Gabriel Rodriguez has been a well-respected artist in the comics industry for years thanks to his work on projects ranging from “CSI” to “Beowulf” and an adaptation of the novel “The Great and Secret Show,” but most people know him best as the artist on “Locke and Key.” Written by Joe Hill, the series of miniseries has told a fascinating fantasy horror tale about a family whose lineage — and mysteries — stretches back centuries. Over the course of the title’s life, Rodriguez has continued to experiment and grow as an artist, resulting in an Eisner Award-winning work that is impossible to imagine without his art.
With “Locke and Key” now in its final act with the “Omega” miniseries, CBR News spoke with the Chilean artist about his partnership with Hill. The artist looked back on his career, from his first project with IDW Publishing to his development as an artist on “Locke and Key” as well as what the future holds once he and Hill close the book on the denizens of Lovecraft.
CBR News: How did you get your start in comics?
You’ve done covers and some small projects, but for the 5-6 years since then you’ve been doing “Locke and Key.” How did you end up on that series?
When we were finishing “The Great and Secret Show,” Chris was discussing with me several ideas of what to do next. “Beowulf” popped up, which had to be done very quickly. When I was working on “Beowulf,” Chris wrote me and told me about this guy Joe Hill who had a bestseller with his first novel “Heart-Shaped Box.” Ted Adams had read his collection of short stories “20th Century Ghosts,” and Chris told me that they were contacting Joe at the beginning because they wanted to do adaptations of his short stories as comics. But when they met him, Joe told them about his love for comics and this fantastic idea he had for an original series called “Locke and Key” about this mansion and this family and the magic keys. Chris showed Joe some samples of my work from “The Great and Secret Show,” suggesting that he might try to develop this project with me. That was the moment we “met.”
A couple weeks after our first contact through Chris, I got two pages from Joe, one of them a pitch for “Locke and Key,” the story and a basic approach to the development of the story in three paragraphs and the other was a list of the eight main characters of “Welcome to Lovecraft” with a three line description of each one. Joe basically told me, see what comes out of your mind. I sent him back a set of sketches of all the characters and Joe liked them. We realized that were in tune and had the same approach to the story, so we immediately started working together, developing the project. At that moment, not having any idea of how long it would end up being or even if the readers were going to understand and get involved with the story, we started just focusing on “Welcome to Lovecraft,” the first miniseries, hoping for it to succeed and have room for developing it as a series. Joe told this story about how he cheated IDW saying that if “Welcome to Lovecraft” didn’t succeed, he would able to finish the story in six more issues. He admitted later it would have been absolutely impossible, so we were both happy to realize that people understood the story and support our work. We’ve been able to expand the universe of “Locke and Key” and the scope of the story bigger than our wildest dreams at the beginning of the project.
Even more than “The Great and Secret Show,” with “Locke and Key,” you had the opportunity to create everything from scratch, giving you a lot of freedom as a designer.
Yes. Most of the stuff was designed based on very specific but short descriptions from Joe. When I started designing the whole world of “Locke and Key,” I had the script of the first issue of “Welcome to Lovecraft.”
The whole process of “Locke and Key” has been amazing. Being as compulsive and obsessive a creator and designer as I am, to have the chance to create this world in which I have to fully design objects as small as keys and things as big as the Locke property, with the keyhouse and all the parks and the town of Lovecraft itself, has been a very complete experience for me as an artist. Also to have to deal with this world and the family drama and the supernatural elements of the series. In this kind of project, you have the space to create practically everything that you wish to see in a comic book, so I can’t imagine a more ideal project to become your very first creator-owned project. I feel tremendously blessed for the chances that the project itself has given me and as an author the challenges it has given me.
When you’re working on the series, how much do you want to know about story in advance? Are you happy to learn when the new issue arrives from Joe, or do you want to know it all ahead of time?
I’ve had both experiences working on this project. One of the first things I asked Joe when I started talking to him about “Locke and Key” was, is this a story with an ending? I love closed stories. I think if you take a series and develop it forever and ever, there’s always a chance to miss the path or lose interest. Knowing from the very beginning that we were pointing towards an end was important for me. Joe told me that he wanted the story to be planned in three acts, and he already had an idea of where he was going to lead the story. Then we started discussing several elements of the story but it always has been a development in which we discuss where we want to go with the story and the characters.
We always tried to have a clear idea of where we were going with the story, where we were going with the characters and certain key elements of the plot, but how to get to that part has always been a surprise for me. I like it that way. I tell Joe, “Just attach information about the story if it’s going to impact what I’m drawing right now.” For example, right now we are working on “Omega,” the last miniseries. For issues #4, 5 and 6, which we already know is going to be much more of one large sequence, Joe is writing all three issues at once because we know that there are going to be elements of the sixth issue that are going to have an effect on the way I present the events of the fourth. In this case, we’re trying to have all those points answered before I start working on the fourth issue, but I still don’t know which characters are going to die or if they’re going to die, with a couple exceptions. For me, it’s really great to have surprises as part of the process, always pointing to the right direction of where we’re heading. Both Joe and myself are very obsessive with every detail of the story and of the mythology we’re building. We’re trying to be very careful of a lot of tiny details and planning them as much in advance as possible.
Tell us a little about your process and what happens after Joe sends you a script.
Throughout all the series, I always get the script for a new issue of “Locke and Key” when I’m in the middle of the previous one. That’s very helpful, because I read the script several times before drawing a single line. I always read the script and then start playing with the scenes in my head, trying to realize how to show certain shots, how to construct certain pages, how to approach certain characters. Then I start drawing, but Joe always leaves the door open for me to make changes in the sequences if I feel that visually they’re going to work better in certain ways. For example, except for a few specific plot points, Joe doesn’t always describe in a lot of detail the visual aspects of a panel, but he’ll be very detailed in terms of all the information he wants to transmit with a certain scene. He’s very specific about the feelings of the characters, their body language, the mood that the scene has to have. Then he throws it to me like a challenge as to how to represent it visually, giving me the chance to modify certain elements to make them work better visually.
I draw the pages, send them, then they get colored. When Joe receives the finished artwork, he works the text once more to adapt the dialogue, maybe add some lines, maybe remove others. When he realizes that something in the text is able to be read in the images, he deletes that part, but sometimes when the image suggests certain elements he hadn’t thought of, he adds extra text. The writing process of “Locke and Key” ends when we’re setting the final pdf of the comic.
When we were working on “Keys to the Kingdom,” in the last issue there was a printing mistake — we still don’t know why — and one page of the comic appeared with none of the word balloons. We found this out after it was printed, so there was no chance to fix it, but then Joe saw the finished comic and realized that page worked better without any text, so for the final version of the book, we kept that page without any text because it worked in the way we wanted that moment [to be read]. At all the points in the creative process, we’re trying to polish the story and polish the book. Sometimes when I see the pages colored, I wanted to fix certain details to make them look better, so I do some extra last-minute fixes. It’s a collective effort to get the best possible page in every step of the process.
You’ve worked with colorist Jay Fotos on a few projects, now. What’s your interaction like?
One of my greatest blessings as a comic book artist has been the chance to work with Jay for, I think, seven years in a row, uninterrupted. He’s an extraordinary colorist. Not just in terms of the way he technically applies the color, but the way he gives an extra something to the images themselves by adding a sense of mood or dread or melancholy to the images. Jay is an artist, and his artistic view appears through the coloring.
There are two things I could mention about him. One is that, except for a couple of specific plot points, I’ve never asked Jay for a change in coloring of anything in a book. Despite that, several times, the way he approached the color is different from the way I originally pictured it in my mind when I was drawing the images. But when I see the color applied to the page, I realize that it works even better than I would have ever imagined. The other thing is that by knowing him for so many years, I start drawing considering the way he’s going to approach it with colors. It’s ideal for me to work on a project like “Locke and Key” knowing he’s going to be on board with us as part of the team, immediately realizing the quality he was going to add to the book. For us, it was a blessing to have him working on this book and being part of the “Locke and Key” creative family. I think he added to the book something unique that became part of the identity of “Locke and Key” as an artistic creation.
You’ve played around a lot with your style on “Locke and Key,” most especially in first issue of “Keys to the Kingdom.” Was that more you or Joe?
That was a suggestion from Joe because he’s a huge Bill Watterson fan. The way [the issue] told the story, it was a series of stand-alone comic strips and also had to work as a series of pages, so it was quite a challenge. It came from this idea by Joe, I took it as a challenge and it worked way better than we both ever imagined. After that, we felt a lot more freedom to maintain that kind of risk in the visual storytelling of the comic. Even in that one, which was the most extreme use of a visual narrative gadget, it was because it reflected the way we wanted to approach the content of that chapter. We wanted a radical difference between the vision of the situation from the child’s point of view and the teenager’s point of view and how both of them were related with the both the action of the chapter and what the story was about.
I think one of the greatest strengths of Joe as a comic writer is how aware he is of what the medium of comic books is and how to tell a story in comics. He understands comic books in a way I’ve seen in very few writers, and he trusts in his partners in order to achieve his goals as a creator of comic books. For us, it’s been a tremendously comfortable partnership because at several points when both of us have ideas as to what to try next, we’re consciously asking each other, do you think this could work, do you feel comfortable writing or drawing this kind of stuff, do you think it makes sense with what we’ve drawn before in the book? I think that has contributed to the whole saga to give it a very strong and deep sense of consistency, continuity and a narrative sense.
That particular issue and the “Calvin and Hobbes” tribute may be the most extreme, as you say, but you’ve played around with style and approach a number of times, and there’s been an overall style change over the course of the series.
When I started working on this, I knew that if this project would extend over the years, there’s an inevitable change or evolution in your own style. I wanted to make that evolution a part of the content of the story. When I read the first scripts by Joe, I realized the emotional depth of the story. I also realized that this was going to be a story about a bunch of kids who were going to be forced through a maturity process. In a very aware way, I started drawing the characters in an almost caricaturistic way, with almost exaggerated features and very exaggerated eyes, because I wanted to give myself a place to play with the emotional tools of the story. Also, as the series progressed, I wanted to make them less and less caricaturistic and more and more realistic. I think it’s going to be very noticeable when you compare “Omega” to “Welcome to Lovecraft.” I wanted to have a visual development of the characters that were able to reflect that change from childhood to adulthood in terms of their internal development. That was a risky chance I took at the beginning of the story, not knowing if I would be able to make it work, but I’m very glad I tried that and I’m very proud that it has sort of succeeded. Well, the final word on that will be the readers, of course, but it was part of the challenge of the story itself.
You mentioned that you’re still working on “Omega,” and I don’t want to get too ahead of things, but have you started thinking about what comes next for you after the series is over?
My main goal after “Locke and Key” is to keep working with Joe, and fortunately, he has the same feelings about me. “Locke and Key” has become not just a chance to create an amazing professional relationship, but also a very strong friendship. Joe has become among my three closest friends, and I think that the major thing that happened for me during this work is to have the chance to know him and develop this friendship. We both want to keep working together on future projects as much as we can and as long as we can tolerate each other. [Laughs]
We have plans. We have ideas for both original projects and editorial projects. We’re not one hundred percent sure in which order we are going to tackle them once we finish “Locke and Key.” For me, it’s going to be a combination of two things, deciding what we do next. The first, from my perspective, is I want to do something much smaller than “Locke and Key.” Nothing bigger than a six-issue miniseries, because of exhaustion on one hand, and also because I want to do something radically different from what I’ve been doing on “Locke and Key” the past five years.
Also, I want to do whatever Joe feels more comfortable writing after we’re done. This has been such a pleasant experience, despite how exhausting it’s been. We’ve managed to do whatever we wanted to do with the story and the characters. I think it’s a key element for us to feel comfortable and enthusiastic about the challenges we’re going to face in our next project. I guess that in the next couple months we’re going to have a more defined strategy to tackle the next year.
I think I can mention we have have three options right now. One is a new original series we’re developing which we’re very enthusiastic about. The other is to work with a major character at one of the Big Two. The other is a weird crossover project that may involve some “Locke and Key” mythology elements. Which one of those three we tackle first is something we’ll decide in the upcoming months.
Besides working with Joe, is there something else you’d like to try, people you want to work with or other creative possibilities you’d like to explore?
There’s always writers you love and admire since you were young. I love the stuff from people like Grant Morrison or Neil Gaiman or Jason Aaron or Ed Brubaker. I would love to try to do something again with Chris Ryall. We both have this impossible dream of doing an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles,” which we know is probably never going to happen because there’s a huge mess with the rights, but we may try to create something inspired by that in the near future. But despite my admiration for the work of other writers right now, I don’t have any serious thoughts of working with anyone else. With Joe, we have plans for at least a couple years of projects that we really want to do, so we’ll see.
I’ve had a couple offers that I had to turn down because of my involvement with “Locke and Key.” Right now I have no other priorities to consider. Right now, at this very moment, even though we do have ideas for projects to do right after “Locke and Key,” I’m trying to keep myself as focused as possible on “Locke and Key.” I feel a sense of responsibility, personally and as part of a team, to our readers to give 130% on what remains of “Omega.” This has been a very long journey and none of us wants to mess it up in the last few steps. I know the last issues are going to be very challenging, so I’m trying to keep my focus. Whichever comes after, I’ll be very glad to tackle as a new blessing, but right now, I think “Locke and Key” deserves my effort. We all want to give our readers and supporters and friends through this journey our very best in these last episodes.
Looking back on the series, do you have any favorite scenes or sequences?
There are several. The consistency of the whole book is one of the things that I love the most about the project. Despite all the flaws of my own work that I can see every time I look at the pages, there were a few magical and captivating moments for me, especially in certain one-shot issues. For example, the story of Professor Ridgeway in the beginning of “Head Games” was a very pleasant surprise for me. I wasn’t expecting a chapter like that one when Joe sent the script, and I think it ended up working beautifully. That particular issue has the most beautiful ending we’ve done so far in the series.
Another issue that was very special for me, but was also extremely difficult to do, was the last issue of “Crown of Shadows,” the story of Nina Locke. When she hit the bottom of her alcoholic period, that was a very tough month to have to work with that sense of dread and despair daily and see this beloved character having such a hard time, but I think that the issue ended up working beautifully. There’s also “Sparrow,” in “Keys to the Kingdom.” The battle of the giants in “Crown of Shadows” was extremely fun and very challenging to tackle and ended up working way better than I expected when we started working on that.
Another one I’m extremely fond of is the short story from “The Guide to the Known Keys.” I think that father-son story is probably the most beautiful thing we’ve done so far in the “Locke and Key” mythology, so what I’m expecting is to be able to set the last few issues of “Locke and Key” to that same standard. To feel as involved a creator and to achieve that same level of consistency and emotional depth and fun. I think that combination of emotions has distinguished “Locke and Key” as a creative project, so I wish my deepest wish to be able to achieve that at its best in the last part of the story.