David Pepose and Jorge Santiago, Jr. Talk Spencer & Locke
When his grade-school sweetheart is found dead, there’s only one friend Detective Locke can trust to help solve her murder — his childhood imaginary panther, Spencer. But when they face both a vicious crime syndicate and memories from Locke’s traumatic youth, can this unlikely pair survive long enough to find the truth?
Spencer & Locke is the brand new series from writer by David Pepose, artist Jorge Santiago, Jr. with colors by Jasen Smith, and covers by Santiago and Maan House. The first issue is a fun noir/crime comic with a Fight Club/Calvin & Hobbes twist to it all.
I got a chance to talk to David and Jorge about the series, its influences, and combining comedy with a dark crime story.
You can preorder the comic now. The code for the $3.99 main cover is FEB171049, and the $4.99 variants are FEB171048 and FEB171049!
Graphic Policy: Where’d the idea for Spencer & Locke come from?
David Pepose: Honestly, Spencer & Locke first got started as kind of a thought experiment — I think so often these days, comics are written as just storyboards for a film or TV adaptation, but I wanted to write something that really played to comics’ unique strengths as a medium, things like page turns, panels and pacing, shifting art style, that theatrical use of visuals, you know? I wanted to write something that would specifically tap into comics’ unique bag of storytelling tricks.
To that end, I had wanted to try to age up a children’s property, to see what kind of grounded twist we could put on things — and one day, I saw a remixed version of a Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin had been put on medication, and now he had no use for Hobbes anymore. That idea made me laugh, but then it made me think — what kind of upbringing must this kid have to turn what we’d consider a pathology into his own best friend? As an old-school Frank Miller fan, suddenly this image clicked in my head — this sort of Sin City bruiser, beat-up, bandaged and grinning maniacally in the rain, holding a stuffed animal in his hand. That image really brought Spencer & Locke into being — I needed to see that image come to life.
GP: How long have you been working on the series?
DP: I wrote the treatment and the first issue of Spencer & Locke way back in the summer of 2014, actually, so this book has been a long time coming! Once Jorge and I connected, it took a few months for us to get our pitch together — our biggest challenge was to find the right colorist for the project, but once Jasen Smith joined the team everything started to click.
It’s funny, because after taking nine months for us to get the pitch packet ready, Dave Dwonch over at Action Lab emailed me back to ask our timetable… maybe an hour after I sent our submission in? We signed right around Christmas in 2015, and wrapped on all four issues on Halloween of last year. In certain ways, it felt like we spent much longer on the book, but in other regards, it feels like it went by in just a blink!
GP: How did Jorge Santiago, Jr. come on to the project?
DP: Justin Jordan talks a lot about his process, and how he and Tradd Moore connected to create The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, but to boil it down quickly, Justin had said that he had found Tradd’s work online, and that he was a graduate of the Savannah College of Art and Design. I had known the school had a sequential art program, but seeing Tradd in action made me realize that there were plenty of other young, talented artists who were just one book away from making their big break.
With that in mind, I went online and looked up portfolios from as many SCAD graduates as I could find, and I remember being immediately struck by Jorge’s website, where he said he made comics with “stupid amounts of passion.” At the end of the day, it’s that kind of passion that’s going to make the difference between success and failure for a comic book project, and I knew right away just from that — on top of the expressiveness and energy and thoughtfulness Jorge brought to his pages — that this was the guy I wanted to work with.
GP: For the design of the characters themselves (and the comic as a whole). How much was that you David and how much was you Jorge?
Jorge Santiago, Jr.: When we started working on the pitch, David gave me character descriptions, which were more like histories, really. I tried to use that when I was sketching to imply the character’s upbringing and mood in a character design that didn’t give away too much. David was really specific about the moods that the scenes were to invoke so there was a lot of back and forth between us on the best way to convey each and every issue. The longest stage of the entire process was working out the plans for the pages.
GP: There’s a balance of humor and darker noir. As an artist, how do you balance that, especially in the scenes where the comedic elements really stand out?
JS: The two things I use to vary up drama and comedy are expressions and angles. I will choose a more direct, straight on angle for comedy and use the character’s expressions to do the heavy lifting of the comedy. When I’m doing noir, I want the camera and paneling to be a character as well, and I’ll place them where I can best convey the drama of the situation and the mood of the character. When the two mix, like doing an action angle for a comedy scene or a straight on scene for something dramatic, it can end up losing impact in the drama side, or making the joke seem serious in the humor side.
GP: The concept is really creative and lots of fun. There’s some aspect of Calvin & Hobbes and a good noir story it too. The two are totally different genres. How was it bringing the two together for one story?
DP: I found the two played off each other really smoothly. The thing is, even the most casual comics fan knows who Calvin and Hobbes are — and so there’s this iconography that you immediately know and recognize just from cultural osmosis, which we were able to play with and subvert in lots of different ways, like turning the red wagon into a red Challenger, or turning the bratty girl next door into a murdered former flame.
But the thing that I think both Calvin and Hobbes and Sin City have in common, that I think Spencer & Locke really plays into nicely, is that they both have these unique, subversive voices that are just clearly unmistakable — and that kind of pedigree works for Spencer & Locke, whose entire premise rests on this kind of subversion from literally our first page on.
The other thing is, because we’re able to play off this action-packed detective noir story off of the story of one child’s harrowing childhood, I think we’re able to really tell a human story here — yes, people might be interested in Spencer & Locke just based on the shock value of “what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City,” but once you get into the narrative, we actually delve deeply into trauma, depression and mental illness. Sort of this question of the lengths the mind will go to protect itself, you know? And I think it’s that story of Locke’s redemption upon returning home — upon facing down the demons of his past — that I think will pull on people’s heartstrings in a way they might not expect.
GP: There’s clearly influences here of Calvin & Hobbes and Sin City. What else was the series inspired by?
DP: Oh, man. I had a ton of influences that came together in the blender for Spencer & Locke. Movies like Memento, Fight Club, everything from Quentin Tarantino. True Detective. ‘90s Batman, particularly the work of Devin Grayson. Ed Brubaker’s Criminal. Afterlife with Archie. Tradd Moore’s Ghost Rider. Grant Morrison, Geoff Johns and Dan Slott. Darwyn Cooke. And absolutely, definitively the voice of Frank Miller, whose Daredevil: The Man Without Fear made my eight-year-old self-realize real people write these books. And Bill Watterson, whose mastery as a cartoonist is just unparalleled. He is truly (and obviously) an aspirational figure for me.
GP: I could see that aspect being almost comedic, but the story is a serious crime comic, did you find yourself trying to downplay that comedy considering the nature of the comic?
DP: Actually, for me, it was really the opposite — yes, Spencer & Locke is this kind of pitch-black parody, but the thing is, out-and-out comedy is hard! For a drama, you just have to have the story math add up, but for a comedy, you have to do all that and be funny. So rather than add a ton of pressure to have that sitcom pace of jokes, it became apparent fairly quickly that we could use humor instead to defuse what could turn into an oppressively bleak premise.
Thankfully, the characters of Spencer and Locke have these great voices and points of view that really let the comedic moments flow naturally, in that sort of buddy-cop vein — watching them bicker and banter is part of what makes our series tick, and watching them interact as both children and adults I think really will get readers invested in their journey as detectives.
GP: When it comes to Spencer & Locke, are the rules you came up with in how the two interact?
DP: I described Spencer and Locke’s real-world dynamic as something like Tyler Durden in Fight Club — Locke (and by extension, the reader) might be able to see Spencer, but that means we should all be wary that we’re following an unreliable protagonist here. Anything we see Spencer do, chances are it’s Locke’s imagination filling in the blanks for something he himself has done.
But without giving too much away, we’ll be playing with the rules more and more as the series progresses. Spencer might be a benign pathology, but he’s still a pathology, and as we test Locke physically, mentally and emotionally, we’re going to be testing our heroes’ dynamic as well.
GP: The comic is really interesting, and I don’t want to give away some of the fun twists, but interactions aren’t always what they seem. When writing those, is there a difference in how you write those versus some of the other conversations?
DP: The contrast between how Locke interacts with Spencer and how he interacts with the rest of the world is I think the central tension of Spencer & Locke — our tagline is actually “His partner’s imaginary—but the danger is all real!” And I think it’s easy for Locke to take for granted that he can see Spencer, that he always has backup, that he’s never alone.
But that means it’s also easy for Locke to have an inflated sense of security — sure, Spencer might act as his instincts and intuition as a cop, acting as the eyes in the back of Locke’s head, but at the end of the day, there’s only guy in this room who’s going to be taking a punch.
And for me, it’s been kind of fun imagining how the rest of the world might see Locke. I think casually it’s easy to miss what some weirdness in his behavior — mumbling to himself, ordering an apple juice that goes untouched, his seemingly insane leaps of logic that always seem to stick the landing — but I think the closer you get to Locke, the scarier he gets. This is the product of a truly terrifying upbringing, and as readers will discover, Spencer’s just a big housecat when you get to know him — it’s Locke who is capable of some real viciousness.
GP: For the art, was there any influences you used? Are there art elements you feel really stick out for a “noir/crime” story?
JS: I had a lot of influences going into Spencer and Locke, I wanted to be sure I had the right ideas in mind before I even drew a panel. I had a Torpedo graphic novel next to my desk for most of the drawing of the book, and I used many modern noir sources for other inspirations: books like Last Days of American Crime, Criminal, Fatale, and Blacksad were the biggest influences on my approach. I think a noir/crime story really needs the tragedy. When I think of what makes a movie like the Godfather, or a series like Breaking Bad a great crime story is that character descent into darkness. In both those examples, and in the books I brought up before, a good character is challenged by evil, and they have to dip their toe into this underworld to either survive or find a sense of justice. My greatest challenge with the book was showing that struggle in Locke; making sure that it was clear this man was broken and was trying to do right by himself and the people he loves, but will that make him a monster in the end? That’s what makes a crime story to me, I just hope I achieved that feeling.
GP: You’ve been on my side in comic journalism, how does it feel like being on the other side releasing something yourself?
DP: It’s definitely a surreal feeling — but one that I think is informed by the skills I picked up on the job. I view journalism, both comics and otherwise, as a never-ending learning experience, and I was struck both by how much comics journalism prepared me for this book, and simultaneously how little I actually knew about being on the creators’ side of the table. (And I got my start interning at DC Comics, so it’s not like I hadn’t seen a comic be produced before!)
But I’ve said this before, and I think it really holds true — comics journalism, in a lot of ways, feels like comic book graduate school. You learn a lot about theory and you get a sense of where your politics lie, and it was particularly instructive for all the non-creative things you have to do to make a book work — finding the right caliber of creative partners to work with, learning where and how to promote your book, understanding Diamond and the preorder system. Knowing the industry landscape and knowing who the industry players are really helped Spencer & Locke hit the ground running.
But at the same time, I feel like writing a comic is like having a kid — no matter how much you read up on it or how much you think you know, you’re going to be caught completely off-guard with how challenging the work is, or how rewarding and invested you’re going to feel doing it. I think writing a comic of my own has certainly changed how I view comics journalism, and how I would look at and approach a book. The whole experience has made me appreciate even more the types of writers and artists who try to stretch themselves creatively (even if it doesn’t necessarily work out in execution), while it’s only made me more frustrated if I see an assembly-line approach. Creating comics is a privilege — don’t phone it in!
GP: What advice would you give to someone interested in releasing a comic themselves?
DP: Writing is easy — but writing well is hard. I spent a long time figuring out what I did and didn’t like about comics before I even put pen to paper, and I spent even longer churning out some truly terrible stuff that will never, ever see the light of day. So the first thing I’d recommend for new writers is to churn through their awkward first stories quickly — I remember spending a solid month just writing quick six-page scripts, just to get to a beginning, a middle, and an end. The momentum of finishing what you start is crucial.
Once you’re at that stage, you can start to build onto something bigger. Figure out why you love these characters, what moments and qualities would make you want to follow them for an issue, or an arc, or a series. And the other thing that was incredibly helpful for me as a writer? Writing with a “dessert-first” mentality — you certainly don’t have to write your story in order, and the more landmarks you flesh out, the easier it is to create the connective tissue to get there. Once you figure out where your destinations are, you can afford to take the scenic route!
The other thing is to find collaborators who you know have talent, who bring something to the table that you can’t. I’ve been really fortunate to work with Jorge, Jasen and Colin, as well as our variant artists Maan House and Joe Mulvey, and they each brought their own flavor and their own experiences to the book. But making great comics is rarely a solo act, and picking the right people to work with is absolutely crucial to making your project a success.