The Pullbox Interviews David Pepose & Jorge Santiago

Suspended by Internal Affairs, Detective Locke grapples with the demons of his past alongside his trusty partner, his childhood imaginary panther Spencer. But when Spencer and Locke face a scarred soldier named Roach Riley, will this unlikely pair finally meet their match?

Paul (thePullbox): I’d just like to start things off by pointing out that Spencer & Locke was one of the earlier books I reviewed for the Pullbox that really got me excited talking about it. When trying to explain the premise of the title, the initial response was usually “Hey that sounds hilarious!” Then I’d go into some detail to point out just how deep, how dark you guys went. From there the conversation usually went either “Oh man, how could anyone do that to poor Calvin & Hobbes?” or “Damn, that’s twisted… now I have to read it.”

David, we met at C2E2, and I picked up the very last copy you had of issue one… and that was after you had to go around to the local comic shops, buying up any you could find because you’d run out on the first day. That was, if I remember right, right after you’d gotten back to your booth after trying to wheel and deal your way to the front of the line to meet Frank Miller (fun fact, a friend of mine was in that line and told me all about this guy who was trying to scam his way ahead of everyone else… but I’m sure that was someone else).

David Pepose: Ha! I wish — I stood in that line for at least an hour and a half before being told I had to have a special pass to meet Frank… I had made it all the way to the end of the line, too! But yeah, that show was wild. I’ve had a few other conventions that we sold out quickly, and there’s nothing quite like calling up every store in a metropolitan area to buy our copies of your own book. It’s a pretty unbelievable experience!

Paul: Anyway, a huge congratulations from this fan on the success of your first story arc. So how ‘bout some questions…?

Pepose: Thank you so much — fire away!

Paul: First off, have to ask… and I’m assuming this one’s gonna be picked up by Dave… how in the name of all that’s holy did you settle on Calvin & Hobbes as the starting point for Spencer & Locke?

Pepose: Initially I had started thinking of SPENCER & LOCKE through the lens of classic Frank Miller, rather than starting with Bill Watterson — Frank was really the first writer that caught my attention as a kid, just with his unique voice and how innovative he was in the way he structured story. So I wanted to do something in that vein. But when I started trying to mash that up with a children’s property, a lot of the ideas I was coming up with felt very shock value-oriented — which might work for a one-off gag, but isn’t really a great foundation for a full-length story.

It was only when I thought of this Sin City version of Calvin and Hobbes that the idea finally clicked into place — because it didn’t subsist just on shock value anymore. Even from my initial mental image of the characters, I knew we had a story about childhood trauma, mental illness, and the most unorthodox of friendships — but furthermore, it was a love letter to not one, but two of the most trailblazing artists of my childhood, namely Bill Watterson and Frank Miller. It was a way to really try to synthesize the best of both worlds, to see what we could discover.

Paul: Was there ever a point where you thought maybe you were playing it a little too dark with everyone’s favorite precocious kid and his imaginary tiger friend?

Pepose: Jorge and I were really in constant communication about how we would portray Locke’s abusive childhood, to make sure that we weren’t portraying it as funny or romanticized or titillating. He even redrew a few of our flashbacks, just to make sure we weren’t crossing that line of being exploitative or mean-spirited or, even worse, revisiting pain on readers who might be survivors themselves. We’ve actually had survivors visit us at conventions to tell us how much SPENCER & LOCKE meant to them, and that’s probably the most wonderful feedback we’ve gotten so far.

Jorge Santiago, Jr.: Bouncing off what David said, I think it was just important that we weren’t trying to make light of real people’s tragedies. I’m a little less worried that people might be offended with what we’re referencing, I’m more worried about people feeling hurt by what we’ve drawn because we didn’t treat it with the gravity it deserves. Everything that happened in Locke’s childhood is terrible, and I think we tried to depict it as such, but I’m also a person that hates violence used for shock value, so I tried to make sure we weren’t crossing a line.

Paul: Did you actually have ideas that did get throttled back and didn’t make it into the final cut because you thought it was “too much”?

Pepose: Not necessarily because it was too much — more like we had a limited amount of page real estate, and we wanted to make sure that the homages we did include made sense and felt organic to the rest of the story. Thankfully, we’ve been able to include a lot of stuff that got left on the cutting room floor in SPENCER & LOCKE 2 — including an audible I called in our third issue that wound up being one of my favorite sequences in the entire arc.

Santiago: This may not apply, but I did try approach things from a perspective of “If I were to read this, would I find this okay or would this bother me?” I remember in an interview about Casanova, Matt Fraction said that he hoped that they “earned every boob,” and that stuck with me. So often in comics, people just create problematic stories that don’t really earn  the scenes they’re depicting because they mainly are after that shock value. With SPENCER & LOCKE, I wanted to at least create something with those principles in mind, just so that I could hand the book to as many people as I could and feel that every moment was earned and every shocking moment had some depth. I think with Volume 2, we got even closer to that idea.

Paul: One of the things in the first arc that I thought was brilliant was the change in art for the flashbacks… starting in the classic Bill Waterston style- straight out of the comic strips- and then morphing over the course of a couple panels when it starts going dark. Jorge, I don’t know if you’d ever read any Calvin & Hobbes prior to working on this book, but as someone who currently has the complete collection on his bookshelf I wanna say that you nailed it… almost uncomfortably so. How did it feel going through Locke’s childhood trauma, knowing it was all starting from such innocent origins?

Santiago: First off, I was a huge Calvin and Hobbes fan as a kid, so the research I put in to study Bill Watterson’s art style was a trip down memory lane. I also think I wanted to create those flashback scenes in a reminiscent style, but one where you could tell who it was who drew it. I’m no Bill Watterson by any means, but I also didn’t want a book where it looked like it was drawn by two people.

As far as Locke’s trauma, I felt like it was super appropriate to have it be drawn in another style for a few reasons. It mentally disarms you to see bad things happening to characters drawn in that art style, whether it’s something you’ve known before or not, so those scenes allowed us to play with readers emotions a bit in a fun way. The other great reason for them is that I think that this is how we tend to remember our childhoods in a way. I can’t remember huge details about my childhood, it’s sort of congealed into a series of memories that are often, simple and to the point. You could almost say that the change of art style is less our stylistic choice but more of this is how Locke interprets his own childhood. What if Locke has, subconsciously, put this filter over the events of his past to shield himself from the gritty details of his childhood? I love psychology, and with comics, I think there are lots of fun ways to interpret art like this.

Paul: What does one do for homework, knowing that you’re going to be working on something like this? How do you prepare yourselves for any backlash coming from people outraged over your desecration of their childhood memories?

Pepose: Honestly, I think you just answered one question with the other here — the only way we could really prepare for any backlash was by doing our homework. I read and took notes on the entirety of Calvin and Hobbes — every single strip — before starting our first series, and then reread the whole series once we decided to come back for SPENCER & LOCKE 2. And then on top of that background research, it was a matter of making sure our story felt ironclad, and most importantly, that we showed empathy to our characters, rather than just exploiting them. So while there were a few people who were against our series purely based on the high concept alone — and that’s completely their prerogative, I’m not foolish enough to think we can win over everybody — we found that most readers wound up really enjoying what we were doing.

Santiago: I spent a while studying and developing my art so that it all felt like my own. I’ve not really had anyone yell at me about destroying their childhood, but I think most people understand that Calvin & Hobbes isn’t Spencer & Locke, sort of in the same way that Daredevil isn’t the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or how Deathstroke isn’t Deadpool, etc.

Paul: Along those same lines, what’s your response to critics accusing you guys of “pandering” to readers’ feelings of nostalgia?

Pepose: Did you see what we did to these poor characters? (Laughs) That’s probably the worst pandering I’ve ever seen! But seriously, I’d consider it pandering if we did a straight-up copy of Bill Watterson’s work, but while we’re starting from a familiar starting point, I’d say Jorge and I took SPENCER & LOCKE in a very different direction to create a story that feels unique. If anything, we’re leveraging people’s nostalgia and then flipping it completely on its head — we’re using people’s expectations against them, to really let us pull the rug out from underneath them.

Santiago: I think that if you’ve not read Calvin & Hobbes, you can still understand and enjoy what we’re doing in S&L. You may not get all of the references or imagery, but the characters and their story are still there, so I’d argue that we didn’t pander. I also have no interest in nostalgia, I think it’s a roadblock to constructive criticism but that’s an interview for another time.

Paul: In Spencer & Locke’s first story arc, you pretty much hit all of the Calvin & Hobbes benchmarks, up to and including my personal favorite bit from issue 3, “Rocketman Reynolds” (aka: Spaceman Spiff). For Spencer & Locke 2 (and I gotta take my hat off again for the title… were you going for the “Lethal Weapon” buddy cop sequel vibe?), where do you go from there? What can you tell me and my tens of followers about what we have to look forward to?

Pepose: That’s the beauty of SPENCER & LOCKE 2’s high concept — because Calvin and Hobbes was just the beginning. We’re going full Fables with our second arc, drawing inspiration from across the funny pages, pitting hard-boiled Detective Locke and his imaginary talking panther Spencer against the murderous Roach Riley, our Heath Ledger-style riff on Mort Walker’s classic comic strip Beetle Bailey. Roach is the sole survivor of his platoon overseas, and he’s come back with some very… out-there philosophies about pain and suffering. And he’s using an arsenal of military hardware to spread his new gospel of violence. He’s very much Spencer and Locke’s mirror opposite, and given the bad headspace our heroes will find themselves in when our sequel opens up, this is going to be just as much a battle of ideas as it is a physical showdown. But Beetle Bailey isn’t the only classic comic strip character we’re parodying with Volume 2 — we’ll also have riffs on Hi & Lois, Brenda Starr, Hagar the Horrible, Marmaduke… and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s fun exploring just how far Spencer and Locke’s world can go!

Santiago: You’ll have to see if Roach has diplomatic immunity — couldn’t resist, you said Lethal Weapon, so I had to. In seriousness, I think readers will enjoy seeing some deeper characterization for the cast and the new characters as well. As with every superhero movie trilogy, the first one has to dedicate time to building the world, the heroes, the origin, and purpose, the villain, and more. With the second movie, the world, heroes, and origin are already defined, so they get to develop those characters by throwing new elements into the mix. While Roach is indeed that dash of scorpion pepper to this meal, I think people will enjoy getting to see how Locke and his family are trying to move on, or if they even can, in the wake of the events of Volume 1.

Paul: Complete and total nonsense time… If you were both given the opportunity to work on any existing/favorite property from any medium (TV, movies, comics, etc), past or present, what would you jump at the chance to take on?

Pepose: It’s really more of a question of what existing property wouldn’t I work on? As far as the Big Two is concerned, I’d love to work on Shazam! or Doctor Strange, or Avengers or the Justice League. But I also love Superman, The Flash, Cloak & Dagger, Iron Fist… I flat-out adore the Archie Horror line… you’ll probably laugh at this, but my white whale would probably be Captain Planet. If you’re a comics publisher and you’ve got the rights to Captain Planet, call me — I promise you won’t regret it.

Santiago: I mainly want to do my own stuff, but I have an idea for a DC series that they wouldn’t ever let me do without just giving me my own Earth to play in. It would be like a year long build up with multiple comic lines and characters leading to massive event that would be something pretty fun, but logistically, I would need 100% faith from DC and a team of creators to work on probably 12 separate stories that would connect occasionally and lead to a fun middle like a spider’s web. Other than that, I mainly just take fun ideas and write and draw them myself.

Paul: Along those same lines, who in the industry (artist, writer, or both) would you both most like to collaborate with on a project?

Pepose: Honestly, if you knew just how talented Jorge was, you’d know I’m already working with my favorite comics artist. I’ll keep riding his coattails as long as he lets me!

Santiago: David is just being nice, there’s bound to be comic legends he wants to work with. I’m a fan of Rick Remender, so it’d be amazing to work with him at some point, but I really do love working on projects where I get to write and draw everything. I would love to do more of that and see that be published.

Paul: Just thought of one more Spencer & Locke related question… I’d heard some buzz about the lads getting the animated series or feature treatment. Are there any revelations or new info about that? Is it still in the hush-hush phase?

Pepose: Nah, not at all, not a bad question – we’re still working on the SPENCER & LOCKE feature! There’s not a whole lot I can say publicly just yet, but we’ve had some really awesome conversations with some really talented people in Hollywood, and we’ll have some more news to share hopefully soon. 2019 will be a good year for our boys, both on the page and on the big screen!

So there we go… Readers of all things comic should have already dipped into the twisted, left of center world of Spencer & Locke, and should be chomping at the bit to get their hands on the second series. If you haven’t taken a look at this title, there’s still time… it’s a big bandwagon, so feel free to hop on at any time.

If it helps, David and Jorge have provided us with some sample pages to fan the flames… and a look at their video trailer. Take a look.

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