In April, Action Lab will be publishing a series called Spencer & Locke that has a premise Calvin and Hobbes fans will find quite familiar. We spoke to the writer David Pepose about the series, his opinion on comic book criticism after writing reviews for over 8 years and the comic creation process.
AiPT!: Thanks for taking the time, David. What’s the elevator pitch for your book for those who may not have heard of it?
David Pepose: To boil it down simply, our high concept is, “What if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City?” Spencer & Locke is the story of hard-boiled Detective Locke, who returns to his old neighborhood after the murder of his childhood sweetheart, schoolteacher Sophie Jenkins. But when the demons of his past start to come out of the woodwork, there’s only one partner Locke can trust to help him close the case — his imaginary talking panther, Spencer.
In a lot of ways, Spencer & Locke is like chocolate and peanut butter, but with comics — by splicing together Bill Watterson’s iconography with Frank Miller’s dark and moody aesthetic, we’ve been able to create a pitch-black noir comic that’s half-parody, half-love letter to two of the greatest cartoonists in our lifetime.
AiPT!: Did you have an imaginary friend growing up?
Pepose: I would pretend my dogs could talk, if that counts. Our older dog Maude would have a much deeper voice, while her daughter Mindy would have a much higher voice. If my friends tried to speak for Maude or Mindy, I would quickly correct their inaccuracies. Clearly, even then I cared about canon!
AiPT!: Aside from Calvin and Hobbes, are there any comic books, novels or movies you took inspiration from when writing Spencer & Locke?
Pepose: Definitely — Frank Miller was the first comics writer whose voice really stood out to me as a kid, so his work on Sin City, Dark Knight Returns, and especially Daredevil: The Man Without Fear all were tremendous inspirations for this book. I really believe that Frank Miller, like Bill Watterson, has forgotten more about making comics than I’ll ever know.
Beyond that, books like Criminal, Blacksad, Felipe Smith and Tradd Moore’s Ghost Rider, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s Moon Knight, and Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson’s Batman: Gotham Knights all helped shape our story. (And a special shout-out should go to Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr’s Batgirl, which really helped influence me as far as our book’s structure was concerned.) As far as movies and TV, we definitely drew from Memento, Quentin Tarantino, Chinatown … I could go on and on.
AiPT!: I really love the concept behind Spencer & Locke as well as the use of flashbacks as seen in the preview. They seem to show a twisted version of what Calvin and Hobbes would be like in an alternate universe. What inspired this idea?
Pepose: Thank you! Part of Spencer & Locke’s concept came from our desire to tell a story that really played with the conventions and storytelling tricks of comics — we wanted to take every advantage of the medium we could, from page turns to dramatic layouts to shifting visual styles. Too often these days, comics feel disposable, written for the trade or for the Hollywood pitch meeting — we know it’s a crowded marketplace out there, and so we wanted to tell a story that really felt satisfying on an issue-to-issue basis.
With that thought in mind, I wanted to do something that played off a preexisting children’s property, to give it a more adult spin — and I remember seeing a remixed Calvin and Hobbes strip that had Calvin go on medication, turning Hobbes back into a lifeless doll. That thought really got me thinking about what kind of upbringing Calvin must have had to have to imagine his best friend so vividly — and as a diehard fan of classic Frank Miller, the idea of transplanting this obviously troubled kid into the world of crime noir was irresistible.
AiPT!: Jorge Santiago, Jr. really nails a gritty version of Calvin and Hobbes. How did you guys start the collaboration on this project?
Pepose: Jorge really is something, isn’t he? I’m so fortunate to have him as my artist and co-creator on Spencer & Locke — he’s just got this amazing versatility and thoughtfulness to his pages, and his characters just radiate emotion and energy. I found Jorge’s work online after hearing about Justin Jordan met Tradd Moore for The Strange Talent of Luther Strode — with Tradd and Jorge both being graduates of the Savannah College of Art and Design, I knew their Sequential Art program clearly yielded some top-shelf talent.
But when I saw Jorge’s portfolio, where he said he created comics with “stupid amounts of passion,” I knew he was the right guy to work with on this project — ultimately, making comics can be an uphill battle, and so having someone with passion and tenacity and a deep well of storytelling knowledge really played well with my own drive and creative instincts. Along with our ace colorist Jasen Smith, Jorge and I would often go back and forth on many of our pages, constantly thinking of new ways to heighten the energy for the book. Honestly, looking at the pages we’ve turned in, I really think our story is even more than the sum of our parts.
AiPT!: As an editor and reviewer at Newsarama, how did you go from digital press to comic reviewer? Any advice for anyone interested in making a jump?
Pepose: Comics journalism, in a lot of ways, was the perfect grad school preparation for getting me ready to make a comic of my own — by reading and analyzing comics every single day for years, I was cultivating my own aesthetic and voice as a creator, because I was able to articulate what I did and didn’t like about comics coming out elsewhere in the industry.
But the best bit of advice I’d give an aspiring creator is to the take the “aspiring” out of it — while it’s great to learn about writing and to absorb any advice that resonates with you, after awhile, you have to get out of the theoretical and start producing. Spencer & Locke is my first published work, but it’s definitely not my first script — I have folders and folders of short stories, screenplays, and pitches that’ll never see the light of day. But like any workout, once you develop those storytelling muscles, you’ll be able to sustain longer and better work.
AiPT!: We recently hosted a roundtable about criticism and as a fellow comic reviewer, I was curious if you had an opinion on comic book criticism. Do you think it’s important?
Pepose: For sure — I’ll add that comics criticism is something worth doing, but only if it’s something that’s done right. Comics criticism, when done well, can be incisive, thoughtful and entertaining, and can foster discussion and growth of our industry in both a trend-based macro level and a more micro level in terms of an issue-to-issue, execution-based standpoint. I’m a big believer in “tough but fair” — you don’t go into it with an axe to grind or a favor to curry. I think most creators can respect that approach — and sometimes even listen to it!
And while I do think that publishers do listen to critics in terms of their concerns — you can look to DC Rebirth as one example — I think it’s even more important for critics not just to stand up to perceived “wrongs” by publishers, but to also champion the next generation of up-and-coming talent. I was really fortunate to be able to review early work by artists like David Marquez, Declan Shalvey and Giuseppe Camuncoli — and watching these creators rise up the ranks thanks to positive word of mouth shows that there’s plenty of good critics can do.
AiPT!: Is there a part of the comic creating process you love the best? And a part you don’t like?
Pepose: Oh man, that’s such a great question. For me personally, my favorite bits of comics creation are getting inside a character’s head — I always try to think of the moments that will get readers rooting for my characters, or the moments that will get readers feeling weepy over them. Writing stories, for me, is more of a marathon than a sprint, so if I can’t think of a few moments that make me want to stick around with this character, I’m doing something wrong.
The part that can be the worst is the days that you’re writing, and you know it’s total crap. There are plenty of times where I write stuff, and it’s 100 percent terrible and unusable. And worst of all, I know it. But the trick I’ve learned is to understand that some days, the law of averages isn’t with you. That sometimes your work is going to be garbage — but that doesn’t mean you stop working. Writers, by definition, write. It doesn’t mean you have to use all of it! Sometimes your job is just to churn through the crap until you can get to the gold underneath.
AiPT!: What’s your favorite method of procrastination?
Pepose: Honestly? Probably writing! But when my batteries are drained, I find watching a good movie is oftentimes a lifesaver. When I want to turn my brain off completely, though, video games are my procrastination of choice. Thankfully, my tastes are pretty narrow when it comes to gaming, so unless it’s a customizable RPG like Skyrim or Fallout or something really story-based like Life is Strange or Until Dawn, I burn through my games pretty quickly. But honestly, I grew up on a steady diet of guilt and extracurriculars, so if I’m not working, I tend to get restless quickly. Clearly it means I have to keep doing this comics thing forever!