There’s a new Kickstarter in town for an intriguing new comic series. Writer David Pepose, the man behind fan-favorite series Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel, has launched a brand-new campaign for his inventive new interpretation of the beloved The Wizard of Oz.
Aptly titled The O.Z., the story picks up with Dorothy’s granddaughter and namesake, a “disillusioned Iraq war veteran who’s struggling to put the pieces of her life back together” in her hometown of Liberty, Kansas. But when this world-weary soldier is swept up by a tornado, she’s finds her herself dropped into a magical war zone known as The O.Z. (for Occupied Zone). Pepose is joined by series co-creators Ruben Rojas, Whitney Cogar, and DC Hopkins.
Ahead of the campaign’s September 16 end date, Pepose joined us for an interview, touching on the pros of writing in an established world and tackling the source material with new life (among other topics). Plus, details on the best rewards and tiers for Kickstarter contributors.
And to further incentivize readers, there’s a 10-page preview throughout the Q&A.
AIPT: Just for starters, what exactly is The O.Z.? Does it stand for something in particular? What can you tell us about this story?
David Pepose: The O.Z. is me and artist Ruben Rojas’ twist on the classic Wizard of Oz mythology, reimagined through the war-torn lens of Mad Max, The Old Guard, and the Sheriff of Babylon. For those who have enjoyed my previous work with Spencer & Locke, I consider The O.Z. its spiritual sequel — it’s an epic fantasy story, but it’s also a war story, and it’s also a story about finding new direction and purpose through the unlikeliest of friendships.
The story kicks off after the end of the Wizard of Oz saga we all know and love — Dorothy Gale crash-lands in Oz, makes some extraordinary friends, meets a Wizard, and defeats the Wicked Witch of the West. And then… clicking her heels three times, Dorothy leaves, returning back home to Kansas. She leaves Oz to its own devices, after the Wizard of Oz’s departure and the Wicked Witch’s demise. And they all lived happily ever after, right?
Except that last part never sat right with me — particularly given that I came of age during the Invasion of Iraq. When you have that on the periphery of your adolescence, the ending of the Wizard of Oz suddenly feels like a recipe for disaster, a botched regime change that would almost certainly invite a power vacuum and civil war of horrific scale.
Our story is going to not just take a new spin on the legend of Dorothy Gale, but also reexamine what happened to the others who helped bring down the Wicked Witch. War is going to have taken a massive toll on the land of Oz and the characters residing in it — and we’re going to be spending this story examining the costs and morality of war, while also examining the heroism and bravery of these hard-bitten heroes as they try to stop an authoritarian regime.
AIPT: This isn’t the first time the Wizard of Oz got a reimagining. What kind of work goes into utilizing the property from copyright stuff to research how do you do the source material justice?
DP: That’s a great question — the Wizard of Oz is one of those interesting areas legally, because the original L. Frank Baum novels are considered in the public domain. So anything in those original books — the Yellow Brick Road, the Tin Man, Toto — those are all up for grabs. But what I learned as I wrote this book is that the 1939 film is still under copyright — additions like the Ruby Slippers were actually changes made for the invention of Technicolor, so we had to use the original Silver Slippers from the novels.
The challenge for me as a writer is that, say, unlike the ultra-specificity of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes, our collective memories of the Wizard of Oz are a bit hazier, and often enmeshed with the mega-popular Judy Garland movie. And there is a veritable canyon of mythology you’d be able to dig into if you so chose — the original Wizard of Oz novel had numerous sequels, which you could go a little crazy if you tried to incorporate all of it (at least in the first story).
So for our series, we tried to really distill things down to what was most important in the original Dorothy Gale’s journey, and then find new ways to remix and reimagine these moments for our action-packed storyline. Ultimately, accessibility and characterization have always been my top priorities for my books, and because we had such powerful iconography with the land of Oz, I think we’ve made some twists on these characters that make them all incredibly engaging.
AIPT: Why does this story need to be told now?
DP: When I first started work on The O.Z. in 2017, it was shortly after my first book Spencer & Locke was released, and we were only in the opening days of the current presidential administration. Three years later, I think that crisis of conscience is something we Americans are battling every day — maybe it’s just me, but I’ve experienced this constant feeling of guilt and anxiety about what our leadership does in their efforts to prove the ends justify the means, and what kind of atrocities have been committed in the name of our democracy.
So I think examining a story through the lens of a soldier — someone whose job by their very nature is to make this impossible moral calculus, to take lives in the aim of a potential greater good while still weighing whether your orders are even actionable — is really emblematic of what we’re facing today. The power of life and death — both your own, your friends’, your enemies’, and any innocents unlucky enough to get in the crossfire — can be a crushing responsibility with a deep moral cost, and Dorothy’s journey will examine if this cycle can ever be broken, or if we’re always going to be paying with someone else’s blood.
And the thing is, we’re living in a pandemic among civil unrest, racial and sexual injustice, and harrowing economic projections — the world looks a little dystopian right now. But that’s often why I work with nostalgia — it’s universal because it’s a collective memory of a time when the world wasn’t so complicated. By taking these archetypes like Dorothy and the Tin Soldier and using them as material for darker subject matter, we’re able to take readers on a deeper dive on these more complicated issues, but also bring them to the other side. If these symbols can survive the horrors of The O.Z., then maybe we can survive what’s coming, too.
AIPT: When working with a property in such a realized world how does that help and hinder the creative process?
DP: It’s been a huge help, honestly. I think there’s a reason why we see remakes of classic movies ranging from Ocean’s Eleven to A Star is Born to The Invisible Man — the original stories are classics, but they’re very much products of their time, which makes them prime for reimagining through contemporary themes. We appreciate the Wizard of Oz because of our memories of the story as children — but because the actual execution is so earnest and quaint by today’s standards, there’s ample opportunity to give that iconography a 21st-century twist.
The O.Z., in certain ways, almost feels like a hybrid of a licensed series with the freedom of a creator-owned book — there’s absolutely a sort of “continuity” that we’re able to look to for inspiration, but we’re able to let it unspool in the wildest, craziest fashions. Because at the end of the day, it’d be considered the height of hubris to think we could ever do anything to erase the classic Wizard of Oz’s decades of achievement — and that in itself is very freeing.
The other great thing, of course, is recognizing readers’ expectations for the series, and being able to turn them on their head a bit. We’ve got a couple of really excellent twists peppered throughout this series, and I feel like readers are going to be really blown away — I think we’ve taken a lot of risks in this book, and having finished the whole series, I think they pay off massively.
AIPT: What has been your favorite part of the land of Oz to tackle?
DP: You know, I’m a little torn on that — my gut answer would have to be just reimagining the characters. There’s something so iconic about the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion — and so much of The O.Z. is taking their qualities to their logical extreme. The Tin Soldier, for example, is almost like a gigantic steampunk-cyborg soldier — he’s been blown up and reconstructed so many times that he’s been turned into this monstrosity version of his former self. But even though he claims the war has drowned out his heart, you get a sense that he is just this fundamentally decent man who will provide a stirring counterpoint to Dorothy.
But I also love how expansive Oz is as a setting — when Ruben, Whitney, and I first talked about this series, I likened it to Star Wars, in that every setting has its own unique visuals and palette and vibe to it. The bombed-out Emerald City where the Resistance hides is very different than the razor-sharp mountains of Ix, or the desolation of the Deadly Desert, or the otherworldly eldritch cauldron of the Wicked Witch’s lair. There really has been a location to fit every single storytelling impulse I’ve had, and it really plays up the larger-than-life elements for this story.
AIPT: Tell us a little about your team. You’re working with Ruben Rojas, Whitney Cogar, and DC Hopkins. How did you bring them together, and what made them the right team for this book?
The best part about how I do projects is also the worst part about how I do projects — I always have a vision in mind when it comes to the visual look and tone of a book, and that makes me incredibly picky with who I work with. (Laughs) Ruben’s actually been on my radar for a long time — I saw him post for a call for artists back in 2018, and I was so enamored with his work that I knew I had to reach out.
I had actually pitched him on several projects, including my then-unannounced series Grand Theft Astro, but The O.Z. is where he really gravitated — and real talk, Ruben has absolutely crushed it. He’s got this very cartoony style that still has a wonderful bit of grit to give it some weight — he’s got a lot in common stylistically with early Sean Gordon Murphy. And his design work is unparalleled.
Meanwhile, I owe a special shoutout to my longtime friend (and Mad Cave editor) Michael Moccio, who helped steer me towards Whitney Cogar and DC Hopkins. Mike had been singing DC’s praises from his time at BOOM! Studios, and when DC and I crossed paths at Denver Comic Con, we immediately hit it off.
Whitney, meanwhile, is our secret weapon, and was the final member of the team to join the project — Michael raved about working with her, and honestly, she has lived up to the hype and then some. There’s a special kind of alchemy of finding the right colorist for the right line artist, and Whitney takes Ruben’s work and just makes it magical. I’ve been really fortunate to have made some beautiful books with some fantastic collaborators, and The O.Z. team just keeps raising the bar. It’s just an honor to be working with them.
AIPT: As a Kickstarter, what are your favorite tiers and rewards?
DP: There are a ton of rewards that I am so excited about. First has to be our trio of variant covers to go alongside Ruben’s pitch-perfect main cover — for starters, I’ve worked with Maan House on all of my series before this, and the way he’s been able to capture kind of the solitary destruction of the Winged Monkey soldiers is really harrowing. He’s able to give that sort of horror grit to all his covers, but never oppressively so.
Rio Burton is a wonderful new artist I haven’t worked with before, but she’s amazing, capturing Dorothy with that Jen Bartel stylistic wheelhouse — her cover reminded me a lot of Apocalypse Now, just this deceptive kind of beauty amidst the bloodshed and the danger. And finally there’s Kenneth Wagnon, who is somebody I’ve been trying to work with for ages — when I told him I wanted to do an Akira homage featuring Dorothy and the Tin Soldier, he just grand-slammed it out of the park.
The other reward I’m really excited about is that for years, people have asked me for Spencer & Locke plushies — unfortunately, we’ve never been able to get them mass-produced. But as a gesture of goodwill for my creative team, I commissioned ten hand-stitched Spencer dolls… and we’re looking to give three of them loving homes with our “King of the Jungle” reward.
AIPT: Your book exceeds the Kickstarter goals and reaches a 10 million dollar stretch goal. What is your Wizard of Oz 10 million dollar stretch goal addition?
DP: A musical adaptation with live pyrotechnics. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard the haunting ballad, “I Love the Smell of Winged Monkeys in the Morning.”
AIPT: What do you want people to take away from your efforts with this project? When it’s finally in their hands what would satisfy you and your team from a creator’s stand point?
DP: As far as what I’d like readers to take away from this project, I can only hope to build upon the incredible audience we’ve already had with Spencer & Locke and Going to the Chapel because I think The O.Z., really hits that sweet spot between the two books — while simultaneously taking a very different turn in the genre, bringing in readers who enjoy fantasy and war stories. It’s taking themes that really resonate with me, but working them out in a way that I think feels very differently from the books I’ve written before.
And I hope that readers recognize that we’re not creating The O.Z. for shock value’s sake — that’s an easy way to get people intrigued, but it’s not a way to get them invested for the long haul. Dorothy’s journey might be grim at times, but I think her path is ultimately very human, and very much a story about finding redemption and purpose even in the most harrowing of landscapes. They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, and I think there’s some element of truth to that. I think sometimes I gravitate towards darker stories for that redemptive arc, to make those bright spots shine even brighter against the contrast.
But as far as me being satisfied from a creator standpoint, honestly, I’m already there — and I think so much of that is because of Kickstarter. With The O.Z., we’ve made a book that I truly think can go toe-to-toe with any creator-owned book on the stands, but done so in a way that we’re not just waiting for permission to publish this — this book is exactly the way we wanted it to be, and I couldn’t be prouder to work with the next generation of A-list talent to bring it to life.
Kickstarter campaigns are always an uphill battle, but I can be as confident as I am because we’ve already won the war — The O.Z. is one of the best projects I’ve ever been lucky enough to be involved in, and I can’t wait to show readers what we have in store for them.