David Pepose and Jorge Santiago are the creators behind the phenomenal four-issue Spencer & Locke series from Action Lab. It has been a critical hit in the world of comics – no mean feat for two guys launching their very first series.
David has worked in the comics industry for the better part of a decade, beginning as an editorial intern at DC Comics back in the days of Final Crisis. During his internship, he met Janelle Asselin in the Batman office, who had joined the company from Newsarama. “Janelle introduced me to her editor, Troy Brownfield,” David says, “which kicked off an eight-year comics journalism career, where I learned how to break down and analyze comics every single day.”
In the meantime, he juggled a variety of media jobs, starting off as a newspaper reporter, and making the leap to working in television and film at CBS and Netflix. “But through it all, I still felt like I was missing something creatively, which led me to take the leap and try writing a comic of my own,” he says, so he began developing his own ideas.
Meanwhile, Jorge got into comics with the manga boom of the mid-2000s, and began self-publishing his own material. Aspiring to draw comics full-time, he enrolled in the MFA Sequential Arts program at the Savannah College of Art & Design. Since earning his masters degree, he has continued to self-publish, and has also been featured in numerous anthologies. Spencer & Locke is his project to be published by a major company.
When David first started putting together ideas for scripts, he followed the credo, “Write what you know” — and what he knows is comics. So the idea of aging up a comic strip with something dark and adult was the spark behind Spencer & Locke. “Part of the problem was that a lot of the earlier ideas that came from that were based solely on shock value, which I don’t think has a lot of legs in the long run,” he says.
“When I thought about Calvin and Hobbes – well, even when I was younger I always thought there was something a little sinister about this kid who had to make up his only friend, right? And that’s when the concept of trauma and mental illness kind of clicked for me — using this comic strip style to sort of lull readers into a false sense of familiarity and security before pulling out the rug from underneath them. And on top of that, it was also the challenge behind our high concept — like, can we really tackle Calvin and Hobbes, one of the most sacred cows in comics, and not get gored?”
When David pitched the idea, Jorge, a fan of crime comics and movies, quickly signed on. “David is actually my first writer. Everything I’ve done comic-wise before Spencer & Locke was all me doing everything, so it was a very interesting and unique experience working with David on the book. I like working with passionate people, and I think it’d be hard to find someone more passionate than David about comics.”
That passion is shared, as David cites a statement on Jorge’s website that caught his eye; that he made comics and art with “stupid amounts of passion.” That was exactly what he was looking for in a partner and co-creator. “Someone who brought his own unique energy and fire to this story, who would really elevate our concepts to the next level with his art. It was all luck on my part to get to work with somebody as gifted as Jorge!” says David.
The story follows the investigation of police detective Locke and his “partner,” Spencer, a 6-ft. black panther with a button eye. But as partner’s go, Spencer is mostly a figment of Locke’s imagination.
Jorge accepts the inevitability of comparisons to Calvin & Hobbes, Sin City and other crime stories. “I think that in the end, our team put together a work that is born out of love for all the works that inspired us.”
David recognized the story was very polarizing just from the concept alone. “It’s very much ‘What if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City,’” he explains, “and trying to evoke two modern masters in Bill Watterson and Frank Miller is going to get people fired up in one direction or the other. And people have! Thankfully, I think the majority of our readership has recognized that this is our love letter to two pioneering creators.”
Jorge feels using the Calvin & Hobbes style to depict Locke’s childhood misadventures made the most sense. “We didn’t have to tell you the flashbacks were happening, you could see and feel them on the page. I think this was us using the comics medium to tell a story with the most distinct features that set it apart from movies or animation.”
Jorge suggests that every great crime story features a protagonist who has been dealt a cruel injustice and turns to crime to balance things out. But can someone who suffers and makes others suffer be redeemed? “With our book, we were trying to create a character that has been dealt an awful hand by life, and the question is can he overcome his trauma? The story does have a lot of abuse in it, but David and I both were hard set on making sure we didn’t glorify the trauma of Locke’s upbringing. We hope that people can see that this story is about a man struggling against the weight of the wrongs done to him and his response to it will be what defines him as a person.”
David agrees. “I think the way we’ve tried to tackle these scenes is to be sure we always follow through on these moments, to show why we would include them in the context of these characters. Spencer & Locke is, at its core, a book about returning to the scene of the crime — it’s about us revisiting these traumatic, horrifying moments and seeing if we can turn these scars into something better, to show that if Locke can overcome his past, maybe we can, too.
Spencer represents of the blurred line between Locke’s imagination and his very fragile mental state brought on by childhood traumas. He is named for philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
Jorge says, “I think Spencer is an interesting character since he’s this hulking panther that is also the conscience of a broken person who is struggling to stay in the light. I think that everyone has that person that they turn to who represents everything they could hope to be, just maybe not everyone sees that person as a panther with a button eye and a revolver!”
David was influenced by comic creators such as Ed Brubaker, Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Rick Remender, Devin Grayson and Roger Robinson. Titles include such work as Criminal, Batman: Gotham Knights, Afterlife with Archie and Blacksad.
“I also drew from a lot of film and television for this,” he says. “Memento is my all-time favorite movie, and was a huge inspiration for this book, and I definitely remember drinking deep from The Leftovers as I wrote some of the final scripts. There’s also a lot of Quentin Tarantino, a little bit of Edgar Wright, a little bit of True Detective, a little bit of Fight Club… my brain picks up some of the weirdest influences.”
Jorge cites Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini’s Last Days of American Crime as his favorite crime comic. “The synergy of perfect story and perfect art was a huge reason why I started taking in more crime fiction. Artists like Andrew Robinson, Sara Pichelli, Cameron Stewart, and Paul Azaceta are huge influences on me because I think these artists are masters of motion and dynamism on the page.
He specifically mentions the work of Yusuke Murata, a manga artist best known for the art of One Punch Man and Eyeshield 21. “Murata has a style that fluctuates between realistic and cartoony and his panel and shot choices are second to none.
“More than anything, I wanted the action of the book to be felt, so every gunshot should explode and every punch should feel fast and dangerous, so the artists on the list were always at hand when I was drawing and inking the pages.
Jorge says the response to Spencer & Locke has been monumental. “I wasn’t sure what to expect since this is our debut work and I didn’t know how people would respond to my art,” he says. “Both fans and pros have been nothing but positive about the book! I’ve always wanted people to read and enjoy my comics and finding that retailers are supporting us and the readers are loving it too is a joy I’ve only dreamt of.”
“To see complete strangers post these effusive, hour-long videos about our work, or to have stores in major cities sell out of our book in just two hours, that’s about as surreal as it gets,” adds David.
Jorge believes if the book does well, there could be more Spencer & Locke to come. “I’ve heard some of David’s plans for future books, they would make for some pretty awesome comics.” The fact that it has already been optioned for film by Hitman producer Adrian Askarieh and Prime Universe Films certainly bodes well for fans of the book.
David says that while it’s still too early for a set timetable for more Spencer & Locke, he says he’s hopeful there’s enough demand for more. “I know exactly who Spencer and Locke would have to face next. I can’t give away too much, other than saying this foe would come from the same kind of dark place as Locke — only stronger, faster, meaner.”
In the meantime, he has a few other comics in varying stages of development. “I love writing crime stories, and I think I definitely gravitate towards those first and foremost — I feel like it’s one of the more elastic genres out there — but I’m also looking forward to challenging myself as a writer and showing publishers and readers that I’ve got a range of interests, from all ages to sci-fi to horror to even superheroes. And believe me when I say that Jorge is going to be at the top of my speed dial when these ideas are settled — it’s been such a treat working with him on this book that I plan on pitching him the best stuff I can come up with!”
Jorge also has irons in the fire, continuing to self-publish his own material, which can be found mainly on his blog, jorgesantiagojr.com. “Other than that, it’s just trying to improve my game, because when David comes calling with some of the stuff I’ve heard that he’s brewing, I’ll want to be ready to answer that call.
But he is also spending a great deal of time promoting Spencer & Locke as best he can. “This is my first published work so I want people to know that I did my best on it, and I owe it to David to help get the word out and encourage people to check it out.”
Neither David or Jorge is aware if Calvin & Hobbes creator Bill Waterson has seen the series. “I hope he knows that we love his work immensely,” says Jorge. “He’s a legend and is a real inspiration to me, so I’m hoping that he would like it, or at least understand our feelings about him and his work.”
Even so, David says he’s looking into Witness Protection just in case. But if the rest of the comic book industry is any indication, he has very little to worry about. “It’s been really tremendous to just see readers, retailers and creators rally around us the way that they have, and I couldn’t be more grateful for their support — I feel like we’ve been The Little Indie That Could.
“At the end of the day, though, it felt both reverential, audacious and subversive — just the most perfect way for us to make our first impression on the comics industry as a whole.”