‘Hill House Comics’ Joe Hill: The Horror News Network Interview

by Nick Banks

When DC Comics and Joe Hill announced a partnership in the form of Hill House Comics, fans of horror comic books were naturally excited.  Hill’s reputation in the world of comics (as the writer of one of the greatest horror comics in the history of the medium, Locke and Key) immediately gave the new imprint respectability, along with the promise of numerous, varied horror titles over the next year, including the inaugural entry from Hill House Comics, Hill’s very own Basketful of Heads.  Hill was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to speak to Horror News Network about his love of comics and his new series and imprint in this exclusive interview.

HNN: Where did the idea for Hill House Comics, and your first release, Basketful of Heads come from?

Joe Hill:  The tastefully titled Basketful of Heads!  Well, I’ve always been a fan of horror comics and they were always the comics I gravitated towards as a kid.  Aside from Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s X-Men (which I loved), horror comics were the ones I read.

For Hill House Comics, the foundational bricks are “the British Invasion” comics of the late 80’s and early 90’s such as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing,  even Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum, which while not technically horror, has all of the horror elements, and we can thank Grant for today’s depiction of the Joker.

My earliest memories of horror comics came in the form of one of my Dad’s hard-bound EC Horror collections.  All of those stories from Tales from The Crypt, Haunt of Fear, and the rest were like little bloody fables.  And although those were great, today readers have a right to more in terms of story; a bigger meal, one that they can invest in.

The idea first started with a conversation with DC Editor Mark Doyle about Blumhouse Pictures.  We both spoke with admiration for what they have been able to do with original, intense, witty, and intelligent horror such as Get Out, Oculus, and even things like Whiplash, which certainly gets scary by the end of it.  We thought “Why can’t comics get an imprint like Blumhouse?” and we started talking about concepts and stories with all killer and no filler and that’s how it began.

HNN: Basketful of Heads is the inaugural comic in the line by you and artist Leomacs and it is very clear that you took great pains to flesh out the two main characters, Liam and June.  Why is this type of detail so important for horror and horror comics? 

Hill:  Horror often gets a bad rap for being all about sadism, and people who think this really have the whole concept upside down.  Great horror is all about compassion and empathy.  When you go back to the bad slasher movies of the 80’s (and even though I’m saying this, I truly love them), when you look back at some of the entries in the Friday the 13th series for instance, the characters are not fully developed characters, they are one note characters with the jock, the cheerleader, the nerd.  Where movies like this fail as horror, although sometimes they do succeed, great horror operates by different rules.

Proof of this idea is when you compare the good Stephen King adaptations to the bad ones.  The bad ones get the scares, but the good ones like It, The Shawshank Redemption, and Green Mile get the characters that you love right and make the scenes real.

HNN:  What does Leomacs bring to Basketful of Heads in term of his art style?   

Hill:  One of the pleasures of working at DC is that we have this nexus of talent.  I looked at about a dozen artists for Basketful of Heads and picked Leomacs, not because he does great gore, which he does, but because of the depth of characterization in his art.  The subtle gestures and movements are important in a comic.  If you look at the first issue when June has her bare feet up on the dashboard of Liam’s car, they are the most expressive toes you’ve ever seen!

HNN:  Besides Basketful of Heads, you are also writing a serialized comic called Sea Dogs, that will appear in each of the Hill House titles, as well as the upcoming Plunge.  What can you tell us about each of these stories? 

Hill:  Did you remember the old TV show Cliffhanger?  It was a TV show on in 1979 and each episode consisted of three different nine minute stories.  I loved that show and wanted to recreate a comic like it.  To do so, I studied how Hal Foster constructed the original Prince Valiant comic strips.  The art for each strip is absolutely beautiful and tells part of a much larger story in one single, four or five panel strip.

Sea Dogs looks at the history between the British Navy and the American Navy during the Revolutionary War.  When you do research into this part of history, it is hard to believe that the rag-tag American Navy, really just a bunch of pathetic schooners, was able to defeat the strongest navy in the world.  After considering this, I came to the conclusion that it must have been done with the help of werewolves.

The inspiration for Sea Dogs comes from F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep, which was later turned into a bad movie, but the novel was great.  In the novel, a bunch of Nazis in World War Two stop in a castle in Romania, and unbeknownst to them, it is Dracula’s castle.  From there, the vampires begin to core the Nazi regiment from inside out.

Plunge is my riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing and is an arctic horror story.  The basic story is that a group of people doing oil research and drilling in that region end up taping into a lost city like the one in Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu” called R’lyeh that imprisons the old god, so instead of oil, they end up pumping up the blood of the Cthulhu.  It definitely has a Carpenter vibe, and one of the salvage ships is even named “MacReady”.

When we were looking for an artist for Plunge, I asked Marc Doyle (who is sort of my co-show runner for Hill House Comics) if he could find an artist that drew like Stuart Immonen.  He told me “I bet we can”, and actually brought in Stuart!

HNN:  How much involvement do you have with the other titles in the line, and what can you tell us about them? 

Hill:  I’m sort of there to cheer them on and help them to throw in a scare in certain places to make the stories more terrifying.  After Basketful of Heads comes Mike Carey and Peter Gross’ The Dollhouse Factory which is chilly, Brit Horror; sort of like Indian in the Cupboard if it was a horror story.  In December, we get The Low, Low Woods by Greek artist Dani and writer Carmen Maria Machado.  The Low, Low Woods is 50% David Lynch and 50% David Cronenberg and focuses on two spunky girls in a run-down mining town that is impacted by a plague of amnesia.  There are also skinless men wandering around and it is a real mind-bending story.  Das Byrne is written by Laura Marks with art by horror veteran Kelley Jones which I describe as a 19th Century, feminist version of The Omen.  There is also some speculation that all of these stories take place in the same universe, so we’ll have to wait and see how they may connect.

HNN:  Outside of Hill House Comics, many fans have been eagerly awaiting an adaptation of Locke and Key and more stories from you and Gabriel Rodríguez.

Hill:  Yes, it appears that third time was the charm, as all 10 episodes of Locke and Key have been shot and are ready to go from Netflix.  The series is really “netflixy” in the best possible way, totally bingeable.  It is like TV crack.

There are also more comics on the way, and Gabe and I (and I’m actually wearing the wedding ring that Gabe designed for me right now) are committed to telling more stories.  The first up will be called World War Key: Revolutions, which goes back to the Revolutionary War and the history of the Locke Family.  After that, we will visit the Civil War and World War II and connect how those past events will influence them in the future.

We also have the stand alone Dog Days one-shot which should be out any day now.

HNN:  You’ve done extensive work in comics, how does the process of writing comics compare to your short stories and novel writing?

Hill: My first published work was an 11 page Spider-Man story for Marvel and ever since, comics have been the form of writing that I’m most at home with.  I usually take 2-3 years between novels because they take so long and I have a tendency to second guess myself.  I’m always a little afraid that if I write a bad sentence someone will accuse me of riding on my Dad’s coattails. With comics, I am absolutely free of worry.

Hill House Comics Basketful of Heads #1 debuts on October 30 and will be available in finer comic book stores everywhere.

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