Heading Up the Skelton Crew: An Interview with Israel Skelton

Locke & Key replica keys by Skelton Crew Studio.
A selection of Locke & Key replica keys created by Skelton Crew Studio.

Skelton Crew Studio, a comic book replica studio based in the wilds of Maine, was founded by Israel Skelton in 2008. A sculptor and creator for more than 30 years, Skelton first made a name for his studio with a replica key based on the critically-acclaimed comic series Locke & Key by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez. Collaborations with a wide variety of creators soon followed, and Skelton Crew Studio’s work is now highly sought after among collectors and creators alike. Skelton Crew has a busy year ahead of them—more on that in a minute—so we appreciate Israel Skelton taking a few moments to discuss his work with us.

(Interview conducted by Blu Gilliand)

CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: Tell us a little bit about yourself—what’s your background, and how did you wind up in the prop replica business?

Ghost Key
The Ghost Key as realized by Skelton Crew Studio.

ISRAEL SKELTON: I’ve been making things because I wanted to see them made since I was a kid, out of whatever was available—Wolverine’s claws out of blueberry rakes, Captain America’s shield out of a sled. Almost 10 years ago, a buddy, Gibran Graham, decided to organize a comic con for Bangor, Maine, and grabbed Joe Hill as a guest through a friend. The first hardcover in Joe and Gabriel Rodriguez’s amazing Locke & Key series was just about to come out. While he checked out my Mjolnir, Stormbreaker and Ant-Man’s helmet, we got to talking, hit it off and Joe asked if I could make the Ghost Key. That led to an San Diego Comic Con exclusive for IDW, which got us more exposure and talking to the creators behind CHEW, Mouse Guard, and other books, and the rest is studio history.

Tell us about your work process. Do you sketch ideas out, or go straight into carving or building?

Everything always starts with initial turn-around sketches and lots of thought into the exact, final measurements. You have to account for things like mold shrinkage, for instance, so it’s not as simple as just saying I’d like this to be X-inches long.

You work with a variety of materials, from plush dolls to metals and resin. What kind of challenges do each present? Is there one you prefer?

They all come with their own individual challenges, thinks like shrinkage in metal, and in all cases making sure you stay true to the control art. With resin and metal, they’re both very complex, multi-step processes, metal more so, so you have to understand every aspect of the process to head off any issues. A lot of that is experience through trial and error.

I can’t say I have a favorite.

How many people work with you in Skelton Crew?

Between sculptors, graphic designers, marketing and those who do a lot of the hand-work, about 10 people. It’s a nimble, talented Crew.

Going back to your work with Joe Hill—how much input does he have on the designs of the keys you make? What about Gabriel Rodriguez, Locke & Key‘s artist?

The design of the keys springs right from Gabe’s mind and his amazing pen. Once he’s sketched a piece, it’s a matter of building it and then running the work-in-progress by Gabe, Joe and IDW’s awesome Chris Ryall for thoughts and feedback.

Reali Key
The Reali Key, the latest Locke & Key replica from Skelton Crew Studio.

How many Locke & Key keys have you made so far? How many more are planned?

We counted almost 30 individual sculpts the other day, which feels hard to believe, but it’s been awesome and an honor. I can’t say how many more are planned—we’ll have to see how many more tumble out of Joe and Gabe’s heads. Joe did write the box text for our Bode Locke mini-bust and the opening line is, “There are a hundred keys in Key House . . . ” so we’ll have to see.

What’s the most popular key from the series? What’s the hardest one to find?

The Head Key is the most popular and the hardest to find is probably the original 2008 SDCC Ghost Key.

Take us through the process of making a key. Once the initial prototype is approved, do you use molds to make the others? What happens to the original?

Sometimes the magic of Key House has to stay at Key House, or in this case, in the studio. I will say, they’re all hand-worked and it’s a pretty laborious process, and I do have the originals in the studio archive.

Another property you work with is Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and B.P.R.D. How did that collaboration come about?

A mutual friend, IDW’s Scott Dunbier, introduced us at SDCC several years ago. We kind of kicked around the idea and everything came together really quickly. He’s an icon and a total pleasure to work with. I love that we get to add a little something to that universe.

What’s the best piece of feedback you’ve received from a creator?

The best bit of feedback would have been from the original Ghost Key because that led to us being tapped for a job that was 100 times larger—building the Ghost Door at Joe’s office with working custom locks and custom hardware and doorknobs. I’m proud of that project, I love how it came out. (And a shout-out here to my buddies Mike St. Germain and Peter Gill for helping me pull it off. It was a massive, months-long undertaking.)

Mohlomi's Bell
Mohlomi’s Bell, a piece from Skelton Crew Studio’s line of B.P.R.D.-inspired replicas.

What’s your favorite piece to come out of Skelton Crew?

It might be our new Mohlomi’s Bell from our B.P.R.D. line with Mike, or our Poyo mini-bust from CHEW, which was our very first mini-bust, or CHEW’s Mason Savoy mini-bust. It’s always changing as we get better and better and make cooler and cooler things.

So, far you’ve stayed with small batches of products from smaller properties. Do you have any desire to work with bigger comics or movie franchises?

Maybe. We do like doing limited editions and we like the collaborative process with the creators. The fun for me is the transition from 2D to 3D; there’s not a lot of thrill in making something like a TV or movie prop because it already exists, that’s sort of taken the fun out of it, from where I sit.

What are some properties or creators that you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to?

It’s a long list! There’s a lot of awesome work going on out there. Eric Powell, Jeff Lemire, John Arcudi, to name a few.

What’s next from Skelton Crew?

We’ve got a crazy busy summer on tap! We have mini-busts from Mark Millar and Rafael Albuquerque’s Huck, then Em Cypress from Tim Seeley and Mike Norton’s Revival, itty bitty Hellboy from a collaboration with Art Baltazar and a killer 9-inch vinyl of Norgal from Andrew MacLean’s Head Lopper all coming out in the next few months. And we’ve got even more up our sleeves for 2017.

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