Writer David Pepose describes his debut comic series “Spencer & Locke” as “Calvin & Hobbes” meets “Sin City.” Locke’s a police detective, a broken-down, beaten-by-life cop, struggling to keep himself together, much less investigate a girl’s disappearance. Spencer is … well, Spencer is a stuffed panther, but in Locke’s mind, he’s the only partner Locke can rely on.
Debuting in April from Action Lab Entertainment, “Spencer & Locke” is more than a simple genre mash-up. Abetted by the versatile illustrations of Jorge Santiago, Jr., Pepose explained that he plans to dive deep into the psychological makeup of a man who talks to his imaginary panther, and the things we find there won’t be pretty.
CBR spoke with Pepose about his influences, the lessons he’s learned on the journalism side of comics, and the surprises that come with seeing his words realized in artwork.
CBR: First of all, David, when I googled “Spencer & Locke,” I found an actress named Spencer Locke, who has a ton of credits I’ve never seen. That can’t be a coincidence.
David Pepose: I know! I was surprised when I saw her name pop up, too. But at the end of the day, I’m just humbled that “Spencer & Locke” has such a strong fanbase that this woman’s parents would actually name her after our book. The power of comics marketing, everyone!
No, I kid, total coincidence. I am very excited to make her fans our own, though.
Locke’s childhood looks awfully adorable at first, but man, it goes dark. As a writer, what appeals to you about that juxtaposition, and how is it useful for playing with reader expectations?
I’ve always been a big fan of mash-ups and remixes, and Spencer & Locke is very much in that vein – our initial high concept was pitched as “what if ‘Calvin and Hobbes’ grew up in ‘Sin City’?” So while we’re very much a dark parody of both Bill Watterson and Frank Miller, I think there is that sense of reader expectation – which we’re able to play upon or subvert to better build up our story. Given this is very much an homage to one of the most iconic comic strips of all time, there’s a lot of tropes and iconography we’re able to play around with, and I’m just excited for readers to see how we’ve turned a childhood classic on its ear.
But I also think that our flashbacks to Locke’s childhood give us some very cool avenues to pursue. Not only do the flashbacks give Jorge an opportunity to stretch his artistic muscles by playing with different visual styles, but they cut deep into who Locke is and why he’s turned out the way he’s turned out. Locke might be a cop, but that doesn’t mean he’s isn’t without rough edges or outright character flaws – sometimes some very prominent ones. But it’s hard not to empathize with a character when you’ve gotten to know his story, and once you read “Spencer & Locke,” I think you’ll wind up falling in love with these characters almost as quickly as I did.
Spencer is obviously Locke’s childhood toy, his imaginary friend, but what does his relationship with Locke actually represent to Locke? Are there aspects of Locke’s personality that can only manifest through the fiction?
Detective Locke is a deeply scarred individual, someone with a chip on both shoulders and a mean streak a mile wide. And in that regard, Spencer is very much the opposite in this buddy-cop dynamic – Spence may look tough on the outside, but it’s easy to see that this cat is one big softie underneath. Beyond sharing a sort of Riggs/Murtagh buddy-cop DNA, Spencer absolutely is a reflection of Locke – Spence represents Locke’s conscience, his savagery, his very intuition as a detective. But what I like most about Spencer and Locke as characters is how they play off each other, how they each have very distinct personalities, philosophies, and points of view – and as you’ll see as the series progresses, this dynamic is really just the tip of the iceberg.
Beyond the obvious “Calvin and Hobbes” references, are there other inspirations for the fictional partner motif? You’re having a zeitgeist moment, as Terry Moore also has a fictional friend/animal partner (a gorilla in his case) in his new series “Motor Girl.”
Pfft, who needs a gorilla when you have a giant imaginary panther? Step off, Terry Moore, we got your number!
But seriously, Terry Moore is a huge name to be lumped in with, so thanks for the compliment. Ultimately, the “Calvin and Hobbes”/“Sin City” mashup was the driving force behind “Spencer & Locke,” but a lot of my favorite movies have been about psychology and mental illness. “Memento” in particular was a big inspiration – it’s the story of a hero who winds up taking a crippling affliction and twists it into something that’s actually positive. So on the one hand, while Locke is broken enough as a human being to need to dream up a friend like Spencer, we’ll see during the story that Locke’s twisted imagination might be the very thing that helps save his life.
Issue one has a heckuva cliffhanger. Suffice to say that we’ve only seen the tip of Locke’s family trauma and the reasons for Spencer’s existence?
Without giving too much away, yes – the title of our first issue is “You Can’t Go Home Again,” and I think that’s very much a mission statement for “Spencer & Locke” as a whole. Our story is very much about childhood scars, and coming face-to-face with your own demons – and Locke is going to need Spencer’s help now that he has to confront the traumas of his past. There are a lot of familiar faces who are going to be coming out of the woodwork now that Locke has come back to the old neighborhood – and each of these figures are going to not only threaten Locke’s survival, but they’re going to challenge and twist his relationship with Spence.
But let’s just say that Locke’s home life was… harrowing to say the least.
You’ve spent literally half your life writing reviews of other people’s comics. Has dissecting them like that given you insights into how to write for comics? Are there any specific techniques or tropes you’ve picked up and applied here?
Ha! I mean, “half” my life might be pushing it, but I do think that writing and thinking critically about comics definitely informed the process of creating “Spencer & Locke.” I don’t have to tell you that comic readers are an opinionated bunch, but having to write reviews – essentially to have to boil down your arguments and present them with evidence, to try to be “tough but fair” – really helped me find my own voice as a writer and my own sensibilities as a reader and consumer. I think everyone knows in their gut what they like and don’t like, but being forced to articulate why I think was a really instructive experience.
One big example for me was structure – the first two volumes of “Ultimate Spider-Man” aside, I’m generally not the biggest fan of decompressed storytelling. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, I found myself really responding to the self-contained storytelling in Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s run on “Batgirl” – so that sort of thing really influenced how I paced “Spencer & Locke,” trying to make each issue stand on its own, to give each chapter its own identity and its own unique flavor, just to keep everything exciting and satisfying.
How has the experience of working with an artist and seeing your words realized in this way been for you? Has Jorge brought out any aspects of your script that surprised you?
I have to tell you, working with Jorge has been immensely gratifying, just watching him take these scripts and bring them to life. He’s a real artist’s artist, and he’s also just tremendously smart -- and considering Jorge studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design, I feel lucky that I’ve essentially gotten a crash-course in sequential art from a real master in the making. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give a shout-out to our colorist, Jasen Smith – he’s been our secret weapon through the whole process, injecting mood to every scene and just taking Jorge’s fantastic art to the next level. It’s really been a dream working with a team this good.
And as far as surprises in the art… oh man, where to begin? The character designs are all Jorge – when I initially wrote the first issue, I had envisioned Locke as this big, brawny character, kind of like Marv or Callahan from “Sin City,” while Spencer was going to be tall and lanky, kind of a Hobbesian figure. But Jorge flipped that on its head, and I immediately thought that was such a great move – it creates so much more tension having a scrappy character like Locke take all the hits, while having a seven-foot-tall panther like Spencer solidifies him not just as a protector figure, but also as a bit of a gentle giant. But best of all, Jorge only gets better with every issue – I love Issue #2, but Issue #3 is going to blow you away.
How did Jorge get involved? And how did you hook up with Action Lab for “Spencer & Locke”?
You can blame Justin Jordan for this one – once I read about how he met Tradd Moore online, and how Tradd was a SCAD-trained artist, I knew I wanted to take a page out of his playbook. So I went online and looked for SCAD graduates, and just reached out to people whose work I thought might be a good fit for “Spencer & Locke.” But Jorge in particular stood out, because his website said that he was “creating comics and art with stupid amounts of passion” – and that was the kind of quality I really wanted in a partner. And it really paid off, because Jorge took everything I threw at him in my scripts (and there is a lot I threw at him!), and just made it sing.
As far as Action Lab, I had heard great things about the company, having followed Jamal Igle’s “Molly Danger” and Vito Delsante’s “Stray.” So as we were shopping “Spencer & Locke” around, our creative director at Action Lab, Dave Dwonch, saw the potential in our project almost immediately – I think he asked us what our timetable could be maybe an hour after I sent him the pitch. They’ve been really fantastic over there, giving us plenty of room to develop our book and our story as needed, just letting us push the envelope as hard as we can.
Now that you’re big time, are you still heading up the review squad at that other comic book site? Anything else in the works you can tease?
For now, I’ve been keeping myself busy in various corners of the comics internet, but now that “Spencer & Locke” is about to become a reality, I’m very excited to see what the future holds. I have a few other comics projects in various stages of development – I’ve got a spy thriller that’s looking very fun, and a crime caper that I am extremely excited to explore – but I’m also committed to making sure we give “Spencer & Locke” the launch it deserves.
This book has been a labor of love for more than two years now, and I couldn’t be prouder of my team and the work we’ve produced. We just finished up the fourth and final issue of “Spencer & Locke” a few weeks ago, and I miss the characters already – so if people respond to this work, and preorder lots of copies when we hit “Previews” in January, I think there’s a much deeper world for “Spencer & Locke” to explore. This is a dark book – and it gets even darker as we get further into the story – but ultimately, “Spencer & Locke” is a comic about old scars, and whether or not we can rise up and overcome them. Even though one of our characters is just a figment of the other one’s imagination, I think redemption is real – and a story that we can all relate to. There’s something inspiring about that, I think – and it’s that journey that I think will make “Spencer & Locke” ring true for a lot of comics veterans and new readers alike.