Unlocking doors or unlocking skulls, either is possible within the universe of the IDW comic Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. The horror tale revolves around Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke who return to their family home, Keyhouse, when their father is brutally murdered. It’s not long before they discover the name of the house is no coincidence. The building holds keys that can do impossible things like turn you into an animal or a giant and there is an evil force who wants them all. Last year at San Diego Comic-Con, Locke & Key fans were able to put there hands on one of the fictional keys for the first time thanks to Israel Skelton.Skelton runs Skelton Crew Studio, a design house that creates replicas of famous comic book items as well as produce commission and prototype work of jewelry, wedding cake toppers and more. Thor’s Mjolnir, Hellboy’s Samaritan and Doctor Strange’s Eye of Agamatto are just some of the classic comic pieces the artist has made come to life but things really opened up when Skelton acquired the license to create the magical keys from Locke & Key.
The Ghost Key, Echo Key and Shadow Key are just a few Skelton has crafted and fans go wild for them. The limited edition keys have been known to sell out rather quickly resulting in the Studio creating special, slightly altered, Legacy Edition keys to satisfy demand; there was even a special SDCC IDW key this past July. Newsarama spoke with Skelton about the origins of his relationship with IDW, the Locke & Key television pilot and his famous creations based on the acclaimed series.
Newsarama: Here’s a classic chicken-or-the-egg question for you Israel. Were you a fan of Locke & Key first or were you approached to create these keys and then became a fan of the series?
Israel Skelton: I’d read the first issue of “Welcome to Lovecraft” days before I met Joe [Hill] at BangPop!, a small con in Bangor, Maine, and I was very intrigued. I was lucky enough to have Joe hook me up with an advance copy of the first hardcover that day when he asked me to build the Ghost Key. By the time I reached the last page, and saw Gabe’s [Rodriguez] graphic of the spiral of keys, I was hooked. Not only on the book, but on the possibility of making all those keys tangible. And last July my studio was granted the exclusive license to make that happen.
Nrama: You've made prop replicas from other comic book franchises, Thor, Hellboy, just to name a few. What's your personal history with comics?
Skelton: I grew up reading comics, but I lived for live action superhero shows like Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Hulk, and even Shazam. That’s where I got this notion that the stuff I was seeing in comic panels could actually physically exist, so it wasn’t long before saucer sleds and blueberry rakes became Cap’s shield and Wolverine’s claws. I guess it just grew from there. I will say that I couldn’t be happier working with Joe, Gabe, Jay, Chris Ryall, and all the people at IDW. Just simply great people.
Nrama: They keys are incredibly detailed and reflect the images from the comic almost exactly. Talk to us about the actual process of making them from start to finish.
Skelton: It all starts with Gabe’s amazing control art. Gabe sends me a graphic with the keys in a line all in scale with each another. This helps me make sure every key relates to one another properly. I then start sketching how the key will look in three dimensions, making notes on what I’ll need to build it. That’s also when I calculate how big I have to sculpt the piece so the finished product ends up the right size. I have to factor in mold, wax, and metal shrinkage for the multiple steps between prototype sculpt and finished pewter casting. From there, I sculpt a prototype key out of metal and clay generally, then create a brass or bronze master. I then prep that master for the pewter production run. Your average key sees four sets of molds, and with every step the key gets smaller. My prototype could be as much as 1/4" larger then the finished product. That doesn’t sound like much, but when you are talking about a five-inch key, that’s a mile.
Nrama: Which was the most difficult to create?
Skelton: Hands down the Giant Key, but then again it is a five foot wood and metal key with carvings and metal inlays.Nrama: I know it's probably like asking you to choose a favorite child but which is your favorite key?
Skelton: Very few parents would ever admit that they favor one child over another, but who are they kidding, we all have favorites. As far as the keys I’ve created, I’d have to say the Shadow Key. Although the upcoming Animal Key could oust it from that position. Full disclosure: I am a father of just one, so I only have one favorite child.
Nrama: Obviously prop making is not an inexpensive line of work, how were you able to create a balance of quality while still keeping the keys affordable for every day fans?
Skelton: I’m the primary sculptor, and I’m very reasonable, so that helps. All kidding aside, it is difficult. The price of metal is continually on the rise, and although it’s a little more expensive, it’s very important to me to keep these manufactured in America. Not only does it help the local economy, but gives us a better handle on quality control, and that in turn contributes to a lower price point. Ultimately, I’m a collector too and a bit of a completist, so when creating a collection that will consist of dozens of keys, keeping them as comic accurate and as reasonable as possible is paramount.
Nrama: You don't work completely alone though, tell us a little about your amazing team.
Skelton: The core of our team consists of my amazing wife Kathryn and I. I handle the sculpting and the production, and she handles the books and fulfilling orders. We work incredibly well together, and are on the same page regarding the importance of quality, affordability and customer service. We also work with a few very dear friends when it comes time to fill hundreds of preorders or to work on larger projects like the Ghost Door.
Nrama: The latest keys were for sale at San Diego Comic-Con but there was one key being shown that was not - The Giant Key. Tell us a bit about its creation and whether or not hardcore Locke & Key fans will ever be able to get their hands on one.
Skelton: The short answer is yes, and there will be more details about price and turn time later this month. I can say that, unfortunately, it will be expensive. It’s big, deceivingly complex, and every key will basically be an original sculpture. I drew up plans for the Giant Key well over a year ago, so you can see that I’ve been wanting to build this key for awhile, but knew it would take a special team of people to pull it off if we were going to produce any number of them. Luckily, I’ve been very fortunate to have crossed paths with several very talented people over the years, and two of them are Mike St. Germain and Peter Gill. The same two gentlemen helped me with the Ghost Door. These guys are super talented at what they do, and have the patience to work with my obsessiveness. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Nrama: Most of us know by now that Locke & Key was turned into a television pilot which unfortunately did not get picked up (although a trailer for it has recently been making the rounds). I know you had a last minute emergency and were not able to attend SDCC where they did a screening but have you seen it? What are your thoughts? Did they use your key replicas?
Skelton: I have seen it, and it’s very well done, and I along with plenty of others would love for it to find a home somewhere. It’s too good to end up on a shelf. They didn’t use my keys for the pilot - the two keys that were created for the episode differed from Gabe’s art. Their Ghost Key was also a lot larger, and I believe that was so it would show up on camera better. I will say that if the show is picked up, I would love a chance to work on some of the keys. I was disappointed about not making San Diego this year - a last-minute kidney stone kept me off the plane. I’ve joked with friends that it had to have been a tiny shard of kryptonite to keep me away from con.
Nrama: There are lots more keys in the comic series, what's happening in your workshop now?
Skelton: I generally work on multiple sculpts at a time, but I just finished the Chain Key prototype. The Animal Key is close to being completed, and I’ll be starting the Angel Key and Mending Key soon. I may have something special up my sleeve for BangPop! later this month but that’s under wraps for now. There also might be other properties to work on down the road, but we’ll see. I’m very busy but having the time of my life. Who knew the kid making Hawkeye’s trick arrows all those years ago would be doing this for a living? I’m a very lucky man.