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INTERVIEW: Spencer & Locke’s David Pepose and Jorge Santiago, Jr. Talk Sequel, Film Adaptation and More

Suspended by Internal Affairs, Detective Locke grapples with the demons of his past alongside his trusty partner, his childhood imaginary panther Spencer. But when Spencer and Locke face a scarred soldier named Roach Riley, will this unlikely pair finally meet their match?

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When 'Spencer and Locke' first launched back in 2017, it was a curious novelty at first blush. The premise of "what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City" was cute and ambitious but how could it possibly live up to the beloved comic strip with the hard edge of Frank Miller's classic? The result was a triumph that proved to be more thoughtful and impactful than expected. The combination of a hard-boiled detective story told through the lens of PTSD while paying homage to some revered properties proved to be masterful in both execution and style. David Pepose and Santiago, Jr., had found the heart and soul of the story in real emotion while being an entertaining crime drama.

With its success at Action Lab, a sequel has arrived along with a film adaptation. Here I talk with Pepose and Santiago, Jr., about what to expect in 'Spencer and Locke 2,' what it's like to have the entire creative team back, what they can reveal about the film, and whether or not Garfield is the greatest comic strip cat ever. 

Spartantown (ST): 'Spencer and Locke' was such a surprise hit with readers and critics it's garnered Ringo Award nominations, a film adaptation, and now a sequel, just how gratifying is it to have so much success especially for David on your first book?

David Pepose (DP): It’s been incredible seeing the response to SPENCER & LOCKE so far. Like you said, this was my first book, and there’s so many other really terrific books out there, so it’s been so great to have seen such a passionate and vocal readership grow since our debut. It’s also gratifying to see such a risky premise pay off - I think we had a lot of people check us out just to see if we’d totally crater it, so I’m glad we were able to prove them wrong! (Laughs)

Jorge Santiago, Jr (JSJ): I honestly did not expect this many people to fall in love with the book as they have. I assumed that we would have a decent response, but I knew that books from two new unestablished creators would be a longshot, and the response blew me away. I’m grateful to everyone who gave our book a shot, whether they enjoyed it or not.

 ST: In the wrong hands, the premise of a hard-boiled cop with an imaginary friend could have been a disaster. What do you think made it work and resonate with readers?

DP: Honestly, I think the imaginary friend element was probably the least controversial part of the series! (Laughs) When you have a high concept like “what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City,” no matter whether you succeed or you fail, you’re going to be having a lot of people watching. But I think our nostalgic winks or any clever plot twists aside, I think what drew people to SPENCER & LOCKE was that everyone has painful memories in their past - and I think because we showed Locke’s trauma with empathy, I think a lot of people felt their own sense of catharsis as they watched him struggle but ultimately never give up the fight.

JSJ: I believe our book resonates with people because this is a dark story told without being gratuitous.  It would have been super easy for us to go down a road of shock value for shock value’s sake which a lot of comics in this vein tend to do, but SPENCER & LOCKE is a story with dark themes that were approached with care. We didn’t want our fans to feel like we were trying to take these events lightly, and I think that helped us send our message to the readers. Also, I think the fact that Locke, as bad as things are for him, is always trying to do the right thing, so even though this is a crime comic, the character always feels like a hero, even when things get REALLY bad.

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ST: Spencer and Locke are back against a new foe in Roach Riley, your version of Mort Walker's classic comic strip Beetle Bailey. In approaching another twisted take on a legendary strip how did you decide on Roach Riley and what other strips did you consider to parody?

DP: Roach has always been in the cards, as far back as when I outlined the original series. I was thinking about the sorts of threats that police face, and the idea of terrorism really popped out at me - that idea of just large-scale violence and destruction, and how two street-level cops would be so horribly out of their depth. The idea of parodying Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey felt like the perfect fit just for the concept - but once I started getting into Roach’s head, I realized that he and Locke really were two of a kind. These two men have both survived unimaginable horror, but have taken two very different approaches to channeling their trauma. Spencer and Locke have been two dream characters to write, but coming up with Roach gave them a villain that was truly worthy of their skills as detectives and their mettle as heroes.

JSJ: I feel like Roach Riley was the inevitable next step for this story. When David told me about his plans for Roach it seemed like “yes, that’s probably where things have to go from here.” I think of crime comics and war comics as having a shared lineage, so changing our book from crime syndicates to guerrilla warfare on city streets felt like a fun and natural next stage in stepping things up. I also think that as far as this approach goes, certain comic strips are just more ripe for this level of homage and parody than others. Some comic strips just don’t adjust well so we have to be careful.

ST: 'Spencer and Locke 2' brings back the entire creative team which is pretty rare nowadays. What are the benefits of collaborating with people that already understand the material, the tone, the goals because you've all done it before?

DP: I think the best part about being able to work with Jorge, Jasen, Colin, Maan and Joe again is that we’re able to build upon the strong foundation of our first volume. So much of our sequel subverts and interrogates what we established before, and seeing the way our team has leveled up — particularly the way Jorge has layered in all sorts of visual metaphors about Locke and Roach — has made me really excited to see how fans respond to our sequel.

JSJ: It definitely frees things up because there is a lot less guesswork to be done. I think with any creative team, the first set of issues will be the rockiest because people are trying to see how they fit and how to adjust to people’s styles of working, but arc 2, there were fewer questions to ask. It also allowed me room to stop thinking about “is this what I should be saying” with the art and instead I get to focus on “What do I want to say visually with this world?” I think I did my best to bring more of my own visual flavor to this arc and also bring in more imagery and symbolism this time around. Also, a lot of the weapons in this arc were specially chosen from characters and dynamics from games and shows that I felt were thematically similar, but I won’t spoil things yet.

ST: The previews for the sequel look amazing and again show off Jorge's virtuosity as an artist. The first volume was such a success how did you handle the pressure, if any, to deliver an even bigger better story the second time around?

JSJ: Thank you, I’m so happy that people are enjoying the art on this time around! I didn’t feel any pressure, I actually feel more freedom with this arc as I could spend some more time focusing on the art of the world and the symbolism of the narrative. I tried to make this comic much more visually rich; I tried to make every mark on the page a deliberate one. I can give this one away because it’s not really a spoiler, but when designing Spencer and Locke, Locke has a scar over his right eye that was given to him by his mother. Spencer, which is an extension of Locke’s subconscious and is a reflection of some of his warmer qualities, is missing his left eye. I wanted Spencer at all times to be the other half of Locke, the side that he looks to when he’s in trouble, because he created Spencer to protect himself from danger. There are some times though, when people look into their reflection and maybe aren’t happy with what they see.

ST: I know you can't say too much about the film adaptation but what did you want to improve on or convey in greater detail as it translates to another medium?

DP: While there’s not a lot I can say publicly just yet about our multimedia plans, it’s been a very cool experience being in on the ground floor. The thing I always tell our readers is that SPENCER &  LOCKE the book will, of course, be very different than SPENCER & LOCKE the movie - it’s kind of similar in Netflix’s new Umbrella Academy series. The comic and the television show are very different animals, with their own unique strengths and qualities that they bring to the table, but I think they both maintain true to the spirit of the source material. For comics, you write for particular moments, and are able to lean into the crazy spectacle of it all more — for film and television, though, I think you have to pick your battles a bit more, because while you don’t have the benefit of an artist’s unique visual interpretation of a page, you do want to give the actors room to put their own spin on your characters and dialogue. Ultimately, my main thing is that I don’t want people to watch a SPENCER & LOCKE movie to pick up our book and be horrified by the first page — so I do want to stay true to our core conceits of trauma, mental illness, and the unlikely redemption that comes from having an imaginary friend.

JSJ: My hope is that should the work get adapted to another media, that they emphasize Locke’s humanity above all else. Crime stories tend to be about the fall of a good person, Breaking Bad being a good example. Our story is different because Locke was steeped in crime, he’s the progeny of tragedy, but he doesn’t want that for himself or his daughter. He wants to better himself in a world that already pretty bad, and I think that humanity is important for our story. Also, I kind of sort of really wishes upon a magic star that it could be animated. I love live action film, but I think we’re entering a renaissance of really well-done animated films and a lot of them lack these kinds of mature themes. I think it would be awesome if SPENCER & LOCKE led the charge in some of the first serious, animated films that do some fun stuff with art style and storytelling in a way that people wouldn’t expect! And if that happens, I could maybe get my cameo wish to play Principal Scabtree.

ST: 'Spencer and Locke' could only have existed at an independent comic book publisher. Action Lab is not afraid to put out some edgy stuff. What kind of freedom and peace of mind as creatives does that give you to fulfill your visions for the series?

DP: I think you hit the nail on the head with the word freedom — there are a lot of publishers that would have been a little too squeamish to print SPENCER & LOCKE. And to be honest, it’s completely understandable, given that we turned a universally beloved comic strip into a gritty noir thriller about childhood trauma and PTSD. But Action Lab has been a really terrific partner as far as SPENCER & LOCKE has been concerned — whereas another publisher might have demanded that we pull back our story (or worse, push it into the realm of exploitation), Action Lab has always trusted us to tell our story exactly as we envisioned it. As a first-time creator, that amount of latitude was crucial towards our first volume’s success, and Action Lab has been nothing but supportive for everything we’ve done in Volume 2.

ST: David, is there anything you throw at Jorge and wonder how he's going to handle it only to be blown away? Jorge, do you sometimes look at the script and think 'Is David out of his mind'?

DP: Never. Maybe I should be thinking about this? (Laughs) I always throw as much crazy stuff as possible at Jorge, because I’ve never once doubted his ability to pull it off. Car chases, gunfights, sci-fi sequences, dinosaurs, horrible snowmen, gloomy battlefields… he pulls them off in a way that seems effortless. But the thing about Jorge is that his work is always built on a foundation of expressiveness and empathy — he gets you to fall in love with our characters even without the benefit of my dialogue, which makes all our wild spectacle feel so realized.

JSJ: It’s less that I think that David is out of his mind and more that I wonder “How am I gonna even begin to draw this!?” The first time I had that was in the car chase scene in issue 2, which was my first car chase ever and I had a lot of fun with it! I had some great reference material loaded up and it was a good learning experience that turned into one of my favorite sequences of the book. David always tries to throw things at me that will keep me on my toes, which hopefully if it has that effect on me, it’ll be the same for the reader. Issue 2 and 3 have some crazy sequences that I think our readers will enjoy.

ST: What's your pitch to the uninitiated who haven't had the good sense to pick up 'Spencer and Locke' or have any reservations about the sequel?

DP: I think we’re really taking our heroes into uncharted territory in SPENCER & LOCKE 2, with a shared universe concept that I think really opens up our stories across a variety of different genres and archetypes. If you thought what we did with a Calvin and Hobbes parody was wild, wait till you see what happens when no comic strip is safe. Moreover, Spencer and Locke themselves are just really heartfelt and sympathetic characters underneath their scars, and I think Roach Riley is going to be a villain that sticks with readers for a long time. We’ve said before that SPENCER & LOCKE 2 is our Empire Strikes Back, our Dark Knight — we’re taking a really big swing with this sequel, and I honestly think that this might be better than the original.

JSJ: SPENCER & LOCKE is about hope, I think. It boils down to it, right? Locke is a detective with a past burdened with pain and scars, but he has the hope that he’s on the right path and it will lead him to happiness. But in our volume 2, Locke has an unstoppable force bearing down on him, one that could not only kill him, but it could rob him of that hope. Also, Spencer is a large panther man with a button eye and he wears a trench coat. That’s just science.

ST: Last question: Garfield or Heathcliff?

DP: Garfield. No question.

JSJ: Garfield, but Heathcliff’s cartoon had the better theme song.


Writer(s): David Pepose
Artist Name(s): Jorge Santiago, Jr. (Pencils), Jasen Smith (Colors)
Cover A – Jorge Santiago, Jr.
Cover B – Maan House
Cover C – Joe Mulvey

The critical and fan favorite series returns! Suspended by Internal Affairs, Detective Locke grapples with the demons of his past alongside his trusty partner, his childhood imaginary panther Spencer. But when Spencer and Locke face a scarred soldier named Roach Riley, will this unlikely pair finally meet their match?

24 pgs./ T+ / FC                   $3.99  

IN STORES MAY 22, 2019:

Writer(s): David Pepose
Artist Name(s): Jorge Santiago, Jr. (Pencils), Jasen Smith (Colors)
Cover A – Jorge Santiago, Jr.
Cover B – Maan House
Cover C – Joe Mulvey
24 pgs./ T+ / FC

The trial of Spencer and Locke starts now! After turning the city upside-down to stop Roach Riley, our hard-boiled heroes suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the law — but what happens when Roach crashes their hearing with a sixty-ton tank?