Joe Hill talks Locke & Key: Head Games

Last year, Joe Hill (second child of authors Stephen and Tabitha King) followed up his enormously successful debut novel, "Heart-Shaped Box," with a comic book from IDW Publishing called "Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft." The book told the tale of three children who became custodians of a mystical Keyhouse in the wake of their father's murder. But "Welcome to Lovecraft" was only the first installment in the larger "Locke & Key" saga. The first issue of the new six-issue miniseries, "Locke & Key: Head Games," debuts later this month, and CBR News caught up with Hill to unlock the mysteries of the next chapter in the "Locke & Key" series.

In the pages of "Welcome to Lovecraft," Rendell Locke, a Bay Area high school guidance counselor, is killed by an emotionally disturbed young man who he once tried to help out. In what Hill acknowledges as an homage to Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon," the day of Rendell's death was revisited multiple times over the course of the first series, each new perspective giving the readers deeper insight into the mysterious circumstances surrounding the man's demise. Eventually we learned that the killer, Sam Lesser, was under the control of a supernatural creature named Dodge. When Lesser set his sights on the remainder of the Locke family, Rendell's widow Nina, along with her children Tyler, Kinsey and Bode, fled to their ancestral family home called the Keyhouse.

"The house, it turns out, is a repository for a variety of unlikely keys, capable of opening doors into the impossible," Hill told CBR. Dodge was being held prisoner in an old wellhouse behind the Keyhouse. "Dodge is an ace manipulator, and uses the threat of Sam Lesser to persuade little Bode to help her escape. She promises to stop Sam, and she does, in fairly brutal fashion." After that, Dodge disappeared, but not before using one of the Locke family keys to transform herself into the form of an 18-year old boy named Zack Wells.

It is in this form that Dodge infiltrates the local academy where Nina Locke had enrolled two of her three children. "Of course it takes young Zack Wells almost no time at all to befriend Tyler and Kinsey, and settle into their confidences," Hill explained. "Dodge isn't done with the Locke family. There's something in that house he wants; a key to a door that shouldn't be opened."

"Locke & Key: Head Games" picks up a week or two after the conclusion of "Welcome to Lovecraft." "Dodge was a student at Lovecraft Academy once before, back in the 1980s, and unfortunately there are a few people still around who remember him from when he was known as Lucas Caravaggio," Hill revealed. "Unfortunately for them, that is." Chief among them is Professor Joe Ridgeway, who makes the connection between Caravaggio and Wells that the latter would just as soon keep under wraps. "Dodge takes a fairly cheerful yet pitiless attitude when it comes to his own self-protection and survival."

When a shocking death reminiscent of their father's sends Kinsey and Tyler into an emotional tailspin, their newfound friend Zack Wells is there to help pick up the pieces. Meanwhile, the 6-year-old Bode Locke sets her mind to unlocking the mystery of the so-called Head Key.

Still a relative newcomer to comics, Hill's first few forays into the medium have taught him that a 22-page comic book has just as formal a construction as a Shakespearean sonnet. "But within those limitations there's tremendous freedom and power," Hill said. "The panels of a comic book are like narrative lego. There's no end to what you can build, and playing with them is addictive. There are all sorts of crafty ways to snap them together to make unexpected structures. You can explore any story - the more fantastic the better - and any emotion and any psychological state."

The two-page spread is one of the tricks of the trade that Hill is only now starting to fully explore in the pages of "Head Games." "You can't underrate the dramatic impact of a two-page spread," he remarked. "You can also use a moment like that to sneakily unload lots of subtle visual information."

Even though writing novels and writing comics are two totally different animals, Hill said that in some ways the two disciplines absolutely complement each other. "I've taken some of what I've learned writing short stories and novels, and applied that to the comic," he said. And while Joe Hill believes that common comics staples like "action beats, one-liners and lurid costumes" have their place, he's also a believer that a comics story bereft of anything else is ultimately going to be an unfulfilling experience. "I try and linger on the characters, on what they're feeling. You don't want to be in too much of a rush, or too scared that readers will tune out because not enough is happening.

"One great but unexpected side benefit of working in comics is that I've learned skills there I've been able to carry over into my short stories and into my work on the new novel, the one I'm writing now. I've learned some things about timing, and transitions, that have been handy."

Joe Hill was brimming over with praise for his collaborator, Gabriel Rodriguez. "Gabe is a quiet master at showing what the characters are thinking and feeling through body language and subtle nuances of expression," Hill said. "And he has a gift for staging action to create the maximum amount of tension. My favorite sequences are the ones when I can get out of his way, sequences with no dialogue at all, no word balloons cluttering up the page, just a clear flow of moments that fit together to tell the story in an unexpected and hopefully powerful way."

While it was Hill who first dreamed up the characters in "Locke & Key," the writer told CBR News that Rodriguez deserved just as much creative credit. "The way he costumes a character, or has them react to one another, helps me see them far more clearly and know better how to write them. One reliable high point of my day is when Gabe's latest page pops into my inbox. His work started at a high level, but has grown in power with each issue."

Hill is having so much fun writing "Locke & Key" that part of him thinks he could write it for the rest of his life. "There are a lot of doors in that house," the writer pointed out. "And who cares if Tyler never graduates high school? Hell, the 'Peanuts' kids were in first grade for fifty years."

That said, Joe Hill has always envisioned "Locke & Key" as a limited series. "The plan right now is for 24 more tightly focused issues, and then a final standalone graphic novel to finish things off," he confirmed. But while it's not outside the realm of possibility that the series could be extended to 36 issues, but the last thing Hill wants the series to do is overstay its welcome. "Look what happened to 'The X-Files:' they piled mysteries on top of mysteries until all the fun was gone." Rather than bog readers down with a myriad of mysteries, Hill means to spend the remaining issues of the series fully exploring the ones he's already set up in "Welcome to Lovecraft."

"Locke & Key" is not the only project on Hill's horizon. "I'm working on the third draft of a novel called 'Horns. It's gone well, and I think it's a good story - that it will make a nice follow-up to 'Heart-Shaped Box' - but I'm awfully slow, and I'll be at it for a while longer," he said.

Hill has at least three shorter-form comics ideas, including some all-ages stories he looks forward to have the opportunity to read to his kids. But at the moment, his plate is pretty full with "Horns" and "Locke & Key."

"Locke & Key: Head Games" #1 hits stands January 28 from IDW Publishing.

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