by Jarrod Jones. David Pepose is the king of high-concept mash-ups. His province? The gray areas that exist between the known and the unknown.
Take Spencer & Locke. A comic series featuring a hard-boiled detective and his imaginary stuffed panther. Calvin & Hobbes and Sin City, an equation that adds up to a veritable storytelling goldmine. High concept, simple math, sounds easy. But David Pepose digs deeper than that, achieves more in his narratives than what his meme-able elevator pitches might suggest. Pepose is more than the kind of writer who sees a workable concept and thinks, “What if that… but darker?” He’s a damn fine storyteller, one that’s never staisfied with the surface-level.
Which brings us to The O.Z. If you know David at all, you might have already surmised its premise: Life in the wonderful world of The Wizard of Oz during wartime. It’s simplicity itself. But, true to form, David digs deeper, breaks the crust, navigates the mantle, mines the richness of the core of his concept. I’ll let David elaborate:
“[The O.Z.] follows Dorothy Gale’s granddaughter and namesake, a disillusioned Iraq war veteran, as she finds herself swept up by a tornado and dropped into the magical battlefield of Oz. Suddenly confronted with her grandmother’s unwitting legacy, our new Dorothy is going to have to confront her past as well as 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.”
The O.Z. was completely funded on Kickstarter within two hours of its official announcement. Consider throwing some money its way and join David Pepose on his latest comics journey, one that has him traversing an all-new, all-different Yellow Brick Road.
1. All right, David Pepose, you’ve been teasing this “Project Saffron” on social media and your “Pep Talks” newsletter for a minute now—give it up, what’s the big secret? What is “Project Saffron”?
David Pepose: I’ve been teasing Project Saffron in my newsletter for awhile, and I’m excited to finally reveal our actual title and concept—our book is called The O.Z. It’s what if Mad Max: Fury Road and The Hurt Locker took place in The Wizard of Oz—it’s a mashup of fantasy and war genres that explores trauma, guilt, and the morality of war even on the other side of the rainbow.
Our story follows Dorothy Gale’s granddaughter and namesake, a disillusioned Iraq war veteran, as she finds herself swept up by a tornado and dropped into the magical battlefield of Oz. Suddenly confronted with her grandmother’s unwitting legacy, our new Dorothy is going to have to confront her past as well as 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.
2. Now, I’ve been doing as much digging as I can, and the only tie ‘The Wizard of Oz’ has to anything that references the word “saffron” is a level in the SETA ‘Oz’ 1993 video game—that’s it. What was “Project Saffron” referencing to?
Every time I come up with a project, I always try to free associate a bit with the codenames—something that might make sense in retrospect, but won’t blow the reveal of the concept right away. It’s a way for me to have my cake and eat it, too—I can tease and talk about new projects to my newsletter readers, but still keep the anticipation of a big reveal.
For my previous book, Going to the Chapel, it had been codenamed Project Cake, since it was a heist story set at a wedding, while Project Cerulean was Spencer & Locke 3, since our title character Spencer was a giant blue panther. And for The O.Z., I thought of saffron yellow—which was my analogue for the Yellow Brick Road.
3. Let’s talk about ‘The O.Z.’ Clearly, as the cover states, this stands for “Occupied Zone”, and the aesthetic is wartime grim. How does Baum’s wonderful world of Oz fall into something that is clearly meant to resemble the war-torn areas of the Middle East?
Everyone knows the story of The Wizard of Oz—Dorothy Gale gets swept up by a tornado, crash-lands in the magical land of Oz, meets three extraordinary friends, and kills the Wicked Witch of the West. And then Dorothy just… clicks her heels three times and goes home.
Now, in the original novel and the iconic Judy Garland film, that’s all wrapped up with a neat little bow—but having come of age during the invasion of Iraq, that always felt like the beginnings of a regime change to me. It’s literally the assassination of a despot, and it stands to reason that the subsequent power vacuum and civil war that we’ve seen in the Middle East would absolutely follow suit in the land of Oz.
We talk about this some in the book, but the thing about tyrants isn’t just that they’re powerful—they’re also beings of absolute control, and they almost have their own sort of centralized gravity as a result. Without that, it’s Game of Thrones; everybody wants a piece of the pie. So it’s easy for us to take the simplistic black-and-white view that despots need to be stopped—but as the characters of The O.Z. have discovered, it takes a lot more power to rebuild order than it does to destroy it in the first place.
The other thing is, because Dorothy has that military training, she sees the world in a way that’s very different from her grandmother’s rose-colored glasses. The O.Z. is a dangerous place, but Dorothy sees that bombed-out, magical world, and she can turn it into a weapon to defend herself. It’s that military mind, that military thinking, that really drives the mashup engine of The O.Z. It’s like that line from Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye: What kind of person walks into a room and sees how everything can be turned into a weapon?
4. Talk to me about working with artist Ruben Rojas. What has working with Ruben been like during production of this book? How did your concepts take shape once Ruben had a chance to crack them?
Ruben Rojas has to be one of the most gifted artists I’ve ever had the fortune of working with. I found him in 2018 responding to a call for artists on Twitter, and I immediately reached out with three different pitches for him. Ruben gravitated instantly towards The O.Z., and I’m so glad he did; he’s an astounding draftsman with his panels, but his design work is just next level. When I saw Ruben’s take on the Tin Soldier, I made him a promise: Come Hell or high water, I would see this book through. His work is just too good to go unseen.
I think that Ruben’s style really lends itself well to keeping The O.Z.’s tone intact—he’s got just enough cartooniness to keep the book from feeling completely oppressive, but he also does such an incredible job capturing the wonder of Oz while still filtering it through this battle-scarred lens. He does action, he does emotion, he fleshes out the entire world of Oz with such incredible detail… and he’s just so gracious and generous as a collaborator, to boot.
5. I was quite happy to see Whitney Cogar’s name attached to this, a terrific colorist who has supplied the war-time hues to ‘The O.Z’. The preview you supplied to us is mostly centered on the dull, angry everyday of our lives—and the glimpse at Oz as the world exists at this moment is equally mud-toned with fringes of flame and ash. What are your coloring notes like for Whitney? What innovations did Whitney bring to the book that you didn’t anticipate?
I got my start as a DC Comics intern, and the thing they really impressed upon me is the importance of color. The right colorist can elevate any artist, but the wrong colorist can sink even the strongest linework. Which is why I’m so glad my friend Michael Moccio, who had worked as an editor at BOOM! Studios before joining Scholastic and Mad Cave, recommended Whitney to me. Because if you think her preview pages look impressive, just wait until you read the rest of the book.
The thing about Whitney is that while I often think of myself as exacting when it comes to colors, she really got what The O.Z. was about from the jump. We talked a lot about the grittiness of Mad Max: Fury Road, but to be honest, the thing Whitney and I really discussed a lot was Star Wars. There’s so much variety in the settings, from Hoth to Endor to Tatooine to the Death Star, with each planet having its own unique palette and temperature and vibe—and I’ve always felt that the land of Oz has that same sense of scale. Whitney gets that, and she makes settings like the Emerald City, the Deadly Desert, and the Wicked Witch’s castle look incredible.
6. The first page in your preview for ‘The O.Z.’ features a sequence that we’ve seen far too many times before on the news—a family attempting to flee a devastating conflict, and the perpetual destruction of their homes—and then it twists the visual with the reveal that the book’s oppressors are… flying monkeys. With all that’s happening in the world right now, how are you going about splicing Baum’s fever-dream escapism with the harrowing realities that many are currently facing? Were there moments when you were writing this that gave you pause?
It’s funny, because I started work on The O.Z. back in 2017, shortly after the release of Spencer & Locke. But looking outside our window today, I still think we’re living in a world that’s in constant moral conflict with itself—and I think that’s something The O.Z. really grapples with.
Dorothy is a soldier, and she already had to navigate that ethical calculus in Iraq and Afghanistan every single day—how do you make moral choices in wartime, when every decision you make can wind up with someone dead? But when she’s brought to Oz, Dorothy winds up struggling with the burden of leadership, as well—she’s got to navigate both her own past and her grandmother’s legacy, but more importantly she finds herself thinking about if there’s any way to break this cycle of violence.
I will say that there was one moment that gave me pause during the creation of this project; there was one character I had initially intended to kill off in our second issue, and I realized at the eleventh hour it would make the book far too bleak. They wound up becoming one of my favorite characters in the whole book, and I’m so glad I showed mercy.
7. It is certainly no secret that Frank Baum was an avowed racist to Native Americans, wrote outrageous editorials advocating their annihilation following the murder of Sitting Bull and the massacre at Wounded Knee. Will you be exploring this facet of Baum’s legacy in ‘The O.Z.’ in any way?
This will probably be anticlimactic—because we’re digging so deep into the parallels to Iraq and Vietnam, we’re primarily focused on those contemporary conflicts. But I do think there are elements that you’ve touch upon that appear in our book, particularly that of colonialism and military policy. The original Dorothy has a lot of parallels to U.S. interventionism, particularly when it comes to the disregard to the potential consequences.
And that’s something her granddaughter will have to reckon with—The O.Z. is just as much her heritage as it is the Tin Soldier or the Scarecrow’s, or even the Wicked Witch of the West’s. Even though she didn’t come looking for this conflict, Dorothy knows she bears responsibility for what comes next. It’s the sort of empathy and thoughtfulness that I’m not sure Baum would have exhibited back in the 1890s, and in that way, perhaps we’re able to provide a counterpoint to the more toxic side of the author’s legacy.
8. ‘The O.Z.’ reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s ‘Hook’, where a beloved children’s fantasy is upended with the various agonies of growing old—here, we see that Dorothy, that Dorothy, has grown old, appears to be suffering from Alzheimer’s, and her granddaughter, also named Dorothy, is an Iraq War veteran who struggles with PTSD. Compare this to the two volumes of your ‘Calvin & Hobbes’ noir tale ‘Spencer & Locke’, and a theme begins to emerge. Why do you think you’re so interested in bringing our contemporary ennui to the stories that helped to shape us into who we were when we were so young?
Trauma is a theme that I really gravitate towards. When I was a newspaper reporter, I covered the mental health and military beats, and I think a lot of the interviews I did with veterans struggling upon their return really informed the sorts of stories that I’d write in the future. I’ve always felt our scars shape us, but I’ve come to believe that our traumas set our direction in a way that goes beyond just our personalities—I think those traumas can become the defining struggles of our lives, whether it’s us trying to confront, escape, or bury them.
But there’s something else about taking these childhood icons through the wringer. The thing is, nostalgia is kind of a collective memory—a shared memory of the world when it was less complicated and scary. But these worlds are also filled with these universal archetypes, and I think that allows us to explore darker territory. Readers instinctively know these icons won’t break, and I think it lets our readers take a deeper dive into these heavier themes.
9. What does this new take on ‘Oz’ mean for characters who have been cemented in pop culture due to the 1939 film? Scarecrow, Tin Man? How does our collective memory of the Wicked Witch of the West affect the way these new factions of Oz wage war against each other?
Honestly, that might be my favorite part of the whole series. The O.Z. takes place a generation after the original Wizard of Oz, and all of Dorothy Gale’s friends have really changed over the years. And that’s been really fun to explore as a writer—sometimes you’re able to zig where people expect you to zag, but honestly, I’ve also just had a blast keying in on these characters’ core qualities, and just taking them to their logical conclusions.
Take the Tin Soldier, for example, who I think might be a fan-favorite in the same way that Spencer was in Spencer & Locke—this is a guy who asked for a heart. But what happens to that heart when you’ve witnessed years of bloodshed? Or the Scarecrow—he’s one of the most complex figures in the entire series. He’s the smartest man in Oz, but intelligence can be a real monkey’s paw—imagine being smart enough to see the horror going on all around you, but knowing that he’ll never be smart enough to solve this war?
And don’t get me started on the Wizard of Oz. I had a ton of fun writing that character, and I think by the end of our first issue, you’ll all fall in love, too.
10. What would an anti-Pepose book look like, where a hard-assed established property went soft, squishy, loveable? ‘Scarface’, but with ice cream? ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’, populated by Care Bears?
Don’t you threaten me with a good time, Jones! I think there’s a ton of opportunities to do a riff on popular culture, veering to all-ages rather than adult fare—because there are tons of parents out there who want to share these narrative experiences with their kids. Godzilla, Star Trek, Nightmare on Elm Street—the possibilities are endless.
But as for what kind of “anti-Pepose book” I’d make up, the only thing I’ll tell you is this…
I’ve already written it.
Check out this 11-page preview of ‘The O.Z.’ now:
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