Smash Pages Q&A: David Pepose on the influences behind ‘Spencer & Locke’

With a sequel set to debut in April, the writer of the surprise hit series breaks down the comics DNA of the book.

It’s been called “What if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City?” but David Pepose and Jorge Santiago Jr.’s Spencer & Locke proved to be more than that. While it does wear those two inspirations on its sleeve, the DNA of this particular project goes deeper than its tagline.

With the followup to the surprise hit set to debut in April (and a movie in the works), I spoke with David about some of the influences on the series that go beyond the surface, including Moon Knight, Criminal, Batgirl and more. Admittedly this was a really fun interview to conduct, as it gave me an excuse to re-read several great comics and discover one that I need to add to my own “to read” list.

You can find out more about Spencer & Locke 2 on Twitter or Facebook. And you can buy the first volume at your local comic shop or ComiXology.

Before jumping into the six comics you chose to talk about, I thought I’d ask about two that aren’t on the list — Calvin and Hobbes and Sin City, if only because those are the two most referenced when people talk about Spencer & Locke. Is there anything you’d want to say about those in general, and the role they played in influencing the series

I think there’s a breadth to Bill Watterson and Frank Miller’s works that were really inspiring to me as a writer — in the case of Calvin and Hobbes, there’s a virtually limitless playing field of storytelling, because the whole series hinges on Calvin’s perception and imagination. Watterson was a genius that he set up that whole paradigm with a relatively down-to-earth mechanism — Calvin’s invention of his imaginary friend Hobbes — but once audiences accepted that conceit, it wasn’t hard to then bring Calvin to space as Spaceman Spiff, or turn him into a superhero, or transmogrify him into a tiger, or anything else that this eight-year-old boy could dream up. It’s not so much being able to stretch out your core concept as much as being able to do it organically, you know? And for me, that conceptual elasticity was something I really wanted in my first book, to let me cross off every bucket list item I could think of. Because given the high concept, I was well aware this could have been the last thing I’d ever write! (Laughs)

And I think the other side of the coin is Frank Miller. I’ll get into this more later, but whereas Bill Watterson was able to spin off in a virtually limitless amount of directions within the confines of his high concept, Frank Miller was the guy who was able to take the down-to-earth and execute it in a way that hadn’t been seen before. There’s such a cinematic quality to his work, and I think Sin City is where we see Miller at some of his most experimental — playing around with negative space, spot colors, throwing whole monologues in the margins. The thing is, Miller’s not inventing new genres here — he’s actually working in some of the longest-lasting genres comics has to offer — but he’s always found a new way to tell these old stories, particularly using the visual language of comics. So when you combine Watterson’s breadth of concept with Miller’s innovative execution, that becomes a really fun playground to operate within as a writer.

First page of Spencer & Locke #1, which Pepose said “is kind of our mission statement”

Second, it occurred to me that you may have actually reviewed some of the comics on the list for Newsarama at some point. So I thought I’d ask: in general, has being on the creative side of comics changed how you approach your reviews? As a reviewer, I’m sure you read comics differently than most people do already, but has your own comics reading evolved as a result of your work on S&L?

I always laugh and say that nearly a decade of writing reviews, of studying the craft and interviewing some of my favorite writers — not to mention getting a look inside the belly of the beast as an intern at DC Comics — was barely enough to get me across the finish line for my first series. (Laughs) You can absorb all the theoretical, but it’s a whole new ballgame when you have to put it into practice, you know? So it was a real reminder for me that there’s a lot of variables that go into a comic’s production — some of which reviewers should try to take into account, but more often than not, remembering that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that we simply don’t know about. So it’s a reminder to leave some wiggle room as far as that goes, and just a further reminder that there is a human being at the other end of your review.

That said, on the other hand, I’ll say that my time as a reviewer was absolutely critical in making this book half as good as it is, from top to bottom. Being able to analyze what you do and don’t like about a book — and more importantly, being able to articulate that — is the only reason I was able to survive making this book. (And even then, I was lucky enough to be able to bat ideas around with some other critics that I knew and trusted, because I’m the first to know I’ve got blind spots as far as my work is concerned.) But being able to break down a book in terms of pacing, of panel layouts, of coloring and lettering, that all helps generate a strong editorial vision for the book, and in the case of Spencer & Locke, I think it helped me better support my team

Batman: Gotham Knights
by Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson

I thought I’d start with this one because it’s the one I’m least familiar with — I haven’t actually read this run. How did it approach Batman differently or better than other Batman titles have? What made it unique, in your mind?

I think it was a very human take on Batman, but in a way that still encapsulated that very archetypal sense of the character. Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson’s work on Gotham Knights was a really seminal work for me growing up — I remember picking up the first few issues at my local grocery store in high school, and it was just like nothing I had ever read before. Grayson’s Batman had so much sadness and psychological depth, but as a counterpoint to the various relationships in his life — with his former ward and soon-to-be adopted son Nightwing, with sidekick-in-training Spoiler, with his bodyguard Sasha Bourdeaux, to his relationships with Justice Leaguers like Superman and Aquaman. So the series really looked at Batman as this essentially broken figure, a loner who somehow surrounded himself with allies, and turned the whole series into this really poignant poetry, particularly as Bruce began to alienate a lot of said allies across the rest of the Batman line. There’s a lot of issues that stand out to me from that run, but probably my favorite is just Batman trying to fill a slow night, given that he’s effectively chased off everyone living in Wayne Manor — at one point we see he’s sped-read a number of books, including King Lear. And maybe it’s the teenager in me talking, but damn if the weight of Bruce’s loneliness didn’t feel Shakespearean

It also didn’t hurt that Roger Robinson delivered such wonderfully dramatic art — I think it’s downright criminal this run hasn’t been collected in trade paperback, because then I think people would see that Robinson is basically the Jim Aparo of my generation. He’s got this really shadowy and angular style that fits Batman so well — and while Robinson was a beast at showing Batman taking a room of bad guys apart, he has this quality that really shines in the quiet moments, that stillness, where you can almost see the trauma hiding in the shadows of Batman’s eyes. (And like Grayson’s writing, he showed such a wonderful counterpoint between the dark and closed-off Batman with the vibrance of his sidekicks — his take on Nightwing was exceptional, as was the terrifically cinematic take on Spoiler fighting a bad guy made entirely of Jokerized cockroaches.) Honestly, I could go on and on about this run — these two worked on something like 20 or 25 issues together, and I have the whole thing saved on ComiXology on my phone and tablet. It’s desert island reading for me.

From Spencer & Locke #3

What was it about Gotham Knights and its particular approach to the Batman characters that resonated with you as a creator? And how do you think that’s been reflected in S&L?

There was a real complexity, depth and investment that Grayson and Robinson instilled in Batman: Gotham Knights that really resonated with me as a reader, and those were the essential qualities I wanted to emulate in Spencer & Locke. I think it’s really easy to not empathize with a character like Batman — with the gadgets and martial arts and detective skills, the Bat-God sometimes reads as more of an embodiment of escapist wish fulfillment — but in Gotham Knights, we never forgot the roots of Bruce Wayne’s trauma. It’s very bittersweet, because we see in this series how Batman’s surrogate family is often his only real connection to humanity, but we also see how his obsessiveness — his desire to control everything in his environment, including those around him — often keeps even his closest allies at arm’s length.

So I think that idea of this deeply troubled hero using some deeply unhealthy coping mechanisms to get through the day is something that really translated to Spencer & Locke. I also think the idea of family, and finding love and belonging even in the bleakest of environments, was a major theme that I took to my own work — because as closed-off and brooding as Locke is, it’s hard not to fall in love with him when you see him bantering with Spencer, or showing this deep and unconditional affection for his daughter Hero, you know? So much of characterization is not just seeing how your character will approach a particular challenge or environment, but just seeing how other characters feel about them. You get to know a man by his friends

Daredevil: Man Without Fear
by Frank Miller and John Romita, Jr

One of the things I’ve always admired about Frank Miller’s work on Daredevil in general is just how well he can get the reader into the head of Matt Murdock. That cuts across most of his work on the character, but this book in particular did a great job at that. How did that influence your own storytelling in S&L?

Out of all the books on this list, Daredevil: The Man Without Fear is the earliest and most seminal for me. Every comic creator has That Book — the one that made them realize that real people, real writers and artists create these things — and Daredevil: The Man Without Fear was mine. Matt Murdock was a scrappy guy with the fists of a boxer and the heart of a poet, and it was Miller’s use of imagery and metaphor in his narration that really stuck with me.

I think like you said, there was just this deeply unmistakable voice to this book, where Miller really got us inside Matt’s head immediately. Miller’s narration lends so much to the characterization, but I think it also adds an important layer to the storytelling — I know that narrative captions get a bad rap sometimes, but we’re working in a medium where economy is key, so I think there’s an argument to be made for not leaving anything on the table, story-wise. For Spencer & Locke, I think staying in Locke’s head lent the story an immediacy and an investment that I think we would have lost completely otherwise — while I love writing action, I also wanted this story to have a human core that always reminded readers where Locke came from.

From Spencer & Locke #4

I don’t think I considered it before you mentioned it in our email exchange, but I can really see the influence now of this book on S&L — especially since a lot of it deals with a very young Matt Murdock. With Locke, you have a character who you are writing in two different time periods, as what happened to him as a kid influences his character as an adult. Can you talk about your approach to writing both “versions” of Locke?

You know, I think you hit exactly the reason this book resonated with me so much — I first read it when I was eight or nine years old, and spending so much time with Matt, seeing him grow up in this pretty dysfunctional household, seeing him get blinded by the radioactive waste, seeing his training with Stick, and seeing his disastrous path of revenge after his father’s murder, that really got me invested in this character, and watching him grow up. He was just like me! Only not. (Laughs) But I think you’re onto something that maybe I didn’t even fully realize when I wrote Spencer & Locke — which is so much of Man Without Fear feels like snapshots of important moments in Matt Murdock’s life, so we get to see those quick pivotal moments in Locke’s life as well

To me, Young Locke and Adult Locke are very much two sides of the same coin, but each character can do things that the other can’t. Adult Locke is the fallout — crucially, he has agency that Young Locke often doesn’t, but when we get to see those quick flashbacks, we get to piece together that Adult Locke is coming from a deeply damaged place. But at the same time, Young Locke I think gets to explore his emotions a lot more openly than his adult counterpart — we instinctively feel protective of a child in peril, but I think we also open up more seeing Locke and Spencer just goofing off as any eight-year-old kid would goof off, as well. Similar to seeing Matt Murdock steal a cop’s nightstick as a kid — a moment that wins us over pretty quickly — to seeing him find the same nightstick in his dad’s gym as an adult. The younger version and the modern version of the characters feed off one other, and build each other up.

From Spencer & Locke #1

The other thing about this book I wanted to mention is that it is sort of a “retcon” of Daredevil’s origin, making it a bit grittier than the original. Am I wrong in seeing some parallels between that and what you did with Calvin & Hobbes in S&L?

I can definitely see that — for me, Man Without Fear was my introduction to Daredevil, so this has always been sort of my take on the character. So I think gritty would certainly be an accurate description, but a word I might lean even further towards is “visceral” — in my mind grittiness is tonal, whereas visceral are specific moments gear toward a particular reader reaction. So with Man Without Fear, I think the intensity of Miller’s execution feels so visceral to me, and in turn that amplifies the grittiness of the tone — for example, I’m thinking of the deliberateness of just the sound effects, when we see young Matt roll up a stack of pennies and beats up a henchman three times his size, or when he fires a kick that blows a dude’s knee out in a horrifying angle.

I think specificity of imagery, of the panel rhythm, I think that lends to that visceral feeling you get when you read Man Without Fear, and I wanted to include bits like that with Spencer & Locke to get the grittiness and tension across — things like Locke putting a cigarette out inside a guy’s ear, or an offhand line about God not listening before breaking a chair over a dude’s head. So I think that visceral feeling and that gritty tone go hand in hand — just finding moments that’ll really surprise you and make you tense up as you read it, but will also hopefully be super-cool and memorable as well

Afterlife with Archie
by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla

Archie’s publishing plan, in general, has taken some unexpected and fun turns over the last few years, with this being probably the best example. Before this, if you’d put the words “Archie” and “Horror” in the same sentence, you probably would have imagined something like Dracula or Frankenstein draw in the classic Archie style, or maybe something like Scooby Doo or Groovy Ghoulies. More Saturday Morning Cartoon than George Romero. What is it about Afterlife with Archie that really works?

Afterlife with Archie was a huge inspiration behind Spencer & Locke, because it showed me that the more iconic and middle-of-the-road the concept, the more elastic it gets in terms of tone. Archie had done something similar with Mark Waid and Chip Zdarsky’s more naturalistic relaunches of Archie and Jughead titles, but it was Afterlife with Archie that really showed me the untapped potential of that entire line. I think with long-running properties, the biggest challenge is doing something new and being able to stick the landing with it, and that tonal 180 that Afterlife with Archie really blew me away

I think so much of that is because you expect Archie to be a certain way, and Afterlife really subverted all those expectations — which is the big lesson we took for Spencer & Locke, to lean into those expectations and weaponize them, to surprise readers and keep them on their toes. You can either see tropes as limiting, or you can see them as opportunities to divert from routine — so seeing Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa immediately murder Jughead, for example, or seeing Locke’s relationship with his mother immediately explode into violence, is such a dramatic break from the norm that you have to see what happens next. It’s those sorts of unexpected and subversive twists that I think disarms readers — it’s that combination of a gasp and a laugh that I think takes readers and really brings them into the story

From Spencer & Locke #3

In S&L 2, you’re branching out beyond your core concept — Calvin & Hobbes + Sin City — and bringing in your own takes on other comic strip characters, like Beetle Bailey. It’s a fun idea, but I imagine it’s also daunting to try and bring that same level of seriousness that you brought to the first S&L, and keep it from seeming gimmicky. How did you approach this as you were working on the second volume?

For me, it’s about remembering what unique qualities each new variable brings to the table, and making sure that you don’t lose that flavor, but instead keep it additive. Going back to Afterlife with Archie, take the launch of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina as an example — those books certainly fit in a similar wheelhouse, but they also have their own unique flavors and tones that set them apart. That’s how I feel about Locke and our new villain, Roach Riley — they both come from a similar place of pain and trauma, but Roach’s military background is very, very different from Locke’s street-level upbringing, and offers us a lot of different storytelling avenues.

And to me, that’s how we’ve evolved the tone of Spencer & Locke 2, even beyond the Fables-style approach where every comic strip is fair game for parody — like Locke’s flashbacks, our first story was very self-contained and intimate, whereas the inclusion of Roach brings this larger-scale violence and horror and bloodshed to this world. We’ve graduated from street-level crime to full-on terrorism, and because of Roach’s unique position as a soldier, we’re able to build new perspectives and new types of action onto the pre-existing narrative scaffolding we built upon our first series. Locke and Roach really are two sides of the same coin, though, and the moment I came up with the character, I knew it was absolutely the best possible avenue to evolve our series

Criminal: The Last of the Innocent
by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Oh man, I’m glad you mentioned this one, as it’s something I’ve been meaning to go back and re-read. And it fits really well after talking about Archie Comics. This one goes really deep on the idea of nostalgia, and the gap between what we wanted when we were young and where we end up. How do you see those themes playing out in the two S&L miniseries?

I know — isn’t that series terrific? Last of the Innocent is probably my all-time favorite Ed Brubaker book, and a lot of that is because it shares a lot of similar genre-bending qualities as Afterlife with Archie. In a lot of ways, I kind of feel like Last of the Innocent is way more gritty than Spencer & Locke? (Laughs) Brubaker’s a true pro, and he’s not afraid to make his Archie Andrews analogue a truly scummy customer in the service of his twisty, noir-ish script. But I’d also argue that Calvin and Hobbes fans are way more rabid in their love for the material than even Archie, so I felt justified in making sure that we fully solidified Locke as a tragic but ultimately sympathetic hero

But I definitely think Spencer & Locke does share Last of the Innocent’s themes of nostalgia, showing how our pasts shape our present, but also how our memories can curdle if we fixate on them for too long. And that can be really self-destructive — in the case of Riley, he winds up murdering his wife and pinning it on his helpless best friend. Because we’re taking a sort of heightened reality to Spencer & Locke, we see that Locke’s unshakeable grip on the past has shaken his very perception of the world itself. And that’s something we’re going to be addressing a lot in Spencer & Locke 2 — Locke’s faced a lot of the tormentors in our previous arc and eliminated them, but he still can’t escape his memories of what they did to him.

From Spencer & Locke #1

The other thing this one brings up is the artistic choice of actually using two different art styles in a comic — in this case, Sean Phillips’ trademark realistic style in the present, and the use of an Archie-esque style for the past. Can you talk about your approach to this in S&L?

Definitely — I loved that effect that Sean Phillips employed in Last of the Innocent, and I actually sent Jorge examples of his pages when I told him what I had in mind for our Calvin and Hobbes-inspired flashbacks. There was instantly a lot of utility to those flashbacks — being able to cut back in time without use of extraneous captions, and to modulate our tone either towards the comedic or the genuinely horrifying — but I actually saw the opportunity to push the envelope even further.

From Criminal: The Last of the Innocent

Like we were talking about earlier, I really wanted to play to readers’ expectations, and then subvert them as drastically as possible — so shifting our art in the style of Bill Watterson felt a little bit like a mission statement, especially for our very first page. No sense beating around the bush with a high concept like ours, right? (Laughs) But being able to totally pull the rug out from under our readers by the end of the page, we’re able to not only shake things up visually, but we’re able to able to use that place of familiarity to really readers on their toes. It lets us have the best of both worlds — readers know where we’re coming from, but we keep them guessing where we’re going to go next.

Batgirl
by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tar

When I think about Batgirl and the pacing of this particular run, it was jam-packed with content, from superhero stuff to supporting characters to everything else going on in Burnside. It probably had as much dialogue in a single issue as most books have across an entire arc. But it also worked, and flowed naturally from one plot point to the next. What do you think made it work so well?

One of these things is not like the others, right? (Laughs) I was reading the “Batgirl of Burnside” run right around the time I started writing Spencer & Locke, and I think what I liked so much about that series felt like a such a response to the trend of narrative decompression. Every issue of that series had its own identity and purpose, and it hit what Heidi MacDonald refers to as “the satisfying chunk” — which I think sometimes can be a bit of a lost art for single issues when you’re grappling with double-shipping or  thinking about the long-term trade game.

But I really liked the focus that Brenden Fletcher, Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr brought to their work in Batgirl — not only did they really breathe new life into the character by recontextualizing her in Gotham’s trendy Brooklyn analogue, but like you said, they packed each issue to the brim with content. Sometimes that wordiness got a little too wordy towards the end of the series, but that first arc in particular introduced so many different concepts and never kept readers on the hook with the cliffhanger — instead, they generated a lot of goodwill on an issue-to-issue basis. It’s a very old-school approach that I think we’d do well to revisit.

from Spencer & Locke #2

And how did the pacing of this series influence your approach to S&L?

I wanted to make sure that each issue of Spencer & Locke could survive on its own merits, and so I studied Fletcher, Stewart and Tarr’s pacing in Batgirl a lot when I was putting together our story. Honestly, part of the impetus for writing the original Spencer & Locke was because I wasn’t connecting with a lot of comics at that time, and decompression was probably my least favorite trend in many of those books. (It’s not to say that decompression can’t work artistically from time to time, but at the same time, floppies aren’t cheap, so I think it’s a tool that’s used sparingly at best.

So I think the idea of Batgirl dealing with a new threat in the pages of just one issue really reinforced that 20-22 pages is actually still a decent amount of real estate to work with — even if you’ve got three splash pages as the big grace notes, you’ve still got 17 pages to work with, and at four to six panels each, you’ve got at least 70 discrete moments to establish a beginning, middle and end. (Depending on nine-panel grids, maybe even closer to 80.) That’s a lot more real estate than you might think, and seeing what Batgirl could do with that space, it really encouraged me to up my pacing game

Moon Knight
by Warren Ellis and Declan ShalveY

And finally, one of the best superhero comics published in the last five years or so. Each issue on its own stands out as a master class in pacing. What do you think made this comic so popular with fans and critics?

Along with Batman: Gotham Knights and Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s run on Moon Knight is my other selection as far as my ComiXology desert island reading, just a series that I permanently have on my phone and my tablet at any given time. I think the pacing and structure you mentioned is one of the main reasons I love the series so much — every issue is very different from one another, and Ellis and Shalvey approach each of these discrete storylines with a remarkable sense of economy.

But for me, the other thing that really stood out to me about this series was its sense of intensity — you could absolutely sense just how dangerous Marc Spector was, and how unpredictable he was thanks to his fractured personality and his possible possession by an otherworldly force. That issue where Marc takes apart a whole gang of kidnappers floor-by-floor, with a force that Shalvey turns into something genuinely explosive? It’s frightening stuff — but what’s even more scary is Marc’s little asides, like telling a screaming mercenary that he’s not real. What’s going on in that guy’s head? It’s very much in the same sort of psychological vein that we delved into with Locke.

From Spencer & Locke #3

How does a comic like this make you think about each single issue of S&L, vs. the whole?

I looked a lot to Moon Knight for its sense of range on an issue-to-issue basis — Warren was really smart in reminding readers that Moon Knight isn’t just a Batman knockoff, but he inhabits a world of magic and of science, so we get to see one-man raids on a building full of henchmen, to an issue of Marc literally getting into a fistfight with ghosts, to another issue of him taking a mind trip thanks to some genetically altered spores. It’s just all wild stuff, but it all fits organically with the character, you know

When you look at it like that, it’s not a surprise that we had one issue of Spencer & Locke with a big car chase, another with a psychedelic twist on Spaceman Spiff, another issue with a no-holds-barred gunfight — I’ve said this elsewhere, but I wasn’t exactly sure if I’d get to write another comic after this, so I wanted to throw in everything and the kitchen sink into this one! (Laughs) But the thing is, it all goes back to what Stan Lee said — every comic is somebody’s first. And as much as I’d love for people to start Spencer & Locke from the beginning, I want to get readers hooked whenever they start — which means you have to hit them like a wrecking ball every single time, with every single issue. And that’s the kind of quality I think Moon Knight had, and that’s something I strove to emulate with every issue of Spencer & Locke.

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