Spencer & Locke #1: You Can’t Go Home Again
Writer: David Pepose
Artist: Jorge Santiago Jr.
Colourist: Jasen Smith
Letterer: Colin Bell
Publisher: Action Lab: Danger Zone
A review by Stephanie Pouliotte
Like many, I picked up Spencer & Locke #1 because of the elevator pitch: “What if Calvin & Hobbes grew up in Sin City?” How could you NOT be curious?! But I’m always a bit skeptical of titles that use other properties as a launching pad, and Bill Watterson has been vocal in the past about his reservations towards licensing his characters. Though this isn’t quite the same thing, the blatant similarities to the iconic franchise are undeniable. I scoped out the preview pages and variant covers and found that they hinted at some real potential. So I dove right in expecting a decent fan-fiction type read that coasted mainly on superficial resemblances to Calvin and Hobbes, with a story that draws on the dark thriller genre for the occasional shock value. I wasn’t totally off the mark, but Spencer & Locke #1 turned out to be more than the sum of its parts. I was surprised by how much this comic pulled at my heartstrings.
This first issue strikes a really good balance between the two aesthetics in both style and substance, puncturing childhood nostalgia with a much grimmer reality. Writer David Pepose wastes no time in setting the tone, opening on a familiar scene only to jolt the reader with an unexpected (and yes shocking) turn of events. It was probably a good idea to get this initial blow out of the way early, and it feeds into the story later on as the murder of his grade school sweetheart, Sophie Jenkins, forces Locke to revisit his abusive childhood. The rest of the issue’s more gruesome bits are tied into the story quite well, and it mainly thrives on the strong dynamic between the title characters, Detective Locke and his stuffed panther Spencer.
Not unlike a certain quintessential boy and stuffed tiger duo, Locke’s furry partner Spencer is his closest confident, but also a sounding board to reason things out from another perspective. They balance each other out and share a charming, genuine bond. Not unlike how Calvin and Hobbes were named after great thinkers, I’d say our protagonists take their names from John Locke, an introspective empiricist who believed there was no freedom without a social compact of laws, and Herbert Spencer, largely associated with Social Darwinism and coining the term “survival of the fittest” (which is directly quoted in the comic). A cynical detective like Locke fits well enough, channeling Calvin’s private investigator alter-ego Tracer Bullet in his somewhat cliche, hard-boiled narration. Though unlike his philosophical namesake, he doesn’t really “observe” his own emotions so much as succumbs to them, and the flashbacks to his troubled past help flesh out his raw outbursts during the climactic scene. The whole issue is a thorough exploration of the effects of abuse, and it doesn’t take its darker aspects lightly. Locke isn’t a perfectly rounded character. He’s certainly a bit broken and has some rough edges, but he’s genuinely a good person who fought his way out of a bad life. He got through his trauma because of his friendship with Spencer, which to him is not imaginary at all, and so he’s found a way to maintain that part of himself.
As for Spencer, his personality is a bit closer to Watterson’s lovable tiger; fiercely loyal, if not a bit snobbish at times, reminiscing about living in the jungles of Africa and quick to declare himself a lover, not a fighter. Channeling his inner Herbert Spencer, he tells a macabre joke comparing the code of the jungle to the “real savagery” he’s encountered in cities, a theme that permeates throughout this issue as events continue to build towards a rather brutal climax. His personality shines through the comic’s dark trappings, as he banters with his partner or consoles a mourning girl. The relationship between these two friends was everything I hoped it would be, and it’s what makes Spencer & Locke #1 such a strong start to this series.
This issue is also well structured, even if it was very formulaic, weaving back and forth between Locke’s childhood flashbacks as characters from his past are introduced. I did feel the Calvin and Hobbes influence was too pointed in the names of the side characters: Sophie Jenkins instead of Susie Derkins, and Mrs. Scabtree in place of Mrs. Wormwood. Pepose gets a lot out of these kind of winking references and it is a bit heavy handed, but it’s not so imposing as to pull you out of the plot, and overall their use was quite cleverly folded into the story. Pepose doesn’t achieve the same level of depth and insight as Watterson did in his short strips, there aren’t any deep philosophical musings or biting social commentary, and some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, but I had no trouble letting myself get caught up in the story. Despite its clear influences, Spencer & Locke has a unique appeal, and hopefully it will make an effort to stand on its own in the coming issues and move away from such blatant parallels as we go deeper into the development of Locke’s character.
The premise could have easily flopped if the artwork didn’t hold up, but Santiago appropriates Watterson’s signature style perfectly in the flashbacks, while still making it his own. The contrast between the character renderings from the flashbacks to present day visually supports the comic’s gritty tone, and the masterful composition of his panels is his greatest strength, especially during the climactic fight. Spencer’s personality shows in the very way he carries himself; he can be ferocious, meticulous, or extremely cuddly, and his expressions are just so on point. Locke has some really intense moments, and it comes out in his eyes especially. There is something dark inside of him, not necessarily something evil, but certainly something violent that stems from growing up surrounded by hatred and pain. Spencer grounds him, but when help from his stuffed friend is just out of reach, his anger overflows and pulses on the page. Jason Smith’s colours polishes off the final look, using deep highlights and rich shades for a gritty noir tone in the present and shifting to brighter, flat colours in the flashbacks.
Buy It! Spencer & Locke #1 successfully taps into the fierce boyhood friendship that made Calvin and Hobbes such a beloved comic, while giving it a noir twist that takes the story down its own gruesome path. It certainly leans very heavily on its premise in this first issue, but it was an engaging read that I hope will dig deeper into its characters. If you grew up reading Bill Watterson’s convention-breaking strip or Frank Miller’s gritty thrillers, you will find something wonderfully dark and familiar in its pages, but even readers who haven’t will find this issue hard to put down.