Disgusting, revolting, scarring, intelligent and completely addictive. These are some of the words readers are using to describe Witch Doctor, a sci-fi horror hybrid comic following a arrogant doctor of the supernatural affair, who uses magic along with common medical practices to treat those infected with diseases, which are the well-known H.P. Lovecraft monsters.
The Skybound title has elements of horror, medical dramas, and a surprisingly large amount of science fiction, as if someone made a comic book cocktail of House M.D., Supernatural and Doctor Who. The visuals are by co-creator Lukas Ketner, who is a reminder of when Michael Kaluta and Bernie Wrightson were still the names spoken about in comic circles. Newsarama spoke with co-creator and writer Brandon Seifert at Emerald City Comic Con to talk about Witch Doctor.
Seifert has acclimated to all of the gross parasites and diseases he comes up with in the book. Only when people come up to him at conventions is he reminded of how graphic and gory his book is. “It’s just kind of normal to me, now. I have to remind myself it has that aspect.”Given how many supernatural stories have saturated popular culture, Witch Doctor was a risky book, but it separated itself from the field by rooting in real world medicine.
“Morrow is not investigating the supernatural, but still approaching it the way a doctor would,” Seifert explained. “That was the initial concept. One day it came clear to me if we have that, then the monsters have to have a medical aspect too.”
“Everyone has to have some medical or biological analog. It did take a long time to catch that part and that’s what sets this apart, the attention to the real world detail of the monsters.”
Seifert ran with the concept, and began mapping out the endless task of creating a giant grid that would become the road map for the series. “We got to make entire ecosystems, food webs, predator and prey relationships, evolutionary diagrams and stuff and explain all supernatural monsters are descended from parasites and diseases brought over from Cthulu and the Great Old Ones.”
Since 2007, Seifert refined it, taking into account what is classic knowledge about these supernatural creatures, and considering the many other stories in recent years.
“I do a lot of research to try to avoid what others people have already done, but then sometimes it’s fun to play. The ship has sailed but I came up with a Witch Doctor-Twilight story. I realized Twilight makes more sense if Bella is infected with a parasite that needs to get into a vampire to complete its life cycle. Lately, I’ve gone back and forth about werewolves and what they’re going to be (in the series).”
“There are all of these parasites that go through multiple hosts, and one of the hosts is a prey animal, and to complete the life cycle they have to get the prey hosts eaten by a predator. So for example, there’s tapeworms that get in the lungs of the moose, which screw up the lungs enough for them to be eaten by wolves. There are four or five different parasites that do that. “
The follow up six-issue mini-series, Witch Doctor: Mal Practice ramps up the danger but putting its protagonist in a race against the clock. It is an intense detailing of Morrow’s 36 hours after he contracts a sexually transmitted disease-parasite that’s a spellborne illness–only magic practitioners get it. Seifert used the follow up to map out the second half of the grid: the magic and treatments for the diseases.
“The idea behind Mal Practice is if monsters are diseases, then magic is medicine. So for the second mini-series, I wanted the focus to be on the magic-medicine metaphor. As I was writing it, it became more of an action adventure intrigue story, with the magic metaphor more in the background. It didn’t end up being as much of focus as I intended, certainly not as much focus as the monsters were in the first mini-series.”
“One of the problems people frequently have with magic in fiction is there’s no built in guidelines or problems. I wanted to couch the problems with magic with medicine in the real world. For instance morphine is this life-saving, pain-killing drug that you can sell on the street for a profit that you can kill somebody with an overdose, that you can drop in a drink as a date-rape drug, and that you can get addicted to.
“Medicine frequently has downsides. So we tried to apply the same kind of downsides to magic, like bad spell interactions, like if you use the two wrong kinds of spells at the same time. Spellborne Illness is another one of the big themes in the mini-series.
Witch Doctor: Mal Practice feeds fears that hit close to home for anyone is currently or has ever been on prescribed drugs. People don’t want any harm coming to their bodies and want their condition under control. But there are side effects and a reliance on those drugs to do it all. Surely it was an added influence?“It ended up being an influence, but it wasn’t intentional,” Seifert added, “As we age, most of us develop more experiences with doctors and hospitals.” Seifert shared that Ketner had gone through some serious medical treatment during the early months of Witch Doctor. Seifert himself developed a degenerative eye disease back in high school and needs a corneal transplant operation. “They'll lift a dead person's cornea and put it in my eye,” Seifert added.
There is horror and medical metaphors all over this series and it’s no mistake that an additional benefit is the amount of science fiction elements. ““Honestly, because I’ve done Witch Doctor, I’ve gotten a lot of other work in horror. But it’s not my first love. I’m more of a science fiction person,” Seifert revealed. “So Witch Doctor is a magic book, it is a horror book that has a lot of science in it, probably more science fiction than most science fiction comics. “
“That’s one of the things that I love. Early on, one of the things Witch Doctor convinced me that I was going to have a great deal of fun with it, is that we did a Golem story, that was basically an eight-page fight scene, and then at the end you find out it’s a metaphor for antibiotic resistance. They’re fighting this stone robot that’s out of control. So there was a need to change a control spell, because they’re evolving and adapting to it. “
Comics are a fragile thing, especially in creator-owned comics. So many books struggle to get flight, while many quality books go unnoticed. Both Seifert and Ketner were unknowns to the comics industry, two people trying to find a way to get their comic made, and one day, out of the blue came an email from Invincible and Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman who reached out to them via email.
“Looks good. Got a publisher? Image would be interested. –Robert”
“That was all it said. I was very confused,” Seifert shared. Ketner was a professional illustrator and there was no way he could take off enough time off work to get it done and be unpaid.
“We were both new and untested, we got a number of offers from publishers before Skybound, but no one wanted to give us money upfront. Unfortunately, I had to get money for Lukas to live, the one person who was willing to do that was Robert. He also saw the potential in the project as a good comic, a TV show, or a video game.”
And soon Witch Doctor became the first title to launch under Kirkman’s Skybound imprint. “I don’t know if Skybound hadn’t come along or been interested in us, we’d probably have to quit and find a another way to get into comics.”
Of course all good things have their price. With The Walking Dead as the Skybound flagship title, Seifert needed to change his original launch story, a zombie outbreak in a hospital titled “Code Z.”
“Skybound told me, ‘You can’t start with a zombie story and we have a multi-million dollar global media empire,’” Seifert quipped. “I didn’t understand at first because I thought it was a good story but it made sense. So that was a darling I had to kill.”
“We wound up doing in the first mini-series is make it self-contained, doing done-and-ones, and two-parters just to showcase different facets of the concepts and get people on board before we tried to get them to follow us for a six-issue series. It ended up much better than how I originally intended.”
Now that the setup has been established, and the launch has succeeded in finding Witch Doctor a base audience, critical acclaim and a second mini-series, Seifert and Ketner can now concentrate on how to grow their story.
“It continues to be a learning experience, because in Mal Practice I wanted to expand things and go in different directions. In the course of writing the scripts, and getting them drawn, it’s shown me what Witch Doctor stories are, and they’re more similar to what we were doing initially–shorter, monster-focused procedurals.
“It’s been good to get the (origin/introductory) stuff out of the way and try some new things, but trying new things showed us the value of what we were doing before.”
One thing Mal Practice has been able to do is help round out other characters besides Dr. Morrow. Penny Dreadful is a favorite amongst readers. Seifert called her the breakout of the series. “Everyone loves her.” So next was figuring out how to make Eric Gast, Morrow’s paramedic and straight man more interesting. Instead of being just the audiences’ eyes into this world, this latest series begins to put Eric under the spotlight.
“Eric started out as the character I had the least handle on. When we did the first issue people thought he was generic and they had a point. So we tried to make him starker, and have him challenge Morrow more and make it more of a buddy comedy. But I love Eric and the second mini-series is where we start seeing what mysteries he has. Issue #4 is where we started hinting at one of his big mysteries.”
For fans hoping an ongoing series, Seifert said that while that is the ideal, it currently takes two to three months for Ketner to draw a single issue. So for now, fans may have to wait until the end of the year or early 2014 for any word of a new mini-series. Until then, the best is yet to come in Witch Doctor: Mal Practice #5, on sale March 27 at comic shops and comiXology, and #6 is out April 24 with a collected edition due in June.
For those who haven’t tried Witch Doctor yet, Issue #0 is available for free online, at comiXology.com. Seifert described it as a 16-page done-in-one story that is “a very different Interview with a Vampire and a good showcase of who we are and what we do.”Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!