It’s time for a nice, creepy horror comic with a good sense of humor, which is never a bad thing!
Published by Image, 12 issues (#0, #1-4, Witch Doctor: The Resuscitation, Witch Doctor: Mal Practice #1-6), cover dated April 2008 (issue #0), June – November 2011 (issues #1-4), December 2011 (Resuscitation), November 2012 – April 2013 (Mal Practice).
I don’t think there are any real SPOILERS here, but you should always be aware! And remember to click on the images to see them better!
In a perfect world, we’d be reading the ninth or tenth mini-series of Witch Doctor right about now, and the second movie would be coming out in 2022. Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner would be rolling up one-hundred dollar bills and smoking them, and the ladies (or men; I don’t want to presume!) would be lining up around the block just to catch a glimpse of them. Alas, we live in this imperfect world, and we have only 12 issues of Witch Doctor to enjoy. But they are excellent and enjoyable, so I guess we’ll have to live with the facts as they are.
Many people compared Witch Doctor to Hellblazer, given all the magical crap going on in the book, but come on, it’s really Doctor Strange on acid, and that’s a fine thing. Dr. Vincent Morrow, occult surgeon, takes on the medical cases no regular doctor will touch, because he deals in demons, possession, vampires, and other monsters. How Seifert distinguishes the series from any number of monster-hunting series is that Morrow is, after all, a doctor, and he treats all these problems as medical ones, and he uses medical solutions to fix them (a Karen Andersen gets credit in the book as a “medical consultant,” but try Googling that name to find out more about her!). So he tries to figure out what exactly is going on with vampires in the zero issue, using an X-ray (sort of) and a technique that could conceivably work on a tapeworm (it’s an old wives’ tale, but Morrow doesn’t discriminate). In the first arc, he treats a demonic possession like an infection. It’s very clever, and it makes the book much more interesting than if Morrow was canting Latin at things and drawing magic circles to trap things. He does all that, but because Seifert is able to put a patina of medicine on it, the comic is fascinating. It feels like something that could happen “in the real world,” because of the blending between magic and medicine. I mean, of course we don’t have vampires and demons and strigoi and whatever the hell Penny is in the real world, but this feels more grounded, for lack of a better world, than most of the “magical” series out there, and it’s kind of neat.
Seifert doesn’t give us any time to get acclimated, as he throws us in the deep end right away. Starting something in media res isn’t a new thing, of course, and Seifert doesn’t really do that, as issue #1 (the zero issue came first, of course, but it was very limited, so most people who read this began with issue #1, I would imagine … although I just discovered it ran in the back of The Walking Dead #85, so maybe more people read it than I thought!) begins with Morrow, his assistant Eric Gast, and “Penny Dreadful,” a strange girl who acts as Morrow’s anesthesiologist (an unusual one, to be sure, but still), arriving at a house where a boy has been “possessed.” It’s not that Seifert begins in the middle of a story, it’s that he begins after Gast, who is very clearly our point-of-view character, has already been in Morrow’s employ for at least a little while. Usually something like this would begin with Gast arriving to take the job and finding out how weird it is, but Seifert, wisely, doesn’t do that. It’s enough that Gast is a recently-hired employee, because we get past the part where he’s going to quit because he’s freaked out and keep the part where he’s still unsure what’s going on but he’s already committed. Even in the zero issue, he’s been working for Morrow for a little while, so Seifert can get to the weird plots and not worry about why Gast stays. Seifert, like all good writers, reveals small details as they come up, so we learn more about the characters not because they sit down and talk about it, but because little things come up that reveal things about them. In issue #3, Morrow does tell Gast about the “true history of the world,” but it’s in the context of a case, so it feels organic. We still don’t know a lot about Morrow, however, as presumably Seifert would have continued to tell us bits and pieces about his “hero” as the series progressed. Gast, meanwhile, is a paramedic who has been discharged from the Navy, something we find out tangentially. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, another thing we find out through a very brief, one-panel flashback. Seifert also hints at other things about him, both that he has some odd power and that his “disease” is worse than he thinks. Again, we don’t get these things because Seifert grinds the story to a halt, but because they come up naturally in the service of the plot. In the same way, we find out that Penny was a student whose body was inhabited by something that Morrow still doesn’t quite understand, but he’s come to an arrangement with it. The monster inside Penny doesn’t want to help him, but the human-ish aspect of her psyche (it’s unclear if it’s just a nicer version of the monster or a separate entity) convinces the monster that Morrow keeps it fed, so they need to help out as part of the bargain. It also makes a good point that Morrow might be weak at certain times in the story, but he’s still very smart and may have figured out a way to destroy it. Again, this information comes out during the course of the plot, so it arises at times when it’s good information to know, not because Seifert feels the need to slow everything down and spell things out for us. Obviously, both Gast’s background and Penny’s situation would have become more important down the line, but the book didn’t survive. Nevertheless, the way Seifert works on the characterization is a good idea for all writers, and it works nicely here.
Seifert does this with the ancillary characters, too. We don’t get a lot of Absinthe O’Riley (“Abby”), the curator of the Museum of Supernatural History, or Catrina MacAbrey, a necromancer/pathologist, or Chancellor Catherinian and Cassius Whethervein of Mystics Without Borders, but they’re still interesting characters simply because of what they do and how they speak, not because the story slows down to show us how cool they are. The ichthyanthropes from the first series aren’t particularly nice creatures, but they aren’t simply mindless monsters, which makes their attempts to kill Morrow and his crew a bit more interesting. The strigoi that infects Morrow in the second series is inhabiting a young woman who isn’t just a passive victim. Even the evil things aren’t just monsters. Morrow has an interesting conversation with the vampire in the zero issue, the ichthyanthropes actually talk to him and try to make him see their side of things, Catrina is not the nicest person in the world, but she’s very clever and isn’t about to take any shit from Morrow, and the demons in the second series are evil, sure, but they’re also a bit tragic. P.T. Nostrum, the huckster from the second series, is the driving force of much of the trouble in that series, but even he’s kind of pathetic, not necessarily a world-destroying evil. Seifert doesn’t let the bad guys become clichés, which makes them more compelling and their schemes less ridiculous and more comprehensible. Despite not living in a world with demons running around and vampires infecting people, the motivations of the nastier creatures in Witch Doctor are understandable, and with that underlying things, Seifert can get away with some of the more fantastical stuff.
Of course, Morrow is the main character, and while his similarities to John Constantine are why people compared this to Hellblazer, he’s different enough to make him a unique character. He has a lot of the stereotypical irascible rogue with the heart of gold, but unlike Constantine, he’s not a coward and he doesn’t put people who can’t handle it in horrible situations and therefore he doesn’t get his friends killed. He yells at Gast a lot, but it’s in the heat of the moment, and he’s not unkind to him. He seems to genuinely care about Penny, even though it’s clear their relationship isn’t exactly free of danger. He’s even relatively nice to the woman who infects him with the strigoi parasite, and he actually thanks Catrina for saving his life in issue #4 of Mal Practice. These are low bars to clear, certainly, but it shows that Morrow, even though he’s kind of cantankerous, isn’t a complete tool, and he understands that he has a duty to those who are sick. Constantine, for example, is not bound by anything except his own morality, as sketchy as that can be. Morrow, presumably, has to take a mystical version of the Hippocratic Oath, so even if he doesn’t want to help people, he does. It’s a good, subtle difference between him and so many other amoral rogues. Most kinds of these people would not be inclined to help the woman infected with the strigoi, for instance, and even if they were, they wouldn’t care too much about her. Despite Morrow’s obvious anger over what she did (which she couldn’t control, it must be noted), he still treats her like a patient and still wants to help her get better. It makes the book a bit more humanistic than your more generic supernatural comic. And, of course, there’s an overarching plot that never gets explored, but Morrow is fully aware of what he needs to do, and he doesn’t shrink away from it. He might not like it, but he knows he has to do it. That’s another small difference between Morrow and others of his ilk, who often spend a lot of time trying to avoid “embracing their destiny.” Morrow has accepted his lot, and it makes the few times when he brings it up a bit more interesting, because it’s a slightly different angle from what we usually get from these kinds of stories.
Ketner is a wonderful partner in crime for Seifert, because his style fits the tone of the book so well. His lines are fluid, impressive for someone this early in his career, as his action scenes work very well, but he still has just a slightly angular look that suits the creepiness of the book. His tendency to over-hatch is not unusual for a younger artist, and while it occasionally distracts when he does it on faces, it makes the monsters look a bit more real, so the trade-off works. The baroque weirdness of the art is the most impressive aspect of it, because Morrow lives in a world slightly askew to ours, so any artist would have to be able to get the oddities of the world without removing it completely from our more normal perceptions. Ketner does that very well. In the zero issue, our first view of the world is the Stonebridge Insane Asylum in Arkham, Oregon, where the book is set (because of course it’s set in Oregon, a candidate for weirdest state, and of course the town is called Arkham). The asylum is a many-gabled horror show, looking for all the world like a creaky Victorian mansion (which, in this world, it probably was before it was converted) with a glowing red eye in its central tower, as the round, stained-glass window of the structure is lit from within (where Morrow is seeing a patient) and the central pane of the window appears to be red blood cells, because of course you’d make a stained-glass window like that! Sunny Gho gives the light an eerie glow, so it feels like Sauron looking down at us. Either by design or happy accident, the window frames in the drawing aren’t all completely flush with each other, so the house looks even more rickety. On the same page, we see Morrow’s instruments, and they’re all gold or gold-plated. A crucifix, sure, because he’s dealing with a vampire, but also an old-fashioned metallic syringe, clunky and heavy, but fitting the aesthetic of the story perfectly. In later issues we’ll see his gruesomely mechanical glass cage in which he traps demons, his ornate “scalpel” (Excalibur, which of course he’s able to wield), and his protective umbrella, which is made from angel shell and demon membrane. Ketner draws more modern equipment, too, and this weird blend of magic and medicine helps make Seifert’s central idea work nicely.
In a book about monsters, drawing monsters well is paramount, and Ketner shines there, too. They’re very detailed, and much more like animals than your standard monsters, which is nice because they’re supposed to be parasites and viruses and other kinds of things a doctor can handle. The vampire in the zero issue looks like a lamprey, which makes sense, and the demons in issue #1 look like insects. Ketner gives us a horrific faerie in issue #2, one that looks like a baby because it’s replacing a couple’s actual child. The ichthyanthropes are marvelous creatures, fish-like men with large jaws, long, sharp teeth, and webbed claws, but because they were once human, Ketner puts some of them in clothing and gives a few of them paunches, which makes them oddly sympathetic. His mummy in “The Resuscitation” issue is a herky-jerky puppet, not acclimated yet to being animated, and it’s terrific. The strigoi in Mal Practice is a terrifying centipede, and the demons that P.T. Nostrum uses are creepy specimens, as well. Seifert creates the Surgeons, an extra-dimensional group of “doctors” whose cures are far worse than the diseases, and while they’re basically Cenobites (apparently the Cenobites are called “Surgeons” in at least one of Barker’s novels), Ketner makes them bizarre, Victorian antecedents of those characters, as their clothing is distinctly less modern and more “plague doctor” than their film inspirations. It’s a nice distinction, and it makes the Surgeons the most terrifying creatures in the comic. The way Ketner presents Penny is brilliantly done. She looks like your typical Goth girl, skinny and straggle-haired, a high forehead and pale skin, until she lets her monster out. In the zero issue, we see a bit of her work, but Ketner tweaked her a bit in the years between the zero issue and issue #1, so she’s much more impressive in the latter story. In a short sequence, the skin on her hand rips open and reveals long, horrifying talons, extending from a hand that appears armored or even lacquered, as it’s unnaturally hard and strangely beautiful. When we first see Penny’s two warring sides (the angel and demon on her shoulders, so to speak), Ketner gives us a dark, malevolent thing with limbs like tree branches or blood vessels, and a tragic-looking girl with similar roots, who may be slightly nicer than the demon but is still scary. We learn that Penny eats monsters, so when she’s about to dig in, we see her face open up to reveal nasty-looking mandibles, and Ketner’s attention to how the face works and how the teeth would work is stupendous. Ketner is able to portray Penny’s tragic circumstances while still making her a force you would not want to mess with. It’s a good combination, and it makes Penny the most interesting character, visually, in the book.
I suppose poor sales killed the book; two relatively unknown creators working on something that’s a bit odd is always a tough sell, and it seems like it wasn’t enough to make it viable. Both Seifert and Ketner have moved on to other things, and Witch Doctor is probably permanently dead. Luckily, Seifert structured the stories so that each one is relatively standalone, so we get four different stories in these twelve issues, and while it’s disappointing that the overall plot will never get explored, that’s still not a bad thing. This is a weird, funky comic with some very cool ideas embedded in it, with interesting characters and wonderful artwork. There are two trades, one of which I’ve linked to below, and they seem readily available, which is nice. So check out this weird, Hellblazer/Dr. Strange hybrid – you won’t be disappointed! And take a look at the archives for more fun comics!