Wednesday, May 25, 2011

'Witch Doctor' melds horror and medicine

By Brian Truitt, USA TODAY

If monsters are a disease, then meet the cure.

  • Think House meets Ghostbusters: Vincent Morrow, M.D., hunts vampires, demons and fairies.

    Think House meets Ghostbusters: Vincent Morrow, M.D., hunts vampires, demons and fairies.

Think House meets Ghostbusters: Vincent Morrow, M.D., hunts vampires, demons and fairies.

Written by Brandon Seifert and illustrated by Lukas Ketner, the Image Comics series Witch Doctor melds horror and medicine, putting an M.D. on the case when vampires, werewolves and other groovy ghoulies start presenting a problem to normal folks.

A zero-issue preview is in The Walking Dead Issue 85 (out today) as prep for the June 29 debut of Witch Doctor's first issue, released on Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman's Skybound imprint.

Those into zombie survival drama will no doubt be interested in the delightfully monstrous adventures of Vincent Morrow, M.D. Inspired by both House and Ghostbusters, Morrow ? with his helpers, paramedic Eric Gast and the truly creepy "Penny Dreadful" ? tackles vampirism in the zero issue, and then demonic possession, fairy problems and the Creature from the Black Lagoon once the four-issue miniseries gets going next month.

Ketner and Seifert, both Portland residents and Alaska natives, hatched the concept for this different take on the ages-old "occult doctor" conceit in 2007. It's a horror theme that predates Dracula by at least 20 years, Seifert says, but he'd never seen a version of it where the doc was played straight.

"Usually, if you've got a doctor in a horror series, they come in and are just a generic monster hunter," Seifert explains. "I wanted to see somebody who came in and approached the supernatural from a medical background.

"I hadn't actually seen House before we started developing this, but I really liked that idea of, basically, the archetype of the jerk who helps people. And I love the idea of the jerk doctor who is helping your body but in a very snarky kind of way. It's a fun contradiction to me."

Witch Doctor is "a very, very smart take on things that everybody's heard about a million times before," Ketner says. "You think about things like vampires and werewolves, very classic monsters, and Brandon's come up with a take on them that is new and fresh. I know a lot of people have said that in the past, but I can stand behind it for sure. It's something I would not have thought of."

The artist loves that Morrow is the kind of brilliant doctor "who always seems to know exactly what to do in any situation, with no bedside manner whatsoever. He just sucks at people."

The first four issues of the Witch Doctor series will be mainly of the "monster of the month" variety ? for example, in the first issue Morrow and his crew help a boy possessed by the Baphomorph, a large, demonically biological take on a goathead pentagram. "It's kind of our Exorcist story," says Seifert, adding that fairies and changelings pop up in the second issue, timed to Comic-Con in late July.

"By the end of the first miniseries, we'll have introduced and delved into the core ongoing plot thread that will be going through the rest of the series, sales permitting and assuming we get to a rest of the series. That's all tied into (classic horror writer H.P.) Lovecraft, because that was my first love ? all of his stuff when I first got into horror back in high school."

All that gives Ketner the chance to draw a lot of spine-tingling stuff, from scenes of underwater cage diving with sea monsters to the ginormous, demon-sucking machine dubbed "The Killing Jar."

"One thing that was really going to keep it interesting for the both of us is if we always tried to come up with the coolest possible thing to draw," Ketner says. "There's just not a lot of talking heads."

Part of the fun for Seifert is hatching some crazy monster or magical machine and seeing what Ketner draws. "And when we do have talking heads," Seifert says, "I want to have something else there: They're talking heads, but they're talking about an X-ray diagram of somebody's chest and there's a giant parasite living inside."

Seifert has ideas for more than 50 of those kinds of monsters and just as many story ideas, yet time will tell if he and Ketner will be able to tell them. While Ketner hates to use the term "probationary period," he says that's what they're facing as they wait to see what the marketplace thinks of their series.

They do have a powerful champion in Kirkman, however. His seal of approval ? the Skybound logo ? definitely gives a good chance to a series that originally started out as a 16-page portfolio piece for its two creators to get a foot in the door in the competitive comics industry.

"Witch Doctor is a wholly original concept that is infinitely compelling from the first word read and first image seen," says Kirkman, who saw the self-published issues Seifert and Ketner posted for free on the Internet. "I immediately wanted to know more about these characters, and I believe readers will, too. That's what drew me to the book and that's what made it clear to me that this book was Skybound material."

He's not the first comics icon to be directly influential to the Witch Doctor creative team. Seifert took Brian Michael Bendis' writing class at Portland State University, and later was a teaching assistant for the famed Marvel Comics writer.

Bendis is careful not to push his opinion or writing style on students, according to Seifert. Instead, he utilizes outside voices such as David Mamet. Seifert remembers a Mamet essay Bendis e-mailed to his class about the importance of drama in story.

"I read that right before I went and rewrote the vampire story that's our issue zero for its initial release through Skybound, and I realized the original version didn't have any drama," Seifert says. "It was just a guy who got his way for 11 pages and then there was a fight scene."

There has been no need to take any anatomy classes or stop by the local medical school, though: Both Seifert and Ketner have done their part in researching for accuracy.

Ketner, whose art draws from 1970s horror artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Mark Schultz, avoided the biology study material and opted for medical non-fiction to peruse, such as Every Patient Tells a Story by House medical consultant Lisa Sanders and surgeon Atul Gawande's tomes.

"You get little details about the world of medicine from books like that, that you just can't get from anywhere else," Ketner explains. "It really gives you an insight on maybe how doctors think, how they might treat a situation. Even just being aware of that stuff when you're trying to write a medical horror is just invaluable."

In writing the tales of Dr. Morrow, Seifert wants to ground them as much as possible in actual medicine and biology, and that accuracy is important so that readers in the know aren't pulled from what's going on in Witch Doctor. He has spent a good three years researching weird medicine, and even has an EMT friend he calls on for help with terminology and real-life treatments.

"When we started doing this project, I was reading all these books about vampires and demons and stuff, and I was reading all these books about Ebola and mad cow disease. I found that the Ebola and mad cow disease and all of those were far more interesting and far scarier to me," Seifert says.

"That's a big untapped thing in horror. Most supernatural horror is disease metaphors: vampires, werewolves, zombies, demonic possession, all of those are infectious diseases. Whenever possible, I'd like for us to get it right."

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