Smash Pages Q&A: David Pepose on ‘Spencer & Locke,’ gritty crime and imaginary friends

“What if this imaginary friend wasn’t so benign?”

Debuting in comic shops tomorrow, David Pepose and Jorge Santiago Jr.’s Spencer & Locke imagines a world where Calvin and Hobbes went on to join the police force and take down bad guys. But when Sophie Jenkins — you remember Susie, right? — turns up dead in back alley, well … that’s where the story begins.

Published by Action Labs Entertainment, Spencer & Locke is a four-issue miniseries written by Pepose, whose name comics fans might recognize from his reviews at Newsarama, with art by Santiago (Curse of the Eel), colorist Jasen Smith and letterer Colin Bell.

On the eve of the book’s debut, I spoke with Pepose about the secret origins of the project.

Smash Pages: The concept behind Spencer & Locke is one of those simple, brilliant ideas that everyone wishes they had first. When did you first get the idea to mash up Calvin & Hobbes with a hard-boiled detective story?

David Pepose: When I first decided to start work on a comic, the idea of aging up a children’s property felt like a great place to start — people say “write what you know,” and I figured, I knew comics, right? But I didn’t want this book to just be about shock value, and I went through tons of concepts before I settled on Spencer & Locke. I remember seeing a remixed Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin went on medication and stopped seeing Hobbes, and that set a lot of gears turning — what if this imaginary friend wasn’t so benign, but a symptom of a deeper pathology? What kind of home life would force someone to conjure up their own best friend?

Those questions wound up forming the foundation of Locke, our hard-edged cop coming back home years after escaping his abusive upbringing. I knew that examining his relationship with an imaginary friend was going to be a dark journey, and that really lent itself well to that noirish, bleak Frank Miller aesthetic which really grabbed me as a kid. But we were really able to have our cake and eat it, too, by including Spencer as this sort of leavening influence to the story — the best pairs are studies in contrasts, and having Spencer’s warmth and humor alongside Locke’s attitude and aggressiveness makes for a really winning partnership.

Having the idea is one thing, but actually pulling off a decent story is another — which you and Jorge Santiago do. Given this is your first published comic work, how hard was that for you? What difficulties did you run into along the way as you put the story together?

You know you have some good characters when the writing comes easy — but I think you have great characters when even the rewrites are fun. Spencer and Locke’s voices were really clear in my head the moment I started writing, which is not a normal thing! (Laughs) But the idea of this broken-down cop who is both keenly intelligent yet clearly in denial of this deeply held pain, that was really attractive to me as a writer.

For me, the biggest difficulty I had wasn’t generating the story, but making sure I could script it in a way that made sense to Jorge. So we would talk back and forth about the best way to lay out an action sequence, or the best way to convey emotion and mood. There’s so much acting in their story from the moment Locke appears on the page, and that I think really helped anchor our story and keep our narrative on track.

Has being a comic reviewer helped or hindered you at all as you created the story? Have you ever thought, “What would I say about this book in a review if I wasn’t the one writing it?”

I think I asked myself that question every single page! (Laughs) But yes, I think being a comic reviewer helped tremendously for Spencer & Locke. It was like comics grad school — reading and analyzing comics every day really forced me to articulate what I did and didn’t like about comic book storytelling. For example, did I want this story to be decompressed, or did I want tight standalone chapters? By studying the creators and craftsmanship of comics, that really helped me develop my own voice as a writer, and add lots of little tips and tricks to my storytelling toolbox.

But at the same time, I also feel like comics reviewing was just enough preparation to… just barely not be in over my head, you know? Like, I had picked up a lot in comics theory, but there’s that saying about no battle plan surviving contact with the enemy, if that make any sense. I think ultimately you can learn as much about comics as possible, but there’s no substitute to getting your hands dirty and just doing the thing. Honestly, I feel like I doubled my knowledge base just working with Jorge and Jasen and Colin to create a cohesive vision.

How did you and Jorge meet, and when did you know he was the right guy for the project?

When I started looking for an artist on this project, I remembered Justin Jordan’s story about finding Tradd Moore online to work on The Strange Talent of Luther Strode. With Tradd being a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design, I decided I’d follow in their footsteps, and started looking at as many portfolios from SCAD, the Kubert School, SVA, and any other schools I could find. But what stood out about Jorge to me was that he said he made comics with “stupid amounts of passion,” and I think you have to have that quality when you’re doing indie comics — that’s what gets you through long hours and rejection and everything else.

And as Jorge and I worked together on Spencer & Locke, I couldn’t help but be struck at what a talent I was working with. When I first approached him about this book, I said that I wanted it to be an artist’s book — honestly, I wanted this book to be a portfolio for everyone involved and to just throw in anything cool I could possibly think of, because who knows if anyone would let me back in the door after this blasphemy? (Laughs) So while I went crazy trying to throw everything and the kitchen sink into our scripts, Jorge just knocked it all out of the park. There’s so much versatility to his work, and I think readers are going to be surprised at the amount of range the entire team brings to Spencer & Locke.

How has working with Action Lab been?

Action Lab has been truly a fantastic publisher to work with — our creative director, Dave Dwonch, immediately saw the potential in our concept, and was a tireless champion in getting us the green light to move forward on a concept that I think plenty of other publishers would have (and did) hesitate on. Dave’s reactions to our book, pretty much from pitch to finished product, just made my day — the fact that he trusted us to tell our story the way we needed to I think is a real rarity in this business, and it’s because he instinctively got our story. I think having someone who really understands us is such a gratifying experience all around.

What can we expect from the rest of the series?

Car chases. Gun fights. Dinosaurs. Space crusaders. Pulse-pounding action. Heart-breaking emotion. But ultimately, at the heart of this series, Spencer & Locke isn’t just the story of a cop and his imaginary friend, but about a broken man finally confronting the scars of his past. Underneath all the crazy high concepts and the flights of insane imagination, there’s a very human story at the core of Spencer & Locke, a story of redemption and friendship and the potential for all of us to transcend our pain. Isn’t that something we can all wish for?

Check out some preview pages from the first issue below. Spencer & Locke #1 hits comic stores and comiXology on April 12.

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