Unlocked: Joe Hill Opens Up On "Locke & Key"

Five years ago, three children moved to their family's ancestral home in rural Lovecraft, Massachusetts to recover from the murder of their father. With their alcoholic mother finding comfort in the bottom of a bottle, they were left on their own to discover the secrets of Key House, a sprawling Gothic mansion. The youngest of the three, Bode Locke, was the first to find the strange keys made from Whispering Iron that granted him powers invisible to the adults around him. He shared these keys with Tyler and Kinsey, his older brother and sister, who began to relish in the opportunities to escape grief, loss and the horrors of high school. Unfortunately for the Locke children, their ancestral home came equipped with an old enemy who has very different ideas about how to use those keys and isn't afraid to play rough.

Now, almost forty issues later, the story of "Locke & Key" is coming to an end and fans of the IDW Publishing series can't wait to devour the last two issues and discover the fate of the Locke legacy.

Written by horror savant Joe Hill and illustrated by the architectural hand of Gabriel Rodriguez, "Locke & Key" has been obsession-worthy since the first issue sold out in a single day back in 2008. But simply classifying the series as "horror" is an incomplete description. Combining elements of fantasy, adventure, young adult fiction and romance, Hill manages to spin a tale that is as scary as it is satisfying.

CBR News spoke to Joe Hill about the series' final issues and the writer unlocked some of the mysteries behind the Locke family, his horror movie influences and the little white lie he told to get the book published.

CBR News: How does having "Locke & Key" coming to an end feel for you?

"Locke & Key: Omega" #5 cover by Gabriel Rodriguez

Joe Hill: I don't know exactly, I keep waiting to feel something. Mostly I feel good because I don't feel like I blew the ending, I feel like Gabe [Rodriguez] and me have a good chance to stick the ending.

Whenever there's a long running series there is always the danger of stacking up too much mystery and getting yourself into a situation where your final chapters are all about explanations. I don't think people come to the end of a story hoping for explanations, they want resolutions. What matters are the characters; not the plot. We tried to never ask questions we didn't have good answers for.

We spent a lot of "Clockworks" answering the deepest mysteries of the story, and now that we're at the end of the series our hope is to really focus on each of the characters and to give them an opportunity to reveal themselves for who they really are, be it hero, coward or clown.

What did you set out to achieve with "Locke & Key?"

When I was growing up and a teenager, the writers I cared about most were Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore -- to a lesser extent Frank Miller and some other comic book folks. Even later when I was in my 20s and 30s, I kept finding stuff like Brian K. Vaughn's "Y: The Last Man" and I loved those long running series where you had a writer explore a character on a vast canvas.

I've always been a fan of episodic story telling and I wanted to experience that for myself, I wanted to see if I could do it. Something like "Sandman" or "Swamp Thing," or the Chris Claremont/John Byrne run on "X-Men" where you just keep going and see where it takes you, and every character gets a turn in the spotlight. That was something I felt like I needed to have and wanted desperately. "Locke & Key" has been my opportunity to have that and it's been fantastic.

The characters have all had memorable moments and they feel so balanced in terms of sharing the story focus, so I would say you achieved that.

A lot of the credit if the characters feel satisfying goes to Gabriel Rodriguez. I've learned at least as much about those characters from the way he's drawn them as he's ever learned from me about the way I wrote them. It's not like it's my story and he's drawing it, it's our story. I've learned so much from him, and also made a best friend in the process.

The series is definitely scary and has a cinematic feel, but I never get the sense that you're using your characters as placeholders for a larger lesson. Has that been a horror trope that you've intentionally avoided?

Even though the comic goes to some pretty shocking places and does some pretty terrible things to its lead characters, it's been very respectful to each character's identity. There is the feeling that none of these people are stereotypes to be knocked down, but people with full emotional lives and an interesting inner landscape. Even when punishment is inflicted on them, you still care about them. You root for them.

I think that when horror fails it fails because all of the characters are a one-dimensional cardboard cut out, like the slasher films of the 1980s. You've got the slut, the jock, the geek and they just become ten pins to be knocked down by the bowling ball of Jason Voorhees or Freddy Krueger. Actually, the most fully flushed out character in those movies turns out to be the serial killer and you wind up laughing as he cuts people down. I love a lot of those movies, but on a deep level I find them morally abhorrent. I don't want to root for the serial killer; I want to root for the heroes!

In some ways, "Locke & Key" has always been a teen slasher film on a grand scale. I wanted people to get to know those characters before they started being cut down; then it's no fun when someone dies.

In a lot of your work the villains have a common theme of combined purpose and patience, which aren't necessarily scary qualities on their own, but become sinister -- like Dodge waiting and waiting to reclaim the Omega key. What do you think makes a good villain?

What makes a good villain is when they think they are the hero. No one goes around thinking they are the master of evil and want to destroy thinks for the fun of it.
If you asked Charlie Manks, the bad guy in my novel "NOS4A2", he would say that he is the hero of the book. Everything he's ever done has been to save children, to protect them from danger and give them lives of happiness. Which he's done... he's just horrible.

I think Dodge is a little more aware that he's wicked, but his justification is that it's just so damn fun. He's so superior anyway to everyone around him. He's been a lot of fun to write, and to me he's always been very interesting. He has one more surprise up his sleeve that I don't think anyone is going to see coming.

Are there any more stories that the Whispering Iron might yield, or will this be the definitive end of the "Locke & Key" universe?

You never know. There's this one story that Gabe and I set out to tell which we've finished, and Gabe's drawing the final sixty pages now, and we finish off in "Locke & Key: Alpha and Omega."

We do plan to do more in the "Locke and Key" universe, specifically some one-shots. Eventually there is going to be a seventh book called "Locke & Key: The Golden Age" that will collect "Open the Moon", "Grind House" and some other stories that look back on happier times in the history of Key House.

I can only write so many comics because I have a day job as a novelist. Also, I'm not fast. There are lots of comic writers who can carry four or five books at once and they're fast. I'm slow and can only carry one comic at a time.

Gabe and I have some other projects we want to work on, and I have some other stuff I'd like to do in comics, but eventually -- maybe in two or three years -- we'll circle back and tell a story called "Locke & Key: Battleground." It's from World War II and will explore a different set of characters, and also a couple of keys we haven't had have a chance to get into. It will tell the last days of adults in the universe being able to see the magic from the keys, and I have a story that will sort of elegantly explain that.

You mentioned that you identify as a novelist versus a comic writer -- why did you decide that "Locke and Key" was a comic instead of a novel?

The story on that is that I was a comic book writer before I was a novelist. I'd written several novels that I couldn't sell, and had a lot of rejection. I was beginning to think I'd never break through as a novelist, but I had some success as a short story writer. I'd had short stories published in some nice journals, won a few prizes, got into a few best of collections. A talent scout from Marvel Comics had invited me to contribute a story to "Spider-Man Unlimited."

That was my first publication. That was before "Heart Shaped Box", that was before I really broke through. My Spider-Man story wasn't very good, it was pretty generic, but it had some great Seth Fisher art -- who made me look really good. The experience reminded me how much I loved comics and it made me desperate to break in and get a foothold. I hadn't succeeded in selling a novel, so I thought that maybe this was it for me.

I started making pitches and I specifically remember making one for something called "Baby Hulk", because I had a two-year old toddler at the time, and his rages were so frightening. I thought it would be scary if instead of throwing a plastic truck at me, what if he threw a real truck? Marvel passed on that.

Marvel and DC Comics also passed on another pitch called "Locke & Key" that was about this old mansion full of magical keys. I continued to think about that story. I forgot about my other pitches, but that story stuck with me. I'd be on late night diaper runs and I'd think up a new key.

IDW Publishing came to me, before "Heart Shaped Box" came out but after my collection "20th Century Ghosts" had started to win prizes, and at that time they were adapting various cult writer short stories into comics. I remember they were doing Cory Doctorow and they were interested in doing the same thing with me. I told them I had something else, an idea for a comic book that I could tell in only six issues! And they bought that shit.

Now, forty issues later, it's wrapping up.

"Locke & Key: Omega" #5 by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodrigez goes on sale June 5.

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Tags: idw publishing, gabriel rodriguez, locke and key, joe hill, locke and key omega, locke and key alpha

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