Talking OZ - An Interview with David Pepose

Last month, I was lucky enough to get the first issue of David Pepose's The O.Z. in my email. I jumped in pretty much blind but emerged engrossed. The art direction, the action, and especially the genius premise hooked me instantly. So, of course, I wanted David to answer all of my burning questions, and he was nice enough to humor me.

Steven Burnley: Hey David! Thanks so much for the interview. I was lucky enough to get a copy of The O.Z., and I was immediately smitten. Throughout my time with the book I was thinking, as I’m sure many other readers were, “Where could this idea have come from?” I was hoping you could shine some light on how you decided that The Wizard of Oz and The Hurt Locker might have some crossover potential? Do you have some personal history with The Wizard of Oz?

David Pepose: For me, it's always about deciding what kind of story and genre I want to explore, and then I usually trip and fall into the actual core concept after the fact. (Laughs) While I loved writing crime during my first series Spencer & Locke, one of the things I wanted to do next was tell a story with a larger sense of scale and spectacle — fantasy was high on my list of priorities.

So I did what I usually do — I wrote out a list of inspirations to draw from. And when I wrote down The Wizard of Oz, I really zeroed in on that word "Oz" — it's so short but so iconic, and I realized it could be an acronym for something. The phrase "Occupied Zone" hit me like a ton of bricks, and I immediately realized this wasn't just a fantasy story, but a war story, too.

The idea of Oz deteriorating into this Baghdad-esque dystopian country made a lot of sense the more I thought about it — the original Dorothy kills two Wicked Witches and convinces the Wizard of Oz to split in the span of about a week, and then leaves the country to its own devices. That justified the wartime premise for me and gave me some real dramatic potential with our lead character Dorothy, and made The O.Z. feel like something very different than I had seen elsewhere.

The O.Z. #1 art by Ruben Rojas

Burnley: Now, obviously, this isn’t the first time that Oz has been remixed in popular culture. Everyone from Michael Jackson to Kristen Chenowith to Alan Moore has put their hands on these characters, which is pretty rarified air to be in. What does your interpretation bring to the table?

Pepose: Thank you, those are some pretty big names to be lumped in with! I think The O.Z. isn't just an action-packed take on the Wizard of Oz — and one that I think we've worked overtime to really justify seeing through that lens — but I think what we really bring to the table is how we both honor and subvert the source material.

I'm always asking myself, "What's the flip side if we play this concept as straight as we can?" For Spencer & Locke, it's asking what sort of traumatic upbringing would induce a child to hallucinate his own best friend; for The O.Z., it's about seeing how the original Dorothy Gale's clean sweep of a victory might have its own unintended consequences that wind up rippling through time.

But, y'know, also some awesome action and some really fun reimaginings of some iconic and larger-than-life characters. A win-win, if you ask me! (Laughs)

Burnley: Something that surprised me about the book is that it wasn’t really about Dorothy. While she is often front and center in adaptions and reimaginings, The O.Z. focuses on a new character, also named Dorothy Gale, an Iraq veteran struggling with PTSD. Where did that character come from and how did you decide to make her the focus of the series?

Pepose: With the wartime premise of The O.Z., the idea of having a soldier at the frontlines made perfect sense to me — it felt like really the only way I could justify this high concept and explore its dramatic human potential in a way that felt respectful and compassionate. So I was able to really have my cake and eat it, too, by reimagining Dorothy as a more active and take-charge figure while recasting the original Dorothy as her grandmother, providing The O.Z. with a sense of continuity and history.

But to circle back to the real meat of your question, I think our new Dorothy taps into a similar vein as a lot of the characters I've written in the past, ranging from Spencer & Locke to bride-turned-bank robber Emily in Going to the Chapel — I tend to gravitate towards characters with trauma in their pasts, because I think it's a great way to flesh out their histories and emotional triggers, and it lets me structure my whole story across their individual character arc. I think we all have painful memories that have shaped us, and I think it's a universal question of whether we can ever transcend or move past our scars... or even push them aside long enough to survive.

Burnley: This isn’t the first time you’ve used fantasy and whimsy to tell stories about trauma. Most readers are likely familiar with you from your creator-owned series Spencer & Locke, which uses the character dynamics of Calvin and Hobbes and the grit of Miller’s Daredevil to tell a story about childhood abuse. In The O.Z. you’re using OZ to comment on the nature of war, and the lasting impacts of PTSD. Why do you keep returning to these fantasy settings and tropes to tell such intimate stories?

Pepose: The number one question I ask myself when I'm writing a script is: "How do I make strangers give a damn about this?" And for me, the answer has always boiled down to coming up with wild high concepts and then sucker-punching readers with some really tear-jerking characterization to anchor the whole thing. (Laughs) Because at the end of the day, people are definitely going to perk up at "what if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City" or "what if the Hurt Locker took place in the Wizard of Oz," but that's only going to get your foot in the door — people show up for high concepts, but they stay because they've fallen in love with your characters.

And honestly, that's how I go the distance as a writer, too — if I don't find a reason to love these characters, there's no way I can successfully write 90-120 pages about them, let alone expect readers to stick around that long. So even when I come up with an idea that feels concept-driven, if I can't find a good human element to guide me through the story and make me feel some sort of emotion, chances are I'll keep the idea on ice until I can find that compelling human hook.

The O.Z. #1 page 9, art by Ruben Rojaz, color by Whitney Cogar

Burnley: Let’s talk a little bit about your creative team. Ruben Rojas is drawing the book, in spectacular fashion I might add, and this is one of his first real credits. Did you want to work with someone fresh into the industry? Was there something about his work that you thought would help tell the story you wanted to tell?

Pepose: I love working with up-and-coming talent because they're often just as hungry for excellence as I am — but I consider it one of the most important elements of my job to just keep an eye out for artists whose work feels special, and approaching them for any sort of collaboration. I often have a lot of different projects and scripts in the works, so when I reach out to artists like Ruben, I'll either pitch them with a specific idea in mind or if they seem really versatile, I'll offer them a bunch of different pitches.

With that in mind, when I saw Ruben's work on Twitter, I was blown away, and immediately pitched him a handful of different ideas — as a fan of fantasy and post-apocalyptic storytelling, Ruben immediately jumped at The O.Z., and I'm so glad he did. Ruben's got a style that I think is somewhere between Sean Murphy and Dan Mora, and I think the cartoony elements to his work help keep The O.Z. from being too oppressive or bleak — he's also a brilliant designer who has really relished the challenge of fleshing out the war-torn land of Oz.

Burnley: While you’ve worked on several creator-owned books in your career, The O.Z. is your first Kickstarter. Was there difficulty in getting publishers to take a risk on the book? Or was it planned from the start as a Kickstarter campaign?

Pepose: Bringing The O.Z. to Kickstarter was my way of solving one set of problems with another. We'd definitely had a lot of interest behind the book from several publishers, but the truth about the comics industry is that attention spans can be fleeting, and priorities can shift at the drop of a hat — we'd had places express interest for over a year, but with no paperwork to be shown for it. And at the same time, I had been gravitating towards Kickstarter for awhile — friends like Charlie Stickney, Pat Shand, Rylend Grant, and Russell Nohelty had all seen a lot of success on the platform, and they had each encouraged me to try it out.

It was Charlie who really explained it to me — there's the Direct Market Wednesday Warriors who hit up their comics shop every week, there are people who primarily buy their books at conventions, there's the Webtoons community, the people who buy on ComiXology, Amazon, or Barnes & Noble... and then there's the crowdfunding contingent. There's some overlap between these groups for sure, but by and large, these are distinct groups of readership, and I realized that was a whole contingent of enthusiastic potential readers I had never reached out to before.

The tipping point came when Diamond had its covid-induced shut down earlier this year — with publishers getting more conservative than ever with their acquisitions pipelines, I realized that with two full issues under our belts, we could make a big splash with the Kickstarter community, and introduce ourselves with our absolute A-game. I certainly could not have expected the kind of overwhelming response we got for this book, but I feel so grateful for every single person who backed The O.Z.

Scout's Honor #1, art by Luca Casalanguida

Burnley: David, I don’t know if you heard, but you have a new book coming out. Your new series Scout’s Honor is debuting in January, an eerily timely story about the end of the world and a society built around the rules pulled from the Boy Scouts’ handbook. This marks your second foray into post-apocalyptic storytelling this year if we count The O.Z. (and I do). What is it about the breakdown of society that’s so attractive to you as a storyteller?

Pepose: Oh man, I had no idea! (Laughs) Y'know, while the development of both books were pretty far apart, I do see these series as kind of a shot-and-chaser. Dystopian storytelling isn't just about the dire situations we find our characters in — at their core, they're about adaptation, about evolution, about change and growth. I think when you start off in a dark place, that makes that redemptive arc shine that much brighter in contrast. Writing these kinds of stories in the year 2020 was kind of like an exercise of writing through my own fears and anxieties — but those experiences reminded me that no matter how bad this year has been, it's never too late for us to turn a corner. You might not believe it when you hear my high concepts, but I'm a writer who believes in happy endings — and I honestly believe there's one waiting for all of us.