Extreme circumstances call for extreme medicine.
What if we lived in a world of antibiotic resistance and rationing, where the superbugs have won?
Sara Kenney, acclaimed documentary, factual drama and animation filmmaker makes her comics debut with SURGEON X with the all-star team of master artist John Watkiss, James Devlin, Jared K. Fletcher, and, editor Karen Berger, the award-winning founding editor of Vertigo.
Set against the backdrop of a medical apocalypse in near-future London, Kenney weaves a story of ordinary people from all walks of life striving to survive in a society constantly threatened by ever-looming disease and a government headed by the Lionheart Party.
It’s the year 2036 and there are great futuristic advancements available in medicine and surgery, yet a simple infection can kill. Rosa Scott, a brilliant and obsessive surgeon becomes Surg
Sara took some time to discuss the upcoming series, how she got the legendary Karen Berger to edit the book and how she researched this potential pandemic.
FOG!: What was the genesis of Surgeon X?
Sara Kenney: I’ve been playing with the idea of a female surgeon character for quite a few years. I was digging through some old documents a few weeks back and I found the genesis document, which I’d totally forgotten about!
I’ve wanted to write for comics for a while and I’d written a story for 2000AD’s Future Shock. The legendary British publication, home of Judge Dredd, invites new writers to submit a 4-page story with a twist.
My story was called ‘The Medic’ – about a female surgeon who has incredible surgical abilities and uses future tech to save someone from a plane wreckage.
It’s actually a love story with a messed-up twist. I never sent the idea to 2000AD, I must have chickened out…That was 10-years ago. I’ve been tweaking and playing with the idea ever since.
You’re a first time comic creator and you get Karen Berger to edit your book. How did that happen?
Back in 2014, I was applying to Wellcome Trust for funding to create this comic and as a first time comic writer I knew I had to have a really experienced editor to get the funding. I know a lot of people write comics in their spare time, but I was a freelancer with 1-year-old twins, so spare time was non-existent!
Having worked in TV for over 16-years I’ve learnt that it never hurts to ask – people can always say no or ignore you as a freelancer you learn to be thick-skinned.
So I contacted Karen via LinkedIn, with a brief summary of the idea. Of course I expected her to say ‘thanks but, no thanks’, but the idea piqued her interest.
We arranged to talk and next she asked to see some of my writing samples and Karen was really positive about the idea. This was an absolute dream come true. Karen said that even if I didn’t get the funding she wanted to work with me. That gave me real courage and belief in the idea. It’s also clear that Karen enjoys working with new talent, with helping them to develop and evolve.
I may not be a Jedi in the world of comics, but I feel like I’m strengthening my grip on the light-sabre and could floor a few storm troopers now. That’s thanks to Karen for sure!
Your background is in film as a writer-director-and producer. Were you a fan of comics previously and what kind of challenges did you have in writing in a new medium?
My Dad was a massive comics fan he had a load of Eagle annuals and I particularly loved the stories about Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future. When I was at university my friend introduced me to Sandman and I started reading a lot of Vertigo stuff; V for Vendetta, Watchmen, Preacher etc. etc.
I wouldn’t say I’m a comics expert, but I’ve always loved the way that you can explore complex ideas and be extreme.
In my career in television I got to explore complex ideas, but creatively you don’t get to be experimental or extreme. And you tend to look at subjects through a single lens, so a film is either science or history or current affairs, but I wanted to combine all these facets in a story.
I think one of the main challenges is not to over-write.
In film you can clearly use a lot of words and pictures to tell a story, you’re restricted in comics. I think you really have to up your game when writing a comic because it’s harder to tell a story with fewer words and with less pictures!
There’s an art to making the characters authentic, getting excitement in a scene and having a great pay-off in just a few comic pages.
Comic writing is definitely not condensing a story it’s a totally new way of looking at and creating a story. I know I still have a lot to learn and each chapter I write I feel I ‘get it’ a bit more. Each new chapter I think I get braver with the visuals and with the storytelling.
Have I cracked it yet? I’ll let the audience be the judge of that!
How did you find John Watkiss?
Karen Berger introduced me to John. I immediately loved his work and he used to teach anatomy at the Royal College of Art, so I knew he would be great at all the surgical stuff. Karen had worked with John on Sandman and although John has more recently worked on concept art for films, he was totally up for working on a comic again. We’ve had fun discussing ideas over a beer and what I love about John is that the more I challenge him with the weird and wonderful places I take him in Surgeon X, the more he seems to enjoy it!
The concept of the book is terrifying, in no small part because it casts a light on a potentially horrifying new status quo that our world could be heading toward. What kind of scientific research did you do prior to writing and how much is fact versus imagination?
I spent a lot of time speaking to scientists, surgeons and those from the medical humanities – so historians, ethicists, sociologists and philosophers. At the beginning of the process I actually ran a workshop where we all sat in a room and talked about the storyworld. Karen was over from the US and my Producer Duncan Copp was there too. It was amazing to be able to brainstorm like that. We talked about this future world and the set-up and it was informed by what could happen – if things got extreme.
When it got down to the nitty gritty of writing each chapter – I’d always start with the story – with what I’d like to happen in a very rough way and the arc my characters would travel. Then I’d go to the experts to see what was plausible.
Once I’d got the background research I would re-write the story, but I’d be quizzing the experts all the time. In the surgical scenes I’d get them to send references or give very good descriptions, which I’d include in the script. For the medical dialogue I’d make shit up and then go through it with a surgeon who would give me the technical – so it was as authentic as possible.
The futuristic stuff – there’s definitely been some imaginative thinking there, but a lot of the future stuff is actually in development in labs now. I can have fun with using my imagination in terms of exploring where we might be in 20-years time in terms of equipment, drugs, procedures – but all of it is plausible rather than totally made up.
Lewis, the brother of the main character Rosa Scott (aka Surgeon X) is schizophrenic; and you have two brothers that suffer from the disease that were the subject of your documentary, Angels and Ghosts. What about the disease is the biggest misconception and what do your brothers think of your work?
Angels and Ghosts isn’t a documentary – but an animated drama, with factual elements. I guess it’s a hybrid film. You can watch it here if you haven’t already: www.angelsandghosts.co.uk
Before I made the film our family had been through decades of battling with this illness. It does profoundly affect the whole family. It’s heartbreaking to see someone you love in so much distress and you often feel powerless to help. It’s also not easy to discuss with people around you because there is such a stigma attached. For me one of the biggest misconceptions is that you should be afraid of people with mental illness or that they are weird and ‘abnormal’.
Most people who have experienced psychosis live good lives, but the stigma attached doesn’t help them in re-building their lives when what they need most is understanding from friends, family, employers etc.
I couldn’t have made the film Angels and Ghosts if my brothers were still ill – they had both been well for several years. I sat down with them and talked about the stigma and asked them if they would allow me to share our story through an animated film. The ambition was to help other families realise they weren’t alone.
Once I had their blessing I could proceed. In terms of the character Lewis in the comic, he’s got a little bit of both of my brothers in him. My older brother studied computer science at University, but was a brilliant artist too and my younger brother is studying for his Masters in architecture – so is good at both art and science! They were both skaters.
What do they think of my work – I know they are proud of it and I think it’s also opened doors to them being able to talk about the illness more with those around them. I think mental illness is all too often hidden away as a shameful thing in the family or embarrassing illness – can you be a proud survivor of schizophrenia in the same way you can be a proud survivor of cancer? I’m not so sure. But to go through what they went through and come out the other end – they are heroes in my book…
Who in comics and film have been the biggest influences on your work?
I totally admire the work of Alan Moore as do most comics fans I’m sure! He tells stories that mean something, that challenge the world we live in and questions the behaviour of our society. That’s why I wanted to work in documentaries, although it didn’t deliver in the way I hoped, if I’m honest.
I love the extreme and inventive worlds of Neil Gaiman – his characters are incredible. Brian K. Vaughan for his storytelling and humour. There was a massive gap in my comic reading from about 25-40, so I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.
In terms of film – I’m not particularly high-brow, so I love a big sci-fi or action film. The greats for me are Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan – we could do with some more women directing in these genres! I also love Spike Jonze, Lynne Ramsay, Sofia Coppola, Michel Gondry and Jonathan Glazer. I watched a hell of a lot of music videos in my 20s and many of these directors were making some very cool stuff at that time, so I followed their careers into film.
Surgeon X is funded through the Society Award from Wellcome Trust. Who are they and what do they do?
Wellcome Trust are a unique charitable foundation. They were set up by a man called Henry Wellcome who is in fact an American who came to the UK in the 1880s. He was a businessman with a passion for pharmaceuticals, partying and collecting weird and wonderful medical objects. He invented the tablet – before that people would take medicine via tinctures or powders.
When he died Wellcome Trust were formed. They sold all their interests in his company and became an independent charitable foundation and are the second biggest charity in the world (the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently overtook them).
They mostly fund scientific research, but also fund a significant amount of public engagement with science work. So they fund artists, musicians, theatre, film, TV, games, museums – any sort of creative who is interested in collaborating with scientists to explore ideas around human health. They have a museum in London called Wellcome Collection, where they combine art with science in their displays. I can’t think of anyone else in the world that would have funded Surgeon X, so I am very grateful they exist.
What are you currently geeking out over?
In terms of comics, I’m loving Bitch Planet, Sex Criminals, Ms Marvel, The Wicked and The Divine. I’ve started reading Peter Milligan’s work and the writing is sublime. I’ve got a lot of comics to catch up on and I’m geeking out over Monstress just based on the covers and concept! Paper Girls looks amazing. Books, I haven’t read a book since I started writing this comic – only reading comics at the moment…
Games – I haven’t played a game since I had my twins, the last one was Heavy Rain; I did a 10-hour non-stop stint one Sunday. Stayed in my pyjamas and didn’t move until I completed it. My husband and housemate at the time brought me a roast and beer to keep me going. Glorious – I’ll probably have to wait a long time before I can do that again.
TV – like every other worthy geek on the planet I’m loving Stranger Things.
Music – there’s so much, I love my electronica, at the moment FKA Twigs, Wisp, Jackmaster Mixes and I’m getting through all that amazing Aphex Twin material that was released on Soundcloud. Going to see Goat play live soon. Weird masks and enthusiastic dancing, what’s not to love…