Scientists have warned us for years that there might be a time when our antibiotics will become ill-equipped to combat the diseases they were made to stymie. To be sure, with increasing frequency, we see reports that those antibiotics are unable to stave off those diseases, as well as new superbugs cropping up that are resistant to the medicinal science we have on-hand.
Writer Sara Kenney runs with this idea in her Image Comics series Surgeon X. the first story compilation of which is on sale now. In Surgeon X: The Path of Most Resistance, Kenney looks at an apocalyptic Earth in the near future where the antibiotics we have no longer work and how society copes with that reality. Ms. Kenney spoke with us recently about why she wanted to tell this story. how her past work informed how she approached her tale, and how moral ambiguity in Surgeon X aids her in taking a more nuanced examination of right and wrong.
FreakSugar: For folks who are thinking about picking up the first volume of Surgeon X, how would you describe the conceit of The Path of Most Resistance?
Sara Kenney: It’s a story about Rosa Scott a surgeon gone rogue in the midst of an antibiotic apocalypse in London in the year 2036. There are many layers to Rosa’s storyworld – her inciting incident is the murder of her mother, which triggers her to reject her Hippocratic oath and forge a new moral code. She transforms from a darling of the NHS to a surgeon who makes decisions based on the good of society. Woven throughout the comic are Rosa’s complicated dynamics with her family – a bunch of eccentric Brits.
The storyworld is based on a thought experiment – what if we don’t manage to find new antibiotics? What happens when we see a return of the old diseases from TB to Gonorrhea? Rosa is a strong woman, seeking answers in this messed up world. You might not get on with her, but you’d sure as hell want her as your surgeon if your life were on the line.
FS: The idea behind the story is timely—and, as you show, has been timely for several decades now. What made you want to tell this tale?
SK: The character Rosa Scott came first and when I was researching what it might be like for a surgeon practicing medicine in 20 years time, one disaster I kept reading about was the antibiotic crises. It felt like a disaster we had slept walked into – we have known about it for decades, but failed to come up with new antibiotics. I wanted Rosa’s character to go through big changes and this was the perfect world for this to happen.
I love imperfect characters – people you admire but don’t always agree with, people who do the right things for the wrong reasons, or the wrong things for the right reasons. Most people have a dark side, a manipulative side or a selfish side, but a lot of us tend to hide it well. Rosa can’t be bothered to hide things anymore, because she has important work to do and doesn’t have time to explain. She’s a control freak, single minded and sarcastic, but ultimately she does care. She does genuinely want to help put things right and save lives and she cares deeply about her family. She would do anything for her twin sister Martha and her half brother Lewis. But she will also shamelessly use them to help her with what she needs to do.
In drama female characters are often the mother, the wife or the victim. Rosa is none of these things. I hope as the audience gets to know Rosa they will admire her strengths as well as empathise with her weaknesses.
FS: You spoke with many experts in medicine, philosophy, and bioethics for this story. What was the collaboration process like, working with them? Did that collaboration affect the comic’s narrative or alter your story in any way?
SK: It’s been amazing working with experts. I always find that when I have a story idea, if I speak to an expert they can send you off on a direction you hadn’t expected. Yes they absolutely did affect the narrative and in a good way. I had a good idea about what I wanted to happen in the story, but if the medicine wasn’t believable, I would change it to make it more realistic. Sometimes if I was certain I wanted a particular outcome I would work backwards with the expert. So I want this to be the outcome, how do we get there with the facts? This was quite a fun thing to do and the experts seemed to like the intellectual challenge.
I think one thing that really helps the story is that it’s not just about the science, it’s also about the ethics, sociology, history etc. I wonder if I was too ambitious trying to get all of this into the story, I think it really makes the comic for some people while perhaps for others it’s too much. What I am proud of though is that I think it’s a good piece of journalism. I spoke to the experts continually to get the story right and John Watkiss the artist worked hard with medical references and getting the surgery as accurate as possible. A lot of people won’t even notice, but over time perhaps the collective wisdom of the masses will enjoy the work that’s gone into making the world as authentic as possible.
FS: You have a background in documentaries and animation, and that seems—to me, at least—to come through in how you tell Surgeon X. Did your past work inform how you approached the story for comics?
SK: I think my work in documentaries and animation helped in terms of creating a layered storyworld, interesting characters and robust premise. You have to be quite logical as well as creative when making films. However, that’s where it ends!! Comics are a very different medium and I had a lot to learn. I was so lucky working with the artist John Watkiss and editor Karen Berger who founded Vertigo Comics and has just launched her new comics line Berger Books at Dark Horse comics. They helped me to learn the grammar of comics.
As I go forward as a writer I need to explain less and show more, give the story more room to breath. But it’s my first comic and I do think it’s a good piece of journalism. I’m looking forward to spending more time honing my drama writing skills. If it was easy it would be boring!
FS: Some of the topics you tackle in Surgeon X show a future with increased government interjection into how and why medicine and medical treatment are disperse, as well as how nature itself reacts and is reacting to our attempts to protect ourselves from disease. I know this is one of those speculative questions, but in your research for the book, do you see any of the plot points you address becoming at least partially a reality?
SK: I started really fleshing out the storyworld in 2014 and during the last 2-years, I feel we have shifted closer to this world. I think in times of crisis, when people are afraid they are easier to control. As part of the project I created a series of animations to enhance the storyworld. I have a public health campaign delivered by the ruling Lionheart Party and it’s deliberately authoritarian in tone. Other adverts such as for products available in this future world are also tongue in cheek – they employ the techniques of pseudoscience and bullshit marketing to sell.
Everything in the comic is based on what I see around me today. It’s based on the ripples I could see on the horizon. From that we created a world that most of us would not like to live in. It doesn’t mean that these things will come to pass and perhaps by thinking about this stuff now, we can learn how to avoid it!
FS: One of the things I love about Surgeon X is the moral ambiguity you let wash over the story and the characters, hinting that things aren’t always cut-and-dry, Right and Wrong with a capital R and W. Was that your intention at the offset?
SK: Thank you and yes, this was definitely the intension. Having worked in many jobs from waitressing to old people’s homes, science and broadcast for nearly 18-years I know that it takes all sorts. You can get charming people who are arseholes and socially awkward and unpopular people who have hearts of gold. Introverts can be the smartest person in the room and extroverts the most anxious and paranoid. It’s these complexities of the human spirit that intrigue me and I want to play with, in terms of my characters and what they do.
FS: What kind of takeaways do you want readers to have from reading volume 1?
SK: To ask questions about our world and in particular around health. How we treat our sick and vulnerable is a measure of us as a society. The health gap between the rich and poor is growing, how can we stop this? How can we ensure that physical and mental health is important for all?
I also hope they just enjoy it for what it is – a comic, with incredible artwork, hopefully a story that makes you think and characters you might want to spend some time with again!
FS: Is there anything about what comes next that you can tease?
SK: Rosa faces a fierce antagonist in storyline 1 – a digital stalker called Hippocrates. If we make it to a storyline two I will reveal who he is!
Surgeon X: The Path of Most Resistance, brought to you by Sara Kenney, John Watkiss, and Jared K. Fletcher, is on sale now from Image Comics.
From the official press release:
Now Available for the First Time in Paperback
New “Trial and Error” Digital Special Debuts
Extreme circumstances call for extreme medicine.
What if we lived in a world of antibiotic resistance and rationing, where the superbugs have won?
SURGEON X Vol 1: The Path of Most Resistance (Image Comics / color / 208 pages / collecting issues #1-6 / $14.99/£13.99 pbk on sale May 2, 2017 everywhere books are sold / $9.99 digital on sale April 26, 2017) is now available for the first time in paperback. Written by debut comics writer Sara Kenney, documentary, factual drama and animation filmmaker (Angels and Ghosts, BBC, Channel 4, Discovery) with art by the late, master storyteller John Watkiss (Sandman, Conan, Deadman) and edited by Karen Berger, editor of Berger Books, an imprint of Dark Horse, and founding editor of Vertigo Comics, Vol. 1 collects the first story arc of the acclaimed medical thriller that incorporates politics and family drama seamlessly. This is John Watkiss’ last published work and also features some of his incredible charcoal development drawings.
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 Surgeon X, a vigilante doctor who uses experimental surgery and black market drugs to treat patients. As Surgeon X, Rosa develops a godlike-complex, deciding who will live and who will die. Risking everything to save lives, she believes that to survive in this compromised world her own moral code is the one she must follow, ultimately warping her Hippocratic Oath to suit her own decisions—even if it endangers those closest to her.
As Berger says, “[SURGEON X] explores the consequences of a world where the bedrock of modern medicine has crumbled, where people must adapt to a dangerous new reality, and where the lead character’s subversive nature makes us question our own sense of ethics and morality. Sara’s vision is frighteningly real and beautifully executed.”
The first arc of SURGEON X was funded by a Society Award from Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. They support bright minds in science, the humanities and the social sciences, as well as education, public engagement and the application of research to medicine.
In addition to the collection, also debuting on Wednesday, April 26th is the all-new digital exclusive SURGEON X SPECIAL: Trial and Error (Image Comics / color / 10 pages / $.99 / April 26, 2017) by Sara Kenney with art and cover by Warren Pleece (Incognegro). This standalone story set in Bristol, England in 2037 introduces Sun Walker and asks the question, when someone you love is dying, how far would you go to save them? Rosa Scott helps her cousin, Sun, a chemical scientist with a risky plan that could kill or cure. Available only on comiXology and Kindle, the Trial and Error Special was funded by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
The SURGEON X comic book series is informed by hundreds of conversations with scientists, physicians, historians, economists, ethicists & philosophers to create this deeply disturbing, yet authentic future world. Please see interview opportunities, events and bios below.
For more about SURGEON X head over to: www.SurgeonX.co.uk.