Archive for October 2, 2017

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

My first reaction to reading the comic book mini-series Spencer & Locke (written by David Pepose, penciled and inked by Jorge Santiago Jr., colors by Jasen Smith and letters by Colin Bell) proved visceral to the extreme. When the first issue dropped into my lap at a signing event at my home break comic book store, my response emulated South Park from the early Kill Kenny years – “you killed Suzie! You bastard!” 

A step backward to explain who Suzie is in that emotional sentence; Mr. Pepose, a frequent flyer at events put on by the Comic Bug in Manhattan Beach, frequently uses the Player Pitch – “imagine if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Frank Miller’s Sin City, becoming cops as adults.” – to explain his four issue series involving a tough ginger cop, Locke, and his imaginary friend, Spencer the talking Blue Panther. So on Page Four of Issue One when a young lady named Sophie is found slashed up in an alley, we completely understand that Mr. Pepose just eviscerated a character to whom Bill Waterston probably would’ve extended Script Immunity, Calvin’s Girl Next Door, Suzie. Let the Internet Troll Hatemongery commence. Or not, I don’t actually like very many Internet trolls and their slavish devotion to orthodoxy to any of their fandoms.

As you might guess, this review is positive. It must have caught me on a day when I wanted to read a story about Calvin…uh, Locke navigating the mean, bleak streets of Nameless Big City as a detective backed up by Spencer, the panther that only Locke can see and talk to. I suppose on any day when I wake up mean or eat a bad burrito my tolerance for a Film Noir style literary deconstruction of one of my favorite comic strips I might’ve really freaked. But, wow what a read!

Mr. Pepose and Mr. Santiago choosing to run up the Film Noir stylings of Frank Miller’s early Sin City is what does the heavy lifting for making this mini-series a brilliant read, the kind of thing where other writers might tip an imaginary hat, buy the man a beer and then privately trash the work, solely out of jealously. This is not a story that would ever take very much deductive reasoning or even Gil Grissom squinting at beetles typically named John, Paul, George and Ringo. Why? Film Noir is an emotional experience from jump and you can skip asking cops about real homicide investigations.

The ride begins with finding Sophie’s body facedown in a bleak alley. She has been slashed many times. The one nod to the Procedural tropes at the other end of the Crime story continuum, Spencer (probably Locke in a dissociative state) blows talcum powder and gets fingerprints. That and asking questions of Sophie’s employer and Calvin…uh, Locke’s old teacher, Principal Scabtree, constitute all that passes for procedure in a narrative that really doesn’t need any stinking DNA swabs collected, thank you very much.

Since the story revolves around Locke’s facing his dark past, the only real clue to solve the crime comes when Locke has coffee with Spencer at a diner. The blue panther with a button covering an eye relates to his friend that the weapon was an old-timey barber’s razor with smells of cigars, disinfectant and perhaps an aromatic wooden handle (Cedar? Sandalwood?). A server walks by and Spencer reverts back to his Other People are Watching Form, an eighteen-inch stuffed blue panther.

We then launch into three more issues of wild fun interspersed with the kind of heartbreak that we can only hope came forth simply because Mr. Pepose intentionally emulated Frank Miller’s bleak and emotionally raw body of work and not due to something a therapist wants to see on his or her couch. Issue Two involves chasing down kidnappers that put the snatch on Sophie and Locke’s daughter, Hero. In Issue Three, Locke gets a hit of some wacky designer narcotics reliving one of his childhood alter egos, Rocketman Reynolds (Spaceman Spiff), as he just barely stays alive. Issue Four brings everything to a close forcing Locke to face the un-killed demons of his past including his surviving family and what Sophie Jenkins had gotten herself into.

The four-issue arc begins in an alley and ends at the museum high above the dinosaur exhibit with Detective Locke wounded dangling above the tyrannosaur display forced to make a decision about pulling the trigger on his father, Augustus Locke. Sophie’s daughter, Hero, hides in a closet with Spencer with a gun. A thug opens the wrong door intentionally slightly muddying up the line that the original Calvin & Hobbes always kept clear: Calvin imagined Hobbes into being and probably grew out of his childlike point of view as a teenager.

This comic series does a brilliant job threading the needle between the disparate elements of the pitch: Calvin & Hobbes Meets Sin City. Calvin would likely grow out of needing Hobbes as the boy grew older because Calvin was just the smarty-pants six-year-old leaving a suburban life with an ultimately loving family. But, you can open up any psychology textbook and plug in the abuses survived by Locke in childhood and have an easy ah-ha moment for explaining why a grown thirty something man still had his imaginary friend close by.

Raped by a babysitter? Regularly beat up by his mother and a schoolyard bully? The knowledge that his father is a particularly violent citywide crime boss? The psychic damage of pulling the trigger to ward off his crazed mother advancing with a broken beer bottle? All of this happened to Locke in his past rendered in panels intentionally styled like Waterston’s old strips, so there’s no way this doesn’t force our hero into a place where Spencer sticks around as an eight-foot tall blue panther willing to do his part with much of the routine cop stuff: fingerprints, smell the room, wise counsel and opening up locked doors with his claws.

Mister Pepose and his art team cut back and forth between the comic strip style art presenting the demons of the past and a darker style that really only emulates Sin City in emotional content, proof that visually speaking there are 40 million roads to hell. But, you did hear the word brilliant describing the weaving of this dark tale? Not only does the back and forth reveal the relevant past for Locke to discuss in Noir Style voiceover, but these interjections also serve to explain the skillset and/or mindset that drives him through the story without getting killed at the end of Issue Two or at any point thereafter.

Locke’s childhood was filled with the same transmutation machines (a cardboard box) and wild downhill slalom wagon rides experienced by Calvin, but with the harder edged reality of trying to escape his shitbag life. So when Locke tries (in the meta-reality where Spencer is always a blue stuffed animal and Locke is nuts) to drive, shoot and not kill the little girl tied up in the back of the target car, a quick cut to the past in the comic strip style where Locke pulled the same kind of bootlegger turn in his wagon reminds us that Locke has trained all his life for this long night in the Unnamed Big City. I can’t say enough good things about how well the stylistic transitions and match cuts work.

When thinking about the characters in this love letter to Film Noir with a thin veneer of a favorite comic strip, I really think that Spencer & Locke is somewhat kinder to Spencer than Locke compared to Calvin or Hobbes. Partly, this is because with the crap in Locke’s past Spencer takes on far more of the collective psyche between the two friends. This forces the imaginary blue panther to grow into the more interesting half of the duo. He gets the philosophical moments, even in the meta-reality version where Locke really carries both sides of the conversation. This makes it highly noticeable that Spencer speaks about the jadedness, ennui and despair that we’ve come to expect from the hardboiled detective in Noir first. Locke only replies to these philosophical pronouncements after Spencer brings it up first. Interesting.

When we contemplate Locke, the story puts him in a darker place. In the meta-reality perspective he’s a nutbar with many longstanding chips on his shoulders against a variety of his outright enemies from childhood who has maintained his childhood imaginary friend well into adulthood. And somehow he passed the psych exam that police departments give new recruits. In the real world, he would be weeded out and spend life as a broken inconsequential man in a shitty apartment. Possibly as a professional killer.

Even allowing for one feature of the Noir subgenre of Crime stories is that the detective is broken and jaded as a means to find a small measure of redemption for the un-killable ghosts of the past, the reader needs to take a moment to wonder if the unnamed police department really wants this guy around. He’s damaged to the point of taking a bat to an early henchman working for his father. We can and will apply Suspension of Disbelief to Noir because the story form allows us to vicariously exorcise demons great and small, we still have to ask – “How far is this guy going to go from tuning up an obvious bad guy’s head with a Louisville Slugger to a total break where he shoots people for no discernable reason leaving behind a drop gun?” Things to explore in the sequels, if any.

I suspect that enjoying Spencer & Locke will come down to how the book catches you on the day you read it. I did lead with a pseudo-South Park reaction to the killing of Sophie Jenkins (the Suzie analogue). While I might be the kind to read this and enjoy the surprises inherent in mixing what I believe to be the Last Great Comic Strip and ball crunching Film Noir, your responses will vary possibly to the tune of hate mail. Please avoid the hate mail.