Israel Skelton’s license plate reads “Mjollnir,” in reference to the hammer belonging to Thor, the Norse god of thunder — who also is a Marvel Comics superhero.
From the get-go, it’s obvious Skelton, a Litchfield resident, is a guy who really, really loves his comic books. Once you get him talking about Thor, or Spider-Man, or Doctor Strange, or the Silver Surfer, you realize that his knowledge runs deep. Right down to the specific dimensions of the weapons and artifacts those superheroes carry.
“I want to see those things in real life,” said Skelton, a gregarious 36-year-old who grew up in Brunswick. “I don’t always like what I see manufactured by different companies. I want what’s in my head.”
So that’s exactly what Skelton is doing. Over the past two decades, Skelton has quietly sculpted, cast and finished anything that has captured his imagination in the comic book world. He made a lightweight model of the Samaritan, the gun belonging to the big, red-skinned superhero Hellboy. The Eye of Agamatto, the mystical amulet that gives lesser-known Marvel Comics superhero Doctor Strange all his power, was cast awhile back in resin and coated in gold. He has a few of Batman’s batarangs lying around. He’s even been commissioned by Joe Hill, a comic book writer, author of several novels and son of Stephen King, to create a series of collectible keys for Hill’s successful comic book series “Locke and Key.”
And now he’s working on the Silver Surfer’s surfboard. Skelton’s studio is a treasure-trove of comic book ephemera.
“It’s always been a part of my life,” said Skelton. “Even when I was a kid, I always wanted Thor’s hammer. I was very lucky to have a mom who was really cool and brought me home really good comics. I could have been reading lame stuff like ‘Archie’ and ‘Casper,’ but I was reading ‘Swamp Thing’ and ‘Iron Man’ and all the great ones instead.”
Until he went to college, Skelton didn’t really have any friends who shared his love of comics. But that didn’t stop him.
“That didn’t deter me from taking the saucers people were sledding on and putting handles on it, priming it, sanding it, and making Captain America’s shield,” he said. “My parents got a big Cedarworks swing set, and they send you a big mallet to put it together. I didn’t care about the swing set. I wanted the mallet to make Thor’s hammer. I took blueberry rakes and made Wolverine’s claws. That’s the kind of kid I was.”
While his mother encouraged his interest in comic books, his father gave him the tools necessary to build anything he wanted.
“My father had a small goldsmithing shop, and did a lot of jewelry making and set stones and did repair,” he said. “He had a buffing wheel and all kinds of torches and things. I got pretty good at it after awhile, though in hindsight, most parents would have been freaked out about having a nine-year-old firing up a radial arm saw. They didn’t even know about it. I was out in the barn.”
Never one to let a challenge stop him, Skelton still lives by the adage his father set out for him.
“My dad was one of those guys that always said, ‘If you can read, you can learn how to do anything,’” said Skelton. “A lot of people shy away from things because they don’t think they can do it, and don’t want to try and mess up. Come on! If you’re unsure, just look it up.”
Aside from his parents, his wife, Kathryn, who he met 17 years ago, has been an encouragement along the way. Also an advocate is his old college buddy Gibran Graham, known to Bangor-area residents as the man behind the BangPop Comic & Pop Culture Convention, held every September, and the co-creator of the SnowCon gaming convention, held in January. Graham and Skelton met while the two were working for the Maine Campus student newspaper at the University of Maine.
“Gibran was wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. Back then, there were two Green Lanterns — Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner,” said Skelton. “He had the Hal Jordan shirt on. I said to him, ‘What’s up, Jordan.’ We were definitely buddies from that moment on. We liked all the same stuff. We’re all cut from the same cloth. We’re all — well — we’re all nerds.”
“He was very knowledgeable about certain geeky things,” said Graham. “He has an amazing eye for scale and size and how things are supposed to look. He could look at a Batman action figure and tell exactly what other action figures used the same mold for one of the legs. He’s always been an artist. He always wanted to make stuff that appealed to him. He wouldn’t like the Thor’s hammers that you could buy, so he’d made his own.”
When Graham was planning the first BangPop back in 2008, he wanted to ask Skelton to come up to Bangor and show his creations. Skelton was hesitant at first — would anybody really want to see the things he’d spent years hunched over in a basement painstakingly crafting? He felt like his hobby was too nerdy even for the nerds.
“It’s one of those things where people would say, ‘So, what did you do last night?’” said Skelton. “I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, well, I was sitting in my basement, stripping down leather for a mallet I’m making.’ I mean, what is that? That is super, super nerdy.”
Fortunately, both Graham and Kathryn knew that underneath the supposedly nerdy exterior was a serious artist with a huge amount of talent.
“I knew he’d be a highlight to anyone walking by. Everybody wants to hold a realistic version of what’s in their favorite comic,” said Graham. “I asked him to show his stuff at BangPop, and I wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I can’t imagine someone not wanting to sweep him and his creativity and talent up.”
Skelton brought an array of his creations to the first BangPop, and was an immediate hit. That’s where he met Joe Hill, who at that time had published the first series of his acclaimed, Eisner Award-nominated “Locke and Key” comics, illustrated by Gabriel Rodriguez. Hill, a Bangor native and the son of Stephen King, is the author of such best-selling books as “Heart Shaped Box” and the short story collection “20th Century Ghosts.” He also is a longtime friend of Graham. Hill liked Skelton’s work so much he asked him to create something special, just for him, for “Locke and Key,” an engrossing multipart supernatural epic that already has garnered legions of fans in the comics world.
“Part of what impressed me was the mixture of love and obsession that had gone into the creation of items like Thor’s hammer, every microscopic detail in place. It looked like it had been yanked right out of a panel drawn by Jack Kirby,” said Hill in an e-mail. “But I think mostly I took to Israel because of his tremendous easy-going sense of fun. This is a guy who loves what he does — his creations are a kind of play. It seemed completely natural to ask him to try and build some of the enchanted keys from my comic book, and the ones he’s created are so much like the keys in the comic, it’s hard to believe they don’t have super powers.”
Skelton initially did a small run just for Hill, who gave them out as gifts for the people who worked on the comic. In 2009, IDW Publishing, which puts out “Locke and Key,” together with Hill, asked Skelton to create 500 more Ghost Keys to be distributed with the limited edition of the comic made especially for that year’s San Diego Comic-Con, the biggest comics convention in the country. All 500 sold out by the end of the year.
“It was a massive deal,” said Skelton. “It really was one of the coolest things to ever happen to me.”
In 2010, Skelton and IDW debuted the Head Key, from the second series of comics, and the third key, the Echo Key, was debuted at the 2010 BangPop. Both currently are available, and the fourth key, the Anywhere Key, will debut online at www.skeltoncrewstudio.com.
All four completed keys are beautiful little creations. The Ghost Key has a creepy, 19th century look to it, while the Head Key looks like some sort of alien artifact. The Echo Key has a distinct, round appearance, and the Anywhere Key looks as though it may have dropped out of the sky. The next key to be released, the Shadow Key, is truly unique — but we won’t give away any surprises just yet.
“Locke and Key” was just this month given the green light to be produced as a TV series for Fox. There’s no word yet on when it will hit screens, but at the very least it will only increase Skelton’s profile as a props artist. In the meantime, Skelton’s collaboration with Hill, Rodriguez and IDW Publishing will continue, and he’ll try his hand at some other projects.
“I think it might be kind of neat to write a children’s book, and include something I made in with it,” said Skelton. “There are lots of projects I’ve been kicking around.”
Skelton’s dream project is to create Kal-El’s escape pod — the spacecraft that Superman crash-landed on Earth in. Before that, though, his next project will be the birth of his and Kathryn’s first child, due in February.
“I think we should use Kal-El’s escape pod as the bassinet, don’t you think?” said Skelton. “I think that would be pretty cool.”