David Pepose returns to the Comic Book Yeti cave to talk about what hooks readers and what keeps 'em coming back for more, and also to deliver some sagelike advice. As a writer of such addictive hits as SPENCER & LOCKE, THE O.Z. and SCOUT’S HONOR, I'd listen to the man.
COMIC BOOK YETI: What was your first published work and what is your latest?
DAVID PEPOSE: Sure! My first published comic was my breakout series SPENCER & LOCKE at Action Lab, and my most recent title was SCOUT’S HONOR, which just wrapped up at AfterShock.
CBY: How do you feel you’ve grown as a creator since you started?
DP: I’ve always looked at it as what does my entire body of work as a creator look like — how can I achieve the widest possible range in my characters, my concepts, the way I approach a story? I feel like that’s how I’ve been able to build up different muscle groups as a writer, and to appeal to as large of an audience as I can. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better over the years as far as pacing and scale goes — but the great thing about this business is there’s always still plenty more I can learn.
CBY: Most of the work you've done is with worlds you have created from the ground up. What challenges and benefits does this present over working with long-established characters?
DP: It’s funny, I only sort of half agree with that! (Laughs) A lot of my work has roots in parody, so sometimes I feel like I have just as much in common with licensed work as I do creator-owned. With books like SPENCER & LOCKE and THE O.Z., I’ve developed my own reimagining — or maybe you could say remix — of some really classic stories, each with their own iconography.
Even for books like GOING TO THE CHAPEL or SCOUT’S HONOR, I’m always drawn to the imagery as much as I am the emotional core — it provides a framework for you to scaffold your story, since readers will bring their own expectations that you then have to meet and subvert. The fun of writing is always about realizing the imagery, while the emotional beats are what give the escapism some lasting weight.
But the benefit of doing creator-owned work versus something that’s out-and-out licensed is you’re able to tell your story on your own terms, and you’re able to really shake things up with your characters in a way you can’t if you’re beholden to shareholders or a billion-dollar franchise. I can pull the rug out on readers in whatever way I think can yield the biggest emotional impact, and as long as I earn the twist through what I’ve written previously, nobody can tell me not to do it!
"I’m always drawn to the imagery as much as I am the emotional core — it provides a framework for you to scaffold your story, since readers will bring their own expectations that you then have to meet and subvert."
CBY: Where did you grow up, and how does it affect the stories that you tell?
DP: That’s a great question. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, and I do think my Midwestern upbringing has impacted the kinds of stories I tell. I’m always thinking about accessibility, which I think can sometimes fall by the wayside in our esoteric industry — they say that the coasts are the ones setting all the trends, but I’ve never been interested in chasing trends. I’m about trying to establish the widest possible following, and to evangelize the comics business to as many new readers as I can.
So I often think about, y’know, what kinds of stories could I tell that would make sense to the people I went to high school with. Or my parents. How can I make a stranger give a damn about this story, versus all the other stories out there on the stands? I don’t have a sales department or a superhero’s brand name behind me — all I can do is frame my stories with recognizable, human touchstones, and then tell those stories with as much excitement and emotion as I can.
"I often think about what kinds of stories could I tell that would make sense to the people I went to high school with. Or my parents. How can I make a stranger give a damn about this story?"
CBY: What aspects of storytelling are the most important to you? What are you trying to convey to people who read your work?
DP: This is probably a cheap answer, because all the storytelling aspects are important. You want to have interesting high concepts, because that’ll pique people’s interests and make them more likely to check out the books. (It’ll also make it easier to describe said books, to make them easier to sell.)
You want to have a strong emotional core, something that makes people feel invested and want to stick around for the long haul. The artwork, obviously — if you don’t have strong artwork, you might as well pack it up and go home, because at the end of the day, people aren’t just here for the writing.
And you want good twists to keep readers on their toes — I feel like that’s probably the thing I’ve been getting better and better at with each book, if I’m going to break my arm patting myself on the back. (Laughs) I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting here.
Ultimately, as far as what I want to convey to people who read my work, my goal is to present them with a ridiculous high concept that they will fall in love with (and hopefully cry over) by the time the book is over. The themes of my books vary from project to project, but I think a common throughline is trauma and compassion — I mean, that’s the heart of escapism, right? Learning how to forgive and be good to yourself.
CBY: You have worked some interesting jobs before becoming a full-time writer. Which of them stands out the most and how do you think it helped you in your writing?
DP: Yeah, it’s funny how that all worked out! (Laughs) You never really know how your job history will factor into what you do next, and my zig-zag career is certainly proof of that. All my jobs have wound up Voltron-ing into what’s become my comics career — while you can certainly chalk up me being the reviews editor at Newsarama or being an editorial intern at DC Comics as seminal gigs for synthesizing my creative voice, I’ve worked in journalism, television, and publicity, too. And those gigs wound up teaching me a lot about how to write on a deadline, how to break down scenes modularly so I can restructure my stories quickly, and how to promote my work as widely and effectively as possible.
CBY: You are known as being a prolific hustler when it comes to getting your books made and generating interest for them in both the creative and consumer markets. How do you approach generating that buzz?
DP: People often ask me how I promote my work, and I usually answer, “do you have 10 years to spend working as a comics journalist?” (Laughs) People talk about networking, and it’s often a long process to pull that off organically — and I think the same thing follows as far as building a wide net for publicity.
I worked in comics journalism for a long time, and so I got to know the lay of the land — I was familiar with every other site because I read every other site religiously. And I do think it helped me break the ice a little with various sites, because even if we didn’t know each other personally, we knew of each others’ work, and that helped crack the door open just long enough for them to check out my work — and then probably breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn’t terrible. (Laugh)
I do think the thing that anyone can emulate is just casting as wide of a net as possible, and making it as easy as possible on comics journalists to cover your work. The first thing is the work has to be good — there’s no amount of hustle that can make up for the book not being ready for primetime, y’know?
But if the work is up to industry standard, things like including preview pages and PDF links in your emails can go a long way, as can offering exclusives and outlining clear dates ahead of schedule. And knowing that no outlet is too small — the thing I think a lot of people don’t get is publicity is a numbers game. Unless it’s the New York Times, people won’t get up to buy your book if they read about it in one or two outlets. But if you get your work mentioned in dozens of outlets? That adds up into something actionable.
"I do think the thing that anyone can emulate is just casting as wide of a net as possible, and making it as easy as possible on comics journalists to cover your work. The first thing is the work has to be good — there’s no amount of hustle that can make up for the book not being ready for primetime, y’know?"
CBY: One of the many aspects I like about your writing is that you take nostalgic and familiar concepts and put incredibly creative and compelling spins on them. Spencer & Locke and Scout's Honor especially grabbed me for this reason. Do you try to hit that nostalgic chord when creating your stories?
DP: That’s probably the subversive streak in me. (Laughs) There’s a part of me that always likes to push the envelope a bit with my sense of humor, and I think the way I’ve tempered that is by saying, “Okay, but what’s the emotional payoff here?”
Shock for the sake of shock value isn’t just tiresome, but it often veers into the realm of exploitation — it’s easy to come up with “The Wire meets Sesame Street,” y’know? The question is, how do you justify this outlandish high concept, and turn it from a sketch into a story with some real depth and emotion.
But I will say as far as mining nostalgic influences, that usually means there’s a lot of iconography to play with — which is a big help for visual storytelling like comics — and I think that means audiences come into the story with a certain set of expectations, which I’m then able to leverage and subvert for my own nefarious purposes.
CBY: Who are your biggest influences?
DP: Honestly, there’s so many to talk about…Frank Miller was the first comics creator that made me realize as a kid that real writers and artists made these things, that there could be a distinctive voice and point of view. Devin Grayson’s another big influence, particularly the emotional way she wrote Bruce Wayne in Batman: Gotham Knights. Mark Waid’s Flash run, Warren Ellis’s Moon Knight. There’re probably dozens more that I’m forgetting that I’ll think of later.
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s Afterlife with Archie was probably the seminal work that got me writing books of my own — the subversive anarchy of zombie Jughead really spoke to me. (Laughs) Christopher Nolan’s work in Memento was also a huge influence as far as reinforcing how I like to write characters with messed-up ways of grappling with trauma. And I think, like many people who grew up in the ‘90s, I think there’s a little bit of Tarantino in my DNA. (Not the gratuitous or problematic bits, but the mashup of action, humor, and pop culture-infused stylishness.)
"...when you get in the zone and come up with a line or a beat that really encapsulates why you should invest in a character? Those are the moments that make the rest of the hard work worthwhile."
CBY: What upcoming projects can you talk about?
DP: There’s a lot in the works that I can’t talk about at the moment, but we’re hard at work on pages for THE O.Z., which will be returning to Kickstarter soon, now that all the craziness of promoting SCOUT’S HONOR is over.
We’re also still working on SPENCER & LOCKE 3, which will pit our hard-boiled heroes on the case of their lives, as a Garfield-themed serial killer is picking off the Peanuts gang. There’s a lot of research that’s going into that one, and with me having written seven other books since SPENCER & LOCKE 2, we want to take our time to get this right!
And we’ve got pages coming in for my sci-fi series GRAND THEFT ASTRO, and I honestly can’t wait for people to get to see this book — it’s one of the most exciting projects I’ve ever worked on, and I love how that story came together.
Beyond that, just working in a lot of different genres right now — horror, crime, sci-fi and YA. You know, all the major comics food groups! (Laughs)
CBY: What is your favorite part of writing for the medium of comics?
DP: When I hit a good emotional beat. Comics are great for crystalizing big, powerful moments, and when you get in the zone and come up with a line or a beat that really encapsulates why you should invest in a character? Those are the moments that make the rest of the hard work worthwhile.
"...it’s not just about having a unique high concept, but about having confident execution, a strong point of view, and a beating emotional heart to anchor it all together."
CBY: What current comics series are you a fan of and why?
DP: So many books right now. Hickman’s X-Men line got me through the pandemic, it’s so revolutionary and forward-thinking. I’ve been really impressed with James Tynion’s work on Batman and Joker lately, too — he’s made a real quantum leap in his writing since The Department of Truth. (Hell, even since his run on Detective Comics.)
Anything Tom Taylor or Mark Russell are working on. Maniac of New York and Shadow Doctor have been great over at AfterShock. The Autumnal at Vault. I thought Eve and The Many Deaths of Laila Starr over at BOOM! were two of the best debuts of the year.
For me, it’s not just about having a unique high concept, but about having confident execution, a strong point of view, and a beating emotional heart to anchor it all together. Given the grind of monthly comics, it’s a miracle this many books are able to pull it off.
CBY: What advice do you have for beginning writers trying to make their way into the comics industry?
DP: You’ll learn more by finishing a project, so I always recommend starting with shorts. When you’re starting out, you’ll get more out of ten shorts than you would out of one full script, or even a full miniseries. You learn by doing and you learn by failing, so writing short scripts is a great way to build endurance and get through your early reps.
Beyond that, I always write thinking “dessert first.” Just because a reader experiences my work sequentially doesn’t mean I need to build it that way — I write out of order all the time. Writing is hard. Start with the easy stuff first, then work your way backwards into the hard stuff and the connective tissue.
CBY: Which of your comics would you point a new reader towards and why?
DP: Boy, it’s tough choosing between my babies — especially because I try to write all of them with the goal of bringing in non-comics readers. SPENCER & LOCKE will always be my baby, but my work is really built on what genres you like the most. Like comedy? Check out GOING TO THE CHAPEL. Like epic fantasy? You should read THE O.Z. Like dystopian futures? SCOUT’S HONOR will do the trick. Want YA superheroes? You’ll love ROXY REWIND. My goal is to be like Baskin-Robbins — 31 flavors, with something for everyone.