Pitting Readers’ Nostalgia Against Them – David Pepose Talks ‘The O.Z.’

by James Ferguson

After blending genres with all kinds of twists and turns in Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel, David Pepose is back with another interesting take with The O.Z. Now on Kickstarter, the comic, illustrated by Ruben Rojas, colored by Whitney Cogar, and lettered by DC Hopkins, is a reimagining of an epic fantasy story with a familiar setting. I had a chance to speak with Pepose about the project.

James Ferguson: What is the elevator pitch for The O.Z.?
David Pepose: The O.Z. is like what if Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hurt Locker took place in The Wizard of Oz — it’s me and artist Ruben Roja’s reimagining of L. Frank Baum’s iconic mythology through the genres of fantasy and war. Whereas most people know me from my work writing crime fiction, The O.Z. takes a classic cast of characters to explore a larger-than-life approach to trauma, friendship, and the morality of war even on the other side of the rainbow.
Most people know the story of the original Wizard of Oz — how Dorothy Gale crash-landed into the land of Oz, met three extraordinary friends, and went on to kill the Wicked Witch of the West. But while returning home to Kansas was a positive for Dorothy, I couldn’t help but think of how it might go for the people she left behind — in a lot of ways, her killing the Wicked Witch was essentially a decapitation-strike regime change. And that’s what The O.Z. is exploring — namely, that Dorothy left Oz in the throes of a power vacuum not unlike that of U.S. foreign policy… and inadvertently drove the country to decades of civil war.
The O.Z. follows Dorothy’s granddaughter and namesake, a disillusioned Iraq war veteran who’s heard stories for a magical world for years — but when she’s swept up by a tornado, she’s going to find out the stark reality behind her grandma’s rose-colored tall tales. Trapped in this magical battlefield, Dorothy will have to confront her past and her grandmother’s former friends if she ever hopes to bring peace to the Occupied Zone… or as the locals call it, The O.Z.

JF: How do you navigate working with an established, albeit public domain property like The Wizard of Oz?
DP: Something that’s really interesting about Oz is that while the books are in the public domain, the classic Judy Garland film is not — and a lot of people might not know that the film took liberties with the text. So for example, I can’t use the Ruby Slippers, because those were actually artistic license to show off that fancy new Technicolor — but the original Silver Slippers are fair game.
But beyond double-checking my work to make sure I’m not cribbing from the movies, it’s actually been really freeing to operate within such established territory. For those who have read my first series Spencer & Locke, you’ll know I like pitting readers’ nostalgia against them — it gives me the freedom to zig where the original stories might have zagged, but also allows me to follow certain characteristics to their natural conclusion.
What happens when the Tin Man, who yearned for a heart, wades through decades of conflict? What happens when the Scarecrow, who wanted a brain, realizes that intelligence has its limits? What happens when the Cowardly Lion, who craved bravery, discovers the crushing responsibility that comes with a crown? And that doesn’t even touch upon the dark night of the soul that Dorothy has, as she tries to come to grips with her past as a soldier, and how to make the right choices in a war where every decision leads to someone’s death.
The Wizard of Oz was built on archetypes, and the great thing about playing with archetypes is that they’re so flexible. And the setting of Oz is, as well — talking with artist Ruben Rojas and colorist Whitney Cogar especially, we talked a lot about not just the grittiness of Mad Max: Fury Road, but the expansiveness of the Star Wars Universe. Looking at those movies, every planet had its own palette, its own temperature, its own internal high concept, ranging from Hoth to Endor to Tatooine. And Oz absolutely lends itself to that sort of globe-trotting adventure — the bombed-out Emerald City will have a different vibe from the Deadly Desert or the mountains of Ix. All this history and geography just gives The O.Z.’s central conflict that much more weight.

JF: Will we see any familiar faces from the Oz mythos like the Scarecrow or the cowardly Lion in this book?
DP: Definitely… or at least, up to a point. So much of The O.Z. is about seeing those familiar faces, and seeing how much they’ve changed with time and heartbreak. There’s still so much room for interpretation for characters like the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion, particularly because in certain ways their worlds have gotten immeasurably huge but also crushingly narrow. These guys haven’t been united on the same team for a long time.
And honestly, that’s going to be part of Dorothy’s journey. She’s going to be having to navigate her grandmother’s friends — and their expectations of her, given her grandmother’s near-saintly reputation across the war-torn Oz — all while building an army in her own right. I’ve compared it a bit to role-playing games like Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 7 — just like there was a certain type of composition to the original Dorothy’s crew, there’s going to be different flavors to the team that her granddaughter brings together. It’ll be similar… but also different.
I will add, however, we’ve got a couple of curveballs waiting in the mix. This is war — sometimes people change, and sometimes people die. But nature abhors a vacuum, and when it comes to The O.Z., you’d be surprised at how often the universe can rhyme.

JF: What brings you to Kickstarter for this project?
DP: It was a convergence of several different things — I’m friends with many comics creators who have done well on Kickstarter, including Charlie Stickney of White Ash, Rylend Grant from The Jump, Russell Nohelty’s veritable laundry list of Kickstarter projects like Ichabod Jones: Monster Hunter and Cthulhu is Hard to Spell, and many more. So my friends have been press-ganging me since last year to dip my toes in the Kickstarter pool — because there are some readers who only buy their books from Kickstarter, similar to some readers who only buy their books at comic shops, or Amazon, or at conventions. It’s another way to keep building the amazingly passionate readership we’ve been lucky to have for Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel.
But I think the covid pandemic was absolutely a wake-up call in terms of how I do business. It’s not to say I’m against traditional publishers whatsoever — I’ve still got Spencer & Locke 3 and Grand Theft Astro on the docket, as well as an unannounced new book coming out next year — but as a diehard convention seller, I realized I needed to pivot more towards digital engagement. More focus on my newsletter, my social media presence, and the availability to promote and sell my work online.
And given the slowdown across the traditional publishing pipeline due to covid and the Diamond shutdown, I realized I could solve one problem with the other — I wanted to do Kickstarter, and I was tired of waiting for permission for a book as undeniably gorgeous as The O.Z. It’s a way for me to master the last ins and outs of the publishing process I hadn’t been privy to before — the printing, the pricing, the shipping — while empowering me to take full control of my career. It’d be nerve-wracking, but when I’m working with a team as brilliant as Ruben, Whitney, and DC, it’s hard to be anything other than confident that readers will respond to this book.

JF: Speaking of the creative team – how did you connect with Ruben Rojas, Whitney Cogar, and DC Hopkins, and what’s it like working with them?
DP: Pound-for-pound, The O.Z.’s creative team is one of the single most stacked rosters I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I first saw Ruben’s work during a call for artists on Twitter — I was flabbergasted he wasn’t picked up on the spot. I was so blown away by Ruben’s style that I immediately pitched him on three stories — The O.Z., my then-unacquired book Grand Theft Astro, and a third project that’s in redevelopment — and he immediately gravitated to The O.Z.
Ruben is probably one of the best artists you haven’t heard of yet. He’s got this style that’s very reminiscent of Sean Murphy, but with a lusher inking style that makes his work so fluid — and not only is he brilliant with how he composes his pages, but he’s also an incredible designer in his own right. (Have you seen Ruben’s take on the Tin Soldier?! Jaw-dropping.) I can be pretty particular in how I envision pages, but Ruben always goes above and beyond whatever I can think up — yet he’s also incredibly gracious whenever there’s an opportunity to punch things up. I’ve told him this already, but I plan on working with Ruben till the wheels come off.
Whitney and DC, meanwhile, I met through my friend Michael Moccio, who now is working as an editor over at Mad Cave Studios. Mike used to write for me back when we were in the comics journalism trenches, and he had raved about Whitney and DC from his time as an editor at BOOM! Studios. So when DC and I ran into each other at Denver Comic Con a few years back, we immediately hit it off thanks to our mutual friendship with Mike — he’s such a talented, easy-going guy, and he’s so patient with me when I realize I need to cut some dialogue to let the art breathe a bit. DC’s the ultimate team player, and he’s a true joy to work with.
Whitney was the last member of the team to join The O.Z., but she’s really our secret weapon. I’ve spoken about this at length with my previous books, but colorists are one of the most important elements to a comic’s creative team — the right colorist can elevate any artwork, but the wrong colorist can bury the whole project. It’s finding the right pairing of colorist and line artist that’s critical to “matchmaking” a book — and Whitney just knocked it out of the park. Given that she’s working with someone who can be pretty exacting with colors, Whitney just takes the ball and runs with it, every single time. She takes Ruben’s already considerable artistic talents and just raises them to an unbelievable degree. They really are a dream team.

JF: For those following at home, The O.Z. was codenamed “Project Saffron” in your newsletter. How do you decide on the project names like this?
DP: For those who haven’t subscribed to my newsletter Pep Talks, I talk a lot about my projects to not just keep readers engaged, but also to hold myself accountable to my weekly word count. (Laughs) Yet having gotten my start in journalism and publicity, I know there’s something to be said for keeping your cards close to the vest, and not flat-tiring the power of a good press announcement.
So the idea of using codenames in my newsletter felt like having my cake and eating it, too — it’s a way for me to tease my upcoming projects (often with an inside joke) without outright spoiling things for my readers and my creative teams. For my previous book Going to the Chapel, we referred to it as Project Cake — a wedding cake, of course. For The O.Z., I thought of saffron yellow — sort of my free-association with the Yellow Brick Road.
But yes, I try to leave the slightest bit of bread crumbs for my readers, but nothing that will spoil my books too early — I’ve even gotten a little trickier lately with some of my other project names lately, like Project Hemlock or Project Juniper. But that’s the great thing about working in comics, particularly with the Kickstarter for The O.Z. — if you’re persistent enough, and strive as much as you can to make your opportunities, everything will come in good time…
Comicon would like to thank David Pepose for taking the time to speak with us. The O.Z. is currently on Kickstarter.

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