When you're sick, it's helpful to have a doctor with a courteous and friendly bedside manner. Of course, if your sickness involves a giant ectoplasmic scorpion-like creature that has made a home inside your chest cavity, you may not care at all how your doctor treats you. And that's exactly what Brandon Seifert, Lukas Ketner and Robert Kirkman are banking on with "Witch Doctor" – a new four-issue series debuting this June from Image Comics and Kirkman's Skybound imprint.
"I really like the character archetype we're working with: the jerk who saves the world," writer and co-creator Seifert told CBR News in advance of an appearance by the creative team and an early preview book debuting at this weekend's WonderCon in San Francisco. "'Iron Man' was a great example of that through Robert Downey, Jr.'s performance. And 'House M.D.' is a huge influence as well. Initially, it was a conceptual thing where I knew the idea of the character but never watched the show before we started the book. But the jerk who helps people is such an interesting contradiction to me."
Seifert explained that "Witch Doctor" will mash up the traits of the medical procedural genre with keystones of the horror world to surprising scientific effect. "The really strong, lasting monsters in horror fiction that still survive to today are all really potent disease metaphors," he said. "Vampires bite you. Zombies bite you. Werewolves bite you. They all infect you with what you traditionally think of as a curse. But even if you think of it in those terms, you can look at it from an epidemiological standpoint or from a medical standpoint. We want to go further with that and explain without demystifying what these creatures are, how they infect you and how they function."
Of course, even with a high concept that struck the fires of Seifert and artist Ketner's imaginations, the original self-published issues of "Witch Doctor" the pair put out still had a small audience and a small chance of survival in the tough marketplace of modern comics. Enter Kirkman, who was on the lookout to expand the number of titles associated with his SKybound company in the wake of the success he found bringing his "The Walking Dead" to TV. "They were producing a really cool comic book that I read and enjoyed and wanted to read more of, and they were doing it on their own with no help," the Image partner said of why the comic became his first book that he did not himself create. "I think that was the important thing that made me want to get involved. I get a lot of e-mails from people saying, 'Hey, I've got an idea. How do I find an artist? How do I make a comic?' And to a certain extent, part of the process of becoming a well-rounded comic book creator is being able to do things on your own. It's okay to get a little assistance here and there, but it always impresses me when people are able to find a buddy who's really talented and make a comic. That's something Tony Moore and I were able to do with 'Battle Pope.' We asked around, got some info and made a comic book. So for those guys to also do it on their own and have a book that straight out of the gate was totally original and wildly entertaining – that's what caught my eye."
Seifert and Ketner agreed that the key factor in their success was looking at their project as a stand alone story from the start rather than trying to jump out the gate with a small press 100-issue epic. "We wanted it to be the kind of thing where we were definitely hoping to do more with it, but if we never did anything more, it'd be its own artifact that stands on its own. I think that helped people get something they could relate to and enjoy," Ketner explained. "We didn't want to just have a pitch. We wanted to have an actual book we could put in front of people where they'd have something completed to hang onto. That's where that came from. It seemed like everybody had a pitch for something, but nobody was taking the time to do a short issue as proof of concept. I think the fact that we did that got us a lot more mileage than if we'd just have had a pitch in a binder."
And that "proof of concept" process to "Witch Doctor" has stayed with the series from the 16-page demo issue which was re-released through Skybound last year at Comic Con International in San Diego on through this new four-issue mini series. "The first issue is really stand alone. We want to make stories that people can access even if they haven't been following the series," said Seifert. "One of the things I hate in comics is when you pick up a first issue of a new series, and it's all just setup. There has to be something interesting there to make me commit to buying another issues. We want awesome monsters and giant, magical machine and weird medical explanations all off the bat.
"The first issue is our take on an exorcist story. It's demonic possession story, but it's demonic possession as a biological parallel. In 'Witch Doctor,' demonic possession is the first stage in a demon's larval cycle. From there we look at parasitic flies, which as you know the demon iconography always incorporates flies. So I looked up videos of people having Botfly larvae pulled out of their skin with tweezers. I went to Wikipedia and looked up myiasis, which is the technical term for diseases spread by a fly. Then in 'Witch Doctor,' the technical term for possession by a demon is 'parasitic diablosis' which is Greek for infection by a demon. The first story is about Morrow who knows all this and how he uses medical extrapolations of magic to get a demon out of a kid rather than traditional dogmatic folklore ways of treating this condition."
Ketner joked "I can not open image files from Brandon while I'm eating" saying that the procedural nature of the comic has played into the research-minded methods of the comic in strange and unsettling ways. "I've turned into a much stranger person since I started researching this project," the writer laughed.
Of course, at its core the pair stressed that "Witch Doctor" is a human story with a lead comic fans should be intrigued by as they learn the path that took him from literal Medical Doctor to proverbial Dungeon Master. "Morrow comes from a medical background, from this traditional education," Seifert said. "And because of reasons related entirely to his own actions, that life ends for him – very dramatically. It's all his fault, and he's given a chance to come learn this new career. He gets headhunted into this field of the occult and magic, and during the process of this, the powers that be determine that he has a greater destiny. There's an apocalypse coming, and he's the point man who has to deal with it. And it's unknown whether he's meant to fight on the front lines or organize the troops. But there is an extinction event coming for humanity, and he's part of a tradition throughout history of people who have been selected who are the ideal candidates to fight this off.
"The thing that's distinctive about Morrow is that when he finds this out, he comes to the magic from a medical background. He says, 'We need to take magic and apply the scientific method to it. We need to apply modern approaches to this ancient arena and figure out how demonic possession or vampires or any of these things actually work. We need the equivalent of vampire penicillin."
Riding shotgun in the series will be two assistants, each representing a different side of the jerky lead's background. "In this case, we've got Dr. Vincent Morrow, who is the protagonist," said Seifert. "It was pretty clear when we started doing this that he'd need two assistants – one from the horror world and one from the medical drama world. Each of them is out of place in the other's world while Morrow straddles both of them. So we've got Eric Gast, who is a paramedic that is pretty new to this situation and new to Morrow's team. He's the everyman, approachable character, which we're not playing up too much because that's such a worn device. But he is in some ways the Doctor Watson or the reader surrogate.
"On the other hand, we've got Penny Dreadful, and in the first mini series, she's more enigmatic. She's the horror character who visually looks vaguely like something out of 'The Grudge' or a Japanese horror movie, but her background is from a Lovecraftian milieu...she's the doctor's spooky assistant who is infected with some sort of monstrous creature, the full nature of which we'll reveal by the end of the first mini series."
"For all intents and purposes, she is the anesthesiologist," Ketner added. "She has these appendages that are full of what are essentially magic knockout juice." The artist explained that in his half of the collaboration, he hoped to combine the two worlds of medicine and magic through detail-oriented spookiness in both the monster design and overall tone of the series. "There is definitely a grittiness and a lot of detail I'm trying to get across. Part of that is because I don't know any other way to do it. I don't have a lot of economy of the line, and a lot of my influences are guys like Mark Schultz and Bernie Wrightson who did this brushy horror work, particularly in the '70s. I want to do that classic horror style but updated a little bit. I want to make something very detailed and lush to look at. There's not a whole lot out of that on the market right now."
Kirkman agreed, saying that Skybound's job in the process is to stay out of the way of the creators on their own book as much as possible. "It's mostly allowing them to do what they always wanted to do, but every once in a while Brandon will ask my opinion on something, or when he turns in scripts to Skybound, we'll give him notes to say 'Maybe you want to try this or that.' It's definitely never 'You HAVE to do this or we're not going to publish the book!' We like to offer assistance, but it's not about mandates. It's still very much his book, and we want to keep his vision pure and intact. We'll pop in every once in a while and ask him to introduce a talking dog, but he can definitely say no if he wants to."
And for the moment, the creator-owned superstar is more than happy to keep all of his focus on this series and his own books rather than aggressively expand Skybound for marketshare. "Skybound is my company, and it's a great infrastructure that helps me continue to do comics despite all the stuff I have to do for the 'Walking Dead' TV show," concluded Kirkman. "That's a part of Skybound, but it's also here to go out and find books like 'Witch Doctor' – books that I think are great and need more attention to succeed. It's ushering in a new wave of creator-owned books by new talent. It's not often that a book like 'Witch Doctor' comes along, so I certainly don't expect to have seven new books at this point. If people are expecting me to find all kinds of different books and have a huge line of comics, that was never my intention. I'll maybe do one or two additional series a year, but I don't think that there's that much quality talent out there waiting to be found that isn't being published elsewhere. And also, I don't want to expand beyond our means since we're a small company. I think we're exactly where we want to be."
Catch a special preview edition of "Witch Doctor" and meet the entire creative team at this weekend's WonderCon in San Francisco.