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The Wizard of Oz meets The Hurt Locker in David Pepose's latest comic 'The O.Z.'
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of our most sacred fantasy stories, but what if by defeating the Wicked Witch, Dorothy Gale created a power vacuum and triggered a decades-long civil war with countless casualties? And, what if Dorothy’s granddaughter, an Iraq war veteran, gets pulled into the present day Oz, now dubbed the Occupied Zone? She’d have a big mess on her hands in trying to broker peace. That’s what co-creators David Pepose (Spencer & Locke) and artist-on-the-rise Ruben Rojas will explore in their re-imagined sequel The O.Z. Along with colorist Whitney Cogar (Giant Days) and letterer DC Hopkins (Resonant), this is one Kickstarter-supported comic you won't want to miss.
The O.Z. is part Mad Max: Fury Road mixed with equal portions of The Hurt Locker and The Old Guard as it takes the cherished landscape of Oz and turns it into a frightening war zone full of casualties. Its remaining survivors cling to the hopes that they will see an end to the conflict, but that reality is nowhere near the horizon. It's an unflinching tale about the punishing consequences of war, the search for noble leadership, and legacy.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Pepose about the story of The O.Z. as well as making comics in the COVID era. We also have the exclusive preview of the first 12 pages, with process pages of a Rio Burton variant cover. Then be sure to check out the Kickstarter for The O.Z. #1 here.
What made you and Ruben go the crowdsourcing route? Has the pandemic altered your approach to creating?
Creating comics is like being a shark: You have to move or die. And as such, I'd had my eye on Kickstarter because it's such a great place to build readership and sell your work alongside the traditional retailer, Amazon, and live convention channels. So when COVID struck, it really crystallized that idea for me, especially given the disruption to distribution, as well as many publishers staggering their release schedules to 2022 and beyond. And that's where The O.Z. came in.
I've been working with Ruben on this book for a long time, but COVID reminded me that we don't have to wait for permission to create anymore. I love working with traditional publishers, but we had gotten restless waiting for the stars to align, and with a book this exciting, Kickstarter really empowered us as creators to not have to wait another second to show The O.Z. off to the world.
The O.Z. is as grounded as we've ever seen a re-imagined sequel. Why was L. Frank Baum's story a good starting point?
"Oz" is such a short, but iconic word, and recasting it as an acronym for the "Occupied Zone" suddenly shifted the entire thing for me. I could see a giant steampunk cyborg version of the Tin Man on the battlefield, having been blown up and rebuilt so many times he's become a walking tank. I could see Dorothy as a disillusioned soldier, having cobbled together her own makeshift weaponry from the ruins of a Munchkin armada. Honestly, that image evoked such a mythic sense of scale that the story just poured out of me.
What was it about Oz that made you think you could revisit it through a war story?
Filtering through the war genre made sense from a narrative standpoint. In Baum's original novel, Dorothy crash-lands in Oz, kills the Wicked Witch, and then returns home to Kansas. Wouldn't that sudden decapitation strike cause just as much chaos and political turmoil as any other U.S.-backed regime change [today]?
That was the wrinkle that sparked The O.Z. — the organic starting point let me delve into my favorite themes of trauma, guilt, and redemption, but in a way that allowed me to explore new genres like fantasy while raising the scale and the stakes to something even more world-shattering.
Could you explain the power vacuum that's created for The O.Z.?
So, I imagined the land of Oz would fall in a similar sort of power vacuum [as post-2003 Baghdad], complete with various factions locked in a brutal civil war. It's one thing to topple a dictator, but it's a lot harder to put things back together. Unlike her storied grandmother, this Dorothy is a soldier. She knows how to fight, but is there a way to break the cycle of violence and actually bring peace to the Occupied Zone?
What made this Dorothy such an exciting protagonist to write?
She is the granddaughter and namesake of the original Dorothy Gale, but instead of being a bright-eyed girl from Kansas, ours is a disillusioned Iraq war veteran who's trying to piece together her life after her time overseas.
Dropping her into the dangerous Occupied Zone is going to dredge up a lot of bad memories for Dorothy, but her training as a soldier is also going to make her uniquely equipped to deal with the civil war brewing, that really colors how she sees Oz. Dorothy is also able to turn the magical elements of this world into deadly weapons of her own.
This war zone will force Dorothy to confront her past, but it will also wind up providing her a second chance to make things right. Because she'll spend much of this story thinking about the costs of war, Dorothy doesn't want to start a fight, but by God, will she finish one.
How have Tin Man, Lion, and Scarecrow been affected?
Tin Soldier witnessed so much suffering as Oz's leading revolutionary. His dynamic with Dorothy will evolve and develop across our entire series. They're both soldiers, and while he's one of the most decorated warriors in Oz's history, the Tin Soldier will find a lot to learn from Dorothy. The Cowardly Lion wished for bravery, but how does that calculus change when you're not just fighting for yourself, but leading the entire Animal Kingdom?
And how does the Scarecrow navigate Oz with his vaunted sense of intelligence? Scarecrow is probably the most complex and complicated figure in the entire series, and readers' opinions on the character will change a lot from our first issue to the last. Being the smartest person in the room doesn't solve every problem and has its own share of unintended consequences, as well.
These characters are all intertwined with one another, even if they haven't been on the same side of the battlefield in years.
In these preview pages, the original Dorothy (Grandma), appears to carry a heavy story, too.
Honestly, the story of Dorothy's grandmother might be the saddest part of our story. She's the ultimate symbol of innocence lost. She was a child when she brought down the Wicked Witch, and couldn't possibly have understood the ripple effect of her actions. Not only is she battling dementia, but I don't think there's any way she could imagine how far her beloved Oz has fallen, let alone her unwitting role in its downfall.
I don't see Grandma Dorothy as a bad person whatsoever. It's those good intentions and that innate decency that I think fuels her granddaughter's mission through the Occupied Zone. Dorothy herself says that everything good in her has come from her grandmother. So much of this story is about legacy, and Dorothy will certainly have to confront her grandmother's.
Oz has these nostalgic reference points, but there's a heavy tone for The O.Z. with Dorothy's PTSD, right?
Trauma is a theme that I often explore in my work, dating back to my first series Spencer & Locke. I think our scars really shape us, and that our defining journey as human beings often is how we confront or retreat from our pasts. By virtue of The O.Z. being a story with the war genre in its DNA, it felt organic to have Dorothy grappling with PTSD and disillusionment from her time overseas. Not only do you feel guilt for the people who didn't make it out alive, but it's easy to find yourself asking yourself, what was it all for?
A lot of my previous work led me to this point. Everything from our villainous Beetle Bailey analog in Spencer & Locke 2 to my work as a newspaper reporter, where I covered military and mental health beats in Western Massachusetts. I interviewed a lot of veterans struggling with PTSD in a region that didn't always have the infrastructure to [help them] cope. That absolutely has shaped the subject matter of my books.
Anything else you want to add?
While I like the idea of taking childhood characters and reexamining them through a darker lens, I don't like the idea of creating something just for the sake of shock value. Shock can get readers interested for one issue, but shock is no substitute for genuine emotional investment.
I truly believe we justify our high concept with The O.Z., using this magical world to tackle real-world issues like PTSD, survivor's guilt, and the moral calculus of war. You may think you know the story of The Wizard of Oz, but this is the story of what comes next. I think when you meet Dorothy Gale and her army of four, you're going to fall in love with The O.Z.
The Kickstarter for The O.Z. #1 starts today, Aug. 17, and will be the first of three double-sized comics, each with their own separate crowdfunding campaign. There is a bevy of stretch goals at the basic and premium levels that will be open directly to readers and retailers alike.
Be sure to check out SYFY WIRE's exclusive preview of the first 12 pages below, along with an exclusive look at the process of the Rio Burton variant cover.