Spencer & Locke 2 is out April 24th, and Monkeys Fighting Robots sat down with writer David Pepose and artist Jorge Santiago, Jr. to talk about the series.
For the uninitiated, Spencer & Locke can be summed up in a few words: Calvin and Hobbes meets Sin City. Detective Locke fights crime with the help of his partner and childhood imaginary friend Spencer, a talking panther. It’s one of the most original and thoughtful series out today, tackling childhood trauma and PTSD, and balancing these heavy topics with smart humor, intrigue, and thrills. It’s also already been optioned for film by producer Adrian Askarieh and Prime Universe Films. Along with Pepose and Santiago, Jasen Smith is the series’ colorist, and Colin Bell the letterer.
Volume one was nominated for five Ringo Awards (Best Series, Best Writer, Best Cover Artist, Best Colorist, and Best Letterer), and volume two promises to up the ante in every way, with a new deadly villain for the titular duo to take on.
Read on to see what Pepose and Santiago have to say:
Monkeys Fighting Robots: David, Spencer & Locke 2 introduces a new hardcore villain; what can you tell us about Roach Riley?
David Pepose: For those who haven’t read our first series, SPENCER & LOCKE follows Detective Locke, a hard-boiled cop whose upbringing was so traumatic that he still partners with his childhood imaginary friend Spencer as an adult. So if Spencer and Locke are the products of a lifetime of horror, Roach Riley is what you’d get if you experienced all that pain and horror on a vastly accelerated timetable.
The sole survivor of his platoon overseas, we’ll see in SPENCER & LOCKE 2 that Roach’s survival came at a truly harrowing cost. But Roach has also come out of this gauntlet with a real sense of purpose, and a twisted sense of meaning for everything he’s endured — and as a highly trained and heavily armed soldier, he’s come back home to share these brutal lessons with the rest of the city. Roach is very much Spencer and Locke’s dark opposite, and there are some wrinkles to his story that only reinforce that dynamic further.
MFR: If Spencer and Locke are “Calvin and Hobbes meets Sin City,” then I feel like Roach is “Beetle Bailey meets the Punisher.” Is that a fair comparison? Did you have characters other than Frank Castle in mind when writing Roach?
Pepose: Definitely, I think the Frank Castle comparisons would be on the mark! For me, the big influences for Roach were Heath Ledger’s Joker, as well as the films Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter. When artist Jorge Santiago, Jr. and I were first discussing Roach, it was trying to meld that lanky laziness of Mort Walker’s classic Beetle Bailey with the fact that this is also a guy who has seen some things and is really, really good at what he does — in this case, causing bloodshed on a massive scale.
But there’s also this bleakly hilarious sense of personality to Roach that was really fun to write, because just like Spencer and Locke, he has his own perspective and philosophy on the world. There’s a lot of fighting in this sequel, but at the end of the day, Locke and Roach’s real war is ideological. What do you do with the pain that life deals you? Can anyone come out of that psychological battleground unscathed?
MFR: Jorge, when David first approached you with Spencer & Locke, what about the story jumped out at you that you had to work on it?
Jorge Santiago, Jr.: When David first contacted me about Spencer & Locke, I was deep in the study of noir films that I had never gotten a chance to see. I was watching the Godfather, the Departed, and other films hoping to find a way to tell a story with those conventions but also adding my own flair to the genre to subvert it and make it my own. Spencer and Locke was a step in that direction so I was interested in what we could say about crime stories, noir, and the people those stories are about.
MFR: And what kind of influences were Bill Watterson and Frank Miller on you, both as an artist and a reader?
Santiago: As a kid, most of my comic reading was done in the newspaper, so Calvin and Hobbes was a big joy in my life. The strip was the perfect middle ground of hilarious comedy and storytelling, so it never got old to me and even today, I can pick up a volume of the collected works and have a great time reading and studying from a master. I actually had not read any Frank Miller comics before entering grad school, so my study of his work was done as a student of comics; I didn’t grow up with his comics the way most comic fans did. I’ve mainly studied them for their techniques and seeing how I can apply them to my own comics.
MFR: What concepts or themes are you exploring in volume 2 that set it apart from volume 1?
Pepose: Our first arc was about scars, and now that we’ve established Spencer and Locke’s brutal upbringing, our sequel is going to be about consequences. What’s the price Locke has to pay for the way he fights crime? What’s the fallout he has to endure for holding onto his imaginary friend Spencer after all these years? And perhaps the central question of our series — can Spencer and Locke ever hope to transcend their own pasts, or will they always be defined by it? This sequel is going to really test Spencer and Locke’s dynamic, and explore what the limits of their partnership can be.
MFR: Just from the first issue of S&L2, I feel like you’re getting ready to push Locke to the edge. He seems to have a lot of deeply seeded anger that he’s working out through Spencer, and I’m worried that Roach Riley is going to bring that out of him. Haven’t you put the poor guy through enough already?
Pepose: I know, and after our first story was so innocent! (Laughs) But you’re right, that Locke is definitely not in a good place after the events of the last arc. Locke’s had some of his most deeply-held beliefs challenged, and moreover, he’s finally confronted the tormentors of his past… so why doesn’t he feel any better?
Ultimately, despite what action movies might tell you, you can’t shoot all your problems into submission — even worse, Spencer and Locke’s violent methods have placed them under investigation by Internal Affairs, putting Locke’s custody of his daughter Hero at risk. You put all that craziness together, and Spencer and Locke are not necessarily in the best of headspaces when Roach makes his bloody return home.
MFR: S&L is a series about trauma, PTSD, and how we deal with these things. Would you consider Spencer a healthy coping mechanism for Locke? And do you think Locke has a chance to put his past in the past and be happy, or is the best he can hope for is to embrace that pain as a part of him and turn it into something good?
Pepose: Clinically speaking, I’ve always thought of Locke as a high-functioning schizophrenic — but in our sequel, I wanted to make sure we weren’t romanticizing his mental illness and his own internal damage. Like you said, Spencer is Locke’s chosen coping mechanism, but is Spencer necessarily the best way for Locke to function in society? To pursue justice? To raise a child? To me, Locke’s overactive imagination has always been him holding onto sanity by the fingernails, and as he faces someone who revels in madness the way Roach does, Locke might find himself slipping off the edge.
MFR: Can you discuss what it’s like designing characters and a world that have to pay homage to such perennial classics, but at the same time feel fresh and original? I have to imagine this is particularly difficult when drawing the Watterson-esque flashbacks to Locke’s childhood.
Santiago: For the present day sequences, that is just my own art style with more of a hard edge to it. Like a lot of people, I think homage rides an incredibly fine line before it just feels like a rip off, so for the bulk of the comic I just drew what felt most natural but the cinematography and direction of the scenes is from the mindset of a noir filmmaker. My characters don’t look like they’re referencing any one style 100% of the time, but the framing and acting is all inspired by those movies that I was watching so those scenes were the easiest to do since it was just being myself.
The flashback scenes were tricky because of the reasons mentioned before, so I spent a lot of time studying Calvin and Hobbes and finding my own ways to interpret that style. What was important to me was finding a way to interpret these style choices into my art so that they never felt too disconnected; if the flashbacks felt like they were drawn by a different person, that would be bad. I think I succeeded in making this flashbacks coexist with the present day scenes, and that meant embracing the honest truth that I would never be able to draw like Bill Watterson, and I was happy with that.
MFR: Do you listen to music while you draw? What’s your soundtrack for Spencer & Locke?
Santiago: I listen to a LOT of music while I draw, music is what helps me stop overthinking my every stroke and start focusing on instinct. Without music, I don’t think I’d be able to work as much as I do. My soundtrack for Spencer and Locke is over 200 songs across genres and artists but I can include some songs for the main characters that helped me get into their mindsets for the comic. Some of these have swearing in them so listen at your own peril! In the first arc, I drew “War Children” on a wall as a nod to the Rolling Stones “Gimme Shelter,” and I think that song might be the theme to arc 2 as a whole, but there are other songs that could fit the theme as well.
Locke: Burn It Down by Linkin Park
Spencer: Kids with Guns by the Gorillaz
Hero: Fingers by Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts
Roach: Qwerty by Mushroomhead
Melinda: UFOMG by Blockhead
MFR: David, what’s your favorite part of writing Spencer & Locke? I would think the Fight Club-esque scenes where Locke is talking to Spencer but everyone else just sees a plush panther are particularly fun.
Pepose: That’s a real toss-up for me — on the one hand, I really enjoy writing our action sequences, just to come up with new and exciting ways to put Spencer and Locke through the wringer. (Just wait till you get to the last issue — let’s just say that Locke and Roach have a particularly brutal showdown.)
But on the other hand, Jorge and I always seem to have the most fun when we’re writing our tear-jerker moments — we actually made our editor cry twice during the first arc! And I think there’s a real sense of vulnerability and heartache to Locke as a character that I think a lot of people resonate with, because everybody has been hurt at some point or another in their lives. So watching Spencer and Locke grapple with these very human situations and try to move past them are the kinds of moments that keep me invested in these characters over the long haul.
MFR: Similarly, what draws you to writing as a career? And what keeps you going on days when the creative juices just aren’t flowing?
Pepose: Definitely the money, sense of security, and how easily everything comes together! (Laughs) Kidding! Honestly, writing is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but it’s also the best job in the world — how many other gigs would encourage you to just put your headphones on, start daydreaming, and build any sort of world you could think of? So even on the hard days, I just remember how lucky I am to be doing this.
Do I have days where the juices aren’t flowing? Totally. What do I do in that situation? Sometimes I put on music until things start clicking. Sometimes I just write scenes out of order, just to get some progress made elsewhere. Sometimes I reach out to my friends, get their two cents on things. And sometimes you just type, knowing that even if none of what you’re writing makes the final cut, you’re still doing the work of churning through the crappy stuff until you start finding the gold again.
MFR: And you, Jorge? What’s been your favorite page or moment from S&L that you’ve drawn so far?
Santiago: I think issue 3 of our second arc has some of my favorite pages in it. Without giving too much away, I got to play with some horror elements and noir imagery that really appealed to my sensibilities. This is also an issue that focuses a lot on Hero and Melinda, who might be my favorite characters in the series. In the comics I write and draw, I tend to make the main characters women so drawing an issue where the ladies are getting stuff done was a joy.
MFR: On the flip side, what’s been the most difficult page or moment to draw so far, and why? Do you have any advice for artists on getting through those tough pages?
Santiago: It wasn’t a page or a moment, but I wanted to be sure that for all of the action and gunplay that the comic has, that Locke not lose his humanity or empathy as a character. My concern was that I didn’t want Locke to become our version of the Punisher, or any other number of gun-toting murderers who suffered a trauma and now everyone has to pay. At the core of Locke, divorced from the gunplay, the chase scenes, and the explosions, I wanted to depict a person in pain, someone who has suffered and continues to suffer from the ghosts of his past and is still trying to do right by the people he cares about. While this could have gotten lost with all of the action elements, I think we succeeded in creating a character that the reader wants to see in that happy ending, where they can accept their trauma and aim for a happier life than the one they lived to that point. I think that every creative person should try to put themselves in the shoes of others, because unless you’re writing stories only about yourself, you need to be able to empathize with other people’s struggles in order to convey them with respect and with understanding.
MFR: David, what’s the collaboration process like between you, Jorge, Jasen, and Colin, and how has it evolved from the start of the series to now? Are you very detailed in your scripts, or is there a lot of freedom for interpretation?
Pepose: With our first arc under our belts, Jorge and I’s discussions were really streamlined for SPENCER & LOCKE 2 — and honestly, Jorge has upped his game tremendously for this second arc, which has only inspired me (and the rest of our team) to follow suit. My scripts are generally pretty sparse, but Jorge and I are usually in close collaboration discussing layouts and thumbnails, just to ensure we establish all the plot points we need to and to get in a rhythm that makes the pages really pop.
My colorist Jasen Smith and I go really deep into the pages to make sure we’re capturing the right mood while still lending Jorge’s inks the right energy — meanwhile, my letterer Colin Bell is just a wizard with this stuff, always laying out our word balloons in a way that doesn’t crowd the art or make me seem too wordy. I also have to give a special shoutout to our variant cover artists Maan House and Joe Mulvey — I seriously cannot wait for people to see what they’ve been cooking, because between them and Jorge, I really do feel we have some of the best covers out there.
MFR: You teased “every classic comic strip from your childhood will be fair game for parody in our action-packed sequel” – any hints on who we might be seeing pop up?
Pepose: What can I say without giving too much away…?
We’ve got tons of side characters and Easter eggs in our sequel, some ranging from just a simple sight gag to analogues that will change the course of the entire series. Jorge has always been great about throwing in little details in our first arc — seriously, he gave us all stripper names in the background of one page, and I didn’t know after until after the trade came out — so this was the logical progression for us there.
Without naming too many names, we’ve got parody versions of Brenda Starr, Hi and Lois, Hagar the Horrible, Marmaduke, the Family Circus… plus a few more that we’re saving for good measure. But the idea of a shared universe among some version of these scattered newspaper icons just felt right to me, and really has given the world of SPENCER & LOCKE such a sense of depth for us to explore.
Also: Sluggo is lit.
MFR: Any update on the Spencer & Locke movie?
Pepose: I can’t disclose anything publicly about our movie plans just yet, but I can say is there’s been some very exciting developments on the Hollywood front in 2018.
MFR: Jorge, do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers who are looking for artists? What do you look for in a pitch or a collaborator?
Santiago: My advice would be to talk with your artists and see what kind of collaboration they’re interested in making with you. Artists are all different, we each go into creation wanting different things, so there is no one size fits all script that is going to jive with every artist and you have to understand that. I think also, every aspiring writer should take a script that they’ve written and try drawing it themselves, even if you’re not great at drawing. This will help you figure out if you’re writing too much or if your scenes don’t jive together the way you think they would. Also, be respectful of your artists time, because writing the script is very rarely going to take longer than drawing it, so be sure you’re considering what they’re bringing to the table and just work together as a team.
I personally look for a collaborator who wants to make something with emotion and story in it. The stories that resonated with me and set me down the path to becoming a comic creator were ones that stuck with me long after I put the book down. When I’m creating my own stories or working with someone else, I need to have that emotional core or else I can’t have fun while I’m drawing.
MFR: Finally, David, you’re a fellow comics journalist in addition to being a comics writer. I feel like 2018 showed the dark side of comic “criticism” (if you can call it that), especially on social media. Criticism is important, but there needs to be a line. Can you address that, and maybe discuss where that line is for you, as someone who’s both a legitimate journalist and a professional?
Pepose: Do you have a few hours for me to unpack all that…?
Putting yourself out there as any sort of creative professional, criticism is for sure part of the territory — but seeing certain bad actors online try to equate harassment campaigns under the guise of “critique” is particularly frustrating for me, as somebody with a decade’s worth of experience as an actual critic. To me, there’s a degree of moral calculus that goes into good criticism that sometimes flies out the window under the rapid-fire pace of social media — but first and foremost, you have to remember there’s a human being on the other side of your argument. You need to keep your comments about the work — not personal attacking the creators themselves.
There are some people out there who don’t like the state of the industry, or where they perceive it’s headed, or what have you. I get it — the whole reason I wrote SPENCER & LOCKE was because I wasn’t resonating with a lot of books at the time. But I think just because someone doesn’t like a particular book doesn’t mean they have the right to tweet their complaints at the creators involved — and certainly not to misgender them, or belittle their gender or orientation, or otherwise insult them. I promise, you can leave your mark on the industry without having to resort to cruelty — it isn’t easy, but I can assure you it’s definitely worth it.
Spencer & Locke 2 is out April 24th, but you can pre-order it at your comic shop right now using Diamond Codes FEB191309 for Jorge Santiago’s cover, FEB191310 for Maan House’s cover, or FEB191311 for Joe Mulvey’s cover, all shown again below with a preview of issue one.