Nostalgia is a hell of a drug and no one knows that better than comic fans. atthether it’s through fandom’s own addiction to the increasingly convoluted history of characters from their youth or creators’ obsession with dropping those characters into gritty, surprising scenarios, comics seems incapable of shaking its need for a nostalgic fix. In recent years, though, this epidemic has reached unprecented levels of absurdity, as more and more creators dig deep into the funny pages to place childhood icons in noir soaked predicaments. At first this approach was novel, as when Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips directly commented on the disappointment of nostalgia via Archie comics stand-ins with Criminal: Last of the Innocent. But now, as we’ve reached a point where Warner Bros has DC pillaging the Hanna-Barbera vaults to put bleak spins on everything from The Flintstones to Wacky Race, that approach is feeling less inspired. Nonetheless, that’s the approach David Pepose and Jorge Santiago take with Spencer & Locke, a ghoulish and mean-spirited work that comes across as a pitiful clone of the far superior Last of the Innocent and only succeeds at proving this nostalgianoir trend has reached its expiration date.
Like Last of the Innocent, Spencer & Locke is split between two aesthetics. The dominant style has the titular characters, stand-ins for Calvin & Hobbes, investigating a murder in some vague gothic metropolis, colorist Jasen Smith decking Santiago’s backgrounds in shadows and purple light and yellow saturation for the exterior scenes and fluorescent light drenched brightness for the interiors. Locke is a detective who speaks in a faux-Ellroy clip, his “partner” is Spencer, who appears to him as a walking, talking man-cat but to everyone else he’s just a grimy stuffed blue panther. The second aesthetic is an imitation of Bill Watterson’s, with flat colors and button eyes and bobbing heads; Santiago does nice work balancing these styles, bringing enough of the cartoonish tone to the noir segments to make it feel relatively unified without sacrificing his personality.
The issue is that Pepose struggles to communicate any of the charm and chemistry Watterson brought to his creations, resulting in a shallow work that provides winking references to Calvin & Hobbes but no real understanding for what made those strips work. This is especially troublesome in a work that attempts to expand on the world it’s referencing while also placing recognizable characters in surprising and unusual environments and situations. There is a potentially interesting idea to be explored with Calvin, a symbol of puckish anti-authority, growing up to be a defender of the authority he perpetually questioned, but Pepose doesn’t seem to have any interest in exploring that and instead child Locke and adult Locke come across as two radically different characters who share a face and an imaginary friend and not much else. There is no effort to explore the growth of these characters, or how they arrived where they are, there is simply juxtaposition between Snarky Young Locke and Stoic Older Locke seemingly just because Pepose believes juxtaposition alone is interesting.
What makes this even more exasperating is Pepose’s reliance on the “shock” of noir’s absolute worst habit: grotesque misogyny. The comic literally opens with a flashback to young Spencer and Locke making slut shaming jokes about Locke’s mom, heavily implied to be a sex worker, who then proceeds to abuse Locke for interrupting her work. The next scene is Locke standing over the corpse of Sophie Jenkins, his childhood crush, who we later find out was in a potentially abusive relationship of her own with Locke’s former bully rival. Nearly every woman in Spencer & Locke is either a victim or a stern hag; the only exception I can think of is a waitress who asks Locke who he’s talking to in a diner. At one point, in one of the nostalgia scenes, Pepose even manages to have young Locke make a groan inducing transphobic joke. Why does this need to exist?
Of course, Ed Brubaker is as guilty of indulging in misogynist tropes as any other noir addict but in series like Criminal, the characters are given some semblance of depth and those regrettable elements are easier to overlook, particularly in Last of the Innocent, where the nostalgia scenes are framed in a way that makes it clear our lovable Archie stand-in was honestly always a selfish dick, we just let his youthful charm cloud our judgment. But Spencer & Locke is so hollow and uninspired every regrettable element stands out and becomes glaringly obvious. It’s a smug, lazy work that seems to think “What if Calvin and Hobbes grew up to be minor characters in a Sin City spinoff?” is enough of a concept to sustain it. It’s a testament to the ability of Bill Watterson that the average Calvin & Hobbes strip packed far more depth and nuance than the entirety of this first issue and Pepose would be wise to more closely examine the character work that makes those strips tick if he hopes to ever make Spencer & Locke more than an offensive and embarrassing gritty twist on a rightfully beloved comic strip.
Spencer & Locke comes out next Wednesday, April 12th through Action Lab Entertainment.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover