I’m going to change the pace a bit and talk about some comics. I don’t consider myself a big comic fan, but thanks to my job I’ve leafed through a fair number of them over the years. While I’ve got a shelf of trades at home, I’ve lately been trying to get out of the habit of buying them, simply because of the cost and storage space issues. Still, every once and a while there’s some new little series that catches my eye.
The subject of today’s Spooktober ramble is one such series, Image Comics’ Witch Doctor. Written by Brian Seifert and illustrated by Lukas Ketner, Witch Doctor chronicles the adventures of Dr. Vincent Morrow and his two assistants, Eric Gast and Penny, as they battle various supernatural maladies in and around the town of Arkham, Oregon. Now, objectively speaking, Witch Doctor doesn’t really bring anything new to the table. It’s a pulpy horror-comedy secret-world procedural with a cast that follows the classic triumvirate of Sherlock/Watson/Monster Girl, the sort of thing comics have been doing for decades. If it was on television it would be the sort of show that would fit comfortably on the CW, and if it was a movie people would call it a Men in Black ripoff. Of course, even familiar stories can get by on pure craftsmanship, and Witch Doctor does a few things that push it out ahead of the pack.
One of the first things that drew me to Witch Doctor was the premise. The world of Witch Doctor is set in a world based on what you could call a modified version of the Cthulhu Mythos. Once upon a time, many millions of years ago, great unknowable alien beings walked the Earth doing who knows what, only to fall into slumber as the eons wore on. However, all the various beasties that lived on or inside these Old Ones got into the environment, evolved, and by the modern day have become an entire hidden ecosystem that thrives on humans. The upshot of all this is that the setting of Witch Doctor is one where all the creatures and beings of folklore exist…only translated into biological/pathological terms. In Witch Doctor, vampires are tapeworm-like parasitoids that supplant their host’s alimentary canal, slowly kill said host, then drive its corpse around in search of blood. Strigori are reimagined as creatures akin to isopods, complete with the whole eating-your-tongue-out-of-your-head-and-replacing-it thing. Changelings are the larvae of cuckoo fairies, who dump them on human parents and have them handle the burden of childcare. (In all honesty, the cuckoos are one of the comic’s few missteps. The comic tries to elide over the fact that, you know, new parents are having their infant children abducted and eaten by creatures, but it doesn’t convince.) Witch Doctor‘s reworking of traditional monsters shifts the dynamic: rather than being aspects of our own psyches or incarnations of our fears, Seifert’s monsters are materialistic. They place humanity down as one creature among many in the natural world, and the fact that so many of them use us as a food source brings home the raw disgust of biology. It’s not an entirely new idea (even ol’ H.P Lovecraft had thoughts along these lines), but it is very well-handled here.
Of course, the best premise in the world doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have any characters. Fortunately, with Vincent Morrow, Seifert manages to breathe some new life into a stock figure while preserving his essential essence. As I mentioned above, Morrow is Sherlock figure, the lone eccentric genius, as brilliant as he is abrasive. There have been a lot of figures like that in popular culture over the years, and they’ve attracted their fair share of criticism for their arrogance, their contempt for other people, and so on. Now I happen to like these sort of abrasive genius loner types, but they require a delicate hand. If you’re writing something like the original Sherlock Holmes stories, where the puzzle is the main draw, then your protagonist can be a brilliant jerk since they’re just a draw to the story, not the focus. Once they become an actual character in a continuing narrative, then you have to find a way of integrating them with a secondary cast. It’s very easy for the passage of time to turn such protagonists into wish-fulfillment characters that are indulged by those around them long past the point of reason.
Witch Doctor navigates this particular issue by having Morrow’s strengths also be his greatest weaknesses. His arrogance and brilliance make him exactly the sort of character you’d like to see bushwhacking through the frontiers of occult medicine, but they also push him to overestimate his own abilities. Whenever he corners some new beastie, his first instinct is always to fight it, in spite of the fact he is intensely terrible at fighting. He has a flair for improvisation which helps him out of sticky situations, but it’s no panacea. Indeed, a fair chunk of the comic involves various people/entities getting the drop on Morrow, while he has to figure a way out of the situation. Morrow has that charisma and daring we like to see in our pulp heroes, and it’s always coming back to bite him in the ass.
Morrow is also kept in line by his assistant, Iraq War vet and former EMT Eric Gast. Gast is a Watson figure, and as such he runs into the problem of being the character on whom exposition is dumped. Some attempt is made to ameliorate this; he’s the one member of the group with actual combat experience, and as the comic progresses he stands up to Morrow, calling him out on his bad behavior and pushing him to be less of a jerk. Eric’s a nice enough guy, but he’s still a character in the process of developing.
And then there’s Penny. Ooh, let’s talk about Penny.
Once upon a time, at Arkham University, there was an young art student named Penelope. One day, according to Morrow, “something achieved a trans-planar injection” right into her body, and then Penelope…wasn’t Penelope anymore. Now she spends her days in Morrow’s lab, skulking around in a old nightie and a Red Cross hoodie. But quick as a flash, she can slough off the flesh on her hands to reveal needle-sharp talons loaded with paralytic toxins. “Penny” is a composite being, a monster-eating “cryptophage” in a human body, and she and Morrow have an arrangement: he keeps her safe from monster hunters while feeding her, and she helps him out in his field work. Actually, the dynamic between Penny and Morrow is one of the more interesting parts of the comic. Morrow, in his arrogance, often takes Penny for granted or talks to her like a dog, prompting Penny to assert herself. It’s a classic trope, female character asserting herself against a condescending male, but Penny’s assertions are not theatrical. They are genuine threats. When Penny asserts herself, it’s not an expression of girl power, but a dangerous alien being reminding its partner that it is a dangerous being, that it could kill him any time it chose…but it not going to do so, because they have an arrangement. Such demonstrations never fail to cow Morrow, and they add a nice little frisson to their relationship.
But there is more to Penny than meets the eye. Unbeknownst to the rest of the cast, Penelope is still in dialogue with the cryptophage that has usurped her body. Even here there is a unique power play at hand. The cryptophage has physical control of Penelope’s body and would seem to be the dominant partner in the relationship…but it (she?) still looks to Penelope for advice and guidance. Penelope, meanwhile, willingly aids the cryptophage and serves as its sort of conscience, but otherwise doesn’t make any serious effort to extract it from her body or kill herself. The ultimate nature of the cryptophage, and the ultimate goals of Penelope, remain a mystery.
All in all, Witch Doctor is a fun comic, and it’s such a shame there’s so little of it. All there is of it right now is two trade paperbacks, and given the production cycle on the comic and the schedules of Seifert and Ketner, it may be those paperbacks are all we will ever get. I’d recommend it if you’re not looking for something heavy
…and have a strong stomach.