A little over ten years ago, writer Joe Hill and comic book artist Gabriel Rodriguez published the first of six Locke & Key graphic novels. The series went on to become a bestseller and a household name for many horror readers. There is now a very real possibility that Locke & Key will grace television screens in 2018—IDW Publishing announced a partnership with Hulu last year.
The Locke & Key series is a horror-fantasy that is equal parts gruesome and dramatic. It follows the Locke family, particularly the Locke children, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, as they fight demons within and without after the horrific murder of their father.
Locke & Key was a phenomenal success throughout its run. The first book, Welcome to Lovecraft, combined pathos with horror, leading the way for Hill and Rodriguez to unlock their imaginations—literally—with the following books. The conclusion of the series, Alpha & Omega, published in 2013, was chilling and full of unexpected plot twists.
I attended a talk by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in Dubai where they discussed their influences for the series, the process of creating it, and their hopes for the TV show.
Locke & Key Rose From the Ashes of Disappointment
The idea for Locke & Key came partially from a book that Hill had loved as a child, The House with the Clocks in its Walls by John Bellairs. “In some ways, Locke & Key is kind of like a young adult fantasy novel gone horribly wrong. A lot of what I work on feels that way. The House with the Clocks in its Walls is about an enchanted house with mysterious secrets and I think that was on my mind, especially from early on.”
The concept had been playing in Hill’s head since 2003 or 2004, a time when he felt like “a failed novelist”. His last four books had not sold to publishers and he had “pretty much decided that I didn’t have a novel in me.”
It was around that time that Marvel Comics opened a programme to discover new talent. Hill says, “A talent scout there got in touch with me and asked if I had ever wanted to write about men wearing capes punching each other in the face. And, I was like: who doesn’t want to do that!”
Hill’s first big break came in the form of an eleven-page Spider-Man story. “I felt this tremendous sense of validation and excitement, like maybe I didn’t have it in me to write a novel but I have it in me to write a comic and if I could get an on-going gig in comic books that would be a pretty happy ending.”
Hill worked on a series of pitches for Marvel, including one about a house full of enchanted keys that granted their owners superpowers. But Marvel, DC, and other comic companies passed on it. “But I didn’t pass on it,” reiterates Hill.
In 2005, Hill sold his first book of short stories and his first novel, Heart-Shaped Box, which received critical acclaim. “IDW Comics got in touch with me to ask about adapting a couple of my horror stories for a comic they had. And I said, no way, I got something better! I sent the pitch for Locke & Key and I said, if you let me do it, I can tell the whole story in six issues and one year.” He laughs and adds, “I was only off by six years and thirty-three issues!”
The Search for the Illustrator
Once Hill signed on for the comic series, the search for an illustrator began. Former Editor in Chief of IDW Publishing, Chris Ryall, steered Hill towards Gabriel Rodriguez, who Hill calls Gabe. “Chris sent me art from three artists—one was Gabe and two others were artists he never, ever wanted to work with. He didn’t think they were any good. So, he actually picked Gabe for the comic before I did.”
But there was a reason why Rodriguez’ vision stood out for Hill. “These other artists did draw really great, gory stuff, like, demons ripping skeletons out of human bodies and stuff. But that’s not really what makes horror work. You know, throwing as much gore at the reader is not what makes something scary. What I liked about Gabe, when I looked at his art, was his characters had these wonderful, lively faces that expressed emotions and interior thought. And I thought: that’s actually how good horror begins, when you fall in love with a character. Then, when they suffer the worst, you’re along on the ride with them—you’re invested and you care. I knew when I saw the way Gabe worked with characters that we would be able to make something good together.”
For Rodriguez, Hill’s story was like a dream come true for him. When he read the concept of the story and the character outlines, he was immediately transported to his teenage years, reading Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. “I hoped to be able to get a project that was like that . . . So, when I got the offer for [Locke & Key], it was irresistible because it had that kind of magic approach to stories.”
Emotion and Art
What makes the characters that Rodriguez draws stand out for Hill? “It’s about emotion and emotional authenticity, not anatomy,” he says. “Gabe can draw anatomy with the best of them. The comic book world is full of artists who can draw every vein in the muscle but then the characters just kind of stand there like . . . something just completely dead. There’s no life there.”
Hill mentions another of their visual influences here—Bill Watterson, the artist behind Calvin & Hobbes. “It’s not hyper-realistic art,” says Hill. “It’s very cartoonish, silly art. But the characters are so emotionally vivid, you just completely emotionally bond with them in every panel. You can see what they’re feeling and you can really connect with it.”
Rodriguez also discovered something about the art as he was drawing the series. “There’s another trick . . . I made the conscious choice of drawing the comic in a more childlike way because I knew that, throughout the story, these kids would be growing up. So, my idea would be to get more and more realistic in the drawing approach as the comic progresses. If you compare the last issues of the six volumes of Locke & Key with the first one, you can see that progression. It was sort of a lucky guess; I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to convey that, but as the series extended way more than we originally planned it, I had enough room to make it part of the narrative story.”
It is easy to focus on the human characters; they are, after all, the focus of the story. But there are other inanimate characters as well. At the centre of the tale is the Locke family home, Keyhouse, a beautiful but melancholic mansion where the children discover the keys with supernatural powers.
Rodriguez was formerly an architect and painstakingly created 3-D models of the house so as to get his bearings for his illustration. His architectural background was a huge boon because it helped him realise, early on, that Keyhouse would be one of the main characters. “Even being just a house, it has to be a house that has to be able to tell a story about itself and to express mood.”
Partners in Crime
The camaraderie between Hill and Rodriguez is obvious to everyone in attendance. It feels like watching a bromance unfold. And they know it. Hill tells me that Rodriguez and he are like an “old married couple. We finish each other’s sentences.” Considering the number of times they did just that during their live session, I’m inclined to believe him.
“One of the things I was trying to emphasize is that Locke & Key isn’t this story I wrote that Gabe drew pictures for. It’s our story. We made it all up together. The whole flow of the narrative is us, not one of us.
“I’ve always felt that I’ve learned as much about the characters from the way Gabe draws them than he ever learned about them from anything I ever wrote. To me, being able to see Kinsey, to be able to see Nina [the Locke matriarch], I understood things about them.”
Hill points to one particular incident in the first issue when we see the now-alcoholic and traumatised Nina Locke in a flashback during happier times. According to Hill, there was “something about the tilt of her head and the fall of her evening gown and the way she was holding her glass of wine . . . I looked at it and I thought, oh, she was already an alcoholic! The trauma of the incident accelerated it, certainly, but she was already standing on top of the trap door. And I didn’t know that till Gabe showed it to me.”
Rodriguez, on the other hand, credits Hill’s writing for getting characterisation spot-on. “Joe has this skill, through very brief lines, to convey not only what’s happening but also what is the inner world of the characters.”
Their collaboration has been strong from the get-go but they have had to learn from each other, particularly due to Hill’s inexperience with comics when they began working on Locke & Key. “We’ve sort of grown together as creators and have learned a lot about what we like from each other,” says Hill. “I remember when I wrote the first couple scripts. A comic book is about twenty-four pages and I would write scripts that were three times that – sixty to sixty-five pages. The first book of Locke & Key is about 108 pages long but probably had 300 pages of script for it!
“I wouldn’t just be describing what’s happening in a panel. I’d be describing the weather and the characters’ emotional inner state and what they ate for breakfast. Because I didn’t know what would be important to Gabe. Over time, as we worked, my scripts began to shrink more and more. Because a lot of times I could just say a couple of things and Gabe would know exactly what I was hoping for.”
According to Rodriguez, however, there was more to Hill’s shrinking scripts than this realisation. “He [Hill] learned a very annoying trick, which is he managed to make situations that actually fit in two or three panels into a single panel. So, you have the close-up where the kids are playing with the key and in the background, you have this very complex action scene of a guy gripping another and you see in his tiny face that he’s really scared. [Hill] managed to sort out that kind of stuff that will solve a lot of space problems throughout the narrative of the story!” Rodriguez adds, jokingly.
Hill counters by saying that Rodriguez’s abilities pushed his writing skills. “Working with someone like Gabe, you discover that he can fit the material of five different panels in one panel. People forget that panels can have depth . . . And I was like, wow, every panel is three panels. Gabe won’t mind at all!”
Surprisingly, Rodriguez really does not seem to mind. “The hard stuff is the fun stuff and when you realise how important that’s going to be in the story you really get driven into taking the challenge and overcoming it.” He recalls one of the most complex visuals he had to do, which came about in Book Two, Headgames, where the head key is used to look inside Bode’s head. The double-page spread is a riot of colour and immensely detailed. As a reader, I found myself spending a great deal of time mulling over everything I saw in those pages. The level of detail was not an easy task.
“That was a nightmare to do!” claims Rodriguez. “I worked for ten days to solve those couple of pages. And every step of the way, I was complaining about [Hill] writing it! But I was very sure that it would completely pay off in terms of the story and what it would give to the universe of Locke & Key and to the experience of the reader.”
Instances like this fostered a healthy competition between the two. They would each try to “blow each other away” by writing or drawing something that would amaze the other. As Hill says, “you get into this kind of feedback loop where you’re both trying to one-up each other in the best possible way.”
Rodriguez adds that the process continues after he is done drawing. It then gets passed on to the colourist. “We were very lucky throughout Locke & Key that we did the entire series with the same colourist, Jay Fotos, who is an awesome, awesome artist who gave Locke & Key a very unique look and appeal.”
Getting the inked page back from Fotos was always a delight for Rodriguez. “I got the same thrill of watching my work through the eyes of other artists . . . it became something completely different and even more awesome than any idea I could have had in my mind!
“I think Jay is one of the few artists that can give, through colour, a sense of emotion and a sense of weather. That’s something that’s very hard to achieve. Locke & Key got the benefit of this.”
A love of Gaiman’s The Sandman clearly created a bond between writer and artist but it also gave them an in when writing about the keys in their universe. There are a staggering number of keys that the characters encounter in the story, each with a plot point attached and a short in-universe historical connect. Explains Hill, “Neil Gaiman discovered over the course of writing [The Sandman] that he could tell any story he wanted using dreams as his leaping off point . . . And I always felt that with Locke & Key, we could do the same thing with the keys. That every key had the potential to tell a different story.”
Visually, Rodriguez was strongly influenced by the films of Hayao Miyazaki. “He has a very unique way to convey the surreal and magical as something from everyday life. And that match of something that’s very casual with something that’s absolutely fantastic is something that I tried to exploit in Locke & Key.”
When I caught up with Hill earlier in the day, Hill told me that when he and Rodriguez first began their collaboration, he sent Rodriguez issues of the Swamp Thing by Alan Moore as a visual reference. Rodriguez was particularly impressed by the Exile saga. “I think Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, and Alfredo Alcala did amazing work of exploring what you can do with the visual storytelling of a comic book. In a few issues, you have changes of style, changes of colouring; there’s an issue that’s made completely with photocopied collages. Some of that we explored in Locke & Key. We changed the way in which we approached the narrative storytelling of the visuals and styles to give the different books different looks.”
Hill interjects, saying, “We did one which was very obviously influenced by Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes. We [also] did one that was inspired by all the weird war comics of the 1950s.”
Another influence was Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles. “‘Usher II’ from the Martian Chronicles could be a spin-off of Locke & Key,” jokes Rodriguez.
But when it came to the characters, there were no outside influences required. Rodriguez says, “When I read [Hill’s] succinct description of the main characters, I immediately realised that they were going to be meaningful characters and a group of characters that you easily fell in love with . . . I think Locke & Key was the first time that, just when I read the description, the image of the characters immediately popped up in my mind.” Rodriguez sent his initial sketches and both Chris Ryall and Hill thought he was on the right path. They “felt it was the right approach to make these characters come to life.” From that point on, Rodriguez says with a smile, “we never ever disagreed on anything creatively regarding the story.”
Despite all this being in place, Hill, interestingly, had trouble writing the second issue of Locke & Key. When we met earlier, he had told me had struggled to write his second novel, Horns, and I was surprised to hear that he faced the same problem with the comic series.
“The first issue of Locke & Key was very, very easy to write,” says Hill. “It came together; it was almost like magic. The second issue was one of the hardest things I’ve ever written in my life.” There was a reason why. “It was because I didn’t know the characters well enough. I still didn’t really know who Uncle Duncan was, I didn’t know who Nina was. There were too many question marks. The only characters I understood were Tyler and Bode. And, in the end, I saved myself by just making the story about Bode. But, I wound up doing something like fourteen to sixteen drafts on issue two!”
While shooting the failed 2010 Fox pilot of Locke & Key, Hill and Rodriguez managed to discuss the ending of the comic book series, which was still ongoing at the time. “The best part of it wasn’t actually watching them film the show; it was when we would go to the hotel afterwards and we’d sit at the bar together and we would talk about the comic which we were still creating at that time. And together, over two or three nights, we mapped out the last ten to fourteen issues of the comic.”
They even managed to come up with the final solution for the series during these conversations—Tyler, the eldest Locke child, forges a key that unlocks demons from human bodies. “One night, we were sitting there and Gabe cracked a joke about this. He was just kidding, but my head almost exploded! And I just thought, oh, oh my god, that’s so great, we’re doing that.”
Hill is animated as he recounts how he felt that night. “It was just about the most brilliant thing ever! It never crossed my mind. He just solved what was this enormous puzzle at the heart of Locke & Key . . . A lot of writing, a lot of storytelling, is puzzle-solving. You get your characters into some situations and the question is, how do we resolve this in a way that feels dramatically satisfying?”
Their collective eschewing of repetitive and formulaic scenes helped them throughout the process, Rodriguez adds. “We have a big action scene in one and we have a chance to do it again in other parts, but we spin it with a different focus, making it more compressed, so we have more room to explore more possibilities in the narrative and the characters.”
Of the six books, there is clearly one panel that stands out for both Hill and Rodriguez. Once the family have settled in Keyhouse, Kinsey, the second Locke child, calls her younger brother Bode to dinner. Bode, who is standing by the wellhouse, acknowledges her. In the background, out of the shadows, arises the demon he has been unwittingly speaking to. Rodriguez says happily that he feels that this single panel is his greatest horror achievement. “That’s not even in the turn of a page, but even so it works! And that surprised me when I saw the final comic book printed.”
Hill believes he knows why this panel is particularly successful, because Rodriguez “is a master of controlling where the readers’ eye is. He always knows what you’re looking at and what you’re going to look at next. He can track your eye across the page.” Horror isn’t easy to achieve in comic books, says Hill. “There’s an argument that you can’t actually scare people in a comic book . . . You can gross people out but you can’t actually terrify them. It’s not true but I’m very sympathetic to that argument. It’s hard to scare people in a comic book. Movies are visual and comic books are visual, but movies also have sound.”
Rodriguez adds that movies also have unique moments that you cannot return to. “In comic books, you can flip around the comic, you can skip pages and see before reading what’s going to happen,” and you can read the same moment over and over again. Which is why it all comes back to characterisation, believes Rodriguez. “Part of the achievement of making people concerned about what’s happening is to make them feel sympathy for the characters. I think that is the strongest contribution of Joe in the story. That, from the very first script you get, even through very brief lines, enough substance to fall in love with the characters.”
What makes the horror work is also that it is balanced with comedy, Rodriguez explains. “Humour is really important in Locke & Key. It not only gives comic relief throughout the story but it also gives you a counterpart to the harsh stuff in the story. So, everything that’s dramatic becomes even more dramatic when you have these little moments of light in between the dark story.”
Hill reaffirms this point. “If once Bode does something or if Tyler says something, that makes you laugh, you’ve fallen into the trap. The trap you’ve fallen into is that now you care about them. So, when you turn the page and something awful happens to them, it matters. A lot of horror fails because it’s just not funny. It’s like sadism without wit—just a bore.”
With the horror elements of the story came the violence. “It’s an adult story with adult themes,” says Hill. “There’s some pretty extreme violence in the comic and I think that’s okay if you’re honest about what that means—extreme violence has extreme consequences.”
Rodriguez elucidates on this. “Violence has consequences and you have to see these consequences, both in the plot and in the inner world of your characters. Agreeing on that perspective is one of the things that led us to work so fluidly on the story.”
Rodriguez singles out the treatment of character Nina Locke, who he subconsciously based on his wife—not realising the hell Hill would put the character through in later issues, Rodriguez says half-jokingly. Nina is a wreck for almost the entirety of the series but it is one issue, “Beyond Repair,” the last in the third book, Crown of Shadows, where readers get to see her completely fall apart.
The standalone issue took Rodriguez a month and a half to complete and he says he “had a bad time drawing that comic book,” not only because of the connection the character had to his wife but because “after working on over fifteen issues with this character and having to realise in this story, in twenty-two pages, how all the awful stuff that happened to this poor woman finally made her crumble apart, was really tough to endure. I ended up really exhausted after that month.”
But the rest of the story sees Nina pick herself up in order to save her children. Rodriguez finally saw the bright side of putting the character through so much, concluding that “all the horrible stuff that happened to the character in the beginning of the story was meaningful, because it helped the character to grow throughout the story.”
Nina Locke’s story had a far wider impact than either Hill or Rodriguez realised. Rodriguez recounts receiving an email from a reader who was grateful for their writing of Nina Locke in such a raw and realistic way because it helped her cope with losing her husband in a car accident. A visibly moved Rodriguez says, “Then you realise that stories are powerful and have an impact on people.”
The possible TV series included the Nina Locke story in the first season and Hill believes the episode will be just as poignant. Hill has seen what the writers’ room has done with the episode and his verdict is that it is “totally devastating. Very heart-breaking.”
The audience at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature were also treated to a few stills from the pilot of the new Locke & Key TV series and, I must say, they look incredible. The visuals are, as Rodriguez promised, true to the vision of the comics. I feel like the actors are not as well-cast but my opinion may change once I see them in motion. Despite the “ooh”s and “aah”s from the audience, Hill continued to temper his excitement for the show, even as the stills played behind him.
“They filmed the hour-long pilot, which is awesome! But we won’t know if we’re greenlit for a full series for possibly another month.”
This isn’t the first time Locke & Key has been close to gracing our screen. Mark Romanek, director of Never Let Me Go, filmed an hour-long pilot for Fox in 2010, with Sarah Bolger and Jesse McCartney playing Kinsey and Tyler Locke. Unfortunately, Fox only had one slot available and went with Alcatraz instead. “Nobody saw it. It was a total bomb!” Hill laughs good-naturedly when he tells me about it.
When talking about the failed pilot and the upcoming TV show, both Rodriguez and Hill reiterate that it is incredibly gratifying for someone to want to adapt their work.
“To be able to hand over that to other artists, to start a new creative vision out of it, I consider it very flattering,” says Rodriguez. “I’m very excited about it and it’s great for me to have the chance to see this entire universe reinvented through the eyes of other talented people.”
Hill agrees, saying, “It’s really flattering when someone says, we loved your story, we want to do something with it, we want to make a show, we want to make a movie—that’s tremendous! Nothing that happens to the TV show will change anything in the story. We’ve got a set of books that are written and complete. If the TV show comes out and it’s awesome, it won’t make our comic any better. And if a TV show comes out and it’s terrible, it won’t make our comic any worse. We’ve told one version of the story and it’ll be very exciting and satisfying to see what someone else does with it.”
Rodriguez is hopeful about the new show because the people involved have the same love for the comics that he and Hill have. “We’ve been very lucky that everyone who has been involved in the project loves and cares about the characters as much as we do. I think that’s the only thing you can expect. As long as they remain truthful to the core of the story and the core of the characters, everything else can be changed.”
From the visuals that Hill and Rodriguez showed during their talk of the new pilot, there is definite reason to be excited. The new pilot looks modern, bright, and very true to the comic books. When I met Rodriguez later, he reiterated that the showrunner of the new series, IT director Andy Muschietti, had extrapolated heavily from the visuals in the book to create the look of the show. Producer Barbara Muschietti has shared a few on-set photos on her Instagram which back up Rodriguez’s hopeful claims.
But Hill is obviously burned from the Fox experience. When we met, he also told me that his hands-off approach with regards to the adaptation of his book Horns had taught him a valuable lesson—to be a little more involved. Thus, for the new Locke & Key TV series, Hill is more involved with the production and has written the script for the pilot and the second episode. Interestingly, the curse of the second continued to haunt Hill, who had trouble writing the second episode of the new series.
“I wrote the script for the pilot and it was really fun to write and it was really easy. The second episode of Locke & Key was really, really hard. How could that be?” he asks of himself, incredulously. “I’ve already got the comics!”
Hill ended up doing fifteen drafts but it was outside help that put him on the right path. “In the end, I got to spend a week in the writers’ room [for the Locke & Key TV series]. Sitting in the room talking to them about the problems of the second episode helped me figure it out.”
That the TV show is a separate entity to the book is a key factor for both of them. Rodriguez says, “When you think of an adaptation, you have to be very aware that adaptation doesn’t mean translation. You have to be open to that and appreciate that creators have the chance to try new things through a different medium.”
Hill sees benefits to the TV version, particularly with dialogue. “Just to be able to play dialogue between characters for a while longer is exciting. Say you have six panels on a page and you have characters talking, you can have maybe two word-balloons in each panel and you can have thirty words in each word balloon—you can see where this is going. There’s not that much real estate for characters to reveal themselves through dialogue. But in a TV show, you can have actors talk something out.”
He then changes his mind. “Actually, when you work on a TV show, you realise that real estate is limited there, too. Often times, you’ll have a page of conversation that has to get cut and the actor has to indicate everything that was in that conversation with a look. The good ones can do it!”
Rodriguez sees benefits in pacing on TV versus in comic books. “You can do a very quick, intense action shot in TV in which you can show a very complex action in just a few seconds. To do that same thing in comic book form, maybe you need pages to do that same complexity.”
If the TV show does happen, chances are high that Hill and Rodriguez will explore the universe of Locke & Keywith another six comic book volumes. But only if the show happens.
Says Hill, “We’ve talked about doing a series called World War Key. It would be both a prequel and a sequel. The first book would be called World War Key: Revolution, and it would take us back to the revolutionary war—it would tell the story of Keyhouse as America fought for its independence. And we would spend time with the earliest progenitors of the Locke family.
“The second book would be called Locke & Key: Resurrection and it would be set in the modern day. We would be checking in again with some characters we haven’t seen since the original series. But these characters would be a bit older than the last time we saw them . . . It would be a continuation of what Locke & Key has always been about which is that history casts a long shadow over the present.”
However, there would be a lot of research involved, especially into the American Revolution. It’s not a commitment either would be able to do without sufficient motivation. The time commitment alone is immense. “If we talk about doing six books,” says Hill, “that’s a seven-year commitment, off and on. We get to work on other projects, but then the question is, what projects could we be doing together instead of doing Locke & Key? Is there another original series we could do instead? So, there’s an opportunity cost there.”
Rodriguez agrees. “We’re very sure that we want to collaborate again. We have ideas that could be exciting to keep exploring and if it is on Locke & Key or another book, that would be great.”
There is also the concern about the history of prequels ruining franchises that they both want to avoid. Hill points to the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings prequels which were “atrocious.” It is a folly he wants to desperately avoid. “You want to be careful that if you come back, you really have a story to tell, that you’re not just circling back because there are more profits to be made.”
Rodriguez is similarly concerned. “We don’t want to ruin our own story. We are very proud of Locke & Key and we want to return to it because we love it and we want to make it better.”
There has been a recent spate of incredibly successful book-to-TV adaptations—13 Reasons Why, American Gods, and The Handmaid’s Tale among them. If the new Locke & Key series does get greenlit, it will have to compete with some of the best for viewers’ attention, something it did not have to do in 2010. But Locke & Key is the kind of story people are eager to see now—a multi-genre tale with relatable characters.
Whether or not it happens, one thing is for sure: Locke & Key is destined to live on. Considering the packed audience at their talks in Dubai and the long queues of enthusiastic readers who lined up to have their books signed, Locke & Key clearly has an avid audience who have thoroughly enjoyed Hill and Rodriguez’s vision.