I have to admit, of all the end-times scenarios I’ve imagined — and there have been many, I can assure you — the idea of a “medical apocalypse” due to the over-prescribing of antibiotics is one that never occurred to me. But maybe that’s just because I’m allergic to penicillin —
Still, it goes to show that there is, in fact, a pretty unique premise at play in the pages of Surgeon X, the latest Image Comics series to debut with a what’s-fast-becoming-commonplace (not that I’m complaining, mind you) extra-sized first issue for the standard $3.99 cover price (are you paying attention to how this works, Marvel? Because you really should be). Sadly, a gripping premise alone isn’t enough to salvage a comic.
So, yeah, this is a less-than-stellar review that I’m cranking out here, and of all the less-than-stellar reviews I’ve written over the years, this one hurts perhaps the most, simply because I’ve got so damn much respect for so many of the people involved with this project, starting with its esteemed editor, Karen Berger. Yes, that Karen Berger. The founder of DC’s Vertigo imprint and a genuine living legend in the comics world, Ms. Berger is now working freelance, and this is her first commissioned assignment since leaving the baby she birthed (metaphorically speaking) behind over a year ago. She was brought on board the then-gestating series by its creator, writer Sara Kenney, via LinkedIn, if you can believe it, and it was Berger who sought out the amazingly talented John Watkiss to serve as the book’s artist — and for that alone she should be praised, because this is a guy who’s never gotten anywhere near the recognition (or, for whatever reason, the steady work) that he deserves. Watkiss is the closest thing we’ve got in comics today to a stylistic heir to the great Bernard Krigstein, and I don’t just say that because his work has a similar stylistic flair, but because he so clearly understands — and puts into practice — Krigstein’s philosophy of sequential illustration. He’s been kicking around the comics scene for over two decades now, and this guy’s work is so good that it makes other pros flat-out jealous of his talent, but his is one of those names that you just don’t know where or when it will pop up next, as regular gigs have never really been his forte. Still, as the pages included with this review clearly show, this is art to fucking die for.
I’ll tell you what, though: no offense intended to colorist James Devlin (who really does a fine job), this book would have looked better in black and white. Watkiss’ best work to date remains on the B&W series Ring Of Roses from Dark Horse, which really showcased the detail of his exquisite linework in a way that color comics just plain can’t, and if you need any further proof of my assertion that this would have been the way to go here, as well, just check out the deadly awesome cover for this issue — or download the Surgeon X app, which showcases Watkiss’ pencil-and-ink art for all the interior pages.
Ah, yes, that app — it’s another solid innovation from the always-forward-thinking Berger and really does flesh out the world of the far-right future Britain this series takes place in, as well as giving plenty of insight into the creative process behind the book, but the fact that’s it’s even “a thing” just goes to show that there is much missing from the pages of the comic itself, and unfortunately, that’s all on Sara Kenney’s shoulders. So let’s get into what doesn’t work about this comic —
In short, this isn’t a “story” per se so much as it is an extended info-dump. The dialogue is beyond clunky and overly-expository in the extreme, yet for all its wordiness, none of the characters have much by way of a distinct personality, their motivations remain murky at best, and all the extraneous and belabored world-building on offer still doesn’t do its job in that we don’t have much of a clear picture of the political “battlefield” that is post-medical-apocalypse UK society by issue’s end. It takes a lot of doing to throw as much background info at readers as this book does and still manage to come up short in the “here’s what’s happening —” department, but that’s exactly what Kenney does here, and it’s a damn shame because it undercuts the superb work being done by all of her collaborators (none of whom, crucially, share in the copyright credit that she maintains for herself).
Kenney has an interesting and varied background in documentary filmmaking and animation, and she’s being guided by the surest pair of hands one can imagine, so maybe there’s hope — the folks who issued her an honest-to-goodness grant so she could work on this thing full-time certainly hope so — but by all accounts her central character, Rosa, at least, should be a somewhat compelling figure by the time we hit the last page (as should key members of the supporting cast), given that she’s walked away from her gig as a doctor due to the government’s antibiotic rationing and has set up a home-based surgical clinic to “go freelance,” but even there it all seems haphazard and clumsy in that she chucks her job in the morning and has her “underground” medical operation more or less ready to go by nightfall. Throw in some dysfunctional family dynamics (her brother, we’re lectured — as opposed to informed — is a schizophrenic who deserves compassion and support, her sister is a successful medical school instructor, her dad runs an exclusive clinic for the rich and famous) and the already-muddy political situation becomes even muddier with interpersonal drama. So while I desperately want to be optimistic about where this series is headed, issue one offers no reason for me to be.
Perhaps idiotically, though, I’m not even really considering dropping this book. No way, no how. Not as long as Watkiss is on board. Buying a comic for the art alone used to be a pretty regular thing, but these days you almost never hear of it — and yet that’s exactly what I’m doing here. This is one of the most stunningly-illustrated series on the shelves right now, and if the story continues to suck, I’ll keep on picking it up just to look at the pictures. I can’t in good conscience recommend that anyone else does the same, though, so readers more sane than myself may want to simply give it another issue or two at most to see if Kenney figures out both where she’s going and how she’s going to get there.