The following is an interview with Sara Kenney, author of the recently released Image Comics title, Surgeon X. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Kenney about the inspiration behind her medical thriller, how her work as a documentarian prepared her for the sequential art medium, her hope for bringing greater awareness to the risks of biological events in the world, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: Congratulations on the release of your new series, Surgeon X, from Image Comics! What inspired this medical thriller, and how do you feel that your previous work as a documentarian has prepared you for this undertaking?
Sara Kenney: In terms of the character Rosa Scott/Surgeon X – I’ve been thinking about her for over 10years. I’ve got folders full of story ideas and there have been a few versions of Rosa Scott, which have appeared in my stories. It was only in 2014 that I started to build her character further and elaborate on the storyworld. As a documentary filmmaker, I’m always inspired by real life – I think as a documentarian this has helped me in terms of getting to the story and the journalistic aspects of Surgeon X.
In terms of writing for comics, nothing can prepare you for writing your first comic until you get stuck in! I think the greats make it look easy – it’s not. There are so many aspects of writing for a comic that has made me a better writer generally. You have to be sharp and concise in terms of the words and visual storytelling. Distilling the story down into a small number of pages and panels is a real art (and science). Getting the pacing right, making the story clear, getting your audience to love the characters in a few panels – if you want to become a better writer, try writing a comic!
BD: Surgeon X was funded by a Society Award from Wellcome Trust, an independent global charitable foundation dedicated to improving health. How did you become involved with this organization, and do you feel that this series will bring greater awareness to the risks of biological or viral events in our world?
SK: Back in 2010 there was a job advert in the newspaper for a Broadcast Manager at the Wellcome Trust. It was to spend a year covering the postholder’s maternity leave. I was working in TV, but really liked the idea of trying something different. They mostly fund scientific research, but the more I read about the Trust, the more I was amazed and intrigued by the sort of left of field public engagement projects they fund. They work with artists, musicians, writers – all sorts of incredible people. I applied and got the job and after a brilliant year I went back to work in TV.
However, I started to apply for grants to develop some ideas both drama and documentary. I knew that I wanted to write a comic about a character who was a female surgeon and thought perhaps that the Wellcome Trust might consider funding it. I wanted to create a project that expanded on the usual comic book storyworld, so I proposed an app which would enable me to utilize my filmmaking skills.
I hope the series will get people talking about many thing – the state of the NHS, women in surgery, the future of medicine, inequality in medicine, and, of course, the antibiotic apocalypse. We don’t really cover viruses in our story yet, as antibiotics don’t work on viruses…but if Rosa’s twin Martha Scott, the microbiologist, comes up with a good enough new antibiotic to ‘save the world,’ then you never know we might have to move on to viruses!
BD: What do you hope that readers will most take away from the story?
SK: Not any one thing – I think each reader will take something different from the story, depending on the elements that mean the most to them, the characters they care about the most, or the situations that have the most resonance. I guess one thing I want people to do is to ask questions about what they see and read, to seek out further information, and to talk about the themes and story.
I think that’s what all good drama does, it gets people questioning the world or themselves a little bit more.
BD: How would you describe your creative process in working with John Watkiss, James Devlin, Jared K. Fletcher, and Karen Berger, and how do you feel as though their contributions expounded upon your vision for the series?
SK: I might have come up with the idea for Surgeon X, but we created the comic as a team. There’s no doubt about it – I’ve worked with amazing people and each of them have elevated the project.
Karen has been incredible – she’s been so generous with her time and with helping me to get up to speed in terms of writing for comics. I think we have very similar sensibilities in terms of what we want from characters and story, so she’s been a dream to work with. She just totally gets what I’m trying to do with Surgeon X and she’s helped me to make it a much better proposition than it would have been if I’d worked without an editor. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Karen on my first comic.
John is a genius in terms of the art, and I had great fun during the development stage talking about what the characters would look like and shaping their personalities visually too. Over time, I’ve become braver with the imagery and more extreme and John has definitely enjoyed this. I took John’s advice very seriously – don’t go over 5/6 panels a page. I think he was pleased I listened to him.
Jim’s colours are incredible. I think the tricky thing with re-creating London, but in a future storyworld is to strike a balance between the historic and the sci-fi. I think he managed this beautifully. I didn’t want the look to be too glossy or neon, because London has such a beautiful, dirty, historic and gritty aesthetic, which we didn’t want to lose. John has an incredible knowledge of colour and he worked with Jim to advise on the colour. I think Jim really enjoyed learning from John’s instincts and knowledge of colour in the way that I loved learning from Karen B.
Jared is just an amazing pro when it came to the lettering. I know I still write too many words (still learning), and he managed to fit them all in!! I loved using lower case and his instincts on SFX again took the comic to another level.
As a filmmaker I know that having a great team can make a good project amazing and stop a difficult project from crumbling. The same is true for comics. Oh and I have to mention the amazing producer and friend I worked with, Duncan Copp. I haven’t just been producing a comic, but also an app with documentaries and animations. Duncan has been my wise-owl helping me to stay on track!
BD: Given your previous work in film, do you feel as though Surgeon X would translate well to the theatrical medium, either through film or TV?
SK: My instincts are that it would make better TV than film i) because there are no tights or capes; ii) it’s a female lead; and iii) I don’t have any battle scenes (yet). There’s plenty of complexity in terms of the characters and story and how they unfold/ evolve. I’ve got a thriller storyline and all the characters change in ways you don’t always expect. I think there’s probably room for a futuristic, apocalyptic medical series, with a twisted heroine that makes you want to laugh and cry?!
However, having worked in TV for 16 years and spent a lot of time in development, I’ve got zero expectations in terms of Surgeon X ever making it to a live-action format!
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Surgeon X?
SK: I hope you enjoy the comic, but if you want to explore the storyworld further, do check out the app. We have some amazing experts we worked with and they are interviewed in the documentaries. There are audio docs made by a BBC Producer, Marnie Chesterton, and I’ve also written some animations created by animation studio Ticktockrobot, which hopefully give further insight into the storyworld. There’s also space on the website called ‘The Recovery Room.’ Do come and tell us what you think and feel free to chat about the ideas and ask questions.