The Pullbox is off to see the Wizard (of the O.Z.): Andy Chats with David Pepose

As anyone who’s perused the Pullbox or social media in the past week are likely aware, David Pepose, master of mashups, has set his trope-slaying eyes on the Wizard of Oz as well as The Hurt Locker and Mad Max: Fury Road for his recently-launched Kickstarter, The O.Z. (take a gander–or better yet, back it–here). Betwixt his whirlwind first week of guest spots, interviews, podcasts and live streams, the Ringo Award nominated Spencer & Locke auteur was nice enough to chat with us Pullbox folks a bit about his latest creation…

Pullbox: So, first Calvin & Hobbes, and now Wizard of Oz. What inspired this angle on L. Frank Baum’s classic?

Pepose: If Spencer & Locke was what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City, The O.Z. is what if Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hurt Locker took place in the Wizard of Oz. The idea actually came after the first volume of Spencer & Locke hit stores, and people really responded to it — so once I decided that I’d stick it out as a comics writer, I thought about other types of genres I wanted to work in next.

One of those genres was fantasy — and the idea of mashing it up with the war genre really appealed to me, especially since I was tapping into that a bit with Spencer & Locke 2, with our villainous analogue of Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey. As I thought about touchstones from my childhood, the Wizard of Oz sprang to mind — particularly that word “Oz,” which is so short but so iconic. It made me think of it as an acronym, like the DMZ — and then the phrase “Occupied Zone” hit me like a ton of bricks.

From there, the imagery really just came rushing out — Dorothy as a world-weary Iraq war veteran with her own makeshift Army gear, the Tin Soldier having been destroyed and rebuilt out of whatever armor was nearby, the ruins of the Emerald City… I knew we had an epic fantasy story that had a sense of scale and a real thematic weight. The O.Z. felt like the kind of story I had to write.

Pullbox: Your work has always been a blend of noir, humor and action, and The O.Z. has room for each, but has very serious undertones as well. How would you categorize the work, so far?

Pepose: The O.Z. is definitely what I’d consider the spiritual successor to Spencer & Locke — we don’t go quite as dark as my first series, but like you said, we definitely want to explore some heavier topics with it. Tonally, I’d say we’re somewhere between Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: Rogue One — I think the fantastic elements of Oz keeps this story from becoming oppressive, and the camaraderie between these characters gives us heroes to root for.

Ultimately, the benefit of doing a mashup like this is that we’ve always got options as creators — if the fantasy elements aren’t working, I can take the military angle, and if the military angle isn’t helping, I can look at the history of Oz or Dorothy’s internal struggles. The high concept of The O.Z. opens up a lot of different angles to explore both thematically and tonally — and I think Ruben Rojas and Whitney Cogar’s stylistic and atmospheric art helps us strike that balance between beautiful, harrowing, and heartfelt.

Pullbox: What can we look forward to in the rest of issue one, and the coming books?

Pepose: We’re running our Kickstarter for our double-sized first issue, which will clock in at 44 pages — and this first issue will introduce readers to Dorothy Gale’s grandaughter and namesake, a disillusioned Army veteran who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and her close encounters with the war-torn land of Oz.

This new Dorothy is going to have to navigate her grandmother’s former friends as she tries to make sense of the Occupied Zone — as she’s introduced to the Resistance hiding in the ruins of the Emerald City, Dorothy’s going to be thinking a lot about the ethics of warfare, about what’s the most moral decision you can make when every choice winds up with someone dying.

It’s very much that call to action from the classic Hero’s Journey — but there’s a world of difference between being called to action, and actually choosing to answer it. And as the series continues, we’ll see Dorothy explore more of The O.Z., seeing how she fits in her grandmother’s legacy, building her own makeshift army, and having to answer for long-buried transgressions.

Pullbox: How many issues of The O.Z. can we anticipate enjoying, and how much of the source material do you see yourself working into the title?

Pepose: This will be the first of three double-sized Kickstarter campaigns for The O.Z., so each of our three issues will clock in at 44 pages. Our story works really well in the traditional three-act structure, and this sort of frequency gives Ruben and Whitney ample time to draw each chapter while never sacrificing the high production values we’re all shooting for.

As far as how deep into L. Frank Baum’s mythology we’re going, it’s been a delicate balance — so much of the popular consciousness for Oz has been the Judy Garland film, which is ironically not in the public domain like the actual novels. (So no ruby slippers, since they were an invention for Technicolor — silver slippers only!)

So we’re focusing a lot on that core cast from the original Wizard of Oz novel, just for the sake of accessibility and giving new readers the smoothest runway possible to get invested in our series — but then we’re cherry-picking a bit from some of the expanded mythology, particularly in terms of establishing Oz as this sweeping world. But we’ve got a few new additions to the mix, like Jack Pumpkinhead, who plays a pretty big role in our second and third issues.

Pullbox: Will you be publishing the entire series via crowdfunding, and why the shift to the new format for this title? Do you see an advantage for creators in using Kickstarter, Indiegogo and the like vs traditional publishers?

Pepose: Yes, we definitely plan on seeing this entire series through on Kickstarter. I’d actually been thinking for a long time about doing something on that platform — a lot of my friends in the comics industry have had a lot of success with Kickstarter, like White Ash creator Charlie Stickney and my pal Rylend Grant, who recently wrapped up his campaign for The Jump.

The thing is, Kickstarter is very much its own ecosystem, just like people who buy their comics primarily from brick-and-mortar retailers or Amazon — and I always believe in building our readership across multiple audiences, and inviting as many people to the table as possible.

But I think Covid definitely crystallized that line of thinking for me — between the pandemic temporarily shutting down Diamond and staggering release schedules from numerous publishers, I realized that we didn’t need to wait for permission to create anymore. We had a book as dynamite as The O.Z. in our back pockets, and Kickstarter really empowered us to release it on our schedule, rather than wait until 2022 or beyond. With times being in upheaval like they are, you have to be as nimble and forward-thinking as you can — you have to make your own opportunities.

And with that said, I think we’ve gone above and beyond to make The O.Z. a series that readers will feel they’ve gotten plenty of bang for their buck. For starters, all three of our projected Kickstarters will clock in double-sized, at 44 pages each — so you’ll be getting plenty of story to keep you invested until our next installment. We’ve also got a ton of rewards ranging from behind-the-scenes scripts and materials to original artwork from Ruben to even being drawn into the book… not to mention we’re offering three limited edition handmade Spencer & Locke plushies as part of our “King of the Jungle” package. Because Kickstarters are all or nothing, we think that every backer and every dollar counts, and so we’re going to work overtime to earn it.

Pullbox: Clearly, Dorothy Gale suffers from her adjustment back to civilian life, be it Adjustment Disorder, Major Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other diagnosis. Is there a particular disorder you’re thinking of for her, and do you anticipate this being a major plot point as the book continues?

Pepose: I think Dorothy definitely struggles with PTSD, as well as depression, guilt, and disillusionment from her time overseas and her stint back in Kansas. That’s what makes things so difficult for her — she’s done her duty, and she’s watched a lot of good people lose their lives over it, and being dropped into a magical battlefield certainly doesn’t distance her from that.

But at the same time, when people are in danger, how can she ignore that? So Dorothy confronting the scars of her past is going to be a major theme for this book — it’s very much a Catch-22, because Oz evokes so many horrors from her time overseas, but at the same time, I think Dorothy sees The O.Z. as almost a second chance to set things right.

And to be honest, I think there is a spectrum of trauma and PTSD that permeates The O.Z., not just with Dorothy, but the rest of the cast of characters as well. The Tin Soldier, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion… they’ve all seen more than their fair share of bloodshed, and they’re each going to be approaching those traumas in different ways. Some will grow stoic, some will grow sadistic, and others still will push down their feelings in pursuit of the greater good. These characters are all very imperfect, but many of them will rise to the occasion as heroes.

Pullbox: Is there a personal connection for you with that subject/something you found important and wanted to write about/fit well with the story concept?

Pepose: I’ve always been interested in the psychology of my characters — I took a lot of classes in psychology when I was in college, and I covered both the mental health and military beats when I was a newspaper reporter. I actually did a series of interviews with local veterans who were struggling with adjusting back home, and I think those experiences have definitely influenced my writing in terms of themes, tone and subject matter. Even for me as a person, I often find myself bogged down by self-recrimination, and it can be a struggle for me to pull out of that — so I think I gravitate towards that with characters like Dorothy or Locke.

But the great thing about writing comics is also you’re able to explore so many different angles — I’m not sure a lot of people would have thought I’d have jumped from crime stories to a fantasy war book, but that’s what makes it so exciting. Every genre has its own opportunities, and every story gives me a chance to flex my creative muscles in a different way. The O.Z. is one of those books that fits in my wheelhouse, but also comes at it from a totally different angle.

Pullbox: Not sure if you recall, but we stood in line for Frank Miller together at C2E2 several years back; you’d been hoping to get him to sign Spencer & Locke as a personal favor. Suffice to say, your career’s been on a steep upward arc since then! What personal goals do you have in the comics industry, or beyond?

Pepose: I still want to meet Frank Miller! They wouldn’t let me in, I didn’t have the right pass! I’m sure that’s not a metaphor for the rest of my career or anything. (Laughs)

Honestly, beyond that, my goals are to keep doing what I’ve been doing! I want to keep stretching my muscles as a creator in terms of quality, speed, and genre — so much of this business is just putting in the reps, and I want to keep improving my A-game. And ultimately, I just want to keep engaging and building my readership, because at the end of the day, that’s the only way the comics industry survives — if we invite everyone to the table and build a wider consensus.

As far as genres I want to tackle at some point… I still love crime stories, and I’ve got a handful that I want to tackle soon. I want to do more sci-fi, especially having finished the scripts for my upcoming book Grand Theft Astro. Honestly, I’d love to write a disaster book at some point — I’ve been circling around that idea for awhile.

Pullbox: Anything else you’d like our readers to be aware of, or any other projects you’d like to plug?

Pepose: I’ve got a few more irons in the fire with some other projects, which I always like to tease with codenames. We’re circling the third issue of artwork for Project Tagalong, which will probably be officially announced later this year, and I’m working with my Spencer & Locke brother-in-arms Jorge Santiago, Jr. on a superheroic one-shot we’re calling Project Juniper. I’ve got a trio of other anthology stories in the pipeline that I’m very excited about as well, and I can’t wait for readers to see them. And that’s on top of work in development like Spencer & Locke 3 — honestly, this is the time for creators to push their work out no matter what, and I’m just feeling very fortunate and lucky I get to take control of my own career with work like The O.Z.

Again, if you’re interested in checking out The O.Z., head on over to its Kickstarter page (click here), and give it a look-see. And an order. I predict an order, anyway, ’cause Holy Wah does this book look awesome!

Interview by Andy Patch, Contributing Editor

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