Smash Pages Q&A: David Pepose enters ‘The O.Z.’

The writer of ‘Spencer & Locke’ and ‘Going to the Chapel’ discusses his latest project, which is now up on Kickstarter.

Most online comic fans probably first knew David Pepose as a reviewer for the comic site Newsarama, where he contributed to, and eventually took over, their Best Shots review column. He recently left that position to pursue a growing career as a comics writer, having written two Spencer & Locke miniseries and the excellent Going to the Chapel miniseries, all with publisher Action Lab.

For his latest project, Pepose is taking a new path, as he branches out into crowdfunding and self-publishing. Much like he did with Spencer & Locke, Pepose is taking a beloved, iconic property — in this case, The Wizard of Oz — and remixing it with another genre. The O.Z. stands for Occupied Zone, and features the granddaughter of Dorothy Gale, a war veteran, entering the war-torn land of Oz. Pepose is joined by artist Ruben Rojas, colorist Whitney Cogar and letterer DC Hopkins on the project.

The O.Z. Kickstarter is now live. I spoke with Pepose about his first crowdfunding project, L. Frank Baum and more.

So what came first here — the clever title or the overall story? And tell us what this book’s about — what’s your elevator pitch?

The O.Z. is basically what if Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hurt Locker took place in The Wizard of Oz — it reframes Dorothy Gale killing the Wicked Witch in the original Wizard of Oz as something akin to a botched regime change. And when Dorothy clicks her heels three times and returns to Kansas, she unwittingly plunges the land of Oz into a horrific power vacuum, leading to years of brutal civil war.

Our story picks up a generation later with Dorothy’s granddaughter and namesake, a disillusioned Iraq war veteran trying to put the pieces of her life back together as she cares for her ailing grandmother. But when our new Dorothy is swept up by a tornado and dropped into this magical battlefield, she’s going to have to confront her past as a soldier — not to mention navigating her grandmother’s former friends — if she ever hopes to bring peace to the Occupied Zone… or as the locals call it, The O.Z.

Also, I appreciate that you and I have chatted enough times that you clearly know how my mind works — because yes, the title absolutely came first! (Laughs) I had actually started working on The O.Z. as far back as when the original Spencer & Locke was released, and I knew I wanted to do a mashup in the fantasy genre. I had listed The Wizard of Oz on sort of a mood board, alongside Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Piers Anthony… but when I saw the word “Oz,” I realized how short but iconic it was, and how it could be turned into an acronym.

When I thought of the “Occupied Zone,” everything else clicked — pretty much the exact image that Ruben Rojas came up with for our main cover was how I pictured the story, recasting Dorothy as a world-weary soldier and the Tin Man as a towering, jury-rigged war machine, all navigating this war-torn land of Oz. That intersection of viewing a world of fantasy through that utilitarian, military lens was just irresistible — and as I dug into the story, the questions of morality during wartime really gave our series some thematic and dramatic weight.

We’ve seen L. Frank Baum’s most famous creation adapted into just about everything, from movies to Broadway to comics. First, what past works set in Oz influenced this comic? Which ones are you personally a fan of?

My first reinvention of The Wizard of Oz was probably seeing Wicked, which I really enjoyed because it was so subversive, and took a deep dive inside Elphaba’s head, with her morality having to navigate her quest for political equity. Return to Oz is also great, just because of how it remixed the original dynamics of the iconic Judy Garland film, but did so with such a daring sense of design and darkness to it all.

What’s funny is, the most iconic image of Oz in so many ways is a reinvention of sorts — the Judy Garland film absolutely defines most people’s ideas of The Wizard of Oz, even with the liberties it took when it jumped to the big screen. For example, the ruby slippers were an invention for technicolor — so while the original Baum novels are in the public domain, you can’t actually use those red slippers. The more you know!

Second, what is it about the Baum’s original stories that you think makes them so influential?

Great question. I honestly think The Wizard of Oz shares a lot in common with Star Wars, which is something colorist Whitney Cogar and I have talked a lot about — it’s that combination of this sweeping, magical world populated by these instantly iconic archetypes. When you think of Oz as a place, you’ve got the Emerald City, the Yellow Brick Road, Munchkin Land… there are so many different places to explore, each with their own palette and vibe, and that lends a real sense of stakes to both stories. You’re not just fighting for yourself, but innumerable species!

And I think Dorothy’s core team of the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion are just archetypical enough that when you put them on a team together, they start to really highlight each other’s core qualities — it’s a thread that I think you see continued in team lineups ranging from Claremont’s X-Men to Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy 7, the latter two being surprisingly big influences on the dynamic between our new Dorothy and her army of four.

For me, the archetypes of the Wizard of Oz made this project so fun to explore — in part because these icons are durable enough to lead readers on a deeper dive through heavier themes, but on the other hand, because I’m able to alternate between subverting expectations or just following these characters to their natural conclusions.

What happens to the Tin Soldier, who just wanted a heart, when he’s spent years watching people die in combat? Or the Scarecrow, who has come to discover what a monkey’s paw intelligence can be? Or the Cowardly Lion, who found bravery, only to realize there’s an entirely different calculus when you’re the leader of the Animal Kingdom? There’s so many fun angles to explore with these characters, I think it speaks to the universality of Baum’s initial world-building.

How did you and the creative team come together on this?

Ruben was the first member of the creative team I found for The O.Z. — I saw him responding to a call for artists on Twitter, and I was immediately blown away by his work. I reached out immediately, and offered him his pick of three different projects — my then-unacquired sci-fi heist story Grand Theft Astro, The O.Z. and a third story I’m currently reworking. 

Ruben immediately gravitated toward The O.Z., and I’m so glad he did — he’s an incredible artist who wrings so much movement and energy with his panels, and he’s also one of the best designers I’ve ever had the privilege to work with. Ruben’s added so much to the land of Oz, both in terms of fleshing out our settings and adding to our character designs — when I saw his rendition of the Tin Soldier, I promised Ruben that come Hell or high water, I would get this book made for him.

Colorist Whitney Cogar and letterer DC Hopkins were both recommendations from my friend Michael Moccio, who I had recruited to Newsarama years ago before he went on to work for BOOM! Studios, and eventually Scholastic and Mad Cave. Mike had raved about Whitney and DC from working with them at BOOM!; I ran into DC shortly thereafter at Denver Comic Con, and we hit it off so well that I knew I wanted to work with him on a project. He’s done terrific work on The O.Z., and is such a steadfast team player — we’re really lucky to have him.

Finally, Whitney is kind of our secret weapon — she takes Ruben’s already astounding artwork and just elevates to a whole new level. I got my start as a DC Comics editorial intern, and the thing that was drilled into me was the importance of color — how the wrong colorist can tank even the strongest linework, but the right colorist can give your book the sort of crackle that really makes it pop off the stands. Whitney is of course one of those latter colorists — I’m usually very exacting with what I want, and Whitney just one-ups my imagination every time. I’m working with the A-Team here — which is very liberating, because when the art looks this good, people are definitely inclined to be more forgiving of my writing. (Laughs)

Correct me if I’m wrong here, but is this your first crowdfunding campaign — although I know you put a lot of hustle into promoting your previous books. What made you decide to go this route vs. working with a publisher?

You’re right, this is my first Kickstarter project — I’ve been looking at Kickstarter for quite some time, having been press-ganged by friends like White Ash’s Charlie Stickney and The Jump’s Rylend Grant, both of whom have had success on the platform. Because there are people out there who buy their comics primarily through Kickstarter, just like there are people who buy comics primarily through retailers or Amazon or comiXology. I always want to keep building on our amazing readership from Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel, and so Kickstarter has always been on the agenda.

But COVID-19 really crystallized that line of thinking for me, and made me decide to bring The O.Z. as my first book on the platform. With the temporary Diamond shutdown and the acquisitions pipeline from many publishers staggered through 2021 and 2022, I realized I didn’t have to wait for permission anymore — we had two complete issues of The O.Z. ready to go, and it hit me that we had something tailor-made to be released as a double-sized debut. It’s very empowering as a creator — not only does it give us the ability to release our work on our timetable and frequency, but it lets us do so when we feel the time is right.

What kind of rewards can we expect from the campaign?

We’ve got some really fun rewards for our Kickstarter backers, including three incredible variant covers from Spencer & Locke’s Maan House, Rio Burton of Lucid Dreaming fame, and Kenneth Wagnon, whose Hearts Full of Sand is a comic that everybody should be reading. Combine that with Ruben’s incredible main cover, and we’ve got a murderer’s row of talent here.

There’s also some great opportunities for readers to get some great personalized art, including custom headshots from Ruben, as well as being drawn into the actual book — perhaps as a bystander, perhaps as an unfortunate Munchkin about to get his lights punched out. (Laughs) 

I’ll also be offering Skype sessions where I can review your pitches, discuss the ins and outs of comic book writing, how to navigate publicity and Hollywood… backers can really set the agenda. And perhaps my favorite reward — we have a very small batch of handmade Spencer & Locke plushies that I had commissioned as a thank-you gift for our creative team, and we’ll be offering the last three dolls I have in my possession. A panther in every home, I say!

And that’s on top of what we’ve got planned for stretch goals — including a smorgasbord of digital comics from a ton of amazing indie creators, some fun artwork we have in reserve, and more. With Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing, so every backer and every dollar counts — and everything we get beyond our initial goal will go towards producing our next two issues.

You recently left your position at Newsarama, as head of their Best Shots Reviews column. What made you decide to leave?

You know, it’s bittersweet. I’ve said this on my Twitter feed, but Newsarama was the longest relationship I’ve ever had — I’ve been writing for the site in some capacity basically since I graduated college, at the end of 2008. Newsarama was my home, and as their reviews editor, I was lucky enough to meet some of my best friends through the process. 

And I can certainly say I wouldn’t be half the writer I am today without having reviewed so many other books — and been forced to articulate what I did and didn’t like about them. It was incredible training for becoming a comics creator… in the fact that I knew just barely enough to get my first book across the finish line. (Laughs) You can learn so much about the business, but it can still be so academic until you wind up getting thrown into the deep end!

But as far as why I left was for a confluence of reasons, none of them bad. I never wanted to hit any conflicts of interest as far as my work as a comic creator and my work as a critic, but I knew if I did both long enough I’d eventually hit a fork in the road — and it was starting to become a challenge to dance between the raindrops to make sure I was maintaining my integrity as a reviewer while still avoiding companies or creators who I had done business with. 

The thing is, I have a few more books on the horizon now with more publishers, and I knew once those started to get announced it would be problematic to keep wearing both hats — and when I spoke with Newsarama’s senior editor, Mike Doran, about it, we actually found a solution that would devote even more resources across the reviewing team, which has literally been my goal since day one. I’ve always been about trying to leave things better than how I found them, and as I wrap up my 12 years at Newsarama, I think we managed to do that. I couldn’t ask for anything more, y’know?

Is there anything else you want people to know about this project?

If you like Mad Max: Fury Road, The Old Guard or Fables — or even my previous work on Spencer & Locke — you’re going to love what we’ve got in store for you with The O.Z. We’re able to take that meditation on trauma and guilt, and expand it over a much larger scale, exploring how one can make a moral choice in a battlefield where every decision can lead to someone’s death. 

But if there’s one thing we’re not doing with The O.Z., it’s telling a shocking story for the sake of shock value. There’s no investment in shock — there’s no emotional engagement. We don’t tell these stories to punch down or to belittle the real-world struggles that people go through everyday — instead, we’re taking these shared nostalgic memories, and using them to explore something that might be darker and heavier, but is no less real.

The O.Z. might be the best thing I’ve written yet — it’s certainly one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever worked on. But we need our backers on Kickstarter to see it through. Every pledge helps and every backer matters, and with this larger-than-life remix of classic fantasy, the creative team behind The O.Z. will go above and beyond to earn our readers’ trust.

The O.Z. can be found on Kickstarter; the campaign runs through Sept. 16.

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