As far as I’m concerned, it’s an ingenious “Why didn’t I think of this?” premise. Take a doctor whose skills are matched only by his arrogance (like “House, M.D.”) and make his specialty dealing with all manner of supernatural ailments, parasites, and beasts (of the kind that we saw on “The X-Files”). Right there you have the recipe for a horror series that’s grounded in the roots of a procedural and limited only by the creators’ imagination. Fortunately for us, writer Brandon Seifert and artist Lukas Ketner have plenty of that to go around. The end result is that this second volume of “Witch Doctor” is a thoroughly entertaining romp whose biggest failing is that it’s not being delivered on a monthly basis.
Dr. Vincent Morrow is the arrogant supernatural surgeon in question, and he’s aided in his endeavors by former army medic Eric Pendergast and possessed former art student “Penny Dreadful.” Eric’s there to provide the “point of view” experience to readers as he’s still new at all of this supernatural medicine stuff, as well as to keep the doctor’s most anti-social tendencies in check. As for Penny, she provides anesthesia and the supernatural muscle to complement Eric’s physical muscle. This volume also reveals her to be a major plot hook in character form.
Though the sky is the limit as far as weirdness goes in this series, Seifert is a smart enough writer to realize that in order to work well in narrative fiction magic and the supernatural in general require rules and logic to ground them. In case you haven’t read the first volume (which is also quite good) that’s established in the opening one-shot “Resuscitation” as a guy wakes up in a hotel bathtub in a pool of ice water and a sticky note on his forehead which reads “Don’t worry about it.” The strangest part is, to those of you familiar with the urban legend this is based on, is that he still has two kidneys. Well, one of them happens to be somewhat malformed, but that’s where Dr. Morrow comes in.
It all ties in with an attractive necromancer who has a thing for the doctor and an Egyptian god of death. This isn’t how all of these stories play out, but you get the idea and “Resuscitation” is a great demonstration of the series’ premise and strengths. You’ve got a clever supernatural spin on a real-life ailment, the doctor displaying some unconventional thinking and entertaining rants as he goes about solving the problem, lots of very sharp dialogue from Seifert, and pages of detailed and creepy art from Ketner. Now, Dr. Morrow does demonstrate some “interesting” views on the nature of gods in this story that aren’t quite atheist in nature, but the stronger your beliefs in a higher power are the more I can imagine you being put off by them. They do make sense in the world of “Witch Doctor” where the supernatural is a very real, palpable thing.
However, this is only the introduction as the main story in “Mal Practice” involves a very real threat to Dr. Morrow’s life. After a one-night stand with a woman who happens to be infected with a very specific kind of magical parasite, the doctor finds out that his time on Earth has been drastically shortened. That is, unless he delivers a specific magical book to the people who set him up and are almost certain to try and double-cross him when he does.
“Mal Practice” represents the longest story told in the “Witch Doctor” universe to date as well as a significant broadening of its world. New concepts are thrown at the reader in every issue, from the strigori virus, to the flea-market source for unlicensed medical goods known as the Red Market, and the otherworldly medical practitioners who are known only as the Surgeons who will cure any disease that ails you so long as they can feed off your pain in the process. Also, everything in this volume is interconnected as we find out that things shown to us in passing early on have deeper significance much later in the volume. Things that might have seemed like clever background jokes take on deeper resonance as the volume goes on and even some problems are shown to have their uses. At one point Dr. Morrow finds his astral self forced out of his body, yet that subsequently leads us to one of the book’s most impressive sequences as he then astral-projects inside himself to fight off a parasitic infection.
That particular event also gives Ketner a real chance to show off as he not only gets to draw the doctor’s astral form in different ways, but also the interiors of his body and the parasites in ways that aren’t for the squeamish. In fact, throughout the volume the artist shows that there’s virtually nothing that he can’t draw, from monsters with human heads and guts hanging down from them, to the human-on-abomination-on-demon-free-for-all that marks the book’s climax, to comedic moments such as the car ride to the final showdown where the doctor professes that he “extra hates” the plan Eric has come up with. Ketner shows that he’s the real deal here and it’s to Seifert’s luck that he got him to do this series together as opposed to say Mike Mignola snatching him up for a “B.P.R.D.” project which would also be perfectly suited to his talents as well.
Seifert does cram maybe a bit too much plot into this volume as there’s an abundance of plot threads that are left hanging at the end. Yes, they serve as ample reason to come back for the next mini-series, but at the same time the only thing that’s resolved here is the immediate threat. I’m a bit fuzzy on the logic behind that (Wouldn’t the camera also have caught the bad guy in the act too?) yet I’m willing to give it a pass as there’s so much good stuff in the book. Sins of ambition are easy to forgive in this case, though I hope that the follow-up to this series is delivered sooner rather than later.