The Lockes are struggling to cope with all the horrors they’ve faced, and as their haunting, heartbreaking story reaches its end, artist Gabriel Rodriguez says he’s still too close to the family to process it all.
But the architecture-trained, Chilean “Locke & Key” co-creator does have plenty to say about his experiences working on his and writer Joe Hill’s award-winning IDW series, which has followed teens Tyler and Kinsey, and young Bode, on a terrifying journey involving magical, mind-opening, out-of-body-experience-enabling keys and an evil from a shadow world that is scheming and killing in ours.
The horror story, which has been told over six volumes — “Welcome to Lovecraft,” “Head Games,” “Crown of Shadows,” “Keys to the Kingdom,” “Clockworks” and “Alpha & Omega” — unlocks its conclusion with “Locke & Key: Alpha” No. 2, out Wednesday, and celebrates with a number of variant covers by top talents.
Rodriguez, a 2011 Eisner nominee for penciller/inker, discussed door-opening collaborations, emotionally difficult art sequences, recommended “Locke & Key” listening, the complexities of bathroom placement in the design of Keyhouse, possibly revisiting the Lockes and more in an in-depth email interview with Hero Complex.
Hero Complex: While avoiding spoilers, what can you tell readers about “Alpha” No. 2?
Gabriel Rodriguez: As “Alpha” No. 1 was the crowning climax of the battle between the forces of good and evil that clashed in this epic, “Alpha” No. 2 is intended to present the closure rituals for our characters, and hopefully a couple surprises, too. Different dramas and journeys have ended in “Alpha,” and we will face their final decisions, and their costs and consequences.
As we tried to solve all the major mysteries of the saga by the end of Volume 5 (“Clockworks”), we hope to present how much the characters have grown, at least the ones who will survive, while trying to tie all the emotional strings by the end of “Alpha & Omega.” We’ve been planning the ending of this story for over two years, investing as much work as love in this tale and its characters, and receiving tremendous support from our readers. We tried our best to make the crossing of this last door worth it.
HC: “Alpha” No. 1 had several powerful wordless pages sprinkled throughout, culminating with that dramatic final page of the grieving Lockes and Rufus in the foreground with Keyhouse on fire behind them. Can you take us through your experience illustrating that page?
GR: It was a tough experience, not just because of the drawing complexities (amount of characters, body languages required, several layers of simultaneous action, space depth, etc.), but because of how emotionally demanding it was.
When you have spent five and a half years with this family, dedicating 10 to 12 hours daily, to reach some of these points in which you can measure the consequences of that creative and emotional investment, it’s sort of an epiphany. And it’s so necessary to care about it, if you’re trying to be able to transfer that care to the reader, too. It was sort of intimidating, too, as that sole image was the pinnacle of everything we did before.
And having in your hands the tremendous responsibility of turning Joe’s extraordinary scripts into images is intimidating. Joe and I have discussed over and over how important it is to care about the characters to make a horror story work: It is that bridge between them and the readers that insufflates humanity to the story, and charges it with emotions. All the joy and fear you could experience is founded on that bond.
HC: You’ve talked before about how you and Joe Hill have become close friends, and there has been Eisner and British Fantasy award recognition for your work together. What are the keys to that collaboration?
GR: It is one of those things that happens as by an act of magic, and I don’t think there’s a point in trying to dig too much into the reasons, but instead to be thankful that it’s there and preserve it. We have the same creative concerns and interests, we share the same work ethics, we laugh at the same stuff, we care about the same stuff. It’s like discovering an older brother you never knew you had. I have learned as much of this story, its characters, about narrative, about creative team work, about comics and friendship from his work as I’ve learned from my own work. A great partner is always the best possible teacher. I can’t think of a better way to feed the creative work experience, while enriching your life as a whole.
And that’s something I have to say regarding all the people we have shared this journey with. Chris Ryall, our editor, has become one of our closest friends ever, too. The few days we had the chance to share while working on the last pages of “Locke & Key” in our recent visit to Boston and Exeter was the best testimony of the joy that this project has been, and the family we have built around it. It’s like having a rock band, with Robbie Robbins and Jay Fotos, who have been involved in “L&K” since Page 1, and the incredibly supportive team from IDW Publishing led by Ted Adams. I think we have somehow built another new family around this story as the Lockes were growing in front of our eyes.
HC: Jay Fotos’ colors work to make the book’s atmosphere palpable, and you’d previously worked with him on “Beowulf” and the Clive Barker adaptation “The Great and Secret Show.” What do you think works about how his work combines with yours?
GR: Jay is THE master of light and mood, and I think that’s the best way to describe him as an artist. I’ve been blessed with his collaboration in several projects for over seven or eight years already, and his magic touch is undoubtedly a key element in “L&K’s” visual appeal.
It’s not just that his work makes the drawings look good, it’s that it communicates the content of the story, too. It enriches it: You can feel the moisture in the atmosphere or the heat of the sun, while you can see the extent of the psychological conflicts of the characters or the poignant drama of certain scenes. And also, the contrasted but magically integrated nature of the ordinary life disrupted by fantastic elements. These are all things I constantly try to achieve with paper and ink, and they are certainly raised to the highest possible level by Jay’s artistic talent.
HC: Looking back over the series, you’ve gradually modified some visual elements. The kids, for example, are less wide-eyed now than they were as “Welcome to Lovecraft” opened. What were your storytelling ideas in making such style adjustments?
GR: At the beginning of “Locke & Key,” I had already drawn over 1,000 pages in different projects for IDW. I felt pretty mature and comfortable with my narrative skills, but still with a lot to improve in my drawing skills. Aware of the emotional expression range that the story was going to demand, I started choosing a way to depict the characters that was exaggerated in their facial and body languages. That would give me more room to play with their ability to communicate emotions while giving a more childish look to the overall tone of the world and a story that was supposed to be about kids getting confronted with the horrors of adult life.
I was trying to set a solid starting point within the limits of my own work skills at the beginning of the series, hoping that with time I would be able to play with those elements in a more subtle way. From there I would be able to gradually move the visual look of the series to adulthood too, turning its language into an active element of the evolution of the characters and their world. I was trying to assume the drawing experience and the challenge of the inevitable increase in complexity of the visuals of this epic as part of the narrative development. Readers would be able to experience the changes in the characters’ vision of their world and themselves. It was sort of a strategic decision with a creative twist, as I wanted to use my own strengths and weaknesses in the service of the story.
HC: You have a background in architecture, and Joe Hill has praised you for making Keyhouse, which is so vivid as to be a character itself, work with scripts that weren’t necessarily focused on keeping the mansion’s layout consistent. Can you take us through your approach to designing Keyhouse – your goals and challenges? Did you have any particularly helpful architectural references?
GR: It was inevitable, as soon as I read the pitch of the story, to realize that Keyhouse was going to be a major character in the saga. It’s the embodiment of the ancestral legacy of the Lockes.
From the very beginning, as I drew the first piece of art for the series, which was the cover for Issue 1, I wanted to tackle its design as a real architectural project. I wanted Keyhouse to be consistent and functional as much as I wanted it to be dramatic and ominous.
One of the first things Joe did when we started discussing the visual approach to the story was to send me a couple images — a painting and a Ray Bradbury book cover depicting big, ancient and somber New England mansions. With those references in hand, I started researching elements of Victorian architecture, and decided to merge them with some Gothic and Romantic elements. I wanted both an attractive and disturbing look that might be evidence of a house that was built and rebuilt generation after generation, getting completed and deformed as time passed by. My concept was to create a sort of dark, disturbing opposite of Cinderella’s castle.
Also, due to my obsession with consistency to make imaginary worlds believable to readers, I needed to design the house so it made functional sense. So I started with a structural layout able to define the external shape of the house and to give me room to solve in detail all its internal places. The full design of the house became a process that developed in parallel with the story, during this five and a half years. I did the detailed layout of all the levels of the house when we were working on “Crown Of Shadows” [Vol. 3] and completed its cross sections and designed its central main hall and full garden layouts while working on “Omega.” [Vol. 6].
So there was the challenge of solving this weird monster without stepping on my own tail, while Joe bullied me, asking for changes here and there that got at their peak when he asked for a bathroom that was impossible to fit in a place he needed it to be for the plot to work in “Beyond Repair,” the last chapter of Volume 3. That demanded a MAJOR remodeling of two levels of the house, and after that I made him sign in blood a promise to stick to the architectural design of the house in the future. And he did it wonderfully, and I think it was amazing how he took advantage of the architectural qualities of the house to write amazing and gripping action sequences in “Welcome to Lovecraft,” “Crown of Shadows,” “Clockworks,” “Omega” and “Alpha.” And I want to say this: I might be the guy with the architectural background, but Joe had an equally active role as project designer of Keyhouse, and without his vision and creative input I wouldn’t have been able to make it at all as vivid and captivating as it became.
HC: There have been some wild sequences – going inside people’s heads, Tyler and Kinsey seeing their dad’s high school production of “The Tempest,” shadow monsters crashing a graduation party. Are there any that stand out to you as work you’re particularly proud of? Anything that was especially technically or emotionally difficult?
GR: All double-page spreads were a technical nightmare, but were so worth it to tackle due to their narrative resonance. Certain visual moments became trademarks of “Locke & Key,” and testimony of Joe’s unparalleled awareness of the strengths of the comic book narrative language as a writer. There are several moments that were undoubtedly visual peaks during the series, for different reasons, but all of them related to substantial elements of the story: the first time we peek inside Bode’s head [seen in the video above], the staging of “The Tempest,” the flashback story of Ellie Whedon, the living shadows, the giants battle, the Calvin/Bode episode [see image below], and so on.
But aside from those visually challenging moments, there were also others that were especially difficult because of their narrative and emotional demands. “In the Cave,” the second chapter of Volume 3, was as claustrophobic as its events were, because it was SO restricted in the elements we had to play with. The action sequence in the fight between Dodge and Det. Daniel Mutuku at the end of “Keys to the Kingdom” was incredibly hard to present in fluid choreography that was equally intense and narratively fluid. The last chapter of “Clockworks” was exhausting, considering the incredible amount of locations, events and characters that had to be compressed in such few pages. And the month I had to spend with Nina Locke’s depression and anguish while drawing “Beyond Repair” was probably one of my most emotionally exhausting creative experiences ever.
But all of that was just a warmup for doing “Alpha” 1 and 2. The last two issues of the series were by far the most complex and challenging, as I think they contain almost all the elements tried during the series: insane double- and single-splash pages, hundreds of characters, almost every location we have created, edgy action sequences and also extremely subtle, quiet emotional moments.
And all that combined leads to what we’re most proud of about the whole series: how vivid these characters and this world became. Several times I have received comments about how people forgot they were watching drawings while reading the story, seeing instead people and places. That’s by far the best compliment you can get as a comic book creator.
HC: You often tweet a song or album of the day. Do any songs or albums seem particularly fitting for “Locke & Key: Alpha”? If so, which ones and why?
GR: You have to consider that I work between 10 and 14 hours a day, six to seven days a week. That’s a lot of hours of music.
To set the mood in “Locke & Key,” there’s lots of Pink Floyd (“Meddle,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Animals” and “Atom Heart Mother”) and Riverside (mainly their “Reality Dream Trilogy” albums: “Out Of Myself,” “Second Life Syndrome” and “Rapid Eye Movement”). I don’t know how to explain it, but the “visual appeal” of classic British prog-rock has been a constant source of inspiration in my work, too. So lots of Genesis, Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson, among others, was usual company while drawing. A couple movie and TV series soundtracks were there too, mainly to set quiet or reflective moods, like Clint Mansell’s “Moon” and Angelo Badalamenti’s “A Straight Story.” And in various eclectic twists and turns, David Bowie’s “Outside” was another revisited station, and weird jumps from Tool to Queen to Fleetwood Mac, or from the Beatles to Porcupine Tree.
And last but not least, Rush, my favorite rock band ever, and their last album “Clockwork Angels.” “I can’t stop thinking big,” the chorus of “Caravan,” was a mantra while working in the last two books. So sorry, Joe, I know you hate their music, but “L&K” couldn’t have been what it is without them pounding in my ears.
HC: Which of the keys would you most like to possess, and what would you do with it? What consequences would you worry about?
GR: The Anywhere Key, hands down! In current crowded cities, and living so far away from many of my friends, it would be a blessing to turn a key and jump half a world away. Want to impress your wife? Here, darling, let’s have dinner in Paris. Wanna have fun? Let’s have a 24-hour New Year’s party in the most fun cities in the world. Want to escape from your editor? Catch me if you can! From all the keys created for the series, I think it is the most fun and safest.
All the other keys have terribly dangerous possibilities and demand a tremendous amount of care and responsibility. They can be easily used as weapons, or shortcuts to escape reality or problems, and that always has consequences. Especially the Head Key, which I’ve always considered the most dangerous of them all, as it allows you to manipulate yourself or others in the most intrusive way and even make them feel or think that is good. The ultimate Orwellian weapon…
HC: After working on “Locke & Key” for about six years, what was your feeling upon wrapping production on “Alpha” No. 2?
GR: Like a mission accomplished in the BEST possible way.
When we were working on the first miniseries, and Joe asked me if I wanted to stay for the whole run, the first thing I asked was: Is this heading to an end? And he said “of course, yes!” For both of us, closure is vital for a story to make sense, and our worst nightmare, as old “X-Files” fans, was to drag the story to a point where it becomes too repetitive, nonsensical or uninteresting.
We discussed the extent of the story several times. At some point we thought about 48 issues, and then Joe realized we needed just 36 for the story we wanted to tell. We ended up with 37, five and a half years after I’d drawn the first cover, completing the last book by drawing my 900th page of “Locke & Key” artwork.
So I feel pretty rewarded and satisfied, but well aware that we’re cheating as we kept several back doors unlocked to return to the universe of “Locke & Key.” And we will, of course, so there’s not as much nostalgia, at least not right now. And who knows? Maybe we’ll open a book one day and will enter into a new chapter of the lives of these characters. They are part of our families now, too, so in one way or another we’ll keep revisiting from time to time.
HC: What has most surprised you during your “Locke & Key” experience? What will you most remember?
GR: This is hard to answer right now, having finished it so recently, and still waiting for the last hardcover to be published. I still feel too close to the Lockes to look at them with proper distance. But I’m very aware that the whole experience surprised me for being more successful and satisfying than any expectation. The response of the readers, the creative process, and the personal bonds constructed in the making of this book were almost perfect. We got away with our story in the way we wanted to tell it, with all its faults and virtues, and in the process constructed friendships that will endure for the rest of our lives. So beyond something to remember, I feel like I’ve won something that will endure. And that’s way better.
HC: How would you like readers to remember this series?
GR: I hope they’ll have as much fun reading the story as we had making it. I hope they’ll feel familiar with the characters, and revisit their world and story from time to time, as I do with all my favorite books. I hope they’ll attach to some themes and situations, and will reflect about their lives and experiences about them. I hope they’ll feel that every time they open these books it’s like opening a door to wonder and inspiration, to fear and excitement.
HC: What are your hopes for the future of yours and Joe Hill’s creation?
GR: More, much more fun in future creative projects. We already have ideas for several stories, and two stand in line waiting for us to attack them as soon as Joe finishes his current comics sabbatical, as he’s right now finishing two novels and a couple extra projects. On my end, I’ll be doing a superhero one-shot story for one of the “big two,” then the new “Little Nemo” miniseries for IDW with Eric Shanower, and probably after that will start developing one of our new comics with Joe. We’ll see exactly when, but be sure that you’ll be hearing from this team again.