Fans of Joe Hill’s IDW series Locke & Key with artist Gabriel Rodriguez know that this tale of a family discovering supernatural keys – and terrible evil – is filled with chills, great characters and surreal twists (i.e. a key that literally gets inside your head).
But now, a wider audience is about to discover the Heart-Shaped Box and Horns author’s vision of Lovecraft, Massachusetts. Fox recently picked up a new TV series version of Locke & Key produced by a dream team – Steven Spielberg’s Dreamworks TV co-producing, Fringe co-creators Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci developing, and Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles’ Josh Friedman as head writer.
But while the show hasn’t even been cast yet, let’s not forget – there’s still the series going on, with three volumes out, a new one, Keys to the Kingdom, underway, and a number of one-shots Hill is putting out through IDW, starting with the recent Kodiak. In an exclusive interview, Hill talked with us about the TV series, what’s coming up in the comic, and more, along with providing some art for Keys to the Kingdom#2.
Newsarama: Joe, what's your reaction to the news about the TV series?
Joe Hill: I'm amped. Some really exceptional talents have climbed on board for this thing. Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and Joshua Friedman are all coming from the right place. They're pop culture guys who understand that the best and wildest concept won't work if they're not built around emotionally engaging characters.
We're all of us believers in the character-driven genre story. I'm still trying to figure out how my lucky ass wound up in league with these dudes.
Nrama: How did the decision to transition from a film to a TV series come about?
Hill: It was something I pushed for. I felt that the material would be best suited to an episodic format. A movie would be too squished - you wouldn't have the narrative space to explore the dangers and possibilities of the individual keys. I feel like the keys operate like the monsters in The X-Files; each one is its own adventure.
Nrama: What would your involvement be with the series -- and would Gabe be involved?
Hill: They've propped the door wide open for me to be as involved as I want to be. I feel like you get an opportunity like this, you try to be the best team player you can be - helping when possible, getting out from underfoot when not.
So I'm lending a hand where I can with the preparation, and I'm hoping to write a script for 'em down the road. At the same time, my first concern remains finishing the comic itself well. Gabe feels the same way, I know.Nrama: Are Josh and company privy to the overall arc of the series, including the storylines that haven't been published yet?
Hill: Josh is one of only three people to look at the full backstory (the other two are Gabriel Rodriguez and Chris Ryall). And Josh knows how I plan to end the thing. He also knows if he talks, he dies. That simple.
Nrama: Would the format be a limited-run series, or something that follows the basic plot of the series with new subplots and plotlines throughout?
Hill: I think it would be a mistake to comment on form or content at this point. It's too early in the process. About the only thing I'd feel safe saying is that the show will have its own identity, but remain true to the core elements of the comic.
Nrama: Convince us these guys know what they're doing with your baby. How big of fans are they of Locke & Key?
Hill: I will say the first conversation I had with Josh Friedman was one of the best conversations I've had with anyone in the film business about anything. The comic book has a complicated underlying mythology and a large cast of characters and Josh knew it backward and forward.
Nrama: The first issue of Keys to the Kingdom got a lot of acclaim for the Calvin & Hobbes look. What were the challenges in capturing that feel with the story, and is this variation in format something you feel more comfortable with now that you're more experienced in writing for a visual medium?
Hill: People probably hate when writers say this, but "Sparrow" was a script that almost wrote itself. One thing I always try to do with any comic story is find a simple visual hook that I can hang the concept on.
It may be something very broad and obvious, like doing a whole issue of full-page spreads for a story about giants fighting one another. Or it may be something more subtle. But I always feel like once I have my visual hook, the rest is easy.
Nrama: And there's Kinsey and Zack, which...ew. Without too many spoilers, is it safe to say this is not a romance made in heaven?
Hill: She comes to feel they have some trust issues. She's right.
Nrama: What are some of the other standalones we can expect, without giving away too much? Will you be doing any other stylistic experiments like "Sparrow," and if so, can you give us an idea of what you're trying?
Hill: In every arc, I try to do at least one issue that plays with the form. So in Crown of Shadows there was an issue that was mostly done in full-page spreads, and in Head Games there was a story told in black-and-white, and so on. And there'll be something fun in the first issue of Locke & Key vol. 5: Time & Tide. But probably nothing quite as radical as the Bill Watterson style sequences in "Sparrow."
Nrama: What are some of the new keys we will we encounter -- names, if not powers?
Hill: Gabe and I counted - we're introducing 12 new keys in this arc, although some of them we'll only be seeing very briefly. It's a key party! There's the mirror key, the beast key, the angel key, and the music box key, among others. The keys to the kingdom are essentially a set of keys that unlock the equivalent of superpowers.
Nrama: Did you have all the keys in mind from the beginning, and what was your process for thinking up each and what they could do?
Hill: By the time I was done with the first arc, Welcome to Lovecraft, I knew all the major keys. But as I've gone along, my ideas about those keys have evolved and hopefully become more interesting.
Also, though, I've always felt like I could invent keys as I liked, to tell whatever story I wanted to tell. I think that's part of what attracted Kurtzman-Orci to Locke & Key as a potential show... the sense that the concept was big enough to allow for a lot of narrative possibilities.
Nrama: Why did you decide to announce how many issues are left in the overall series?
Hill: Theoretically we did it to build excitement for the final issues. In fact, though, I think I did it to limit my own wiggle room. Because I could cheerfully write Locke & Key for a hundred issues.
There's a lot of story here... three centuries of it. But I set out to tell this one particular story, about Tyler Locke's senior year, and that's the story I'm going to tell.
Nrama: Without spoiling, what are some of the new things we'll learn over the course of this arc?
Hill: Several long-simmering relationships will have closure, and I get to knock over the first domino of the last act.
Nrama: Remind our readers about that buck edition with the cheat sheet.
Hill: One of the goals with Keys to the Kingdom was to do a set of standalone stories that would welcome in new readers. With that in mind, IDW thought it would be fun to rerelease the first ever issue, for a dollar, with a "Story So Far" thing stuck in the back, to catch everyone up on what they've missed. I went ahead and scripted some "Story So Far" material, and for some reason thought it would be funny to do a Dwight T. Albatross bit.
So we wound up doing a couple photo sequences, with me talking to the reader. I think it came out well. I do good comic book faces. Too bad they don't offer an Eisner for best photo acting in a comic, I figure I'd run away with it.
Nrama: Because I am an insecure egotist -- you publicly mentioned that the question you asked Alan Moore in our LOEG interview last year helped change the way you were plotting out the series. How did it affect your approach to the storyline, and how has this affected you as a writer?
Hill: In the first couple issues, I was just shooting from the hip, playing with the form, letting the story write itself. I was having fun and not thinking about the thing too deeply. I worked out the backstory in a loose sense, on the fly.
At some point, though, early on in Head Games, you passed along Alan Moore's answer to my question, and I decided it was time to take my own story more seriously; I felt I owed that to the readers who had emotionally invested in the thing.
So I worked out the backstory in much more detail... forty pages of detail, actually. I figured out, in a loose sense, how many arcs there were going to be (six) and what I wanted to do in each. And I decided on what would happen in the last issue.
Nrama: How do you feel you've evolved as a writer since the series started, and how has writing comics affected how you approach writing prose or screenplays?
Hill: I'm not sure how I've changed as a writer. I know I've improved as a writer of comics. When I started, it was difficult to keep my scripts to 22-pages. Now they just come in at 22-pages automatically. I don't even have to think about it.
I've learned a lot about timing. I think a strong sense of timing is one of the few skills that a writer can bring to any form, be it comics, novels, short stories, or screenplays.
Nrama: What's the coolest thing about writing comics?
Hill: That's easy - opening up my email program and finding a new page from Gabriel Rodriguez. About once every week or so I see a new page, and think "that's unbelievable - best thing he's ever drawn." Then a week later he sends along something even better.
Nrama: What are some of your favorite other comics right now -- and which do you think would make a great TV series?
Hill: I think Scalped would make a great show for FX or AMC. The comic itself has all the power and complexity of The Wire, or The Sopranos. They don't even need to write the scripts. Just use the comics as storyboards. That'll put asses in seats.
I'm about a year and a half behind on Ex Machina, but I love that one. Vaughan makes it look so easy. Every line of dialogue is great. Terry Moore's Echo plays like this sexy 1980s-style sci-fi picture... it's like a lost Robert Zemeckis or Richard Donner film. Those are a couple of the current highs.
Nrama: And finally, I should add one to ask about the one-shots you're doing with Jason -- what's coming up with those, how many are planned, and what's fun about them.
Hill: Jason Ciaramella is a pal of mine and a guy who has nibbled at the edges of the comic book biz for years. He's been one of the first readers on the Locke & Key scripts for a while now; I like that he'll tell me when he thinks something sucks. I knew he had done some scripting, and asked to see one of his pieces, and was impressed by the way he put together sequences.
Well, with a long running series like Locke & Key, it's easier to get the thing started then it is to stick the landing. So I've been working a little more slowly, taking more time with the scripts. We decided to build in a couple months off.
And I had an idea to do a couple stories with Jason, to fill in the break periods. Kodiak was the first and later this year Jason has an adaptation of my short story, "The Cape," coming out. The one-shots have been a great deal for me, because they've bought me a little breathing room. And they've been a good deal for Jason, because they've given him a chance to show what he can do.
What do you think of Locke & Key going to TV?