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Fundamental Comics: ‘Spencer & Locke’ and Mental Health

“Fundamental Comics,” a monthly editorial series that introduces readers to comics, graphic novels, and manga that have been impactful to the sequential art medium and the comic book industry on a foundational level.  Each month, a new essay will examine a familiar or lesser-known title through an in-depth analysis, exploring the history of the title, significant themes, and context for the title’s popularity since it was first released.

Spencer & Locke

Writer: David Pepose
Artist: Jorge Santiago, Jr.
Colorist: Jasen Smith
Letterer: Colin Bell
Publisher: Action Lab Entertainment
Publication Date: 2017
No. of Issues: 4

Introduction: “What if Calvin and Hobbes grew up in Sin City?”

Described by writer David Pepose as “Calvin and Hobbes meet Sin City,” this story takes that iconic cartoon-style comic and turns it on its head. The lovable characters from the original comic are not the same characters found in both Spencer and Locke, yet they are equally endearing. Artist Jorge Santiago, Jr. takes the title characters and adds gritty elements that come with being a homicide detective – bloody crime scenes, violent outbursts, and a heightened imagination produced from a tumultuous past.

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The Plot

Spencer & Locke’s plot starts with a simple lead: a murdered woman and a complicated past. Locke’s early years are filled with traumatic experiences, including an abusive mother, which have led him down a path of becoming a detective. The murder victim is a childhood sweetheart, and following a lead or two seems straightforward: go to her place of employment and visit the family. If you learn anything, things have never been quite so easy for Locke or his imaginary blue panther, Spencer, who helps him solve crimes.

As Spencer and Locke continue on the case, Spencer’s persona is much like a safety pin for Locke, and instead of keeping clothing fastened together, Spencer is there to keep the fabric of Locke’s soul from tearing apart. As flashbacks indicate a violent upbringing and sexual misconduct from a babysitter, they also serve as a viable purpose for Spencer’s existence. Locke, at times, might have a devil-may-care attitude, while Spencer guides him toward patience and cautioning against recklessness.

This noir mini-series unravels many layers throughout its four-chapter arc. The relationship between Spencer and Locke is pivotal to the story, exploring the positive results of depending on someone else for support and encouragement. Although, this isn’t the only relationship that plays a key role in Spencer & Locke. As a detective, Locke must face demons from his past that come in the form of his former principal in elementary school, a bully who tried to take his lunch money (emphasis on tried and then bloodied), and his father.

Each character has a special connection to Locke and now are important to the case of his murdered former sweetheart. All of them resemble some form of torture for Locke, and with Spencer’s help, he’s able to confront those tense moments, moving him closer to solving the crime. With each chapter, the corruption involved with this case doesn’t leave any safe haven for our heroes as they navigate through many tenuous situations, including the former babysitter now turned employee at a strip club who mocks Locke’s “first time” – further examining Locke’s resolve and how fallible Spencer can be in the presence of such tragic moments.

There is also an unfailing quality of Spencer, as Locke deals with being captured and drug induced. All of the creators for Spencer & Locke shine in this interpretation of Locke’s mind, as he attempts to free himself from an alien world and everything looks like a scary creature, including his most trusted ally. Locke has an undeniable strength allowing him to overcome fears, former antagonists or deviants, and dangerous encounters that threaten his life and those around him.

All of this comes down to a final showdown with his father – an individual purely seeking to achieve his own motivations. Locke proves how far he’s willing to go to solve the crime and protect those who need it, leading to a satisfying conclusion, which continues to emphasize the necessary form Spencer takes for those that are subjugated to brutal circumstances.

Reception Upon Release

The first issue received several high marks from the likes of IGN, Comicosity, ComicsVerse, and Comic Book Resources, noting the ability to structure the story in a way that blends vicious past experiences with a chaotic present, all while Spencer stands in the middle acting as a way to balance both sides so one doesn’t overwhelm Locke’s future:

IGN: 8.5 Rating

 – “Spencer and Locke #1 is a great debut. It manages to be both familiar and fresh, playing off of reader expectations in ways that are dark but entertaining.”

Comicosity: 9.0 Rating

 – “The artwork is superb. The flashback scenes play homage to Bill Watterson’s classic newspaper strip while still conveying a darkness in Locke’s life…Spencer & Locke is a must to add to your collection and enjoy reading.”

ComicsVerse: 91% Rating

 – “The ending is full of as much suspense as the end of a first issue should be…An amazing concept brought to life by talented creators. Can’t wait to see the next installment.”

As the four-part series continued to its next release, Comic Book Resources describes the intensity level associated with fighting crime and occasionally chasing down a child-abductor, noting, “Whoa. The last third of this issue will yank you to the edge of your seat and will not let you rest as a stuffed tiger takes the wheel during a high-speed car chase with gunfire.”

Critical Analysis

Spencer & Locke is an up-close look at a coping mechanism for an individual who suffered awful tragedies that required a mental bridge to maintain a straight path in life. Writer Pepose connects the dots from one lead to another, making the storyline easy to follow, all while Locke’s backstory clearly presents the burden constantly placed on his shoulders due to his disturbing past.

Pepose carefully crafts a tale that makes having an imaginary friend a perfect sidekick for a homicide detective. Not only does Spencer seem like a character we want to see more of, it’s clearly evident how important the blue panther is to the story and to Locke’s psyche. Spencer’s ability to perceive danger is a wonderful shield Locke needs to protect him against those trying to hurt him, and this doesn’t minimize Locke’s ability as a detective or limit this protective shield only to his work.

Spencer’s presence has been a part of Locke’s imagination since early childhood. The bond formed between these two is solid, deeply rooted in love for each other and helping Locke overcome or better cope with a cluttered mind that leads Locke to the edge of a rooftop at a young age. His imagination wants to propel him off the ledge, as a way to mitigate his suffering, and yet another part of his brain saves him – Spencer, an imaginary friend who delivers a heartwarming message to embrace Locke for who he is and cherish their time together.

Artist Santiago, Jr. illustrates Spencer & Locke with finesse. His drawings, filled with Jasen Smith’s colors, are balanced with classic comic strip panels for flashbacks, while the present day is sketched with darker scenes one might find on the streets of Sin City. The distinct notes from past to present are tied together with a troubling sequence of events for both child and adult Locke. The evolution of Locke’s character stems from his friendship with Spencer – who is almost always there and highlights how Locke needs his imaginary friend.

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Relevancy Today

Mental health is a relevant topic today on many fronts, whether it be associated with populations having to deal with unfair treatment or unequal rights, gun violence, or simply being able to talk about depression without a stigma attached to it. People need an outlet to discuss emotional distress, whether for themselves or to reach out to those who have endured great physical or mental traumas. The relationship Locke has formed with his imaginary friend serves as this very outlet he desperately needs to survive and carry on with his life, literally.

At some point, Locke’s imagination allowed him the freedom to create what was needed to survive. In our own society, we need to ensure individuals have the same freedom to seek help and not feel any burden of guilt for simply taking care of themselves.

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Other Points of Interest

Spencer & Locke has been “optioned by Hitman film producer Adrian Askarieh” (Fanbase Press Interview, 7:31).

 – “I was hooked from the very first issue,” said Askarieh. “There is something darkly visceral and uniquely cinematic about what David and Jorge have created.” – The Hollywood Reporter (July 2017)

A second volume in the Spencer & Locke series is scheduled to release in 2018. Follow Spencer & Locke on Twitter or Facebook for future updates.


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