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Interview: David Pepose on 'The O.Z.'

We chat with the comic scribe about the everlasting appeal of L. Frank Baum and why Oz is the perfect war zone for this latest apocalyptic tale.

Get locked and loaded; we're pushing into The O.Z. with writer David Pepose. The second issue for his madcap mash-up collaboration with artist Ruben Rojas has just ten days left to its Kickstarter campaign, and it's already surpassed its goals and then some. Bring on the many, many radical stretch goals.


Yes, we're not in Kansas anymore. And we know, because we've watched The Wizard of Oz one bajillion gazillion times. The 1939 movie musical is burned into our collective consciousness, and if forced to do so, it's a good bet that every one of us could sing each lyric belted by the Lollipop Guild. Their tune seemingly enters our brain at the point of birth.


L. Frank Baum's novels offer a massive realm for readers to roam and writers to twist. In Oz's unshakable cultural solidarity resides a freedom to mess around. And with The O.Z., Pepose and Rojas run maniacally down the yellow brick road, firing machine guns into the air as they do so.


We'd offer an attempt to explain the plot, but this is Pepose's show, and he's already nailed the pitch:


"The O.Z. is the story of Dorothy Gale's granddaughter, who's a disillusioned Iraq war veteran who finds herself stranded in the war-torn land of Oz. And as she comes to learn, her grandmother killing two wicked witches and convincing the Wizard of Oz to leave, and then clicking her heels together three times and splitting did not result in a happy ending. If anything, it caused a power vacuum, not unlike Baghdad. And so now, the world-weary soldier is going to have to navigate her grandmother's former friends - the Tin Soldier, the Scarecrow, and the Prince of Lions - if she hopes to bring peace to the occupied zone, or as the locals call it, 'The O.Z.'"


Brad had a total blast chatting with Pepose about The O.Z. and Baum's undying legacy. They discuss why Pepose brought The Hurt Locker to Oz, how there is so much more to Baum's kingdom than the Judy Garland flick, and why no tampering could ever tarnish the franchise.


This interview was edited for length and clarity, but next week, you can listen to the entire discussion on our Patreon feed. Just 1 Dollar.

Brad: I love the pitch of Oz meets The Hurt Locker. Cuz, it's not just some random war movie. I feel like The Hurt Locker has a very specific vibe.


David: Yeah, because it really gets into the head of soldiers, both in the quiet moments and the really tense ones. And I mean, I'm sure you could reference things like American Sniper or Jarhead as well. But yeah, there's so much personality to those characters specifically in The Heart Locker, that's always the one that kind of pops out at me, especially because it really grapples with trauma as it's unfolding.


You start off very innocent and then you see your innocence get stripped away as you see the horrors of war. These are people who know they've been in it. And they already have their own scars from it, and they're still in it. And that's our new Dorothy to a T, a former Army Ranger, she saw time in Iraq and Afghanistan. And as our series progresses, we'll see more and more of the traumas that scarred Dorothy and really kind of made her the woman she is today.


But for me, I kind of stumbled onto this high concept. After my first book, Spencer and Locke came out, I thought I wanted to try some different genres. And so fantasy was one of the things on the top of my list. And I wrote down a whole bunch of influences that really stood to mind, things like Lloyd Alexander, Piers Anthony, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Wizard of Oz. And my cursor got stuck. I was on Google Docs and my computer froze on the word Oz. And as I was thinking about it, I thought, "The word Oz, it's so short, but it's so evocative." I wonder if that could be an acronym for something.


And as I started just putting together random words, I thought, "Occupied zone," and it immediately is like lightning struck. I knew, oh, this isn't just a fantasy story, it's a war story.


Brad: What The Hurt Locker doesn't really do, well, it does it a little bit, but it doesn't really talk that much about those occupied people, whereas your comic, The O.Z., because of the rich tapestry that L. Frank Baum did with all his characters, you also get to talk about what the effect has been on the people of this land, which is really exciting.


David: There's so much cool mythology and iconography to play with. It's funny, my original exposure to The Wizard of Oz, beyond the Judy Garland film, happened when I took a class in adolescent literature in college. And I wrote a term paper on L. Frank Baum's Oz novels, and I compared it actually, I did a comparative analysis with Stan [Lee] and Jack [Kirby] and what they did with the Marvel Universe in the '60s.


Brad: Oh, dang. Want to read that.

David: Yeah, just focusing, sort of how they built up continuity over the years and over the course of numerous books. And Baum was doing it decades before anybody else. I find myself drawn towards books that have those kinds of iconographies and imagery to them because that's sort of the landmarks that I guide myself from point A to point B, all the way to point Z.


And so you really think, "What's the reader's expectations here?" If you're doing something in the land of Oz, you're going to expect things like winged monkeys. You're going to expect what happened to the Wicked Witch, what happened to Toto, what happened to the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Lion. And then we're able to sort of do a few other curveballs as well.


One of the best parts of doing this in a Kickstarter is we do have a little bit of room to maneuver based on what our fans are saying. And I was so shocked at how many people asked me, "Where are the Wheelers? Are there going to be any Wheelers in this book?" So we do have a Wheeler sighting in issue two. I told Reuben, I said, "Okay. I know where we can fit them in." But yeah, it's been really fun trying to kind of walk that tightrope a little bit of what's sort of universally accessible for everybody and then figuring out kind of Easter eggs that we can throw in for the die-hard Oz fans.


I'll say, for example, we'll see a little bit of the Gnome King. We'll see him in issue three. We have some room in issue three for a few more guest appearances as well.


But the only character that I'll say that we're not using right now is Ozma, and that's just because I always try to write with another idea in my back pocket in case the demand is there for more. And if we ever did a sequel to The O.Z., right now it's been written as a standalone series with a beginning, middle, and end, but if we ever did a sequel, Ozma would play a very big role in that. She's Oz royalty, and so I think she would have some things to say about Dorothy and her command.


Brad: When you've only watched the film you're trapped in a finite space and time. There's a beginning, there's a middle, and there's an end. But when you read the book, you realize that there is no end.


David: No. It just keeps going and going and going. And that's why I was really taken when I read the Baum books. It made me think a lot of Piers Anthony, his Chronicles of Xanth, this is me getting really into the nerd weeds, but I feel like that book was not originally supposed to be written as a franchise, and it just took off. And so there was a big line of mythology, and so it became not just the story of Bink trying to figure out what his magical talent was in the land of Xanth. Then it became about all the sorcerers and all the sorceresses and all the wizards. And then it became like a dynastic story as well, going through generations and generations of Xanth royalty.

Oz is kind of similar. It just kind of builds on itself. And of course, like any sort of serialized storytelling, it's always most iconic from the source. The more riffs you do on it, it becomes like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox. The first story stands on its own. And then something that feels directly an offshoot from the source, it becomes a conversation. And there is room for deconstruction and there's room for remixing.


The thing I love most about the Wizard of Oz is its powerful, iconic narrative. It can withstand any of these twists and turns because we all know the story, and we all know these characters have such strong visuals and strong personalities and strong emotional arcs too.


I think that's the genius of the story of the Scarecrow. He wants a brain. His wants are his arc as a character. Same thing with the Tin Man wanting a heart and the Cowardly Lion wanting courage. And I think it's rare to find stories that have such strong themes inherent to the plot and inherent to their characters and their motivations.


Brad: I think that's so important to remember within fandom culture, if I dare call it that. Where we get so precious with these ideas and these concepts. But you can't destroy it. The originals stand. There should be no fear in going in with The O.Z. and mucking it up.


David: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, whatever I do, The Wizard of Oz is still going to be a thing, and Return to Oz is still going to be a thing. I would make the same argument honestly about Spencer and Locke as well, is that whatever I do will never ruin Calvin and Hobbes. And it'd be kind of conceited of me to think it ever could.


We're standing on the shoulders of giants with these stories. I think that's what makes it so fun. I'm never going to pretend that I'm Bill Watterson. I'm never going to pretend that I'm L. Frank Baum. We just get to play in their shadows a little bit. We get to see where two weird things overlap and just play in that field.


And I think it winds up becoming very self selecting in terms of story options, which is good for me. I don't have too much rope that I hang myself. At the same time, it kind of really reminds me what I loved about these inspirations and influences in the first place.

Be sure to follow David Pepose on Twitter HERE and on Instagram HERE. And, most importantly, follow The O.Z. via its Kickstarter campaign HERE.