The O.Z. #1 hit Kickstarter like that twister hit the Gale farmstead, and David Pepose followed it up with the remarkable Scout’s Honor. In the midst of running the Kickstarter campaign for The O.Z. #2, David returned to Comic Book Yeti to talk about his recent comics and what the Yellow Brick Road Warriors can expect from The O.Z. #2.
COMIC BOOK YETI: David, thank you so much for joining me in the Yeti Cave. I think this might be your 5th interview with Comic Book Yeti. We should probably get you some CBY stickers or a CBY t-shirt. I encourage everyone reading this to go back and read all of those other interviews as they’re great, but we’re going to cover some new ground here, specifically The O.Z., and the campaign for issue #2, which launched on Kickstarter on August 16th. Before that though, I wanted to dive into your background a bit. I’m interested in your comic book origin story. Were you always a comic book reader and, if so, what books/characters did you gravitate towards? Did you read comic books consistently throughout your life or did you step away at times and then get back into it?
DAVID PEPOSE: Yep, I’ve been a comics fan for as long as I can remember. My first issue was Amazing Spider-Man #346, the issue before Spider-Man and Venom go to the island — and I remember Infinity War #2 blowing my mind as a kid, as I realized all these characters were in the same world and knew each other. The artwork and the mythology and the characterization really just swept me up and never let go.
But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve deepened my appreciation for comics in waves — books like Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, Spawn, Crimson, Knightfall, Death and Return of Superman, Kingdom Come, Batman: Gotham Knights, JLA, Civil War, New X-Men, Y: The Last Man and Afterlife with Archie have all been important books that have really informed my own sensibilities over the years.
CBY: I read that you attended Brandeis and studied American history, creative writing, and theatre. What was it that drew you to study theatre? Was it a particular play or playwright, did you want to write your own plays, or were you a performer?
DP: I grew up in the Midwest, and so I think film (not to mention comics) seemed about as likely for me as walking on the moon. Theater was sort of the closest outlet I had for storytelling and narrative, and it felt tactile and achievable in a way that even writing prose didn’t. When I was in high school, I wrote and directed a short play about fairy tale noir — I was deeply inspired by Fables at the time. But seeing the response we got to that play, and the kinds of performances we got out of a crew of high school actors, I felt incredibly encouraged and empowered.
"That’s really been my secret all along — I just try to find artists who are talented and hungry, and try to matchmake the best pairings I can."
By the time I made it to college, I flirted with the idea of performing, but quickly switched gears to directing a couple of plays: The Shape of Things by Neil LaBute and I Hate Hamlet by Paul Rudnick. Looking back at it, I think both of those productions really helped build my confidence as a storyteller — knowing that even though I didn’t necessarily have the experience or the knowledge base behind me, my creative instincts were still good, and that I could connect to an audience. And I think even the subject matter of those plays really informed my own work: unorthodox friendships that can make you laugh, keep you on your toes, and then knock you off your feet with an emotional haymaker.
CBY: Early in your career, you were a reporter for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. I’ve read that you’ve said working for a newspaper helped prepare you for being a comic book writer and I was hoping you could expound on that, specifically which skills did you develop that have helped you?
DP: For sure — being a reporter really helped me learn how to think on my feet, and not be intimidated by a word count or a deadline. I think it also taught me how to write modularly — as your story built itself up, you’d have to shift sections around and rework the transitions and context behind them, and I do the same thing with various scenes in my scripts today.
It even helped me figure out how to approach sequels — you only get a certain inch count in the print edition of the paper, but you could add more copy online. For me, it helps me determine what elements of a story I have to include in a series, but also to think about how else I could build up a narrative if I ever got a chance to add more to the mix.
CBY: First off, the campaign for The O.Z. #1 had over 1200 backers, congratulations! What do you think it was about this story that resonated with readers?
DP: Honestly, I think it was our creative team — working with an artist like Ruben Rojas, a colorist like Whitney Cogar, a letterer like DC Hopkins, and our murderer’s row of variant cover talent, it’s just impossible to ignore the talent on display. That’s really been my secret all along — I just try to find artists who are talented and hungry, and try to matchmake the best pairings I can. You know the magic on the page when you see it — and it makes my job as both a writer and a promoter for the book a million times easier.
CBY: This was your first Kickstarter campaign. When you first conceived of this story and began working on it, was it always your plan to go to Kickstarter or had you thought to pitch it to a publisher? What factors do you consider now when deciding whether to pitch a project or self-publish and when you do decide to pitch, with so many new publishers in recent years, how do you decide which one to pitch it to?
DP: The O.Z. going to Kickstarter was my way of solving one problem with another. On the one hand, I’d been thinking about doing Kickstarter for a long time, thanks to friends like White Ash’s Charlie Stickney, The Jump’s Rylend Grant, Russell Nohelty of Cthulhu is Hard to Spell, Destiny NY creator Pat Shand, and more.
"I tend to gravitate towards trauma in my work, and it’s something I think about a lot. We all have some sort of trauma in our pasts, and I think those help define and shape who we become — there’s something inherently cathartic and optimistic about seeing these fictional characters overcome or learn to live with their tragedies, and I think if we see them do it, we have a little bit of hope that we can, too."
Charlie, in particular, really instilled in me that the Kickstarter community is fairly distinct from the Direct Market Wednesday Warriors and, as such, was a readership I’d never done any outreach to before. Meanwhile, we’d been talking with publishers about finding a potential home for The O.Z., but the timing was never right. But when the pandemic hit and Diamond had its shutdown, I realized I had the answer to both my problems right in front of me: I could introduce myself to the Kickstarter community with my absolute A-game with The O.Z.
CBY: I loved The O.Z. #1. I thought it was such a fascinating direction to take a classic story like The Wizard of OZ. Once you have an idea for something like The O.Z., what’s your approach to build that story, specifically regarding research? Did you go back and read The Wizard of OZ or any of the other L. Frank Baum books? Did you research military tactics or particular modern warfare accounts?
DP: I’d read a number of the L. Frank Baum Oz novels in college for my Adolescent Literature class — I wrote a term paper comparing Baum’s use of universe-building and continuity with what Stan and Jack did with Marvel in the ‘60s — so I had a decent amount of knowledge to draw upon. But as far as military background, I spoke with a few Army friends of mine to get some perspective on the story as it was being developed — and I’d interviewed a number of returning veterans during my time as a newspaper reporter, which helped inform the process.
CBY: Similarly, with Scout’s Honor, although it takes place in a devastated America, were there aspects of the Scouts or other topics you had to research for that story?
DP: Yes, I did a lot of research into the Boy Scouts and their history for that series. I read a lot about the founding of the Scouts (particularly their roots in England), the history of Robert Baden-Powell and W.D. Boyce, the Unknown Scout, and all the interesting mythology that entails.
I also read the latest Boy Scout manual as far as learning about what merit badges were being used for today’s Scout troops, and really dug into Baden-Powell’s original 12 Scout Laws, which of course became the Seven Laws of Doctor Jefferson Hancock. But really, a lot of the story was just reflecting the headlines, particularly with the sex abuse scandals of the Catholic Church and the real-life Boy Scouts — those really influenced the book in a big way.
CBY: One of the issues that your Dorothy Gale is dealing with in issue #1, whether she recognizes it as such, is PTSD from her time at war. How early in the development process did you know that was going to be an element of the story? I think you handled the topic really well in the writing. How important was it to you to get that aspect of her story right so that it felt like an authentic, not sensational, experience?
DP: Thank you so much — I tend to gravitate towards trauma in my work, and it’s something I think about a lot. We all have some sort of trauma in our pasts, and I think those help define and shape who we become — there’s something inherently cathartic and optimistic about seeing these fictional characters overcome or learn to live with their tragedies, and I think if we see them do it, we have a little bit of hope that we can, too.
But,sa in particular for The O.Z., I drew upon a lot of interviews I did with returning veterans back in my newspaper days — particularly talking about PTSD and traumatic brain injury, as well as the feelings of isolation, alienation and anxiety a lot of returning servicemen felt coming back to the Berkshires after their time overseas. Ultimately, though, my biggest objective is to just treat real-life trauma with compassion and empathy, which means not punching down — if you treat your characters with respect, you’re really extending the same to your readers.
CBY: In issue #1, we meet the Tin Man and the Scarecrow, characters that I would think most people know from the movie or other media. I appreciated the militarized character designs given the nature of the story. Was the look of these iconic characters something you and artist Ruben Rojas agonized over or did you settle on the look fairly quickly?
DP: Ruben is such a gifted character designer that he nailed the designs for almost every character in the book on the first or second try. I think the biggest transformation was the Tin Soldier, and even that came from one note to Ruben: “He’s not wearing armor — he is the armor.” I think that clicked with Ruben immediately, and the Tin Soldier on the Issue #1 cover is the first time Ruben had ever drawn the character. It immediately spoke to me — he’s just so incredibly talented.
CBY: I appreciated how the story unfolded, and enjoyed the transition from chapter 1 to chapter 2. When you were breaking the story for The O.Z., what considerations went into the formatting of it, meaning the oversized issues and 2 chapters per issue?
DP: I’d originally written The O.Z. as six standard-sized chapters, but when I made the decision to publish on Kickstarter, I immediately realized that these issues all paired together nicely. Having the books be double-sized not only gives readers more bang for their buck, but it lets the action get a little more decompressed while allowing the actual scale of the issue to feel weighty. But also logistically, the idea of having three Kickstarters versus six meant it’d be easier for readers to keep up — and hopefully prevent me from having a nervous breakdown by trying to do six fulfillment campaigns. (Laughs)
CBY: When creating/writing your characters, and I’m curious about Dorothy Gale and Kit in Scout’s Honor, do you ever base them on people you know, are they an amalgamation of people, or invented whole cloth?
DP: I think I draw certain elements of my characters from my personality — every once in awhile, I’ll get inspiration from a particular actor or pop culture character, if their voice or high concept really sticks out to me. Beyond that, it’s just seeing how certain lines and beats read on a page, and trying to be as cool as I can! (Laughs)
CBY: Have you drawn on any real life events/personal experiences when writing The O.Z.?
DP: Believe it or not, Toto — my family’s had cairn terriers since before I was born, and I’d written Toto’s role around the time we adopted my parents’ dog Holly. We got pages of Toto’s introduction in The O.Z. #1 just after Holly passed, but I rewrote a lot of Toto’s arc in this series with her spirit in mind.
CBY: Thank you for sending the preview pages for issue #2. They look great! I don’t want to give anything away, so what can backers expect from The O.Z. #2 and are there any particularly exciting backer rewards you are offering this time around?
DP: Sure — not only will we have digital and print catchup tiers for anyone who missed our first campaign, but we’ll also be offering exclusive Kickstarter rewards including original commissions from Ruben, getting drawn into the book, a handmade Spencer & Locke plushie, as well as three never-before-released complete sets of Ranger Scout merit badges. Given that some of these badges will likely never be released to the public, this’ll be the only way to get all 14.
CBY: As you gear up for this second Kickstarter campaign, is there anything you are doing differently this time that you learned from the first campaign and overall how would you describe the experience of running a Kickstarter campaign?
DP: I think the biggest thing I learned from our last Kickstarter was to be ready for success just as much as failure. I’d been thinking of how to raise $6,000 in 30 days — but I was massively unprepared for getting funded in two hours. This time I’ve had a year to prepare, so if we’re lucky enough to get to that point, we have a number of cool stretch goal ideas planned.
CBY: I want to talk a little about Scout’s Honor, which ended with issue #5 in May. I believe I saw that the collected edition will be in comic book shops on September 8, 2021?
DP: Yep! I’m very excited for that trade to come out — it’s been a long time coming. I think just about two years to the day after I first pitched it! Time flies.
CBY: It was an exciting journey following Kit that felt deeply emotional and personal, but it was also an action-packed story. Was there anything you had hoped to accomplish with that story and, if so, did you do it? Was the reader response what you expected?
DP: Honestly, I was completely blown away by the response to Scout’s Honor. You never really know how a book is going to be received by the readership, and with Scout’s Honor we were taking a bit of a counterintuitive spin on the usual post-apocalyptic fare, especially given that we tackle so much about gender and sexual identity in this series.
Ultimately, my goal was to not just present Kit and Dez as humanely and compassionately as we could — which I think is important, since this series seems to have resonated a lot with women readers and members of the LGBTQ community — but to also explore my own political and spiritual awakenings over the years. The fact that people seemed to resonate with a journey that I had thought felt so personal to me was really a heartening experience. Perhaps there’s more commonality out there than we realize — perhaps we’re not as alone as we think.
CBY: Do you ever think you will return to that world to tell more stories about Kit?
DP: I always write my stories with extra ideas in my back pocket, so while we don’t have plans for sequels at this moment, I’ll never say never. I’m a big fan of Kit and Dez, and I think there are some fun angles to explore for both of them.
CBY: Who are your biggest influences as a writer?
DP: Devin Grayson is a big influence on me, for her work with Roger Robinson on Batman: Gotham Knights. Roberto Aquirre-Sacasa basically put me on the path to writing comics with Afterlife with Archie. JMS and Dan Slott did some terrific work on Amazing Spider-Man that’s inspired me to really bring my A-game with characterization. But ultimately, the influences I pick up are from any comic or film I enjoy — at this point, it’s instinctive for me to analyze the work and see if there’s any tools from their toolbox that I’d like to incorporate.
CBY: If you were the curator for a comics museum, which 3 books do you want to make absolutely sure are included?
DP: Something about this question feels vaguely post-apocalyptic to me — I’m assuming I’m saving the last three comics for future civilizations? In that case, I’d probably pick… Watchmen, Sandman, and Maus. But if we’re talking about comics that were representative of my personal absolute favorites from seminal moments in my life… today I’ll say Kingdom Come, Civil War, and Y: The Last Man. But honestly, that list could change any day of the week.
CBY: You’ve been in the comic book industry for several years now as a creator and before that working for Newsarama and an intern at DC Comics, so I’d say you have a unique perspective. What do you think about creators like Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Chip Zdarsky, and others moving to Substack? It seems beneficial to creators, certainly, but is the industry moving toward this model of content delivery and away from the Direct Market? Do you think this will ultimately be successful and the industry will see less “high profile” creators move to Substack?
DP: Ultimately, anything I say is purely conjecture, because Substack is looking for established creators with pre-built fanbases, so there’s not a ton of demand for newer indie writers unless I wind up writing a flagship Big Two series for a few years. But there’s a lot to take in with the Substack announcement in terms of the logistics and timetable of everything, not to mention the economics — it ultimately shares more in common with Patreon than Kickstarter, but Patreons are a lot of work, perhaps more than some realize. Backers are going to expect a lot of bang for their buck for a monthly subscription, and at a fairly regular frequency.
In the end, I really like a lot of the creators involved — I think there’s a lot to learn from Scott Snyder and James Tynion’s newsletters from a process perspective — but I think ultimately time will tell what the staying power of these comics will be, in addition to the ethical ramifications of partnering with Substack, which has a bit of a checkered past when it comes to platforming bad actors. If these creators can pave the way for other pros to make a living — and to do so in a way that doesn’t exploit or completely burn anyone out, or doesn’t help monetize and legitimize bad actors elsewhere on the site — that could be a good thing.
CBY: Is there anything else you have coming up in the future that CBY readers should be on the lookout for?
DP: Stay tuned, because I’ve been working on some big swings that I can’t quite talk about just yet — not to mention my upcoming series Spencer & Locke 3 and Grand Theft Astro, both of which are coming along nicely!
CBY: Where can you be found online?
CBY: Final question, I know that your younger siblings are triplets. My brother has 4 kids. His daughter is the oldest and the other 3 are identical triplet boys. I feel sometimes his daughter, even at 9 years old, feels like she needs a break. Being raised in a similar household, any advice you have that I can pass along to my brother, especially as it relates to his daughter?
DP: Make sure you tell your oldest that they’re special, and really reinforce that they’re the leader of the pack. It can be easy to feel lost in the shuffle, but as long as you know your parents still love you, finding a little bit of extra space from all the chaos can give an older sibling a lot of room to grow into themselves.
CBY: David, thank you so for much for chatting with me and I can’t wait for The O.Z. #2.
DP: Thanks so much for having me, and we hope to see all your readers join us as Yellow Brick Road Warriors!