Surgeon X writer on the real-life parallels in her dystopian medical drama
Back in September, documentary filmmaker Sara Kenney debuted her first comic book: Surgeon X #1. The book, which was illustrated by the late John Watkiss, was notable for several reasons. It marked the return of legendary Vertigo editor Karen Berger to comics after a few years away and also came complete with its own multi-media app. But Surgeon X also stood out for its depiction of a dystopian future where overuse of antibiotics has rendered them ineffective. Though the title character, a young surgeon named Rosa Scott, is determined to fight this medical crisis, her efforts are complicated by the rise of authoritarian politicians in her native England.
Ahead of this week’s release of the first collection, Surgeon X: The Path of Most Resistance, EW talked to Kenney about diving into comics and watching her dark world come ever closer to reality.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The premise of Surgeon X is so striking. How did you come up with this idea?
SARA KENNEY: My background is as a documentary filmmaker. I’ve always had an interest in science and medicine, and I’ve always had a massive love for comics as well. My dad had loads of comics, so I grew up reading them. I’d actually written an idea for a surgeon character 10 years ago as a comic. I was supposed to submit it to 2000 AD, but I chickened out. Then I came back to it 10 years later, thinking about this world that the surgeon might inhabit in the future, when and if we might run out of antibiotics. You’re always thinking of obstacles to throw at your characters, and a big obstacle for a surgeon would be not having key medicines to treat her patients. I really wanted to tell the story as a comic because I think there’s just so much range in what you can do. It was a massive leap for me to move from documentaries to comics, but I felt that in order to do the story justice —since it’s not just about medicine but the ethical issues the characters face and the dynamics she has with her family, plus a murder mystery story in there as well — I thought a comic would be an amazing way to encompass all of that.
What were challenges of your comics debut? What was the learning curve like?
I was very, very lucky that I had the most amazing editor, Karen Berger. Obviously she basically helped start Vertigo Comics and recently started a new line with Dark Horse, Berger Books. She’s one of the best editors in the industry, so I had somebody there who could really teach me and get me up to speed. Also the brilliant artist, John Watkiss, who sadly passed away a few months ago. He had an extraordinary understanding of the physical human body, which really helped. So I had two amazing people by my side. I really tip my hat to all comic creators. There’s a whole new range of skills I had to learn as we went along. One of the biggest things is that in documentaries, you have lots of words at your disposal, lots of images at your disposal, and you’re really explaining things. In terms of journalism, you’re trying to make things as clear as possible. Transitioning to comics, where a lot of it is about what you don’t say, those areas have been the biggest learning curve for me. I know I have a lot more to learn. Learning to write a comic improves you as a writer, no matter what genre you’re working with. I think we’ve created a layered story world, and we’ve got more stories to tell.
This was your first comic and John Watkiss’ last comic. What was it like working with him, and what did you learn from him?
John and I had a lovely time. We would chat on the phone or meet up on the South Bank in London and go through the script. We would always go off on all these amazing tangents about art and philosophy. He really was interested in all these territories. One of the first things he said was try not to go over five panels a page, so I had that ringing in my ears and tried to stick to it. He taught me a lot about how he designed the paneling on the page, how he was a really big fan of the golden ratio and using that within his artwork. He had a real message for how he worked. Real art fans who understand that could see that in his work. He had a passion for the human form, he could talk about musculature and bone structures. So when I had to give him references for the surgical scenes, he quite enjoyed that. He always made it look fantastic and beautiful and intriguing. We had a really good dialogue. I was absolutely gutted when he passed away. We’d spent a lot of time talking about the project and trying to make it as good as it could be. He seemed to really enjoy the process and bought into what we were doing. I hope people really take their time over the art. I feel privileged to have worked with him.
Are there any plans for the future of the book without him?
We’re taking time to regroup, see how the trade does, what the appetite is for a series 2. I’ve got lots of stories ready to go, but now I’m just taking the time to figure out who might want to work with us. Obviously Karen’s in for series 2, even though she’s at Dark Horse now. I’m hoping to attend a few comic conventions and meet more artists and get to know their work and have those conversations. Artists are incredible creatures, being able to create these story worlds and tell these complex stories in just a few pictures. I want to spend some time learning a bit more about what might work for a series 2 and maybe how we could do it differently.
This is the first comic Karen Berger has done in a while. How did you convince her to work with you, and what did you learn from her?
When you start a project like this, you start out as ambitious as possible and then work your way from there. So I approached her through LinkedIn and said, ‘This is my background and this is my idea, I would love to work with you.’ She thought it was interesting and wrote back, we had a chat on the phone, I sent her some samples of my writing. She loved the idea. Both of her brothers are doctors as well, so this is territory she knows. It was a massive learning curve for me, but she’s been incredible. It was also intimidating, because everyone wanted to know what Karen was doing next after leaving Vertigo. It’s quite a lot of pressure, I guess, and you feel that weight of wanting it to be good enough for John and Karen. But I’ve just had a master class in comics over the last two years.
With the first collection out, how do you look back on the book so far?
It’s been an extraordinary experience. We’ve also got a special out. The Royal Society of Chemistry funded a 10-page digital special called Surgeon X: Trial & Error, about a character named Sun Walker, who’s a chemical scientist. She’s got a friend who’s very ill, and she has a decisions she has to make that could cure or kill him. That was quite fun to do, and I’d like to do more short stories like that. Looking back, it’s been an incredible emotional experience. Obviously working with John was quite surreal as well, working on something that was medical and then journeying with John on his medical experiences.
It’s just been amazing creating a story world. It’s not so far in the future that people don’t find it tangible. Even though it is pretty apocalyptic, it’s a world people are hearing about and feel some familiarity with. I hope it appeals to people beyond just comic readers. There are so many comics out there that could reach wider audiences. I think there’s a lot of potential readers out there who perhaps have a certain image of a comic, so I’d say to people who haven’t read a comic before to give it a go.
It feels like we’ve only inched closer to this world since I first revealed the app in September, with fascist politicians gaining power and crises in health care. Has that been weird to watch the world slowly creep closer to your post-apocalyptic vision?
I started working on the story in 2014, when none of this stuff had come to pass at the time. There were obviously ripples on the horizon, but I have been shocked about what has come to pass. I always describe the story as a thought experiment: What if we do nothing, what if we don’t find antibiotics? I have to say many scientists think we’ll do it and we’ll get there. Some don’t, but a lot do. You always want to create an extreme story world. You want it to be somewhere that has a bit of bite to it, if you like. So seeing the ripples of the far-right across Europe, bringing that in, and then reading a lot about the antibiotic crisis, bringing all those elements together, I thought I was creating an extreme world. Now it doesn’t seem quite as extreme as it did two years ago, which is quite an incredible thing.
I think there needs to be a lot of soul-searching going on at the moment. A lot of us feel like we don’t understand the other half of the population, that we haven’t been listening to each other or understanding the situation different people are in. There’s a massive chasm between these worlds, and it’s all boiling to a head. I have more questions than answers about how we fix this, but I think what it does involve listening to each other a bit more rather than just shouting each other for voting Brexit or this way or that way. For me, that’s not helpful, even though it’s cathartic. If you’re a writer and you see things change quickly, it’s quite bloody interesting as well. It gives you more fuel to the fire, but also makes you think about how you’re portraying things and how things can be addressed within the story. It’s given me a lot to think about for series 2.