The OZ issue 1 cover featured Interviews 

David Pepose is the Wizard of “The O.Z.”

By | August 17th, 2020
Posted in Interviews | % Comments

Created by writer David Pepose (“Spencer & Locke”), artist Ruben Rojas (“Proton”), colorist Whitney Cogar (“Giant Days”), and letterer DC Hopkins (“Ghosted in L.A.”) “The O.Z.” is a dark retelling of The Wizard of Oz. The project, which went live on Kickstarter today, follows Dorothy, an Iraq War veteran, who’s forced to reckon with the legacy of her grandmother in the land of Oz, or the Occupied Zone as it’s now known. We corresponded with Pepose about the war-torn take on L. Frank Baum’s classic, and also have an 11-page preview of the double-sized first issue.

Dorothy concept art by Ruben Rojas

Tell us your first memories of The Wizard of Oz.

David Pepose: My first memories of The Wizard of Oz are likely the same as most people’s — the Judy Garland film really blew me away as a kid, with those hyper-saturated Technicolor palettes really giving the land of Oz this very ethereal quality. It was a pioneering movie for a lot of reasons, both for those eye-catching colors but also the party of archetypes — Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, they all have very defined looks and qualities that then become sort of this jam-band when they’re together as a group. And I could argue that influence has spread across adventuring parties going all the way down to Claremont’s “Uncanny X-Men” or Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy 7 — having a team of archetypes in the same group makes them clash and define and sharpen each other. It’s iron strengthening iron, in a way.

But for me, what’s most interesting about Oz was my return to it as an adult. I read L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz books in college for a class on adolescent literature, and wound up writing a term paper on how the land of Oz read like a superhero universe, with all the different countries and peoples with their own unique sets of abilities. (I do come by my love of superhero and adventure comics honestly.) Decades before the Avengers or the Justice League were formed, Baum is out there building continuity across 20 novels, using each new step to expand Oz and its mythology. It felt a little like Star Wars, that sense of scale and scope — or if you want to go into fantasy novel lore with me a bit, like Piers Anthony, which I read a lot of growing up. But I feel like The Wizard of Oz has really permeated a lot of the pop culture I enjoyed growing up, both as a kid and now as an adult.

It’s in many ways one of the earliest instances of a modern shared universe. What led to writing a modern day sequel where Dorothy’s granddaughter is a biracial, Iraq War veteran, who’s struggling with PTSD?

DP: The thing that got me so excited and invested in “The O.Z.” was the imagery of it all, and that shared universe element was something that really gave the project so much potential and scope. I started work on this project back in 2017 after the release of my breakout book “Spencer & Locke,” and I knew I wanted to do a genre mashup that had to do with fantasy. Much like “Spencer & Locke,” I kind of stumbled onto this idea just by free association — when I thought of The Wizard of Oz, the word “Oz” felt short but so iconic. It hit me that it could be an acronym like DMZ… or in this case, the Occupied Zone. Once that idea clicked, everything else poured out of me — this image of Dorothy as a disillusioned Iraq War veteran and the Tin Soldier as someone who’s been destroyed and rebuilt so many times that he’s become this towering living weapon, all in this war-torn vision of Oz.

And the more I thought about it, the more the internal logic of “The O.Z.” made sense to me. We all know the story of the original Wizard of Oz — Dorothy is swept up by a tornado, she crash-lands into Oz, she meets three extraordinary friends, and then kills the Wicked Witch of the West. And then she just goes home. In the original film, it’s all tied up with a neat little bow — but on paper, it sounds like a recipe for the sort of brutal regime changes that U.S. foreign policy seems so fond of undertaking. It invites a power vacuum, it invites civil war… the ugly truth about political despots isn’t just that they’re frighteningly powerful people, but that they exercise iron control. They centralize it. And when that domino topples, everybody else starts fighting for a piece of that pie. I grew up during the Invasion of Iraq, and for me, it’s been impossible not to see the parallels. Even the best of intentions can go sideways in a heartbeat, and can cause devastating consequences down the road. As Dorothy and company realize in “The O.Z.,” it takes a lot more power to restore order than it does to destroy it in the first place.

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But to get back to your question about Dorothy herself — first and foremost, I consider it really important as a creator to strive for representation in the characters I create, and as long as I’m not trying to write about a specific minority experience I haven’t lived or veering into the realm of unintentional stereotype, there feels like no reason to not have women and people of color headlining as many of my books as possible. To me, that just makes moral, creative and business sense — I want to invite as many people to the table as possible with my work, to make it as accessible as I can and to build that wider consensus for the long haul.

And I think having Dorothy as a veteran grappling with PTSD both is something that’s organic to the military elements of the book, but also coincides with my interests as a storyteller. When I worked as a newspaper reporter years ago, two of my beats were the local military and mental health beats — this was in rural western Massachusetts, a place that didn’t usually get the kind of spotlight or infrastructure or tax dollars that, say, Boston or even Springfield might. And I did a lot of interviews with veterans struggling to adjust coming back home — I think those stories really stuck with me, and really drew me to explore stories of trauma in my own work. I’ve said in my previous book “Spencer & Locke” that our scars shape us, but I’ve come to believe that’s only half the story — I think our traumas often become the defining journeys of our lives, and how we confront, escape or bury those traumas is something we grapple with every day.

It’d be remiss of us to discuss Oz, imperialism, and people of color without mentioning Frank Baum wrote editorials advocating for Native American genocide. Would you say being so explicit about war and racial hatred in “The O.Z.” lends it an edge over other, dark reinterpretations of The Wizard of Oz?

DP: I certainly think that our examination of war — as well as touching upon colonialism and U.S. interventionism — certainly defines “The O.Z.” as its own reimagining of the L. Frank Baum mythos. For those who don’t know, Baum was genocidal in his editorials about Native American people after the massacre at Wounded Knee, literally calling for “extermination.” And while our narrative focuses more on Iraq and Vietnam as our parallels, I think that never-ending cycle of war and vengeance is something we dig into with “The O.Z.”

In a lot of ways, that’s Dorothy’s core dilemma even beyond her post-traumatic stress — she’s a soldier who is becoming acutely aware that being trained for combat isn’t the same as being trained to create peace. That’s the sort of moral calculus Dorothy’s going to have to examine thoroughly in “The O.Z.,” especially when she’s got the pressures of leadership thrust upon her thanks to her sainted grandmother. How do you make the moral choice when every decision you make can wind up with someone dead? Is there a way to break out of that cycle of violence? So I think in that regard, “The O.Z.” does serve as a counterpoint to Baum’s more bloodthirsty views, trying to find the thoughtful and moral analysis to war amidst all the fantasy action.

And I’ll add this as well — while we’re not able to dive as deep as the conflicts of 1890s due to our emphasis on Iraq and Vietnam, if we have the demand and the bandwidth for a sequel to “The O.Z.,” I do have an idea of how we’d tackle Baum’s anti-Native American rhetoric specifically. To me, it’s sort of like Lovecraft — it’s one thing not necessarily addressing his strain of racism in every single Cthulhu story, but if you play in that field long enough, not addressing it feels like a real disservice to a lot of people.

I was going to ask: is this initial arc an original graphic novel, a maxiseries, or does that depend on the reception? How different is it writing and planning with your colleagues on a crowdfunded project, as opposed to a monthly comic solicited three months ahead of release?

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DP: This will be the first of three projected Kickstarters for “The O.Z.,” and all three of campaigns will be promoting double-sized, 44-page issues — our third Kickstarter will wrap up the initial arc of the series, which I had written so it could be its own self-contained story. That said, even dating back to “Spencer & Locke,” I tend to always have a few sequel ideas in my back pocket, just in case the demand is there — this might be from my experience as a newspaper reporter where I had to hit a certain inch count, but you learn pretty quickly how to write modularly and prioritize the things you must have in your story, while still leaving yourself room to imagine what else you might explore if you have a longer runway.

As far as writing for a crowdfunded campaign, for me this wasn’t too different — I had already written the entirety of “The O.Z.” before we ever decided to take the Kickstarter route, and Ruben was already wrapping up on our first 44 pages. The only real difference being that I had written it as six standard-sized issues, but thanks to the way the story had been structured, each chapter paired together nicely — “The O.Z.” fits nicely in a three-act structure, so combining them all as three double-sized issues gave me more confidence this would add extra value for Kickstarter backers, while preserving my bandwidth in terms of how many campaigns we’d have to run and how many often we’d have to go through the printing and shipping process.

It was really more the convergence of my interest in making the leap to Kickstarter, the slowdowns amidst the traditional acquisitions pipeline due to covid, and the fact that we had two issues of “The O.Z.” already completed that made me decide this should be the project we make our Kickstarter debut with. I do think that’s provided us a lot more freedom with the production side of things — it gives Ruben and Whitney time to produce their pages at the quality they’re accustomed to while sparing them the kind of breakneck pace that would either burn them out or force us to wait another year for the book to be released month-to-month. The more seasonal frequency to Kickstarter is the best of both worlds, and the ability to release our work on our timetable is incredibly empowering for us as creators.

Tell us about Ruben, Whitney and DC: how’d you discover them, and what are they bringing to the table?

DP: Ruben Rojas is one of the most gifted artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. I actually found him in 2018, when he was responding to a call for artists on Twitter. I was flabbergasted he hadn’t been picked up, and so I reached out to him immediately. I actually pitched him three separate projects — my then-unacquired series “Grand Theft Astro,” “The O.Z.,” and a third project that I’m actually in the process of redeveloping. Ruben immediately gravitated towards “The O.Z.,” and I’m glad he did. He’s not only immensely talented with his panel composition, but he’s a truly fantastic designer in his own right. The level of detail he’s added to the land of Oz and the characters that reside in it is truly impressive — when I saw his initial cover with the Tin Soldier, I made Ruben a promise on the spot: come Hell or high water, I would get this book made. Because I refuse to live in a world that isn’t aware of Ruben Rojas’s artwork.

Whitney Cogar and DC Hopkins were actually both recommendations from my friend Michael Moccio, who wrote for me at Newsarama before he joined the editorial team at BOOM! Studios. He’s now at Scholastic and Mad Cave, but when I was talking about “The O.Z,” Mike immediately recommended both Whitney and DC. I met DC first at Denver Comic Con a year or so back, and we immediately hit it off, so when I was finalizing the staffing for “The O.Z.,” I knew I wanted to work with him. He’s not only talented, but he’s incredibly gracious and good-natured — he and I talk a lot about that balance between the word balloons and the art they navigate, and so he’s incredibly patient with me when I realize I’ve got to cut half a balloon because I overwrote my lines. (Laughs)

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And as “The O.Z.’s” colorist, Whitney is absolutely the secret weapon of this book. She’s got an amazing track record as the colorist of the Eisner Award-winning “Giant Days,” but I think “The O.Z.” is something that looks very different from her previous work. Whitney and I talked a lot about Mad Max: Fury Road as far as capturing the grit of this series, but we actually spent more time discussing Star Wars — you immediately get that sense of scope from Star Wars because of all the different planets the characters travel between, and whether it’s Hoth, Endor, Tatooine or Cloud City, every single location has its own unique palette and temperature and vibe. Whitney’s tone a fantastic job in bringing that same scale to the land of Oz, taking Ruben’s already impeccable linework and really elevating it to an even higher level.

I like that Rojas’s Tin Soldier is clearly a gritty take on the Tin Man, yet there’s enough of original Oz illustrator William Wallace Denslow’s design that it doesn’t become unrecognizable. Have there been times you’ve backtracked on how gritty something is, so that it remains uniquely Oz?

DP: Yeah, Ruben really knocked it out of the park — I had mentioned Fallout as a reference point for the Tin Soldier, but we also threw in some cool bits like the graffiti on his arm, similar to the way the military would paint their bombs in World War II. We even had a quick back-and-forth on the shape of his nose — it’s silly, but I felt like giving the Tin Soldier’s nose a strong and distinct shape would make him more down-to-earth and accessible, despite his massive height and weaponry. This is a guy who I imagined would be pretty tall and gangly, if he hadn’t been rebuilt so many times, so having that reflected in his face felt important to me, particularly because it still honors Denslow’s original intent.

As far as figuring out whether or not something is too gritty for Oz itself, that sort of barometer was something I really felt I needed to be cognizant of during every step of the process. It’s something that dates back to my work on “Spencer & Locke,” which dealt with even darker and more potentially flammable content — we don’t want to be exploitive or mean-spirited, we never want to punch down or make light of issues real people have survived and are grappling with. These are love letters just as much as parodies, you know? But in terms of steering clear of darker turns to preserve the unique tone of Oz itself, though, I will say there was one major character I was planning to kill off in our second issue, and I’m glad I decided against it at the eleventh hour. Without naming names, I think they’re going to be a fan-favorite, and they feel like a really important member of the team.

Before we wrap up, I’m curious to know if you’d like to name some of your other favorite Oz homages: I’m a fan of Return to Oz and Wicked, and this conversation brought to mind Tin Man, which I haven’t seen – do you know if that’s worth a watch?

DP: I actually have not seen Tin Man — clearly I need to turn in my Oz card! (Laughs) Listen, if Tin Man had to die so that New Girl might eventually live, we still got the better end of the bargain. But I am also a big fan of Return to Oz and Wicked, so you definitely can’t go wrong with either of those. Return to Oz is deliciously dark, and as a remix of the classic Oz mythology, we definitely took a few cues from that — I love Jack Pumpkinhead, so we made it a point to include him in this series. Wicked in particular I think definitely does a great job at subverting expectations and really giving a human look inside the mythology of Oz — we definitely share some of that moral conflict at the heart of our story, albeit with less thrilling musical numbers.

Hearing Jack Pumpkinhead’s name brings back so many memories. Anything else you’d like to add or tease before I click my ruby shoes together?

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DP: If you’re a fan of Mad Max: Fury Road, “The Old Guard,” or “Fables,” you’re going to love what we have up our sleeves for “The O.Z.” It’s a story about trauma, about guilt, about the responsibilities of leadership and the moral choices of war — and if you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or just my previous work on “Spencer & Locke,” I think you’re really going to enjoy our remix of these beloved and iconic characters. This isn’t shock for the sake of shock value, but instead a beautifully illustrated (and I think at least decently written) mashup of fantasy and war that we work hard to justify narratively. Because you might think you know the story of The Wizard of Oz… but this is the story of what comes next. So be sure to join us on our do-or-die Kickstarter mission, as we look to bring readers to “The O.Z.”

Thanks for your time David.

And if you’re excited for “The O.Z.,” the campaign for the first issue is open for the next 30 days — now, here’s the preview:

Christopher Chiu-Tabet

Chris is the news manager of Multiversity Comics. A writer from London on the autistic spectrum, he enjoys tweeting and blogging on Medium about his favourite films, TV shows, books, music, and games, plus history and religion. He is Lebanese/Chinese, although he can't speak Cantonese or Arabic.