The Science Of An Extreme World – Talking With Sarah Kenney About Surgeon X

by Staff

The science-driven vision of a future where antibiotics have all but ceased to work, Surgeon X: The Path of Most Resistance was published in 200 page trade version on May 2nd, and accompanied by a new digital comic set in the world of the series available online, Surgeon X Special: Trial and Error. The six issue first arc of Surgeon X was edited by the renowned Karen Berger, written by Sarah Kenney, illustrated by John Watkiss, and supported by myriad advisors in the scientific community while being funded by Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation dedicated to improving health and supporting the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. James Devlin also acted as colorist on Surgeon X while Jared K. Fletcher provided letters.

This “medical thriller” features twin sisters Rosa Scott, a surgeon, and Martha, a prominent biologist, who while grieving the death of their microbiologist mother under unusual circumstances, come to realize she was murdered and that there are mysteries yet to uncover. Meanwhile, their London-based careers are being shaken to the core by civil unrest and medical crises. Rosa takes to providing unauthorized medical treatment to save lives, becoming Surgeon X, and tries to track down her mother’s killer. This is a comic that presents a sobering view of medical possibilities in the near future, but also a story of human resistance and hope even while struggling with the ethics of aid.

Writer and filmmaker of documentary, factual drama and animation, Sarah Kinney joins us today to talk about Surgeon X:
Hannah Means-Shannon: Since working on Surgeon X Volume 1 took over two years to complete, have your views on some ideas in the book changed or updated over that time? When you think of your mindset at the outset of the project and compare that to now, what do you think the biggest developments have been?
Sarah Kenney: Interesting question. Having started developing the storyworld more fully in 2014, quite a few things have come to pass that I wasn’t expecting. In terms of my views, and how they’ve changed over this period, I’ve been thinking a lot more about how social media has lulled us into a false sense of security. In the comic, I portray a very divided world, but I didn’t think it was likely to get that bad.
I always described the storyworld as being a thought experiment that probably wouldn’t come to pass–that we’d get it together and find solutions to the problem of the antibiotic crises. I always thought that we’d start using fewer antibiotics in agriculture and be able to slow down the pace of resistance. I’m also less sure of that now. It’s quite easy to see how a certain set of conditions and people can set off an extreme chain of events.

HMS: Among comics, this book is unusual for having a superhero-like mother and two daughters, Vivienne, Martha, and Rosa, all of whom excel in sciences. To what degree did you think of this as unusual in writing this story, and what were your goals in creating these characters with these attributes?
SK: We didn’t really think of them as superhero-like. They are all very good at what they do and push themselves in this extreme world, but I suspect if we were facing an antibiotic crisis on this scale many women (and men) would step up to the mark and fight for solutions. You hear about these sorts of incredible characters who did brave stuff in WWII, so I guess it’s similar to that.
In terms of science characters, I was just writing about what I know. I have a lot of female friends and family who are scientists or have science backgrounds. As a documentary producer, I’ve met many incredible women working in science and the medical humanities. Although Rosa is extraordinary, we question her ethics so she’s not a hero in the traditional sense. Martha has a brilliant science mind, but is forced to step up to the mark. She’s not a natural hero and is reluctant to be involved. Vivienne is a great scientist, but she has flaws and as the storylines progress we will find out more about these.
I also have twin daughters who are totally different in terms of character as well as looks, and they inspired me to explore the twin bond. How far will Rosa and Martha go for each other? How does their twin dynamic help them? Martha is Rosa’s moral compass, what happens if she’s not around to be that leveling force?
I didn’t think of it as unusual–most of my best mates are women and as a first time comic writer it felt natural for me to write female leads.

HMS: Martha and Rosa have a brother, Lewis, who has schizophrenia. Characters with mental illness are often treated either as comic or tragic in pop culture, and not as well-rounded and many angled main characters. How did you develop Lewis as a character and what were your goals in making him an important part of the story?
 SK: Lewis is an important character, he is Rosa’s right hand man. He is an incredible computer whizz, who helps Rosa with her tech. He also helps his father and is there for his sister Martha. He loves his friend Mai and is loyal beyond belief. He is Lewis first, and has mental illness second.
In terms of developing this character, I have rather more knowledge about this area than I’d like. I have two brothers, one a year older than me, one two years younger than me. We didn’t have an affluent upbringing, but we had amazing, imaginative and supportive parents and a good sibling bond. They were both eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Our family has experienced decades of dealing with the illness, many sectionings and much heartbreak. I know some people saw us as the weirdo family in the town and perhaps we were! But we also came through it and both my brothers are doing really well– recovery is possible.

For Surgeon X, I wanted Lewis to be a robust character who happens to have psychotic episodes rather than just the psychotic character, if that makes sense? Through Lewis, I also play with the notions of reality, perception and paranoia, all of which I think most of us struggle with at certain points in our lives. On the home page of the Surgeon X website I have some documentaries about this subject, which give an interesting perspective on Lewis’ mindset– –one called ‘Paranoia’ and the other ‘The Martha Mitchell Effect’. When you talk to someone who is experiencing a psychotic breakdown, they can be extraordinarily convincing in terms of the events they describe. The twitchy, tin foil hat-wearing weirdo can be a bit of a cliché. Schizophrenia can manifest in many ways, and again I was just drawing from my experiences.

HMS: Working with so many advisors and experts is a real benefit in addressing so many areas that need expertise in the comic. But that can also be challenging. What strategies came into play to organize information from experts and bring it into the comic in a way that felt organic to the storytelling?
SK: At the very beginning of the project, I started with a workshop bringing together scientists, historians, ethicist, philosopher, sociologist, and surgeons. I told them my idea and we spent a day drilling down into the storyworld. What would drive a surgeon to behave in this way? How bad could the antibiotic crises get? The discussions were amazing and gave me a lot to think about, perhaps too much!
I would then write the stories, consulting experts as I went along. I’ve got thousands of emails from my experts, we really worked hard to get the factual stuff right. I’d send John [Watkiss] the script, but also a reference document for any of the surgical stuff. All the surgical dialogue I would run by surgeons. Sometimes we stretch the factual for the sake of good drama, but everything is within the realm of possibility!

HMS: Can you share a little bit with us about how reader response and reception has been to the comic? How does the app and digital world of the comic add to the reading experience?
SK: We got some great reviews when the comic first came out. It was staggering that some of my favourite writers and artists gave us such great blurbs. I realise that having the brilliant editor Karen Berger on-board helped get us access to those people, but they are all pretty tough and willful characters, so I’d imagine they were speaking honestly!
In terms of audience reviews, it’s been mixed–I think it’s a bit of a marmite comic–you either love it or hate it (do you have marmite in the US? I personally bloody love it.) Some people love the characters, others hate them, some love the writing and art, others hate it–with a venom. In terms of the writing, I think it was more of a journalistic piece than a literary piece if that makes sense? That’s something I need to work on. I still have a lot to learn in terms of writing, but you gotta be in the game to get better at the game, right?

In terms of the artwork, as far as I’m concerned John Watkiss is a genius. He has an incredible knowledge of the human form and his work is just beautiful, dark and emotional. He sadly passed away in January of this year and it was a tough time for the team, promoting the comic while he was so ill. I certainly felt very weird and bereft without him by my side! I wanted the focus to be on him too, but he was too ill to do interviews. Thankfully Karen [Berger] was around, she was a diamond through all that.
In terms of the app and digital world–we created a new comics reader, which featured films embedded in the panels to enhance the storyworld. The animations were tongue-in-cheek fake adverts for products and companies in the story. We also created a propagandistic public health campaign by the ruling government. You can download the app with issue 1 for free at the App store or Google play. I’m interested in what people think about it–we didn’t get much uptake, but those who used it loved the extra content. I’m slowly releasing some of the animations and documentaries onto the web, so more people have access to them. We were lucky to have the charitable foundation Wellcome Trust fund the whole project and they like people to experiment!

HMS: Can you tell us about the experience of working with John Watkiss on his final project, and his personal commitment to creating Surgeon X?
SK: I learnt a lot from John. We enjoyed meeting at the Southbank in London or in Brighton for a beer and a chat. We’d discuss the script and the art, but we’d also talk about many other things. He loved philosophy and history and although we had quite different views about the world, we worked really well together. He kept pushing forward to get Surgeon X finished; he completed all the roughs and inked the whole comic, bar the final 10-pages and we brought in Warren Pleece to finish those. He was proud of what we did and we’ve been sure to include some of his amazing charcoal development art in the collected edition of Surgeon X.
As Hippocrates says Life is short, the art long.

Many thanks to Sarah Kenney for participating in this interview for
You can find out more about the new trade edition of the comic and multimedia aspects of Surgeon X right here.
You can find the new digital story Surgeon X Special: Trial and Error on ComiXology for only 99 cents right here.

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