your head, and more. But are there any keys you wouldn’t have in the book? Is there anything that’s been nixed as too silly or too extreme?

GR: I guess the Acorn Key is the answer to that… seriously, we’ve never thought, so far, of any idea as too silly or too extreme. One of the things I admire most about Joe is his superb talent for mixing humor and drama. He can tell you the goofiest joke ever in one panel, and then, in the next page, bring you to tears. He is that good. I can’t imagine anything sillier than what we did in “Sparrow”. I mean, mixing cartoony four-panel gag strips with wild animal violence… it seems ridiculous but works really well.

The most extreme elements of the story have nothing to do with the keys. I think we’ve managed to deal with VERY risky stuff in a - I hope - intelligent and elegant way… (I’m thinking here in some of the gorier scenes, or the scene of Al Grubb walking out Rendell and Nina’s bedroom, or the scene of Sam Lesser and the truck driver…)

JH: The story works because Gabe sells it emotionally, panel-after-panel. That’s all. As for the keys, there’s plenty more where that came from. Basically any idea ever explored in fantasy can be thrown into a key.

Geek: I’ll throw a few ideas out at you, you tell me if they’d work in Locke & Key – or I guess, what they might do, if you could work them in:

The Peanut Butter Key

GR: Sticky! This could inspire a very “catchy” story…

JH: We’d do that. We have no shame. If you look close at “February” you can see a pack of psychotic squirrels with an acorn key. I think it’s better to not think about that one too closely.

The Inside Out Dog Key

JH: This question reminds me of this essential observation on the nature of animals, lifted from Buzzfeed: 

GR: This takes the “underdog” concept to a whole new level…

The MTV Geek Key

GR: Frakking Bazinga!

JH: I wouldn’t mind a key that opens a door into some of those hot early 80s Mötley Crüe videos.

The Waikiki Key

GR: If you can hold it in your hands, and say its name without misspelling three times, you get immediately transported to Waikiki for a three weeks all inclusive vacation…

The Gabriel Rodriguez Key

GR: If this one can clone me, so I would be able to draw twice as fast, it would make some editors and readers SO happy… On the other hand, if it can turn someone like, let’s say Joe Hill, into me, he could become smaller, but irresistibly handsome…

JH: I’d like a Gabe key. The dude tried to give me a drawing lesson in Pittsburgh. It was pretty sad… although I did finally manage to draw a decent Omega key. A key that would make me a great cartoonist would be soooo much easier.

The Key to Your Heart

GR: That one is held by my family

JH: If Dodge had a key to someone’s heart, he’d probably take it out and chew on it.

GR: Indeed…

Geek: Last but not least, looking ahead: when can we expect Locke & Key to wrap up?

GR: We’re almost 12 issues away, so we plan to finish in 2012, as early that year as possible…

Geek: And are you leaving it open? Will IDW continue a Locke & Key series without you guys? Or is there a final note to the series?

JH: We’re going to focus on telling the story of the Locke kids to the best of our power, and then Gabe and I are going to tackle some other projects… probably a mainstream superhero title and another original (if much shorter) story. But at some point we’ll probably circle back to Locke & Key for more fun. There’s 300 years of history to explore there. I’ve got a pretty good six-issue story I’d like to write set during World War II, when the caves under Keyhouse were used as a submarine observation point. I know IDW is always game for more, if Gabe and I are up for it, and that they won’t be continuing it without us.

GR: There’s no final note in family stories… They came from somewhere and they move to who knows where… but we’re focused on a specific episode and want to do our best for that one first. There’s always room for more. A door that gets closed can always be opened again, if you have the proper key to unlock it, and a reason to do so… What we DON’T want to do is to overstretch what we’re creating, or turning it into a cut-and-paste formula. We have the support of our publishers about it, I’m sure.

And what we DO want is to keep working together, so hopefully our ideas for future projects will prosper, and will get the support from our readers to keep doing what we love in the best possible way.

Related Posts:

The Five-Minute Recap: Locke & Key

The 10 Best Comics of January 2011

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