'Antibiotic Apocalypse' With Image's SURGEON X

Image Comics November 2016 cover
Credit: Image Comics
Credit: Image Comics

A doctor's dilemma in a world ravaged by viruses and disease has put the a surgeon at the center of a sci-fi medical drama shepherded by who for many people was the face of Vertigo Comics.

England, 2036. An “antibiotic apocalypse” has led to many medicines no longer being effective - and lifesaving technologies limited to those who can afford them. Rosa Scott, a surgeon from a brilliant-but-dysfunctional family, finds that extreme times call for extreme surgery - and goes rogue, treating people outside the law. But can she do good outside the system - and when you’re the one who decide which lives get saved, can you keep from losing sight of your original mission?

That’s the dark new world of Surgeon X, a new Image Comics title debuting September 28. It’s the comic book debut of writer Sara Kenney, an acclaimed documentarian and filmmaker (Angels and Ghosts), who’s teamed with comic book veteran John Watkiss on art and Vertigo founder Karen Berger editing.

Kenney spoke to Newsarama from her home in the United Kingdom to discuss the origins of Surgeon X, her move to comic book, and why this world isn’t as science fiction at it might seem.

Credit: John Watkiss

Newsarama: So, Sara - how did the concept for Surgeon X come about, and how did it come to be at Image?

Sara Kenney: It’s quite a mystery, the origin of Surgeon X. I was looking through some old documents the other day and found an idea for a story I was going to submit to 2000 AD, and I’d written a  four-page “FutureShock” story called “The Medic,”  about a futuristic female surgeon I was going to submit to them, but I never sold it.

So this idea’s been in my head for years, and while I’ve been working in TV for years, I wanted to do something in comics. So I applied to the Wellcome Trust for funding, and was able to get it.

Originally, I’d thought about publishing this digitally - as a first-time comic book writer, you don’t think you’re going to be published by a big comics organization like Image. But things snowballed, I got Karen Berger involved, etc., etc., and I showed it to Image and they liked it. So that’s how the comic evolved.

Nrama: What was the initial inspiration for the concept?

Credit: John Watkiss

Kenney: It kind of arose from my documentary work – certainly, I’ve interviewed a lot of scientists and medics over the years. And I’m a massive fan of science fiction and imagining future worlds – I’ve worked on a lot of “What If?” scenarios in television.

I always liked the idea of a character who has the ability to heal people - not necessarily in a super-powered way, but in kind of a surgical way, a medical way. And then you put your character into kind of an apocalyptic situation -  the things they might run into when they’re trying to save people’s lives...

What’s fascinating to me about being a doctor is the selfless quality of it, especially here in the UK. The hours are absolutely wretched - you’re not going to get anywhere near the money of a banker. You have to really, really care, and you have to be really, really smart. There’s certain personalities that I think are drawn into that profession.

So you take someone like that, and put them in the middle of this apocalyptic nightmare, this dramatic scenario where you have so much material in terms of life-and-death situations, the kinds of people they might treat, what leads them to meet the people they wind up treating – I thought that would work as a comic book, but keeping it near-future so the world was both familiar, but different in terms of the technology surrounding us.

It was only later that I threw in the antibiotic story, because you’re always looking for obstacles to throw at your main character, and I’m always inspired by the real-life stories, things we could be facing - that’s my documentary background.

So when I read about the antibiotic apocalypse, I thought that was chilling and the biggest obstacle you could throw at a surgeon, not having any antibiotics with which to treat your patients. It’s taking away one of their key medicines, and that’s creating a deep well you can draw stories from for the characters.

Credit: John Watkiss

Nrama: With the antibiotic apocalypse, it sounds like you’ve done your research with this - it seems like something that could happen.

Kenney: Sure. Again - I’ve extensively researched this. So I’ve probably spoken to well over 50 experts while writing this comic book – a lot of microbiologists, a lot of surgeons - and tried to get an understand of what we might be facing in the future, and what we are in fact facing right now.

It’s very important to me to get that authenticity in the story, because I think it makes it a stronger and more realistic world. What I wanted to do was not just focus on the science, because that could be boring and exposition-driven and tedious after a while. So I talked to people in politics, people in sociology, historians - so I could look back in time before we had antibiotics - a really 360 degree approach.  It added a lot of material - each new source added another level to the story and the characters.

Nrama: I was going to say - the first issue preview, I think I saw more consultants credited than I have with about any comic book I’ve ever read.

Credit: John Watkiss

Kenney: [Laughs] Sure! That’s my documentarian background, and my geekiness. But you find a lot of stories that way, and then you find a way to look at it from a slightly different angle. And as a journalist, I’d never speak to just one expert in a field - I’d want two or three, for different angles on the story I’m covering. So I’d speak to several experts, try to find the story by speaking to a range of different people.

What I’m hoping is that will sort of shine through in the storytelling, and in the characters as well, because the scientists I met along the way helped inspire some of the characters in the comic.

Nrama: Do you see this as more of a miniseries or as an ongoing?

Kenney: This first series has six issues, the first issue being extended. If it does well, I’d love to do more. I’ve got some ideas in my head about where it could go - what will happen to Surgeon X and her extreme behavior, what will happen to her family, what will happen to the world around her.

I’ve been working on this for a year and a half, and what’s on the page is just a fraction of what I’ve envisioned for this world.

Nrama:What’s it been like moving into comic books, and what’s it been like working with acclaimed editor Karen Berger?

Credit: John Watkiss

Kenney: I feel very, very lucky. It’s been a massive learning curve - in documentary, there’s mostly exposition, you’re always explaining things, and even in drama, you’re having to hammer things home a bit. Which is very, very different from the medium of comics - I had about 16 years of being able to come up with stories and characters and twists, but what I had to learn was the style and sensibilities of writing in comics.

Karen has taught me so much, and I’ve been very, very lucky with her being patient with my learning curve. If you look at the first issue vs. the sixth issue, there’s been a lot I’ve learned since then. And to have someone who’s so experienced with this and so well-regarded in this area to guide me has been an enormous help.

The actual of skill of being incredibly precise is necessary for comics - it’s one shot, one still, five or six panels on a page, and being able to tell that story in such a precise way is absolutely necessary. So my hat’s off to people who’ve been writing this way for years. It’s a skill that I think is incredibly underrated.

But it’s also incredibly enjoyable - the freedom you have for writing comics is almost unlimited, in terms of pushing boundaries and ideas and going to extremes with those ideas.

So I’m having a great time writing in this medium. I think it’s one of those cases where, as they say, you have to learn the rules first before you can break them. And that’s how I’ve approached it - you have to tell a bloody good story, and have some bloody good characters, and not try to do anything too fancy.

As the chapters continue, I’ve felt a little more free to experiment with what I can do, and what we can show. But it’s very much like that apology, “I’m sorry I wrote such a long letter, I didn’t know how to write a short one.” In comics, you have to be very succinct, and use your space wisely to tell a story in a few panels instead of reams and reams of films.

I think when I go back to do a documentary, it’ll improve my visual storytelling skills! You really have to be careful about what you choose in your writing. 

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: In terms of how Surgeon X reflects the real-world struggles of the availability and distribution of health care - what do you feel are the biggest problems faced with that today, and how much the real world could reflect the situation your main character finds herself facing?

Kenney: In terms of research, what I’ve done is look into how the gaps in health care are growing. For example, life expectancies around the globe are massively disparate, even as we have these advances in medicine. But what you have are people who have access to these advancements, to this medicine, and then you have groups of people for whom there’s no way that they’re going to be able to get a hold of these advancements.

In the UK, we’re very lucky, because we have the NHS. But, having said that - the NHS is struggling, because it can’t afford to give these treatments to everyone in this country, and because there’s a growing elderly population that requires treatment as well. So everything’s becoming stretched.

I think one of the themes I wanted to explore in Surgeon X is that we have these extraordinary advancements surrounding us, but because of that, we have this growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.

And even when you look at the types of designer drugs that might be available in the future, neuro-enhancements if you like, or surgical enhancements for things like better eyes or prosthetics - if you can afford that, you can have that, but if not, you’re left by the wayside.

We can see some of that now, and the countries that don’t have the funding for that - it’s literally a matter of life and death. The politics of that are becoming a bigger issue as we progress, and as these technologies evolve.

Credit: Image Comics

Nrama: What’s it been like working with John Watkiss as your artist? He’s been around for a while and done many of these 2000AD-type stories.

Kenney: He’s been a dream to work with, actually. We have a really good working process, where I write the script, and then sit down and talk about the script over a nice beer on the South Bank. I have to send a lot of medical references, to get the science right, and the brilliant thing about John is that he’s studied anatomy extensively, and used to teach anatomy at the Royal College of Art in London. So that really helps! [Laughs]

It’s really interesting –-at the beginning, he told me, “Sara, only give me five or six panels a page. I really hate it when I get stuff and it’s like 10 panels a page.” So that rang in my mind! I was all, “Sure, John, I’ll stick with that.” And he’s had some room to let his art come alive on the page.

We’ve got a good working relationship. We’re both into art and history and medicine, so we’ve had some good talks about that.

Nrama: Which comic books had the biggest influence on you, and on Surgeon X? I got a feel like 2000AD and V for Vendetta reading this, that kind of ‘80s British SF with a lot of fascism and dark humor.

Kenney: As a youth growing up, I obviously read a lot of Alan Moore - V for Vendetta and Watchmen, and things like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Garth Ennis’ Preacher, so I had the whole Vertigo range in my teenage years.

But also, my dad was a massive science fiction fan, so I was always allowed to stay up late to watch whatever SF was on, from Doctor Who to V to Blake’s Seven to whatever. And my dad really was a polymath of sorts - he loved physics, he loved science, but he also loved philosophy and religion and politics and debating those things and combining them with science fiction.

I read a lot of SF - Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov - stuff that wasn’t necessarily hard SF, but was slightly weird, near-futuristic stuff. And also, I think, in term of character stuff, watching a lot of American dramas helped - they’re getting more and more inventive in terms of characters who are so layered, with your baddies being good sometimes and the goodies being bad.

It’s probably a combination of media = not just comics, but things I enjoyed when I was younger and what I’m reading today. I’ve been reading a hell of a lot of new comics since I started writing Surgeon X! There’s a real blossoming in the range of topics and range of creators. Brian K. Vaughan is excellent - his work is easy to read, and has sharp humor, and then throws real-world facts at you in a way that’s brilliant and really comments on life.

Nrama: To wrap things up - what would you say to someone who’s considering whether to pick up Surgeon X?

Kenney: What would I say... well, I’d say it’s an enjoyable read... though “enjoyable” might not be the most accurate word, because it feels like we’re standing on the edge of oppressiveness, and could be tumbling into this world quite soon. And some of the scientists were very bleak about us as humans being able to pull ourselves away from the edge.

So my reason for having twins in the story is that I have twin daughters, and I spend an awful lot of time thinking about the world they’re going to have to live in, and the world of Surgeon X is not that far off - it’s 20 years in the future. Most readers are still going to be alive and living in this world!

I think it’s a story that we should engage with and care about, and quite frankly, it’s probably a more enjoyable way of consuming the science behind it than sitting down and cracking open a science book! But I hope it makes people think about medicine, and the role it plays in their lives, and what we can do in terms of preserving these amazing medicines that we already have without being preachy about it.

I want it to provoke discussion, and to get people thinking about solutions, possibly. And being entertained, of course! So I hope it’ll resonate with different people in different ways.

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