Joe Hill is perhaps best known as a novelist; one of his books, NOS4A2, even made the jump from page to TV screen recently. But to hear him tell it, comic books are his first love, and the medium he still feels most comfortable telling stories in. Anyone who’s ever read Locke & Key, his brilliant series with artist Gabriel Rodriguez, would surely agree. Now, after a few years away, EW can exclusively announce that Hill is finally returning to his favorite form. This fall, he’ll be overseeing a new “pop-up line” of horror comics at DC, titled Hill House Comics — and writing quite a few of them himself.
“I’ve always been a comic book writer first,” Hill tells EW. “When I started writing comics, I felt almost instantly that I had discovered my element. It was the version of writing I liked best. I felt, when I worked in comics, that my strengths were amplified, and the stuff I struggled with as a writer almost completely vanished. Working on Locke & Key was one of the most satisfying creative experiences of my life. But it’s tremendously exciting to get back into it: scripting again, working with artists, working with other writers. Working in comics is the closest you can get as a storyteller to feeling like what it must be like to be in the Rolling Stones.”
Hill House’s initial offerings will consist of five limited series: Basketful of Heads, written by Hill and illustrated by Leomacs; The Dollhouse Family, written by Mike Carey and illustrated by Peter Gross; The Low, Low Woods, written by Carmen Maria Machado and illustrated by Dani; Daphne Byrne, written by Laura Marks and illustrated by Kelley Jones; and Plunge, written by Hill with an artist to be revealed at a later date. Each comic will also come with two-page installments of a back-up feature called Sea Dogs, written by Hill.
Although DC announced last week that it was shuttering its legendary Vertigo imprint, home of beloved ’80s and ’90s horror comics like Swamp Thing and The Sandman, Vertigo’s legacy clearly lives on at Hill House. Some of the creators listed above are veterans of that line; Jones illustrated the iconic “Season of Mists” arc of The Sandman, while Carey and Gross previously collaborated on the original Lucifer comic series that spun out of The Sandman (and went on to influence the TV series starring Tom Ellis). With The Dollhouse Family, they’ll be exploring the life of Alice, who was gifted a big beautiful dollhouse as a child, filled with a magical family of dolls. As she gets older, Alice returns to the dollhouse, with unexpected results.
But there are also new voices involved in the line. Marks comes from TV, and worked with Hill on the Hulu incarnation of Locke & Key’s TV adaptation. (As of last year, a new Locke & Key adaptation had been ordered to series by Netflix after Hulu declined to give its version a green light.) Daphne Byrne will be her first comic, set in the gaslit 1800s New York, where the titular girl discovers a strange, insidious entity within her body. Machado, whose short story collection Her Body and Other Parties is hailed by Hill as “disturbing and wild and wonderful,” will also be making her comics debut with The Low, Low Woods, a story about a Pennsylvania mining town afflicted by a mysterious plague that eats memories.
Hill’s excitement is palpable as he gives EW the elevator pitches for the books he’s writing. Basketful of Heads starts with a young couple house-sitting a New England mansion filled with Viking artifacts: coins, shield, even an ax. Then a storm hits, and brings with it some home invaders, so the girl goes to hide. When she emerges, her boyfriend is nowhere to be found, but one of the assailants has stayed behind for her. “In the fight that follows,” Hill says, “she reaches for the ax, and we learn the ax has this supernatural power. It can lop off a head in a single stroke, but then the head keeps talking. So you get a grindhouse Rashomon, as the heads stack up and each of them tells their own version of what they’ve done and why they had to do it.” Hill says he’s been thinking about the idea for Basketful of Heads since about 2009, but only recently figured out how exactly he wanted to tell the story.
“I’ve drawn a lot of horror in my career, and I think the key to getting it right is to find the humanity in it,” artist Leomacs adds. “Horror works when the readers are scared for the characters and for themselves. The artist, I think, needs to find that face, that pose, that set up that conveys the horror in a way that touches a nerve. This story will keep you on your toes. My job is to make sure that the readers feel on their skin what the heroine feels. That’s both the challenge and the fun part of it.”
Then there’s Plunge, which Hill describes as “my chance to riff on one of the greatest horror films of all time, John Carpenter’s The Thing.” Like Carpenter’s masterpiece, Plunge concerns supernatural events in the frozen north. Back in the ’80s, a highly advanced research vessel went missing near the Arctic Circle, only to suddenly reappear 40 years later, now sending a distress signal. So a team of American researchers is sent to salvage the vessel, even as a wintry storm approaches. Hill teases what they find there: “There’s oil on board with unusual properties. At the center of this ring island, sunk in shallow waters, is what appears to be the ruins of a prehistoric civilization. Most upsetting of all is when the men who were on the research vessel emerge from the island’s caves. Their eyes have all been eaten away, they haven’t aged a day, and they’re capable of performing unfathomable mathematical feats. There’s something terribly wrong with them. And then the storm closes in.”
Sea Dogs is a little different than those two. Rather than its own comic, it will be told as a back-up story via two-page installments in each issue. Sea Dogs is set during the American Revolution, but Hamilton this is not. It opens in 1779, with the British Navy dominant on the seas and the revolution in danger of collapsing. “The naval fleet is run by this 90-gun ship, and there’s just nothing Americans could throw at it to destroy it,” Hill says. “So they hit on this desperate plan: Allow three American werewolves to be impressed on board, and then eat the ship from the inside out.”
Hill’s return to comics might also spell good news for longtime fans of Locke & Key. Earlier this month, publisher IDW tweeted a teaser image with a gigantic key and lock, with no other information but Hill and Rodriguez’s names. When asked if there might be some news about Locke & Key comics forthcoming at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, Hill teases, “you never know, do you?” There will certainly be a Hill House Comics panel at SDCC, on July 19.
Check out the covers for the Hill House books below. The first issue of Basketful of Heads will hit stores Oct. 30 (just in time for Halloween), with the other books to follow in subsequent months.