Newsarama readers well know the name of David Pepose, longtime Best Shots writer and editor. But David’s been making waves in comic book with the Action Lab Entertainment title Spencer and Locke, the second volume of which hits its second issue this Wednesday.
Based on the idea of what if Calvin grew up to be a cop with Hobbes as his imaginary partner, the series riffs on classic newspaper comic strips and cop dramas alike. Its current arc pits the boys against a genuinely unsettling antagonist in the form of Roach Riley, a formerly-lazy Army boy whose hat is still slumped over his eyes, but is a now a ripped, psychotic terrorist who could give the Punisher a run for his money. What’s a no-longer-a-boy and his panther to do?
Newsarama talked to Pepose about the current limited iseries, his love of classic comic strips, his upcoming work and more.
Newsarama: David, how’s the reaction been to the second volume so far?
David Pepose: It’s been great. It’s always kind of a roll of the dice when you do a sequel, because people say they want more, but will that bear out in terms of sales and how it’s received and things like that. But so far, the reviews this time around are better than the reviews for the first volume.
I think people were, with the first volume – and rightly so – concerned that it was just going to be a gimmick, this kind of dark and gritty, Edgelord kind of take on a childhood thing. And once they started reading, and realized that there was more to it, about how we deal with our own trauma, they understood there was a much deeper concept to Spencer and Locke, and they’re approaching volume 2 with a lot more enthusiasm.
Now that we’re into volume 2, they’ve seen that we could stick the landing with volume 1, and they’re eager to see what we’ll do next. The coolest part is that our salves have really matched that. It’s been two years since our first arc came out, and I harbor no illusions – that’s a long hiatus. There were a lot of practical and behind-the-scenes reasons for that; we didn’t want to rush the second arc, and there were certain windows our publisher and distributor had to hit.
So, this was kind of the earliest we could do a second volume, and it means a lot that the sales are about on par with the first volume. A lot of sequels hit and drop like a rock. That we’ve had a lot of stores sell out in the first week, that’s the best-case scenario for us, and I think it speaks to the fact that we brought back the entire creative team back for volume 2, and that we’ve been able to expand the Spencer and Locke universe and take sort of a Fables approach with our new villain, Roach Riley.
Nrama: It’s interesting you chose a Beetle Bailey riff as a way to expand the universe of comic strip archetypes, because years ago, I did an interview with Beetle’s creator Mort Walker about a reprint of a short-lived comic he did called Sam’s Strip, where the deal was that any character from any other comic strip could show up.
Pepose: Wow! I had no idea that existed! It’s funny, you do all this research and then find there’s all this research you haven’t done. I’m looking up Sam’s Strip now and wow, talk about the universe rhyming in strange ways.
I can tell you the reason we did a character like Roach Riley, who’s a riff on Beetle Bailey, where’s the next place a story about street-level cops could go? In the previous volume we dealt with drugs, and the question was, what’s a situation that would prove difficult for two street-level cops? And I thought about terrorism, to be quite honest. I was living in New York when I wrote the story, and I thought, “That’s something NYPD have to keep their eyes out for all the time?” The question became, “What could one or two street-level cops do about terrorism?”
I knew Beetle Bailey from reading it growing up, so I thought that was a cool way to explore the idea. People liked the first volume, so my feeling was they needed a villain who was worthy of the characters’ time. It took a while to figure Roach out, to get into his headspace, but once I figured it out…it was bleak, because he’s such a nihilistic character, but it worked
For a while, I was thinking of doing a metatextual narrative where Roach could actually see us, “Oh, we’re just puppets on a string, being brutalized for someone else’s amusement…” But that seemed a little too brutal even for this story. But I liked the idea behind Roach, which is, “Once you’ve had the worst day of your life, nothing else can touch you.” It’s a twisted bit of logic at play, but it’s kind of true – the baseline you have for pain is the worst thing you’ve ever experienced. And Roach sees that as a strength, while Locke and Spencer see it as the weight around their necks.
So, it’s kind of a war of ideas as well as a physical conflict, and that’s a lot of fun to write.
Nrama: It gives you a chance to expand the point of view as well, because in the first volume, the sequences are mainly going as Locke’s point-of-view, with these transitions into the comic-strip world, and here Roach becomes the means of transition
Pepose: I wrote this before Infinity War came out, but there’s some weird parallels here, if you go with the concept of Thanos as the secret – or not-so-secret – protagonist of Infinity War. Because here, you’re getting to follow Roach along his own path of darkness, and we get to see what turned this kind of loveable slacker into this killing machine.
I try not to overwrite things in terms of characters’ pasts, taking it more in a kind of snapshot approach and let the readers fill in the blanks themselves –
Nrama: David Mamet has repeatedly posited the “backstory is BS” philosophy, which was a shock to my system after decades of reading The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe.
Pepose: There are certain landmarks you want to establish as important for the character as a whole, but I don’t think you necessarily need to mention every little bit of who they are and where they came from. It’s kind of a horror technique, where what the reader/viewer can’t see or doesn’t learn is so much more effective than what you can put on the screen or on the page.
Nrama: There’s some philosophy behind that – Rebecca Sugar has repeatedly talked about the influence of the Theory of the Sublime on Steven Universe, but you can see it in a lot of things that are less lighthearted. It’s the concept of what’s just outside the edge of the frame, that sense of implied history or experience.
Pepose: There you go! I’ll take that! [Laughs]
And I think that establishes a more personal connection with readers, and it makes them take a more active role in reading it. Readers are smart, and can fill in the blanks easily, and that in turn gives you more momentum and more runway to tell the story that you want to tell, that people are really excited about – what’s happening right now.
I also find that with this sequel, because we didn’t overstay our welcome with volume 1, we’re able to dance between the raindrops a little bit, and go, “Hey, here’s another flashback for something you might not be aware of from reading volume 1!” And we’ve got several of those that will play a role in the dynamic of the characters of Spencer and Locke going forward.
You need to think about the long term, or at least give yourself some wiggle room for the long run. So, having a kind of pointillistic approach to the backstory gives you a lot more room to explore things if you get to do more later on.
Nrama: “Pointillistic,” you mean like those pictures that are made up of hundreds and hundreds of tiny other pictures?
Pepose: Right, you see the little dots up close, and then you pull back, and then when you get far away enough, you see this entire image - your brain fills in the rest of the image. That’s something I’m always thinking about with Spencer and Locke - our goal is to give you some action hooks, because that’s what we are, but also give you these emotional hooks, to let you know how the characters feel, but not make it too drawn out.
This is some heavy stuff! I don’t want people to feel like it’s oppressive or exploitative or gross. There are movies and TV shows and comics that do that, and it makes me viscerally angry. We’re not going to get in your face about it – we want to toe that line between heavy material and not rubbing your face in it. A younger reader might miss some things; an older reader might read the material through implication.
But we’re not about that, trying to be ultra-grim. It’s a book about carrying your childhood trauma with you and trying to make sense of a busted childhood. But it’s also a book about how we have to get up, and face the day, and some of our coping mechanisms are stranger than others.
Nrama: What are some of the rules you have for keeping some of the story’s more specific elements consistent, i.e. “here’s what Spencer can’t and can’t do” or “here’s where we can transition into a more comic strip-like visual"?
Pepose: It’s funny you say that, because for me it’s based on rhythm – rhythm and desperation. [Laughs]
That was kind of the appeal of doing a mashup like Spencer and Locke, that ability to switch between moods and styles. So, you can have a very dark, grim-and-gritty moment, and then when you need a transition, or want to come up with a miniature theme for this particular sequence, I’ll throw in a comic strip reference. Or, if I feel like it’s been a while since we’ve reminded readers, “Oh, Spencer isn’t ‘real,’” we can throw that in.
I read an interview recently with Ram V, the writer of These Savage Shores, and he talked about how a lot of his writing is based on instinct as much as intent. I thought that was such a smart way to talk about it, because that’s how I kind of view my writing. I try to find the music behind it, and just let your instincts play out from there.
It’s part of the benefit of having a high concept like ours – we can switch gears pretty naturally, and in a way that readers don’t feel like we’re completely derailing the story.
Nrama: Now, you’ve got this arc finished, but have you started plotting upcoming arcs? Do you see this as an indefinite story, or as something finite?
Pepose: The first thing is I never want to overstay my welcome. I think Jorge and I agree on that. We’re standing on the shoulders of giants – Bill Watterson, Frank Miller, Mort Walker – and we never want to feel like we’re cribbing off someone else’s notes. As long as we feel like we have something unique to say, we want to keep telling stories.
The other thing is it’s a creator-owned series, and every creator-owned series has to have an end at some point. It’s either, as someone once said, “You live long enough to see yourself become the villain,” or it’s just the dollars and cents of it all. We don’t want to stagnate, and we don’t want to put out a book if there’s no demand for it.
I want to do a third arc for sure; I have a handful of Spencer and Locke ideas in my back pocket, and the publisher indicates that they’re willing to do the series while there’s a demand, and as long as sales don’t go off a cliff with our next few issues, I feel pretty good about our future.
All I can say without spoiling anything is that I saved the best for last when it comes to comic strips. There’s a few classic comics I’m saving for future arcs. And I keep thinking of ideas – the other day, I was wondering, “What could you do with Mark Trail? What could you do with Funky Winkerbean??
Nrama: Funky Winkerbean’s depressing enough, though. It might be too dark for even Spencer and Locke’s world.
Pepose: I will say, eagle-eyed viewers might notice in the third issue – our city’s mayor is visually based off of Les Moore from that strip.
I’d love to do a sci-fi-oriented Spencer and Locke story – it’s a matter of finding the right strips. Because it’s so based in imagination, we can take this places that other comic book stories can’t. If you guys have any favorite strips, let us know!
Nrama: I’m going to assume you haven’t had any contact from Bill Watterson, though…
Pepose: No, and I’d be shocked if he took any interest in a peon like me. But I’ve always said, I hope that he appreciates that it’s a love letter to his work. I never claim that I invented peanut butter and jelly – in this case, Bill Watterson and Frank Miller – but I’m the idiot that put them together. What they did for comics was incredible, and I consider it a responsibility to tip our hats to those guys.
Nrama: Tell us about your other work that you have coming up.
Pepose: Going to the Chapel, which hits stores in September, is Die Hard meets Wedding Crashers. It’s about a skittish bride on the day of her wedding, and she’s getting cold feet, but before she can run…her wedding is taken over by a gang of Elvis-themed bank robbers. So, she’s going to have to play both sides against the middle if she wants everyone to get out in one piece. People are calling it Julia Roberts in a Quentin Tarantino movie, and I’ll take that! [laughs] It’s coming out through Action Lab like Spencer and Locke.
And I’m still hard at work on my sci-fi book Grand Theft Astro, which we announced last summer at Comic-Con International: San Diego, over at Top Cow. It’s still very early on in the process, but it’s a SF/time-travel heist – if The Fast and the Furious had a baby with Back to the Future. It’s about a space racer who accidentally tears open a wormhole seven years into the future, and finds his friends and family have changed pretty dramatically, so he has to go on one last heist with his formerly-younger brother to find the piece of technology that might get him home. It’s about what happens when your family surpasses you, what happens when an overachiever gets left behind, and whether you can go back and relive your glory days, or if the only direction you can move is into the future.
And I have a few irons in the fire – a fantasy pitch, some sci-fi, it’s a little bit of a juggling act. It’s living the dream! It took so long for me to even entertain the idea that I could be a writer that now that I’m here, it feels like I’ve found my path. The thing I like to say is that I’m not going anywhere, and it’s very exciting to figure out what the next steps are going to be.