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Surgeon X: Do No Harm, If You Can [Interview]

Sara Kenney & John Watkiss are turning our fears about healthcare into a thrilling near-future tale in SURGEON X. Rosa Scott’s forced to examine her role in life and the best way for her to practice medicine and save lives in London, no matter what the cost. Rooted in reality and starring a surgeon who’s not afraid to make hard choices, SURGEON X brings the thrills.

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IMAGE COMICS: Set the stage for us. SURGEON X is set twenty years from now. What's the world like in the near-future? 

SARA KENNEY: My starting point for creating this world was to actually look BACK in time twenty years to 1996 and consider how much has changed over this period. There are obvious visual differences like fashion, the look of cars, a few new buildings—but essentially things are still very familiar. So it follows that the futuristic London in SURGEON X looks very much like it does today, but with subtle differences. 

However, next I had to push the “fucked up by an antibiotic apocalypse and far right government” button to see what London would look like with this additional layer:

Places of work, tube entrances, sports venues, theatres, and cinemas are plastered with interactive screens and monitors which collect biomedical data on the citizens of London. Signs of infection mean that you can't enter and your results are logged onto the National Health Service (NHS) database.

Most people wear masks on the tube, and the fashion world reflects the times. "Health-goth" is prevalent—designer scarves, coats, and sweaters with facemasks or medical monitors built in. School children wear clothing made out of smart materials for playing sports, which help prevent cuts and injuries (only for the rich kids, though). 

Autonomous taxis have replaced most taxis, bacterial extermination hand-dryer machines line the doorways of offices, schools, restaurants, and shops. The skies are filled with ominous police, news, marketing, and unaccountable drones.

In twenty years, it's also estimated that the population of London will grow by twenty percent, and fifty percent of us ten million Londoners will be of black and minority ethnic origin. One thing I love about living in London is our melting pot of cultures, which is reflected in this future world. However, a massive surge in population is an added pressure in this dystopian world. 

So what happens to the people of London, UK and the World when the bedrock of modern medicine crumbles? Inevitably, the health gap between the rich and poor becomes more pronounced. In SURGEON X, the stories reveal futuristic medical technologies, but also brutal deaths due to previously easily treatable infections. We've relied on antibiotics for so long it's difficult to comprehend how important they are. They are not only vital in surgery and to cure many diseases, but also save lives in childbirth, help cancer patients when their immune systems are depleted, and stop simple cuts from becoming deadly sepsis. 

IC: Who is Surgeon X? What's her place in the world? 

KENNEY: Rosa Scott aka Surgeon X starts as a brilliant plastics, orthopaedic, and trauma surgeon working for the NHS. She believes in following strict rules and regulations and the importance of the Hippocratic Oath. But as the world around her changes, she questions her methods and philosophy, and this shift impacts massively on her behavior. I spoke extensively with a philosopher/ethicist about a regular doctor's outlook on life versus the new outlook that Rosa develops. It's fascinating how her shift in philosophy totally changes the way she treats patients.

Rosa has a non-identical twin sister, Martha, who is a microbiologist looking for new antibiotics. They have a tight bond, yet totally contrasting views of the world. Rosa is mechanistic and adheres to western scientific theory. Martha is more open-minded—although a scientist, she's fascinated by the medical humanities and different philosophies of scientific thought. 

Rosa's right-hand man is her younger half-brother Lewis, a tech whiz who programs her robots and devices, and who's also a schizophrenic. Then there's her father John, a haughty egotistical neurosurgeon who runs a private hospital, which caters to the rich and famous—capitalizing on the extraordinary medical advances of the time. 

Not everything about Rosa changes. She is and always will be a complete control freak, workaholic, and perfectionist. Does she have superpowers? No. But she's certainly not like most of us mere mortals!

IC: John, you've had a storied career, having worked on everything from fine art to storyboards and concept art for film to classic comics like Sandman. What still excites you about comics as a storytelling medium?

JOHN WATKISS: What still excites me about working in comics is that the medium is a pure art form for storytelling, I believe that Alex Raymond perfected the black-and-white look for this medium with his syndicated strip called Rip Kirby. I always have his work in the back of my mind and I am always trying to find new ways to synthesize that influence in my comic art.

IC: You've worked in a variety of styles, too. How do you describe the style you're using on SURGEON X? How do you want the book to feel?

WATKISS: The style I have chosen for SURGEON X is a pure black-and-white style ranging from linear to chiaroscuro depending on the scene mood in the script. No wasted lines and certainly no cross hatching. The clean black-and-white art also serves the coloring process. The ultimate feel I want for the book is that of a timeless one.

IC: In the preview on the next few pages, Rosa Scott uses experimental medicine to treat a man's wounds. Are you extrapolating from real experimental or cutting-edge medicines in this series or hewing pretty close to reality as we know it?

KENNEY: Bloody hell—it would have been so much easier if I could have made it all up! It's been a mammoth job ensuring all the words and images are authentic. All the medicine in SURGEON X is based on extensive chats with surgeons, scientists, and ethicists. I work with them to imagine how a certain disease or injury might be treated in the future. Some of the treatments don't change that much and might have a small futuristic “tweak”. But some of the cutting-edge science and medicine happening now really is indistinguishable from magic. 

The physical/surgical side of stuff is where working with artist John Watkiss has been a dream. I have to send him lots of references for surgeries and tech kits, but he is incredible at turning this into something which works for a comic. John used to teach anatomy and fine art at the Royal College of Art in London. He knows what a body should look like and he's bloody good at ripping them apart and revealing the innards, too! John is amazing at combining the sensibilities of the great romanticists in terms of landscapes and the classicists in terms of the human form. He creates such rich and vivid scenes; it's a joy to see what he comes back with. 

IC: Sara, this is your first comics project. How are you finding the transition to comics storytelling? 

KENNEY: It's been amazing, but I had a lot to learn! I've read comics from a young age—my Dad was a sci-fi and comics fan and had all the 1950s Eagle Annuals. I started reading Vertigo comics as a teenager and was blown away by the extreme storytelling. I've written extensively for documentary and I've written factual drama for the BBC and Discovery, so I have a good sense of story. However, telling a story in comic book form is an extraordinary art and a science—which is why I love it so much. 

Having worked in other mediums, I have to say that comic book writing and art is an incredibly complex and sophisticated type of storytelling. It's always harder to write a shorter letter, or explain things in one sentence rather than ten. 

Surprisingly, I found having to be precise in comics not limiting, but actually liberating. No space to bullshit or waffle—you need to be sharp, funny, and inventive with your storytelling or you'll lose the reader. The humor part is really important to me—dark gallows humor that will horrify and delight in equal measure! Judgement day looms—September 28, 2016...

SURGEON X #1 is available now.

Permalink: https://imagecomics.com/features/surgeon-x-debut-interview

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