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An exclusive interview with Joe Hill at San Diego Comic-Con 2019.
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Joe Hill talks Hill House Comics at DC, horror, comic book craft, and more

An exclusive interview with Joe Hill at San Diego Comic-Con 2019.

Joe Hill is a writer who seems to make waves every few years. From his stellar comic series Locke and Key at IDW to his excellent books like NOS4A2 getting the TV treatment this past June, Hill is back at it with the recently revealed Hill House Comics pop-up imprint with DC Comics under the DC Black Label line.

Hill met with me at San Diego Comic-Con yesterday to talk about the imprint, the specific series he’s writing, and comic book writing in general. The Hill House Comics concept comes just a year after DC Vertigo was announced along with a plethora of titles. Hill let me know the imprint has been in the works since 2017 after DC Vertigo editor Mark Doyle reached out to him. The name of the pop-up went through a few iterations. “At the time we were calling it Vertigo Fall and then it was Joe Hill’s Vertigo Fall and then it became Hill House Comics. I still feel a little weird about it because it’s kind of like a little bit of an ego trip to have your name on a comic,” Hill said.

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Joe Hill

The first series will debut October 30th starting with Basketful of Heads, written by Hill with art by Leomacs. That’s not all though, as Hill will be accompanied by other creators under the imprint with their own series. Creators like Mike Carey, Peter Gross, Carmen Maria Machado Dani, Laura Marks and artist Kelley Jones will offer their own horror delights for fans of the genre.

When asked why Basketful of Heads will be the first book from the imprint, Hill said it’s a mission statement. “You know, it’s kind of like what we’re all about.” The story has been percolating in Hill’s mind for over a decade and while his first crack at the script didn’t work, it was an easy task when he revisited it. “I wrote like four issues in one month and it was so much fun! And that sort of for me…your subconscious has a tendency to write the story while you’re not paying attention. You know, it’s like the whole thing mysteriously assembles itself in the dark, in its own time.”

Hill is also writing a second series for the imprint called Plunge. The idea came to him about 18 months ago, and it’s an incredible one. It starts with oil and how all the oil we dredge up is made of prehistoric forests. “I was thinking about Lovecraft’s Island of R’lyeh where the dread God Cthulhu lies dreaming. And I was thinking, so there’s this underwater island full of Elder Gods and it’s been there for like a billion years. So they’re all oil now. What would happen if you were pumping oil from an underwater prehistoric island and it turned out to be the blood of the old gods?” The book will feature inspirations from John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hill said, which he dubbed “the greatest horror film ever made.” One might assume that means plenty of visually stunning gore, which Hill confirmed, saying there will be “extreme sequences” to delight in.

Coming off the Tom King Panel earlier in the day, I asked Hill about something King said about comics being deadline writing and books being far different. Hill agreed with that statement. “I’m wondering if that’s why my relationships with comics and novels are so different because I don’t miss deadlines on comics.” Hill explained comics allow him to be a self-professed structure junkie. “Comics have an underlying structure that most people miss. A 22-page comic is as formal in its own way as a Shakespearean sonnet.” By comparison, Hill said, “Novels don’t have structure. You have to invent a structure for a novel.” It’s an interesting comparison and it makes sense — writing comics can be far easier than writing novels, since as Hill puts it, “I know how many words you can fit in the word balloon and how many word balloons you can fit in a panel and about how many panels you can have on a page. And these begin to set very firm mathematical limits on how long the characters can talk and what they can say.”

As the interview went on, we talked about literary figures, how Charles Dickens was a comic book writer for his time, and Hill’s favorite creators. Bernie Wrightson, the famed horror artist, is Hill’s favorite. More than once Hill mentioned Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore (and lamented on Moore retiring from comics), but also pointed to Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction as his comic heroes. A standout of the bunch though is Brian K. Vaughan. Hill said he’d “love to write one comic series half as good as anything Brian K. Vaughan has ever written.” Considering his successes thus far and the exciting ideas behind the books in his imprint, as well as the two titles he’s writing, it’s nice to know a man making so many waves is also so humble.

We talked about even more subjects of course, from comic book reviewing to what Hill was reading growing up and what inspired him. You can read the full transcript of the interview below.

AiPT!: So I write for a comic book Web site called AiPT!.

Joe Hill: Yup, I’ve read Adventures in Poor Taste. You guys wrote some good reviews for some of my stuff. So obviously you do have in fact good taste.

AiPT!: We actually take reviewing very seriously — a lot of sites don’t. It’s like this little paragraph.

JH: Right. But I think criticism is an art form that people don’t necessarily appreciate. But I’m always grateful for it because it helps cut through the clutter a little bit. You know when people respond to a comic or book or a movie in a more serious way and sort of dig into the themes. Talk about what sucked. What didn’t. It starts a conversation and at this point, you know, in terms of getting your signal through the noise and you know, there’s so much entertainment — there’s so much distraction. You know you have to welcome that conversation. Even if someone told you your story was garbage.

AiPT!: Don’t want to listen to it if you don’t want to. Right?

JH: I’ve never read a bad review that I didn’t think was completely true. And every good review…I’m suspicious of every good review.

AiPT!: Hill House, how long has this been percolating?

JH: I started talking to Mark Doyle, an editor at DC, who was in charge of the Vertigo line. I started talking to him about Hill House in 2017. At the time we were calling it Vertigo Fall, and then it was Joe Hill’s Vertigo Fall, and then it became Hill House comics. I still feel a little weird about it because it’s kind of like a little bit of an ego trip to have your name on a comic. But I get that like on a crass commercial level it helps, it’s a positive. So that’s the umbrella we’ve put them under and I’m very excited for them.

AiPT!: Was there a conscious decision why Basketful of Heads was the first —

JH: It’s a mission statement. You know, it’s kind of like what we’re all about. That’s a story about a young woman, set in 1983 and this young woman named June Branch who winds up in possession of an ancient Viking axe.

AiPT!: So cool.

JH: Turns out you get this Viking to actually take someone’s head off in one swipe, and after their head has been removed it keeps talking and she has great need of an axe like that in this one stormy night when she finds herself faced with a gang of home invaders. And there may be more to them than meets the eye.

AiPT!: What is that classic home invader horror movie… with Dustin Hoffman?

JH: Oh, Straw Dogs.

AiPT!: Yes! Were there any inspirations for the story?

JH: That’s a good question. I don’t know that there really was one in particular. I had the idea almost a decade ago and at one point I actually wrote the first script but then I didn’t like it. I didn’t like what I had and I sat on it and, you know, I sort of put it in the back burner and then when we started writing the comics [and] Basketful of Heads took off like a rocket. And I wrote like four issues in one month and it was so much fun! And that sort of for me…your subconscious has a tendency to write the story while you’re not paying attention. You know, it’s like the whole thing mysteriously assembles itself in the dark, in its own time. Really what it’s like [is] waiting for tea to steep. It takes a certain amount of time to get the tea, to get the brew exactly right. And there’s no point in rushing it you just gotta leave it alone.

AiPT!: Not to get back to comic book reviewing, but I’ll do the same thing, you read it and you…

JH: Don’t write the review right away.

AiPT!: Yeah, exactly. But you’re not even thinking about it. It just comes to you. When you originally had the idea, was it for a comic?

JH: Yeah, it was always a comic. I mean, Locke and Key was always a comic. With Locke and Key, you know I wrote a comic for another comic book publisher, one of the big ones. I was an eleven page story about one of their flagship superheroes, like a rocket man or spider-guy or something like that. I can’t quite remember, and it was like for some other publisher that no one really cares about, you know.

AiPT!: [laughs] Right.

JH: But after I wrote that I was — oh, it was Marvel. That was who it was, it was Marvel.

AiPT!: Yeah, I’ve heard of them.

JH: They’ve done a couple of books. After I did this 11 page Spider-Man story I got really excited to do more. And I felt like I had found my form, you know. And in retrospect, it all makes sense. I mean when I was like, you know, a teenager and in my early 20s, I wasn’t reading John Cheever and, like, John Updike. I was reading Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. The building blocks of my imagination are Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing. Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman. You know, Frank Miller’s Batman Year One. Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Those are the books that made my imagination.

So anyway, I pitched this story about a houseful of impossible, reality-bending keys to Marvel and they passed. But it was always a comic book and I sat on it for a couple of years and then then IDW came to me, actually, to adapt a couple of short stories for a horror anthology they were doing.

AiPT!: Started the conversation.

JH: And started the conversation and I pitched him Locke and Key and they said, “Go for it.”

Joe Hill Plunge

AiPT!: Is Plunge also a story that you’ve been thinking about for a while?

JH: Plunge is a little bit newer. I’ve probably been thinking about that one for like 18 months. So it’s relatively fresh — you know, relatively fresh crop. And that’s one — it’s not set in Lovecraft’s universe, but I was thinking about oil, which is like — oil is prehistoric forests, but pressure and time have made it into fossil fuels. And I was thinking about Lovecraft’s Island of R’lyeh where the dread God Cthulhu lies dreaming. And I was thinking, so there’s this underwater island full of Elder Gods and it’s been there for like a billion years. So they’re all oil now. What would happen if you were pumping oil from an underwater prehistoric island, and it turned out to be the blood of the old gods?

AiPT!: Right.

JH: So that’s sort of where it began and then it kind of became its own thing. In its heart it also has a lot of John Carpenter’s The Thing in it, which is like the greatest horror film ever made.

AiPT!: Does that mean we’re in for a good amount of gore? And then I want to ask a follow up to that. When you’re writing horror, is there a balance between visual violence, dread, etc.?

JH: I do think that good horror is not about sadism. Good horror is not about flinging entrails at the camera. Horror succeeds when you fall in love with the characters and then you see them suffering the worst. You see them put through the thresher. That is satisfying horror. So basically, satisfying horror is about empathy and compassion. Not you know, not slaughter. That said, I do like a good gory sequence. And the other thing is it’s like I was talking about heroes like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. But what about guys like Tom Savini and Rob Bottin? You know, when I grew up I read Fangoria magazine cover to cover every single issue. That was my New Yorker. And I hero worship stuff like the scene in The Thing where the dog splits in two. I love that.

AiPT!: So iconic.

JH: Yeah. So there are some pretty extreme sequences in some of these comics. So while I do think that the stories present good hooks, fun characters in exciting, perilous situations — you know, emotionally perilous, physically perilous, morally perilous. That said, there is some stuff that I think would make the 15 year-old Fangoria reader I used to be very happy. I mean, a comic like Basketful of Heads is probably not going to be a study in hushed restraint.

AiPT!: I was just at the Tom King panel and he was saying comic books is deadline writing and writing a book is not deadline writing. Would you agree?

JH: I’m wondering if that’s why my relationships with comics and novels are so different, because I don’t miss deadlines on comics. Knock on wood. I don’t miss deadlines on comics and I enjoy the kind of train-on-the-tracks flow of writing for comics. Sometimes I think the lack of those hard deadlines in novels is actually one reason why it takes me about three years to write them. So comics have an underlying structure that most people miss. A 22-page comic is as formal in its own way as a Shakespearean sonnet. And I’m a structure junkie, you know. I love writing comics because I sort of have unconsciously absorbed the rules and what’s possible within those structures. Novels don’t have structure. You have to invent a structure for a novel. There is no exterior structure put on them. And so that’s another thing, often I find myself struggling for months to figure out the puzzle; the right structure for a novel.

AiPT I have a feeling people probably think like a chapter is the same thing as an issue of a comic. But it’s not as episodic as one or the other. Right?

JH: No, although I do think there’s something to be said for a novel that flows, where each chapter introduces the situation, shows the characters struggling with it, resolving it, and then shifting into another situation where they instantly find themselves hanging off the edge of the cliff. So that is one thing, but even still — how many chapters, how big is the book? How many characters? I know something about when you have two characters talking in a comic book. I know how many words you can fit in the word balloon and how many word balloons you can fit in a panel and about how many panels you can have on a page. And these begin to set very firm mathematical limits on how long the characters can talk and what they can say.

AiPT!: That’s interesting.

JH: But there is no mathematical limit on what characters can say in a comic. The only limit is what the reader will put up with.

AiPT!: You know it’s interesting as I’ve said this in my reviews before, like Charles Dickens right?

JH: Right.

AiPT!: He wrote for the newspaper or magazine he was doing in an episodic way, never knowing really when it was going to have an end…

JH: Right. Right.

AiPT!: And I feel like a lot of ways that’s like comics, in that you don’t necessarily know who you’re going to be six years from now. So things are always changing and flowing, right?

JH So this is going to take a sudden swerve into high minded intellectual literary criticism territory.

AiPT!: Sure.

JH But here’s the thing. Okay, Charles Dickens was basically writing comics. He was. He was. So he wrote Tales of the McCabe, an adventure that came out episodically released and were illustrated, you know.

AiPT!: Oh yeah.

JH: So then the modernist came along in the 1930s and 40s and they looked back at the Victorian writers at Dickens, at the Penny Dreadfuls, at Doyle. All of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories were illustrated. They looked at that, guys like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Virginia Woolf, and said this is too much fun, it’s for kids. They did their absolute best to make literature a joyless, tiresome trudge, like doing your homework. So no longer episodic storytelling. No longer scenes of high peril because that would be too melodramatic. Definitely no art. That’s just for children’s books. Fortunately, there were people at that point that comics art was starting to come into its own and there were artists and writers like Hal Foster creating Prince Valiant who didn’t really care a fig what, you know, the modernists had to say. And they were just like, how can I keep people reading? How can I tell a great story? So you get stuff like Prince Valiant which I would argue is at least as interesting, probably more interesting than 80 percent of what Ernest Hemingway wrote.

AiPT!: Burn!

JH: I know, which will get me crucified online. I mean, Old Man and the Sea is a truly special novel. I love the short stories. You know I’m not dismissing Hemingway.

AiPT!: No.

JH: But that said…

AiPT!: They’re different.

JH It’s different. The intentions were different. And in there is a kind of feeling like you have to do the work. This is not entertainment. We’re not here to entertain you. We’re not a clown to juggle for you.

AiPT!: You have to learn yourself.

JH Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And I kind of feel a little bit like, I don’t know, maybe it’s because we live in such distracted times — there’s Netflix, there’s Hulu, you know, there’s all this stuff on Amazon Prime. There’s DC, obviously none of their competitors are very serious but they do have these clowns at Marvel, like some of the other publishing houses, who occasionally put out their books and stuff. It’s tough to break through the clutter. I kind of think it’s hard to do that when you’re intent on punishing your reader. You really want it to be a hell of a good time. What did they spend their money for?

AiPT!: Right. Yeah, for sure. And you know people are getting different things out of it.

JH: It’s like, I saw a thing online where someone said, “Oh I’m so angry, you know, the teacher in this class said that comic books and science fiction aren’t literature and they can’t be read for book assignments.” And I’m like good, God bless that teacher.

AiPT!: Yeah.

JH: I love that teacher. I never want it to be homework. I always want it to be a guilty pleasure. I want you to be feel a little shame when you’re reading something that I wrote, because that shame is tied to pleasure. You know, it’s like sneaking a cigarette out in the hall.

AiPT!: Which in itself is a way of learning, right?

JH: Yeah it is.

AiPT!: Do you have a Mount Rushmore of artists or writers that you appreciate and maybe even artists you might want to work with?

JH Well I mean in the horror field, Bernie Wrightson was the greatest artist of all time. We won’t see the likes of him again. He was one of a kind. The work he did in Frankenstein will live forever. You know, there are some great writers who have been doing remarkable work for decades. Guys like Alan Moore guys like Neil Gaiman — I heard Alan Moore is going to retire from comics but I’m not worried about that because I assume he’ll write novels or plays or he’s got plenty more stories where all the other great stuff came from. I’m a fan first. I’d love to write one comic series half as good as anything Brian K. Vaughan has ever written. [The] guy’s genius, love him. Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction. You know, they are my peers and they’re kind of my heroes.

AiPT!: Thank you.

JH Thanks for talking to me.

AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time.

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