Skip to main content


June 17, 2009

Behind the Scenes with Joe Hill

Posted by tom

The acclaim for Joe Hill’s work continues! His bestselling series Locke and Key has just been nominated for two Eisner Awards: Best Limited Series and Best Writer. Now, get to meet Hill yourself in our Behind the Scenes interview. Plus, don’t miss our review of Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft. And while you’re at it, look for the new monthly Locke and Key series on sale right now.

Do you remember your first comic book or graphic novel? If so, what was it?
The first comic book I ever read that cut deep emotionally was the issue of Spider-Man in which Gwen Stacy’s father was felled by a collapsing chimney. The idea that a good person, a heroic person, could be struck down just because he was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time impressed and moved me. I was also taken with Wendy and Richard Pini’s Elfquest graphic novels at a very young age. I haven’t revisited them in a while, but in memory at least, they strike me as being much riskier and more adult than a lot of the other adventure stuff being done in comic books at that time.
It’s an interesting, valid question, but I do think that one thing that holds the art form back is the way readers and creators alike fetishize the comic books they read as kids. Most of the stuff I read when I was a little guy was crap. I had the complete run of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I got off on ROM: Space Knight. Ninety percent of the comics I read in childhood aren’t worth thinking about. The work I care about the most is stuff I’ve read in the last 10 years, work being published right now, not what I read back when I was wearing Hulk T-shirts to fourth grade.
What do you love about the graphic novel as a format for storytelling?
For starters, comics are a hell of a lot of fun to write. I read an article once about a guy who was working as a coder for Rock Star games. And he said he had never imagined he could have a job that made him so happy and left him feeling so fulfilled. He’d roll into work about 11 a.m. and write code until 7 in the evening, then break for pizza and foosball in the rec room, maybe watch a little sports with his buddies. When he felt rested up, he’d go back into his cubicle and code some more until midnight. For him, there was no separation between work and play. And that’s kind of how I feel about writing comic books.
Also, I think comic books amplify the things I do best—dialogue, action, concepts—while freeing me from the part of writing I fret over the most, the sound and flow of my prose. There’s no prose in comics. The pictures are the prose.
Whose work do you admire?
Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are on the short list of my very favorite living writers who aren’t actually related to me by blood. Alan Moore and Swamp Thing are the reason I write comics…which is not to say I think Swamp Thing is his best work, only that I happened to come across it at just the right time in my life, and it instilled in me some ideas about how character can drive story. As a collection of chilling supernatural tales, Swamp Thing is right there with the Books of Blood.
Among the current crop of writers, I’m very high on Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, and Jason Aaron. Warren Ellis’s body of work is an abundance of riches. Terry Moore’s Echo is probably my current favorite monthly. I look at it as the greatest 1980s sci-fi film never made. It’s right in the mold of Starman, Back to the Future, and The Last Starfighter. It does it all: action, quiet, believable romance, comedy. I tried to get my wife to read it and she asked what it was about, and I said it was the story of a woman who winds up with a pair of fusion-powered superboobs, and that was about as far as that went. But Echo really is all kinds of awesome.
As far as artists go, I’ll read anything drawn by Tony Harris, Steve Parkhouse, Frank Quitely, Jim Mahfood. Just to start. As a kid, I pretty much had no interest in who wrote what—I bought comics solely based on who drew them. Writers provide the chassis, but artists put together the engine. I’ve been lucky to work with Gabriel Rodriguez on Locke & Key: He’s a fuel-injected V12.
Who do you read outside of the graphic novel format?
Someone asked me the other day what my five favorite musical acts were, and I said Stones, Beatles, AC/DC, Springsteen, and Steve Earle. And realized I might as well have dropped dead in 1988, because my tastes apparently froze with Copperhead Road.
I’m sorry to say my reading tastes aren’t any more original or edgy. I read a lot of Elmore Leonard, because I think his novels are textbooks on how to write all the things that matter (to me, anyway): character, dialogue, action, the struggle to stay cool under pressure. I love Cormac McCarthy’s stern, archaic language and apocalyptic settings; he writes great dialogue too, although that isn’t usually noted as one of his strengths. Probably goes without saying I’m a big Stephen King fan.
How many graphic novels do you read a month? How many of those are manga?
I read a comic a day—it works out to almost five graphic novels a month. None of that is manga. I don’t really know anything about manga. I’ve never been a great fan of the visual style. I’m gonna take a stab at Urasawa’s Monster in the next couple months; maybe that’ll get me onboard.
How did you first get involved in the field professionally?
Do you remember The Marvel Try-Out Book? It had half a Spider-Man story in it, and people who wanted to write for Marvel were invited to complete the script; the best script would see it illustrated and published. When I was 12, I followed the instructions, wrote the rest of the script, and sent it in. A few months later, I got a form rejection letter with a hand-scrawled note from then-editor-in-chief Jim Shooter on the bottom. I couldn’t make out what he had written, but it seemed to be generally encouraging. The dream of working in comics really took hold there.
Fast-forward 20 years. A talent scout working at Marvel spotted one of my short stories in a Year’s Best collection and contacted me to see if I had any interest in writing for funny books. So I finally got to script a Spider-Man story after all, a little 11-pager that appeared in Spider-Man Unlimited. I should add it’s probably my very worst published piece of writing, although I think people who read it always come away liking it, largely on the strength of Seth Fisher’s goofy and inspired art and Chris Chuckry’s Play Dough colors.
What kind of reaction do you get when you tell people what you do?
My writer friends are always stoked—everyone my age who writes fiction digs that comics are not just an exciting and valid literary form, but also that they’re out on the bleeding edge of pop culture. If you look at movies right now, you see a billion-dollar business exploiting yesterday’s comics. If you look at novels, you see a lot of writers wrestling with the outsize and outrageous influence of pop culture on modern life, and comics in particular (Kavalier & Clay, Fortress of Solitude, Oscar Wao…do I need to say more?).
My nonwriter friends are usually amiably puzzled by the comic book thing. The novels they get. And they understand a compulsion to noodle around with short stories. But the appeal of comics is harder to see. Because ultimately comics are still looked at as a little bit of a dodgy, not quite mature form of entertainment. And a lot of them are dodgy and immature and ridiculous. Which is why I love them. I’m not one of these dudes who are obsessed with comic books “growing up” and getting respect. I’m not sure I want them to grow up and get respect. I don’t want comics to go John Updike on me. I want them to stay scrappy and disreputable.
Do you collect comics? What is the most valuable piece of art, graphic novel, or comic book in your collection?
I’ve got a couple long boxes in the office, and put the comics in bags after I’ve read ’em. But I’m not a collector in the true sense. I hate seeing a comic in one of those hermetically sealed airtight boxes. Your comics aren’t dead bodies and don’t need the coffin treatment. To me, a comic with a big fold across the cover and stains from pizza grease on the pages is worth more, because it was read and enjoyed.
Probably the most valuable piece of comic art I own, in an emotional sense, is Gabriel Rodriguez’s cover to issue #2 of Locke & Key: Head Games, which shows Bode’s character reimagined as a phrenology diagram.
Is there something you covet adding to your collection?
There’s a Buscema Conan cover I’ve always wanted, but I wouldn’t break the bank to get it. For me, comics are a pure hit of the best high in modern storytelling; I don’t need the original issues of, say, Swamp Thing, to enjoy it. I don’t need the Absolute edition either. The inexpensive trade paperbacks are fine. The story is still there, still the same, still good.