You probably know David Pepose but haven’t met him. Not this way.
How’s that? For many years, Pepose has been a prominent writer at Newsarama, taking over as the reviews editor in 2011. However, Pepose moves to the other side of the table with his new Action Lab mini-series, Spencer and Locke.
Just announced at NYCC, this pitch-black noir with a twist will be the first series from the writer. We caught up him to find about the origins of the story, the dissonance between reviewing and actually writing the comics, and what it’s like to a process junkie.
Since most of our staff are busy at New York Comic Con this weekend, contributing writer Troy Brownfield (who worked with ComicBook.com's Lucas Siegel and Russ Burlingame, as well as Pepose himself, at Newsarama over the years) caught up with Pepose for a conversation about the announcement. Take it away, Troy...!
Let's talk about Spencer and Locke. There are two really clear influences here: Watterson, and the hard-boiled noir school. Where did your inspiration come from?
You totally nailed it — when we were shopping this pitch around, our high concept was “What if Calvin & Hobbes grew up in Sin City?” The idea came up initially as sort of a dark joke — I remember walking through Manhattan one night, thinking of the bleakest situations I could imagine for beloved children’s characters, just to see what new angles we could get out of them.
So I was thinking about evil Sesame Streets and homicidal Barneys, but none of that was really clicking beyond split-second shock value. And then I remembered reading an old remix of a Calvin & Hobbes strip, where Calvin stopped seeing Hobbes after being diagnosed on Ritalin. Suddenly, I thought of this hard-boiled, Sin City version of a beat-up cop, grinning wildly in the rain, with a tiger in a trenchcoat that only he can see standing right behind him.
That image just burned itself in my head for awhile — I thought it was just subversive enough to make for a pitch-black parody, but it also had the room for some exciting action. It wasn’t until I really dug deep into this script that I realized that beyond the audacious high concept, there was actually some room for some really deep characterization and emotion underneath.
So there’s a lot of different influences in there. Frank Miller in particular was a huge influence on me as a creator growing up — I think the man has forgotten more about comics than I’ll ever know — and I thought Bill Watterson’s stealth-philosophical style inspired a ton of different avenues to pursue, and challenged us to bring some actual thought-out perspectives to our characters. But there’s also Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, ‘90s Batman and Nightwing, John Woo, The Fast and the Furious… basically, all the stuff I thought was cool during my formative years, they all show up in the guts of Spencer and Locke.
What can you tell us about Spencer and Locke as characters? What’s their dynamic as partners?
Detective Locke is a hard-boiled cop with a mean temper, a thirst for justice, and a chip on both shoulders. And when his childhood sweetheart, schoolteacher Sophie Jenkins, is found dead in an alleyway, he’ll do anything to close the case — even if it means returning to the scene of his horrific upbringing as a boy. But those childhood scars have also shaped Locke as an adult — while he was hounded at all sides growing up, he invented his own best friend, a talking panther named Spencer, to shield him from the trauma. And now, as an adult, Locke is still so damaged from his youth that Spencer has “grown up” alongside him.
To me, Spencer isn’t just Locke’s “partner.” He’s Locke’s conscience, his deductive instincts, his very intuition as a cop — and despite his massive size, he’s often the soft-spoken voice of reason alongside Locke’s scrappy, ill-tempered attitude. They fit very well together in terms of the buddy-cop dynamic, always bickering and playing off one another in the heat of the moment — which is a fun dynamic for me to write, knowing that one of them isn’t real.
Your very first page really sets up the tone of this book, in terms of its reflections on childhood and trauma. What drew you to these as your themes?
There’s a phrase that I always wind up coming back to, about how it’s hard to hate someone if you know their life story. It’s funny, because before Spencer and Locke, I wrote several screenplays and teleplays targeted to children. I think exploring the idea of one’s upbringing and family can make us root for a character in spite of ourselves, just because we get to share in relatable moments like a father playing with his daughter, or watching two brothers find hidden treasures in the woods. While I don’t have kids of my own, I remember when my triplet siblings were babies, and seeing them change and develop as they grow up has really informed a lot of how I approach characterization in any format.
But I think for a tragic story — or a tragicomic story like Spencer and Locke — examining a person’s youth might even be more important. Whether they’re present or absent, a person’s parents can leave unfathomable scars. For a character like Locke, he could come off as gruff or insensitive or even a little unlikable if you didn’t know him very well — but because we get to see the moments that shaped him over the course of his life, it’s easy to understand why he is who he is, if not to feel some level of sympathy already.
As far as memory goes, my favorite movies are Memento and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, so I’ve always been a big believer in the use of memory as a theme. Not only does that help structure your work in terms of flashbacks and exposition, but I think memory is what makes us human — memory is what drives us, what educates us, what decides what our deepest values and dreams really are. I’m very much the type of person who remembers his mistakes, and I think, in that regard, Locke is sort of an exaggerated version of my own personal story. While I don’t think my parents have abused me in any capacity, I can definitely empathize with trying to look my personal demons in the eye and trying to move past them. In that way, I think Spencer and Locke is kind of an inspiring story — Locke may be a fundamentally broken man, and his story will only get darker, but if he’s able to transcend and move beyond his past traumas, he might be my most redemptive character yet.
Tell us about the other members of the creative team. Particularly, how did you wind up with your partner on this book, Jorge Santiago, Jr.?
In a lot of ways, the behind-the-scenes of this book started off very incrementally. I wrote our first issue, at least in part, just to see if I could do it. And when I finished up and decided I was really happy with it, I knew I needed to find a collaborator to make it real. Over the years, I’ve always been interested in the processes and career trajectories of comic book creators, and in particular, I remembered how Justin Jordan connected with Tradd Moore online for their first book over at Image, The Strange Talent of Luther Strode. Knowing that Tradd was a graduate from the Savannah College of Art and Design, I decided to take a page out of Justin’s playbook and look through SCAD alums’ portfolios online, to see if anyone had the right style for this project. Once I found Jorge’s website — where said he created comics with “stupid amounts of passion” — I knew I had found the right guy to be my partner on this book.
Jorge reminds me a lot of a young Becky Cloonan in terms of his style, and I found myself really stretching myself with the scripting in order to really highlight his versatility. In a lot of ways, I see him as a bit of a kindred spirit as a co-creator — he’s very exacting, very thoughtful about his work, and our back-and-forth over this book’s creation has really challenged us both to bring our A-game. Just seeing Jorge’s designs for Spencer and Locke, I was really blown away, particularly with his small details like giving Spencer a button eye or the ominous-looking scar across Locke’s eyebrow. Issue #1 looks fantastic, but Jorge really steps up his game even further with each new issue in our arc.
And I’d be really remiss if I didn’t talk about the other members of our team, like colorist Jasen Smith and letterer Colin Bell. Jasen has really been our secret weapon for this book, and not just with the work you’ll see in our preview pages — Jorge and I both approach our work with a very critical eye, which can occasionally be a bit stressful, but Jasen has always been Spencer and Locke's resident cheerleader, always being quick to tell me how excited he is with a particular sequence or twist. Colin and I, meanwhile, go back to our Newsarama days, and thanks to his experience at places like Image, Dark Horse and BOOM!, he’s been an invaluable sounding board in terms of navigating the comics-industry playing field. Even our variant cover artists, like Maan House and Joe Mulvey, have both delivered some exceptional-looking interpretations of Spencer and Locke that just made my jaw drop.
Speaking of processes, what’s your process like as a writer?
Oh, wow… don’t get me started talking about process — I could do a whole separate interview. I think for me, I think a lot about a project before I even put one word down — like, is this a project that could sustain a full story? Is there enough meat in the concept for me to enjoy in order to be willing to iron out its weaknesses? Is there a book that’s already done this before?
So there’s a lot of second-guessing before I even write a word down — and then I just marathon it. But the most important thing I ever read in terms of writing was from Joss Whedon, where he said “eat dessert first” — whatever you like most about your script, whatever moments inspired you to write this whole thing in the first place, get that on paper and out of the way first. Once I do that, I can really convince myself there’s something compelling about a concept or character, and that gives me the momentum and foothold I need to finish a story.
There’s a few other bits and pieces that help me orient myself, too — I always try to think about the human element, and if there’s a genre involved, what are the conventions that I can lean into or subvert? I also wholeheartedly recommend writing a treatment or an outline first, just the bare bones story without the dialogue or flourishes in execution — that really helped me keep from losing my path with this story. But there’s also lots of little tricks that I’m probably forgetting — stuff from Lajos Egri, The War of Art, classes at Upright Citizens Brigade… chances are if I’m not writing or reading, I’m reading about writing.
And finally — and this is so counterintuitive for me as someone who has written critically for years — just giving myself permission to suck on a first pass. Or even a second. Sometimes you just have to churn through some garbage in order to eventually get to some gold. Sometimes I wind up stumbling on a bit that would be better used elsewhere — thankfully, I learned to write pretty modularly when I was a newspaper reporter, way back in the day, so I can shift a scene or a bit without a ton of retooling. But for every completed script, I’ve got a much, much longer Google Docs file invariably titled “Script Runoff,” where it’s just a graveyard of unused or imperfect variations of our finished scenes.
How did Spencer and Locke wind up at Action Lab, and what's that experience been like?
Action Lab has been a fantastic place to get Spencer and Locke off the ground. Our team especially owes a great deal of thanks to our creative director, Dave Dwonch, who immediately saw some potential in our project — I actually remember sending him our pitch a little over a year ago, and hearing back from him maybe 30 minutes later asking what we thought our timetable could be to finish the project. I think when you spend months working on these projects, it’s easy to second-guess yourself as a writer — I know I certainly do. “Am I crazy for doing this? Is anyone going to respond to this? Does this concept have what it takes to go the distance? Do I?” So Dave's willingness to take a chance on us was huge.
And the other great thing about Action Lab is that they’ve really given us so much freedom in terms of putting together this book and marketing it the way we feel we need to. They’ve given us a ton of latitude, and I think as a first-time comics creator, that ability to set your own personal creative bearings and calibrate as needed has been a tremendous opportunity to set the bar high for ourselves. I’ve gotten to go back and forth with Jorge and Jasen and Colin at literally every stage of this project, from layouts to pencils to inks to colors to lettering, and I think that’s helped us maintain such a distinct tone. Action Lab trusts in our vision, and they’ve been really fantastic in allowing us the chance to fine-tune and calibrate our story to make it a high-quality read.
Now, you’ve had a lot of experience with comics over the years, but your first job in the industry was working as an intern at DC Comics. What was your experience there like?
Honestly, my experience at DC was so important to my growth as both a comic book fan and a comic book creator. Just being exposed to all the different levels of comic book production — formatting scripts, coordinating art schedules, giving color notes, bringing proofs to lettering, running to an inker’s house to pick up pages — it humanizes the process and brings it down to Earth, but if you love the art form and you love the business, it opens up a whole world of possibilities for your future.
I learned from a number of fantastic editors while I was at DC — people like Mike Marts, Matt Idelson, Eddie Berganza, Jann Jones, Joey Cavalieri, Michael Siglain, Mike Carlin, amongst many, many other talents — and not only did they teach me about the nuts and bolts of managing comics projects, but they also gave me the confidence I needed to pursue projects like Spencer and Locke. DC gave me my first shot in this industry, and my time there was so inspiring that I knew I’d never truly be finished with the comic book business.
You transitioned from that to writing for Newsarama. How did that happen, and what about that experience prepared you for making your book?
I owe my leap to Newsarama thanks to Janelle Asselin, who at the time was an assistant editor for the Bat-Books and a recent Newsarama alum. When I left DC, it was during the outset of the recession, and as a recent college grad, I was hungry for any sort of lines on my resume — so she kindly recommended me to the reviews editor at the time [Editor's note: That editor is Troy Brownfield, who conducted this interview], who took me on as the Jimmy Olsen to his Perry White. (Or maybe the Peter Parker to his J. Jonah Jameson? He did ask me for a lot of pictures of Spider-Man over the years.)
But I’ll be honest — if it wasn’t for Newsarama, I almost assuredly wouldn’t be here right now, talking about this book. But before you clench up at that, my reasoning behind that is probably very different than what you’re thinking. Newsarama, in a lot of ways, was like comic book graduate school for me — I was able to interview writers and artists and ask them about their processes as creators, but even more importantly, I read and reviewed books four days a week for years. When I wasn’t writing reviews of my own, I was editing copy from 20 other people. I wasn’t just writing reviews, but I had to think of the actual process of writing reviews. I’ve learned not only from reading a wide spectrum of critical voices, but some of my best friends are on that review team, and having those kinds of insightful and incisive people as sounding boards helped bring this book to the level it’s at today.
And the thing is, reviewing is hard — at least, writing reviews rather than knee-jerk responses. It’s part mathematical proof, part persuasive essay, part high-wire circus act — you have to be able to show your work, and you have to be able to back it up with examples and proof (and you can’t be boring doing it). It forces you to take a step back from immediate reaction, and to think who a target audience for a book might be or of mitigating circumstances — and it also forces you to evaluate and articulate what your values are as a reader.
Much of how we structured Spencer and Locke, for example, was in direct response to what I considered a trend of unsatisfying, decompressed storytelling — I tried to incorporate what Heidi MacDonald calls the “Satisfying Chunk,” making sure that each issue of this series stands on its own, with something fun and self-sustaining to bring to the table. Writing reviews causes you to zero in on what you do and don’t like about comics, and if you do it long enough, it gives you the framework to avoid these problems in your own work. It’s essentially learning from other people’s mistakes.
You do realize that after years of writing reviews, you're sitting on the bench in the dunk tank. How do you anticipate dealing with the critics, having been one yourself?
I am very much looking forward to asking them how much Marvel or DC paid for their coverage. (Kidding! I know we’re all broke.)
But seriously, we’re very excited to see people’s reactions to this book — to even have a conversation is incredibly gratifying for me as a creator. Whether you love this book or hate it, our team put in a ton of work and a ton of thought into Spencer and Locke, and after so much time in the pipeline, we can’t wait to hear what people think. So the more reviews, the better, I say — and feel free to hit us up on social media if you can’t wait until then!
Joking aside, you're debuting the book at NYCC. Will you be making other supporting appearances in the near future?
Yes, we’ve got ourselves a beautiful convention exclusive cover from Joe Mulvey from Comix Tribe, which will be available for purchase at Action Lab’s booth during New York Comic Con. Joe was actually the first artist to draw Spencer and Locke who wasn’t Jorge, and he did such a fantastic job with it — even if he’s left me jonesing to see what interpretations other artists can take with these characters. We’ll post your fan art if you got it, readers!
As far as appearances elsewhere, we’re still hammering out details for potential signings once we get closer to Spencer and Locke’s official release date to the public in March, but early reactions from retailers based on our first issue have been tremendously encouraging, so we’re really looking forward to working with comic shops to get the word out on this book.
So, this is your first significant comics work. That's a real milestone. Now, what's next?
There’s a lot of balls in the air right now, and right now, it’s just a matter of seeing which ones land first. We’re wrapping up production on our four issues of Spencer and Locke right now — we just got final inks last week, and they look spectacular — so the next few weeks are going to be finalizing colors and lettering, and that’s not even taking into consideration getting the word out on our book before our final order cutoff date. (Readers, be sure to tell your retailer you want to read our book! And retailers, once the book is in Previews, be sure to order heavy!) Our first issue is scheduled to be out sometime in March, so there’s still plenty of work to be done between now and then to keep people in the loop.
Beyond that, there’s lots going on — Jorge has been working on his own webcomic, Curse of the Eel, Jasen has plenty of creator-owned and company-owned work coming down the pike both running solo and with Hi-Fi, and Colin is working on a ton of projects, including lettering The Forevers and Alex Automatic, the latter of which did gangbusters over at Kickstarter recently. As for me, I’ve got a few projects that are in various stages of development — I’ve got a post-apocalyptic western called Scrapper that I’m getting ready for shopping, and I’m finishing up some treatments on a comic about a tabloid journalist in the future, as well as a boxing story starring anthropomorphic animals. That’s the beauty about comics — you can really take them anywhere!
But most importantly, if readers respond to Spencer and Locke, we’ve already been developing some ideas for some additional stories with those characters — so if you like what you’re seeing here, and you like what you’re reading come March (or at NYCC), be sure to tell Action Lab you want to see more! There’s a much, much larger world for Spencer and Locke to inhabit and explore, and they’re such fun characters to play with, that I’d be back for a trip to the old neighborhood in a heartbeat.