Creating the Macabre World of Dr . Morrow
Like many Portlanders, comic book illustrator Lukas Ketner will admit that he’s a bit of a nerd. Ketner is definitely a cool nerd, and Portland is lucky to be able to count him amongst the ranks. His pursuits keep him well aligned with our unofficial motto, “Keep Portland Weird,” an imperative that can be found on many a bumper sticker around town. In his free time, Lukas likes to play board games and magic cards and watch sci-fi movies. He also likes to go to shows. In fact, Lukas creates artwork for the Portland-based band, The Builders and the Butchers. Prior to working in comics, Lukas spent time penning designs that would appear on motorcycle helmets for local company, Icon Motosports. His background also includes editorial design work for publications such as Willamette Week and Portland Monthly.
Currently, Lukas is illustrator and co-creator of the medical horror comic, Witch Doctor, written and co-created by Brandon Seifert. Though both are originally from Alaska—Lukas from Anchorage and Brandon from Fairbanks—the dynamic duo actually met right here in Portland in early 2007. They became associated with one another after doing some work for a local paper in Anchorage, but according to Lukas, met for the first time at a Builders and Butchers show in Portland. The two chatted a bit at the show about a mutual interest in comics, but then that casual encounter developed into a more earnest plan. The next thing they knew, the first miniseries of Witch Doctor was launched and was quickly recognized by the right sort of folks.
Their second miniseries entitled, Witch Doctor: Mal Practice, came out this year. Lukas explains that the focus was on the magic this time around. The first series focused more on introducing the monsters in Dr. Vincent Morrow’s macabre world, a world that is not without its snarky, humorous side. And if you haven’t already been initiated, Lukas would like to welcome you into his mysterious world.
Witch Doctor came out in 2011 on the Skybound label. Was that the first foray into comics for both you and Brandon?
Well, Brandon and I had been self-publishing Witch Doctor since, I think it was 2008. We first put together a sixteen-page short story, black and white, that we put out as a portfolio piece. That was the very first independently published Witch Doctor story. Got a lot of mileage out of that one. Everybody, locally at the very least and a few people online, was very supportive and passed it around. It was an earlier version of the issue #0 vampire story, which was the first thing that came out through Skybound/Image. That’s how we got together on comics—we both wanted to work on comics, we didn’t have anything to show for ourselves, so we said, okay, let’s get together. You write something, I’ll draw it, and then we’ll just pass it out.
How long did it take to come up with the concept?
We met up at coffee shops over the course of a couple months. Brandon had this great idea that he’d had in his notebook for years—a medical procedural/jerk doctor sort of thing. We got really attached to it and decided we’d just make a short story about this guy. The more we talked about it, the more we realized we should just start our own series as though we had the resources to put it out on a regular basis, and just go from there. Brandon had the idea for the vampire story and it took us a couple of months to get it together, to get it drawn and get it printed up. We printed two or three hundred copies and released it that year at Stumptown Comics Fest. Stumptown is the local comic book convention here in Portland— one of them. There’s the Portland Comic Book Show, but Stumptown is kind of the big one for the local comic book community.
How would you describe the comic book culture here in Portland?
There’s a huge comics community here in Portland. It’s everywhere. It’s not something I expected when I moved here. I moved to Portland in 2000, and from there went to art school at the Art Institute and slowly got into design work—graphic design and whatnot. My internship was actually at Dark Horse Comics. More and more, I got to be surrounded by the comic book community and realized that this would be a really awesome, cool thing to do. I met a few people during the internship that were just amazing about helping us get on our feet later, when we started to publish Witch Doctor independently. People like Scott Allie over at Dark Horse— he’s the Hellboy editor—you know, just really amazing, supportive people. All the people over at Periscope, whenever they see somebody new come along and they like their work they’re just incredible about supporting them. There’s a lot of solidarity in the community.
So after you put out that first promo-portfolio piece, did things just take off from there?
The following year we had another short story that we put out—these are really hard to find right now. I think there were only two hundred copies of the second one. I don’t even have that many copies of them. From there, Robert Kirkman got in touch with us. He’s possibly the biggest name in comics right now. He writes The Walking Dead. Right around the time he started talking to us was around the time that The Walking Dead T.V. show was first being made. We were the first comic on his personal imprint at Image Comics that wasn’t written by him, and we were the first, pretty much unknown team that he brought on under his personal label, Skybound Originals. We definitely got a lot of expo- sure out of Robert Kirkman’s seal of approval. From there we produced the first series, and this year we’ve been producing the second series.
So what was the learning curve like just starting out and kind of taking the bumps?
It’s still curving. I had only done a small amount of work, a couple of odd comic book jobs, before Witch Doctor got picked up by Skybound. I did a Creepy magazine story for Dark Horse Comics. I worked on an anthology of horror stories that was kind of a behind-the-counter-at-fast-food-places, and whatnot, called Supersized: Strange Tales from a Fast-Food Culture. It’s the follow-up to the film Supersize Me. I pretty much did the connective tissue, the narration that happens from Morgan Spurlock. A lot of it was also just drawing, putting Supersize Me into comic book form. There were a few other odd jobs as well, one for Top Shelf.
What has been the most difficult aspect of the learning process?
For me, planning a schedule, timing—those are still things that are really difficult and the people I work with will tell you that too (laughs). We got a crash course in publishing comics. We went from self- publishing a book, essentially through Kinko’s—a zine that looked like a comic book—to Robert Kirkman calls us and wants us to put out a comic on his label. I think there was a lot of stuff that they just assumed we already knew. I also think there was a lot of stuff that we assumed we knew. Parts of that have been kind of bumpy and parts have not because they’ve been really amazing about showing us the ropes and guiding us through the jump.
I understand H.P. Lovecraft was a main influence for Witch Doctor, however, since Lovecraft was more of a literary figure I was wondering if he was a big influence for you in terms of visualization?
Some of my favorite comic book artists and writers have been influenced by H.P. Lovecraft. Things like Hellboy are full of Lovecraftian-type monsters and stuff. So there was definitely an influence for me from a visual standpoint, but I don’t think I’m personally influenced by the source material as much. Brandon, I think, might be more attached to the source mate- rial. He’s brought a lot of Lovecraftian elements into Witch Doctor and put a really creative spin on it that I hadn’t seen before, adding these sort of crypto- biological rules to magic and whatnot. The connection to Lovecraft is pretty obvious if you read it. The doctor has his office in Arkham, Oregon. A lot of Lovecraftian stuff took place in the fictional town of Arkham, Massachusetts.
As far as illustration goes, which artists have been most influential for you?
There are a couple of people who have given some really good advice to me personally. Mike Dringenberg, who was one of the original creators of The Sandman, and certainly Steve Leiber and a few people over at Periscope have given me pointers. But as far as influences go, I’ve always been really attracted to the more classic comic book artists like Bernie Wrightson, who’s probably the biggest and best horror comic artist of all time. I took a lot of cues from him when trying to develop a style that I could pump out on a regular basis. Also, a lot of the old Creepy magazines and House of Mystery artists— Alex Neño, Alex Toth…
The first issue of the second Witch Doctor miniseries was released this past November, and the last issue was just released in April. What else do you have to say about this second series as a whole?
Well, the first series revolved a lot around the monsters that exist in the Witch Doctor universe and showed how Witch Doctor’s going to deal with monsters—the sort of mix in storytelling between the classic, fantasy monster and the actual biology that we’re going learn about them. The second series has much more to do with magic and how magic works in the Witch Doctor universe. Our take on it is that magic is neither good or bad, black or white. It’s just something that has an endless amount of application and potential, and it’s all in how you use it. And that’s meant to be a parallel to medicine, because you can take something like morphine and use it as a really powerful painkiller to help some- body get through an affliction, or you can abuse it and become a drug addict. So that’s one of the themes that we get into with this series. The main character Dr. Morrow finds out—surprise—now his next patient is himself and he has to figure out how he’s going to overcome the obstacles to cure himself, because usually he’s the guy you go to when you’ve got those kind of problems.
Would you say Dr. Morrow is in part an ego extension of you or Brandon, or perhaps both of you?
Brandon of course has done endless research trying to bring real-life sorts of things—cool parasites in biology or the way that diseases operate—into the actual storytelling. The best thing about it is that he does it without demystifying the thing. It gets into how the monsters and the magic operate on a very technical level, but it’s still magic. It’s still this thing that involves hexes and spells and ectoplasm and stuff like that. You’ve got these guys that are dealing with these ridiculous, fantastic monsters and stuff, but doing it through the lens of modern medicine and science.
Some people have speculated, yeah, but I think where the character comes from is we’re both really fascinated by the idea of the doctor whose main imperative is to heal and help you, but he’s a total jerk. So we put that kind of character into a setting where he’s dealing with magic and monsters, and that was the core of what we thought was going to be interesting about the series. The second miniseries sort of expounds on that and really gets into it, and it’s a very character-driven story arc. It’ll be the biggest story arc that we’ve done so far. This is a six issue miniseries as opposed to the four issue one that we previously completed.
What comics were you drawn to as a child?
We didn’t have a lot of comics in the local Anchorage Loussac Library. Maybe total they had around 50 different books. That was pretty much my junior high/sixth grade comic book pile to choose from. There were a couple volumes of The Sandman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they had a couple Moebius books there—I mean that’s just lucky because he’s one of the greatest comic book artists of all time. One thing they had that is still one of my favorite, weird books of all time was The Nikopol Trilogy by Enki Bilal. So that was my first brush with comics really, you know, aside from just watching Superman movies and stuff as a little kid. But I never actually read the comics back then.
How much of Witch Doctor is connected to real life and how much is just an exercise in fun and make-believe?
This would probably be a better question for Brandon, but definitely when I’m drawing it it’s around half and half. We’ve both done a lot of research into real- life biology and medicine. For me, I want to be sure to include all kinds of visual cues so that as people are reading it they’ll definitely get a sense of the horror side of it. You know, there’s a Victorian asylum and monsters and whatnot, but I also want them to connect to things in the surroundings that are just like regular-ass modern medicine—like an EKG machine for example. I want to keep it plausible so that it’s a little less Dr. Frankenstein’s lab and more like this guy doing really weird stuff out of a hospital that we’ve all been to.
Your imagery in Witch Doctor has very filmic qualities. How do you feel about the possibility of your work being made for film or television in the future?
(laughs) We don’t actually have any control over that. It would definitely be nice. It’s definitely something that we knew from the very beginning could exist in other mediums and translate well. And that was definitely a possibility when we signed up with Skybound, too, because part of their M.O. is turning things like Walking Dead and Thief of Thieves and other Kirkman properties into TV shows and films and video games and whatnot. Again, we can’t really think about it too much. We just go right back to working on the book because really that’s the only thing we’re ever going to have complete control over. We’re going to do the book the way we want to do it, take the characters where we want.
So is the plan to put out a new miniseries each year?
Hopefully, yeah. We’re kind of undecided what we’re going to do after this series. We’re still going to do Witch Doctor, but we’re not sure how we’re going to handle it—whether it’s going to be monthly ongoing, or whether we’re just going to get a miniseries out there as quickly as we can. There are a lot of details to work out about that. We’re in the process of working them out, but we’re also busy making the book.
photographed by Tim Sugden