Campaigns & Creative Calculus: An Interview with David Pepose of "The O.Z."

David Pepose, talented creator of "Spencer & Locke," recently spent some time with us to talk about his successful Kickstarter campaign for "The O.Z." We also dig into story process, inspiration and the stellar creative teams he works with to bring ideas to life across many different genres.

You can check out “The O.Z.” on Kickstarter through September 16th, and follow David, Ruben, Whitney and DC for more!

The O.Z. cover
Cover by Ruben Rojas

CHRISTA HARADER: David, thanks so much for your time today. How are you doing?

DAVID PEPOSE: It’s been the most surreal week I’ve had in comics probably ever. It’s a wonderful thing. I’m so blown away and so grateful by the response to our campaign. You hope for the best – I’m a pessimist at heart, so I always prepare for the worst. I’ve described this campaign as going to pick up a sandwich and winding up on the moon.

You have back-up plans, and back-ups to the back-up plans, but there’s no back-up that goes to this level of overshooting. I feel like I’m not just playing a new ballgame, but I’m learning a new sport on the fly. A lot of the calculus that I’ve had to go through since the first few days of the campaign has to do with wanting to keep building a readership. That’s the whole reason for doing a Kickstarter in the first place, to do outreach to whole demographic I haven’t contacted before.

At the same time, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was going for a cash grab. So, how can we add more value to the book itself? How can we increase add-ons that work within our shipping plans? And, how can we add more rewards that we can distribute digitally? I feel we’re hitting a pretty nice balance with that so far. We’ve got a bunch of really cool stretch rewards, and we just hit our first stretch goal this morning.

CH: Congratulations!

DP: Thank you! We’ve got a digital comics extravaganza that we’ll send to every single backer that includes over a dozen amazing indie creators. And, I’m so honored to say this, that includes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles creator Kevin Eastman.

CH: Oh that’s fantastic, he’s great.

DP: He’s so graciously agreed to give us the first issue of his [& David Avallone’s] meta-dramedy “Drawing Blood: Spilled Ink.”

As someone who grew up with & sees the Turtles as a huge influence on my work, you know, they were the original comics remix. That’s how I see my work, and to have that, it’s sort of like a bucket list item I never knew I had. I’ve been saying, you know, if I could only tell my 7-year-old self this, he’d probably faint.

CH: Yeah, and then wake up and faint again.

DP: Exactly [laughs.] I remember when I was a kid, my father was invited to a conference in Israel before my younger siblings were born. And I was such a Turtles die-hard that every place we went, I looked for something Turtles-related. I distinctly remember finding a bunch of TMNT books on tape, but they weren’t allowed to use the word “Ninja,” so they had to call them the Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles [laughs.]

CH: Localization peccadillos are always interesting when you find them in the wild. How are you feeling about your campaign?

DP: I’m feeling very proud! We have some other things that’ll go up, like a Kira Okamoto print. Kira has been a big fan of “Spencer & Locke,” and I was able to reach out to them and was so excited, it worked out really well.

The fun part about Kickstarter is that you’re limited only by your imagination and very specific constraints. Similar to making comics, it’s about how many pages you have, and how many panels you can fit into those pages, and how many balloons you can fit, and if you really want to get into the nitty gritty of it, how many words you can fit in those balloons so it doesn’t look like a dense block of text. Kickstarter, it’s all based on what you can imagine, and what fits into your shipping. I work well with those constraints, and I like trying to solve that Rubik’s cube. It’s been a real rollercoaster ride trying to learn all those rules on the fly.

The fun part about Kickstarter is that you’re limited only by your imagination and very specific constraints.

CH: You’re really good at the marketing side of comics, and coming up with all of the things comics fans dream of seeing in a campaign. Congratulations!

DP: I wish I could take credit for a lot of it. It was like lightning in a bottle. We lauched the campaign at the perfect moment. Talking about different laws of physics in the Kickstarter realm, we came out the same day as Scott Snyder and Tony Daniel dropping “Nocturnal.” In the direct market, that’d be considered a killshot. There’s a limited amount of retailer space and attention, and they’ve got bills to pay. If they have to choose between a new book from the writer of “Batman” or the writer of “Spencer & Locke,” they’re going to pick the writer of “Batman.” And if they didn’t, I’d say they should have their heads examined [laughs.]

Kickstarter, on the other hand, is more of a “rising tide floats all boats” situation. Scott and I were actually speaking the night before launch, and what was so great is that Scott brought so many people to the platform that day. Kickstarter’s ecosystem is so smart that if you back a project, they’ll recommend other, similar projects. They want to keep you there, because every project you back, they get their cut. You can’t buy that kind of publicity, or at least I can’t afford that kind of publicity. That really put the wind at our backs in a big way. If you’ve ever played Mario Kart, you get in the slipstream of the guy in front of you and you go a little faster. We were that guy.

It was that, and by virtue of the team that I’m working with: artist Ruben Rojas, colorist Whitney Cogar, letterer DC Hopkins and our great cover artists. That’s my secret as a creator: I work with teams that are so unimpeachably good that no one cares about my writing [laughs.] It’s really freeing knowing that even if someone doesn’t like the book, they’re going to begrudgingly say that they like the art.

CH: That’s a good strategy [laughs.]

DP: I think when people saw the team, it struck them. We’ve talked about this before – my big watchword is accessibility. I’m a third-generation comics fan, my mother and grandfather were both comics readers, but my partner isn’t. She’s a voracious fiction reader and a magazine editor, but she wouldn’t know your Clone Saga from your Age of Apocalypse. I started my writing career as a way to impress her.

CH: Tell me more about that!

DP: We were living in New York at the time. We met via online dating, and happened to realize we were from the same hometown. When I met her, I had the itch in the back of my head for my first screenplay idea. I think it was our fourth or fifth date, I mentioned it to her over dinner, and she was genuinely excited to hear about it. It’s one of those things that when you’re dating someone at first, you kind of puff yourself up a little bit. So when she was excited about the idea, I thought “Oh, I guess I’d better do it!”

I had so much working on it and bouncing ideas off of her as a civilian, as someone who’s not steeped in all this lore. I always say that she keeps me grounded and my stories human and universal. I love comics, don’t get me wrong – I love Kirby and Morrison as much as the next guy – but sometimes our industry has a tendency to go so esoteric that we preach to the choir instead of getting converts. I want to get converts.

CH: That’s very interesting, yeah. Dead on.

DP: I call it the “grandma rule,” if I can explain it to a grandparent and they say anything other than, “That’s interesting.” That’s why I feel I’ve had success on the convention scene, and I hope they come back when it’s safe. I have people tell me that they don’t read comics or they’re lapsed readers since they were kids, and I tell them that they’re our target audience. I want this to be their first comic. You don’t need anything other than cultural osmosis. If you like “Calvin & Hobbes”, you’re going to love “Spencer & Locke.” If you’ve ever read The Wizard of Oz, you’re going to love “The O.Z.” And even books like “Going to the Chapel,” you know, have you ever been to a wedding? Have you ever been in love? Have you ever had a dysfunctional family?

If the answer is no, the dysfunctional person might be you.

CH: Yeah, you might be the problem [laughs.]

DP: That’s sort of my North Star. What’s the universal emotional appeal here? Sometimes that hits at the jump, and sometimes I have to go through a bit of the writing first so it all makes sense. For me, boiling down the art of storytelling, it’s the art of making strangers give a damn.

If you’re a creator, you’re going to love whatever you do because it’s your baby. You feel that connection to it by virtue of how much work you’ve put into it. But strangers, on the other hand – you see this in our relationship to entertainment today. You respect the work that creators put in, and Lord knows I do, I’ve done it enough times, but come on. We’ve all watched a T.V. show and immediately said, “Oh, this is crap,” and turned it off.

You talk about Dr. Manhattan’s monologue in “The Watchmen,” that’s basically how hard it is to get anything made, ever. We are hardwired to not have empathy for the hard work that goes into something. It’s really if it hits us or not.

CH: And the window for hitting us is so much smaller than it used to be, especially in comics. If you don’t grab someone on the first page, now, it’s brutal.

DP: Exactly. It’s hard. There’s a lot of stuff competing for your attention. It’s not like it was in the ‘60s, when comics were king. You’ve got your phone, Twitter, your laptop, videogames. So, what’s that emotional moment?

I say this with literally no shame – I love This is Us. Sad triplets get me every time [laughs.] I might resonate with that show more because my younger siblings are triplets, but they plot their show based on emotional beats. What’s going to make you shed a tear, what’s going to make you root for these characters. When I’m first plotting out the story and the characters I always think about how I’m going to make you cry. And the next thing I ask myself is how I’m going to make you laugh, and then how I’m going to make you cheer.

When I was a kid and thought about writing, I was so backwards about it that I didn’t write for a long time. I thought all the action sequences were so cool, but that’s not scaffolding for anything. You can figure out a cool couple of set-pieces and that’s great, they punch things up.

CH: It’s the icing, you know?

DP: Exactly. If you’re eating a cake, you don’t want a whole thing of icing. You will get tired of that very quickly. You want the cake.

If I can find something about the characters that engages me enough to do this marathon of writing a whole series, that’s the thing I key into. I don’t do it fast, and it’s exhausting. There are some people who come up with their themes well in advance, and that’s not really ever been my style. I always think about the emotional journey, the characters’ fatal flaw, but the themes pop up as you go. I definitely don’t subscribe to the practice of getting theory down before you start working your story.

CH: You can always tell.

DP: You get a good concept going and you figure out who’s in the middle of it, and what you want to say about them. Sometimes that uncovers itself.

When I’m first plotting out the story and the characters I always think about how I’m going to make you cry. And the next thing I ask is how I’m going to make you laugh, and then how I’m going to make you cheer.

CH: It’s interesting you mention that, because in “Spencer & Locke” there’s a lot of conceptual, cool stuff you do in that book. It’s all about their relationship, and it’s so key not just because of the inspiration, but because without that, you have no story.

DP: For me, the thing about that book is that someone who was in such a harrowing situation growing up that his only escape was to invent his own best friend so he wasn’t alone, that is both the height of bleakness and human optimism. It’s funny, there are some people who grew up with their siblings their whole lives. My siblings and I have an almost 9-year age gap. It was just me, and then suddenly it was all three of them.

And I love my parents, but they had very high expectations of me. You can feel sometimes like it’s you against the world, in some sense. I found solace in my friends. I’m still very close with some of my childhood friends, I see their family as my extended family. That was my refuge from a very high-achieving upbringing. I love my mother, but one of her phrases was “We’re going to make your highs high and your lows acceptable.” It was a bit of a bootcamp upbringing, but having my friends was that pressure valve. That got me through the stress.

The idea of friendship being your salvation, I’ve carried that for as long as I can remember. I read “Calvin & Hobbes” as a kid and I remember thinking “That’s weird, why doesn’t he just get real friends?” I could never make up an imaginary friend like that, that I could have conversation with. When you revisit that comic as an adult, all of a sudden you think that maybe that’s a symptom of a deeper pathology and not quite as charming as we thought.

CH: A trauma response.

DP: Yeah. One of my favorite movies was Memento. Someone who’s neurodivergent having to leverage and use that to navigate the world really struck me. I wanted to tell a story like that.

When I decided to take the plunge and write my first comic - and when I say take the plunge, I mean I dipped my toe in a little, then a little more, and then I found myself in the pool - it was a series of incremental dares to myself. And then, suddenly, I was there.

Taking a story of someone who has this trauma and scars and this condition, really, and finding a way to navigate the world using that – I thought that was really cool, and something that spoke to me in a big way. The best responses we’ve gotten to this book are from people who’ve grown up in toxic or abusive situations, or who’re neurodivergent, and who’ve said that this book means something to them.

I love press, I love reviews, but that’s the good stuff.

CH: Definitely. There’s the pull quote fodder, and then there’s the connective tissue of why we do what we do. They’re very different.

DP: And it’s easy to forget. The comics industry, particularly the direct market, fosters this sense of competition. It’s the lizard brain side of you that can be quite irrational, that makes you think oh, this person got this big book deal at this big publisher. And maybe it’s a licensed character, maybe it’s someone you don’t even like! It’s a bad trend in the industry, and it’s one we all have to train ourselves to try and squash.

CH: For the “The O.Z.,” what attracted you to L. Frank Baum in particular? It kind of seems like a carefree, strange fantasy series when you’re young, but when you get older you realize how terrifying that universe is. Tell me a little about what that story process has been like for you.

DP: It’s funny, because I’ve had people ask me why we're doing The Wizard of Oz. It’s kind of the opposite, the chicken came before the egg. I’ve been working on this book for a long time. “The O.Z.” was one of three story concepts I worked on after “Spencer & Locke.” In retrospect, I didn’t know if I was going to be allowed to do another comic. When you have a book that’s “What if ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ grew up in ‘Sin City?’” you either succeed or fail, and you do it loudly. That was part of the reason why we got a lot of the success we did. There were a lot of people watching to see if this was going to fail, and when we stuck the landing, they were like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe they did it!”

CH: I knew you were gonna do it!

DP: I appreciate that. There were times we pushed the envelope, and I felt we were on the right track, but once it’s out of your hands, the readers decide that. The first couple of issues, I’d wake up in a cold sweat before the book came out. Is this where the audience turns on us? Thankfully, that didn’t happen. I knew there’d be a ratio of people who got what we were doing and loved it, and people who hated it just for existing. I didn’t know what it would be, but thankfully, 99% of people were in our favor. I won’t begrudge the 1% that didn’t like it – that’s their prerogative.

I finished the book and as the dust settled, I came up with three ideas. One of them was “Spencer & Locke 2,” which I came up with when we pitched the original. Another was “Going to the Chapel.” As the world’s worst best man at my best friend’s wedding, that idea sparked pretty quickly. And then, “The O.Z.”

What I love about comics is that you’re not married to one genre. You can do a whole bunch of different things. So, I’d done crime, I’d done something in the realm of a rom-com, I was working on “Spencer & Locke 2” with a bit of a military element. Fantasy and sci-fi were a big swing from these. I’ve written a sci-fi book since then, but it’s really hard. There’s a lot of hard rules that follow your concept, and that’s challenging for me. Whereas fantasy, there’s so much metaphor and character that go into everything, and that’s speaking my language. I’ve always said that if I did a licensed book I’d want it to be "Shazam" or "Doctor Strange." When you do one like that, you don’t have to worry if Iron Man can survive the G forces in his suit, like Jed Mackay just did so brilliantly in “Black Cat.” For me, it’s more that you can work your magic, but if you let your fears and doubts come over you, the magic will fail. There’s a lot of cool character-driven stuff like that in fantasy.

The idea of friendship being your salvation, I’ve carried that for as long as I can remember. I read “Calvin & Hobbes” as a kid and I remember thinking “That’s weird, why doesn’t he just get real friends?” I could never make up an imaginary friend like that, that I could have conversation with. When you revisit that comic as an adult, all of a sudden you think that maybe that’s a symptom of a deeper pathology and not quite as charming as we thought.

I opened up a document and I was writing down different fantasy inspirations. As I saw the cursor flashing on the word “OZ,” it struck me. It’s short, it’s iconic. What if it was an acronym, like D.M.Z? And then it hit men, it’s the Occupied Zone. And then the image came, and Ruben Rojas channeled this scarily well, of Dorothy as this disillusioned soldier looking at us. And behind here there’s this Tin Soldier who’s been destroyed and rebuilt with different materials so many times that he’s turned into this towering, war-machine freedom fighter. The image haunted me.

I find for my process that I’m coming up with ideas all the time. I can’t say they’re good ideas, and fortunately I have a brain trust of people whose judgment I respect and who I know like me as a person enough that they’ll engage me on my ideas and not call me an idiot for voicing them. I’m always bombarding them with ideas and they’ll say I just invented Inception, or some other reference, but sometimes they’ll say it’s a cool idea. And I let it percolate. If I can still remember an idea in a month and I still feel good about it, then I know it has legs.

CH: That’s a wise way to work.

DP: With “The O.Z.,” the ideas were just pouring out of me. I think I wrote my outline in two or three weeks, which is something I haven’t done since the first volume of “Spencer & Locke.” I fell in love with the concept. I’m a big believer in not writing things for shock value’s sake. It’s the laziest, most self-destructive way to write. You can get attention for it, but it’s like looking at a car accident – people will look at it once, but there’s no coming back for seconds. There’s no emotional engagement, and no investment with your readers.

I’ve always felt that first off, you have to build up your characters, but you also have to justify things narratively. We’ve all seen The Wizard of Oz, and at the end she clicks her heels three times and goes home. That’s what stopped me. The film and the novels wrap it up with a fairly neat little bow, and yet, as someone who came of age during the invasion of Iraq, that’s not how the real world works.

CH: Not at all.

DP: And that’s what made me think that there’s something here. When Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch of the West, she inadvertently sent Oz spiraling into this political power vacuum that’d send the country careening into years of brutal civil war. And that’s where we pick up. It’s a generation later. Dorothy’s granddaughter, named after her, is a disillusioned Iraq war veteran. She’s come back from her time overseas with real trauma and real guilt and anguish. She comes home to Kansas to take care of her ailing grandmother and to try and put the pieces of her life back together, and sometimes history rhymes. In this case, Dorothy is swept up by a tornado and finds herself dropped into the war-torn land of Oz. She’s going to have to confront her past and her grandmother’s legacy while navigating her grandmother’s friends, The Tin Soldier, the Scarecrow, the Lion, if she ever hopes to survive the O.Z.

I’m always trying to stretch different muscle groups as a writer – every time I write a new book, my bucket list seems to grow, not shrink. This was a way to explore the themes I like to write about. I like exploring trauma. All my work is rooted in trauma shaping us, and if we can overcome it. “The O.Z.” takes it to the next level. Dorothy’s grappling with her own trauma, and the burdens of leadership. By virtue of who her grandmother is, she’s been thrust into this position that she’s not comfortable with. As a soldier, she’s already seen that the training that it takes to win a fight doesn’t always apply to being a leader and establishing a lasting peace. She’s really struggling with the ethics and morality of war. How can you make a just decision when every choice you make can wind up with someone dead?

CH: Like dropping a house on somebody, maybe?

DP: Yeah, or bystanders or even your enemies walking into the crossfire. She’s already been through this once, and survived a war that’s left her feeling so disillusioned and guilty, and asking what it was all for. And that’s the double edge of "The O.Z." for her. On the one hand, it’s dredging up some of the worst memories she’s ever lived through, and we’ll be exploring those as the series goes on. But, on the other, she sees this as a second chance to make things right. What she’s already seen and survived and experienced means that now she might be able to make a different choice. That really inspires me.

CH: It’s powerful.

DP: People often look at my work and categorize it as these bleak re-imaginings of childhood nostalgia, and my thought is that they’re dark, true, but the redemptive arcs shine more brightly because of the contrast.

CH: It’s interesting that people consider your work dark or gritty, because for me, that darkness and grit come in media where there’s not a lot of heart. Your books have a lot of heart.

DP: That means a lot for you to say, I appreciate it. In some ways it’s the reporter in me, there’s an ethics to it all. I always try to treat my characters with compassion and respect, and I try not to punch down. I want to show my readers the same compassion and respect. We’re not always going to get it right, though I hope we do, but I want to be a 30-year man in this industry. Nobody has a perfect batting average for anything, but I agonize a lot over how to do stories in a way that’s respectful.

For example, we had a scene in the first volume of “Spencer & Locke,” and I knew that this page was going to make or break the whole issue. It’s the first page of the second issue, and Locke’s there with his babysitter, and she’s molested him. I talked with our artist [Jorge Santiago Jr.] and he re-drew the page several times, because were agonizing over it. It can’t be sexy, it can’t be funny, it can’t be titillating in any way. How much could we imply, but show that this is not a good thing, this is horrifying. But also doing it in a way that’s not punching our readers in the face. For someone whose first book dealt with child abuse, that’s my number one trigger in fiction. If I have to watch a child be harmed in fiction, I lose it. I immediately feel that protectiveness.

It’s something that I over-analyze. For comics, that degree of hyper-vigilance has served me well, because my thought’s always been that I’d much rather any notes come from me than from a stranger. I’d much rather diffuse the bomb before it goes off. Sometimes it means that I work a little slower than I’d like to, and sometimes it means I’m a little more high-strung than I’d like to be. Whenever I look at my blood pressure numbers, I always say that the product speaks for itself [laughs.] I hope with time and practice it becomes even more second nature.

CH: Personally, I didn’t trip up on that scene at all. You handled it tastefully and, you’re right, the point is not the trauma but the impact on your character, and how it changes him.

DP: They’re all redemption stories. That’s always been the thing for me, and it ties into what I find poignant. What’s a character’s self-deception? Part of the reason I love Locke is because this poor guy has such a distorted sense of self that he thinks that this monstrous, horrible upbringing that no one should ever have to endure, that he deserves it. He has such difficulty escaping these traumas because deep down, he feels like he deserves it. It’s so sad, and that’s part of the reason why we gave him a kid. He’d eventually have to do that calculus of what’s important: torturing himself, or making sure his kid lives a better life.

Getting out of that cycle of self-abuse for a higher ideal is very inspiring to me.

People often look at my work and categorize it as these bleak re-imaginings of childhood nostalgia, and my thought is that they’re dark, true, but the redemptive arcs shine more brightly because of the contrast.

CH: What inspired you to have Hero be able to see Spencer, too?

DP: Mental illness runs in families. The ideas of nature vs. nurture, but it was one of those things that came up fairly late in the game. I’d had friends asking me if Spencer was real when I came up with the series, and it kind of bugged me at first. But once I got past that initial feeling, there’s a real philosophical debate there. Spencer saying “I’ll always be as real as you need me to be” is probably my favorite thing I’ve ever written. That’s threading the needle. I don’t have to give you an answer. I’ve had ideas of what possible sequels could look like, so I always knew that Locke and Hero’s relationship would evolve and be tested based on Locke’s relationship with Spencer.

When does it stop being a coping mechanism and become something that’s actively unhealthy? That moment stood out to me because so much of the book is about avenging your past. That’s why we had Hero there in the first place, so Locke would realize that all the horrible things that happened to him could happen to her, and he’d go to the mat to prevent that. So, Spencer saves Locke’s life, and I thought it would be a nice bit of poetry that he gets to save Hero’s, too.

CH: It hits well, and at the right moment.

DP: I wish I could say that all of my best moments are super planned out, but they’re not [laughs.] The way I break down my stories is high concept first, and that comes a mile a minute. I have loads of fun doing it. Then there’s the outlining phase, which I hate, but I have to do it. I wrote “Spencer & Locke 2” without that, and it took me four times as long to write it without that hard and fast plan. Making the story math add up is hard. I come up with as many fun images as I can, but the road map matters. I have fun again when I get to the scripting stage, when I’m writing dialogue and getting into the characters’ heads a bit.

That’s where I find some of my best moments, when I’m scripting in and in the zone and something bounces off of me.

CH: It’s nice that you embrace those organic moments, because it makes storytelling richer and more believable for your audience.

DP: Exactly. It’s also great for me as a writer. I put a lot of pressure on myself, so the one element of my writing that I give myself permission to see where it takes me is this. That’s probably why it’s fun for me. I put on a song, usually on repeat to let the imagery hit me, and it’s the time when I can actually feel myself. Granted, that makes editing hard [laughs.] The next day it never feels as clever as I thought, but I can play. That’s ultimately why we do this. We get paid to pretend, and if you don’t get some kind of joy out of it, why are you here? You could be an accountant. I could make a very comfortable living being an accountant, and it’s a stable track [laughs.]

My mother was a college professor and I was raised in the spirit of learning as fun. I was super popular in school, as you can tell [laughs.]

CH: Same.