Brandon Seifert & Lukas Ketner: Conjuring Witch DoctorA article by: Danny Djeljosevic
Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner are just getting started in the comics biz. Their occult physician comic book Witch Doctor debuted as a one-shot a few years ago, which eventually led to a full-fledged (and pretty awesome) miniseries through Image Comics' Skybound imprint. With the third issue out in stores Wednesday, September 21, 2011, a one-shot special in December and another miniseries due next spring, Seifert and Ketner (both snazzy dressers, as you'll see below) sat down with me to talk about Witch Doctor, finding their respective grooves as newcomers and why Twitter is useless.
Danny Djeljosevic: What are the origins of Witch Doctor?
Lukas Ketner: We got together because we both really like comics, wanted to work in comics. It started as us wanting to do a short story together as a portfolio piece, and the more we developed the idea, we realized that, well, we should make this a series and shoot for that.
Djeljosevic: So, you expanded on what you thought was a good idea --
Brandon Seifert: Yeah.
Djeljosevic: -- er, which IS a good idea. That sounded condescending.
Seifert: [laughs] It started as a portfolio piece, but it was the sort of set-up where it's not just one story you could tell. It's a story engine. It's a thing that you produce more stories from. So it seemed silly to waste it on a 16-page story, then trying to go get work on Batman or Spider-Man.
Djeljosevic: When you already have an awesome idea, you don't NEED Batman.
Djeljosevic: How did you guys meet?
Ketner: Before we met, we did a cover story together for a newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska. I'm from Anchorage, [Brandon's] from Fairbanks, Alaska.. We didn't know each other in Alaska. We met in Portland.
Seifert: We had a lot of friends in common. He does the artwork for a band called the Builders and the Butchers, who have gotten pretty big, and [one of the members is] a guy that I did college radio with in Fairbanks who's from Anchorage. We've got all the same friends, so it was pretty inevitable that we would cross paths sooner or later.
Djeljosevic: You guys just realized you liked comics and realized, "Hey, we should do comics!"
Seifert: We had a conversation about it. I went over and gushed to him about the cover that he'd done for the article that I'd written for the newspaper, and then we started talking about comics. It doesn't make a very good story because there are all these steps and stages to it. It's the same thing like when people ask "Where did the idea for Witch Doctor come from," and it's like, "Well, 12 different things over the course of six years. This concept came to this point, and this thing, and we wanted to do something like this, and Lukas brought these books when we first met..."
Ketner: It evolved.
Seifert: It was a process of cell division, definitely.
Djeljosevic: It wasn't, like, "Oh! I have this idea for a doctor who does stuff."
Ketner: There was no lightbulb.
Seifert: There was a lightbulb for bits of it. Basically my first idea was the doctor turning to his assistant, saying, "Scalpel" and the assistant handing him a sword. I had the idea to do the occult doctor kind of character played straight, and that's where it started. There was a bunch of other integral pieces of the concept that came along later.
Ketner: I think some of the best concepts come from just, y'know, you start with some very vague imagery that you think is really strong. It's kind of like the visuals for the new Star Trekmovie. You really wanted Kirk on a motorcycle looking at the Enterprise being built, and that's was a given, that we need to have that in the movie. And the whole thing with the scalpel, and he hands him a sword -- that's kind of a metaphor for the whole series.
Djeljosevic: So, not a lightbulb, but more of a dimmer switch.
Seifert: That's good.
Djeljosevic: Feel free to use that. So, Witch Doctor was the first time you guys collaborated.
Seifert: That's right, and it's still the only comic that I've done. Lukas got hired to do a couple of small things for Dark Horse and a really thing for Top Shelf, but I haven't really done any other work in comics -- on the writing end, at least.
Djeljosevic: Do you have stuff in the works?
Seifert: I've got some -- it's been a huge learning curve because we've never done this before, and it turns out that it's a lot of work. And I still have a day job, and I write and letter the book, and I end up doing a lot of other unrelated tasks to help try to keep things on target. Doing that on top of working three days a week, this year has been a learning experience. Now that the first miniseries is getting out there and we're wrapping up work on that, I finally had the time and the confidence to start working on other stuff. Because I have a bunch of other ideas, but I've had to put them on the back burner due to lack of time, lack of energy and too much nervousness about what I'm already doing.
Djeljosevic: I know the feeling. This is not my full-time job, either. I do freelance writing, I do comics journalism, I make my own comics…
Seifert: That's the kind of stuff that I came from. When we met, I was trying to do the freelance journalism thing and I was trying to do comics journalism, and it just wasn't paying. So I went and got a job as a security guard. It pays a lot better. I work at the front desk at a condo. I watch a whole bunch of computer screens, I wear a fancy suit -- not as fancy as the fancy suit I wear when I'm not there, but…
Djeljosevic: Pretty uneventful job.
Seifert: By and large. It's the least crappy crappy job I've ever had.
Djeljosevic: Does hanging around looking at computers give you a lot of time to think?
Seifert: It does. It beats the hell out of working at the Barnes & Noble cafe, which is what I'd done before that.
Ketner: I worked in a Borders cafe, so I know all about the chain bookstore cafe.
Seifert: I've worked at a couple of those.
Djeljosevic: In college I had a transcription job, so I could sit at a computer and type, but it wasn't WRITING.
Seifert: I like that I have a day job. I have to write, like, reports and stuff, but I like that I don't write for my day job, and I'm doing it for the thing that I love.
Djeljosevic: It's easy to get mixed up. Lukas, do you have a day job?
Ketner: Witch Doctor is my day job. I was a freelance illustrator for years before I got into comics. I was actually hoping that I'd be able to do some of that on the side, but getting the pages done is full-time. I haven't quite hit the point where I can do a page a day. Almost, but getting in a nice chunk is difficult. It's a lot more difficult than I thought it was gonna be, and I'm getting better at it. I thought that I'd be able to work on comics three days, do a professional illustration job for two days and supplement the income -- no, it's not working out that way.
Seifert: We both thought we could run a marathon before we actually started working out. It's definitely something that you build up your endurance, you build those muscles and we haven't yet. We're in the process. It's been difficult for me, too, because most professional writers can turn around a script in a week. For me, it takes at least two, sometimes three, sometimes a full month, especially since they can do this in a full week, but they're not doing anything else. They aren't going and spending eight hours, three days a week doing something completely unrelated. I beat myself up about that a lot.
Ketner: I'm still trying to find my groove. Some days I'll turn around a page in a day. Sometimes I'll spend three days on a page just 'cause I saw another artist's work and I was like, "I need to step it up!" It's still a little uneven, but it's getting there -- the whole routine process and getting a lot better at it.
Djeljosevic: One of the artists I work with has a day job as well, and he emails me every couples of weeks to say, "I'm off schedule again. How's your script coming?" "I'm off schedule too!"
Seifert: [laughs]: There's a lot of that. We know that well.
Djeljosevic: Do you find that you guys keep each other in check or on schedule?
Seifert: To some degree, we certainly try to. We have an editor. He'll come in and crack the whip.
Ketner: He keeps us on point. It's good.
Djeljosevic: How does editorial have a part in the creation ofWitch Doctor?
Seifert: We're at Image, which is the company that's owned and run by people who are allergic to editors, and we're working for Robert Kirkman, who's someone who's also allergic to editors and it's worked out very well for him. That's a problem all the way to the bank! So, editorial for us is more scheduling and coordination and making sure things are on track, and less actively asking us to change our work. They are available, they give us suggestions and stuff, but they've made it clear that, at the end of the day, this is our comic and we have the final say of what goes into it and what doesn't go into it.
Djeljosevic: You guys are already in, pretty much. They've seen your work, they want you in because you're talented. There's no need to look over your shoulder and be like, "No, you're doing it wrong."
Ketner: That's one of the first things that Robert said: "This is gonna be your book. I'll offer any help you'll need, but no one's gonna tell you what to do on it."
Djeljosevic: How did the one-shot lead to the miniseries?
Ketner: You mean the original self-published thing we did?
Djeljosevic: Yeah. To me, it's like a demo tape.
Seifert: That's exactly how I described it. Lukas always described it as a pilot, but for me, I thought of it as that we were like a band, we recorded this rough demo and we were looking for somebody to do it for real. That's exactly how it turned out to be. That was like the scratch tape, and we ended up redoing it and releasing it as Witch Doctor #0 through Skybound.
Djeljosevic: How did you redo it?
Seifert: I rewrote the script, I included some of the same jokes -- by and large, it's the same material. It's reworked and the structure is different, the order of events is different because I finally got something in the way of an education in writing. I went back and reread that story, and I was like, "There's no drama here! He just gets his own way for 11 pages and there's a fight. What the hell?" I reordered the events so that he was having challenges and having to overcome them. And then Lukas redrew it completely. It looks nothing like the original.
Ketner: They characters are different, too. They're more thought out. In the original one, I don't think we had really thought out the arcs to the extent that we did for the series now.
Seifert: When we did the original version of it, I didn't even know the character's names yet. I just had, y'know, "The Doctor," "His Assistant," "The Nurse."
Djeljosevic: When I was reviewing the first issue, I looked online for the original version, and I was like, "Wow, the EMT guy is completely different!"
Seifert: The one who changed the most was actually Penny. She was this weird, goth-y cheerleader with dreadlocks.
Ketner: She was like a White Zombie stripper.
Seifert: Both of us hated the design. I wanted him to go for kind of a goth-y fetish nurse thing, and eventually we had a conversation where we were like, "No, we both hate this. It doesn't work. It doesn't make any sense. What the hell were we doing?" And, in the course of that, we built, piece-by-piece, the current version.
Ketner: We ended up pretty much scrapping the entire look. The character's pretty similar -- her backstory and stuff, that stayed pretty close to the way that we came up with it originally, but we scrapped the entire look when we realized we were just digging ourselves into a deeper hole on the look for that character. And then we were just like, "What if we just went for Japanese horror-inspired, or something like that?" "Yeah, let's go with that!" All of a sudden it was fun again.
Djeljosevic: I totally know what you guys mean about reworking the whole thing. My artist and I realized we weren't thinking about how people would read it.
Seifert: We hadn't either, and that was part of the issue. Nobody understood it, and they were like, "What the hell is this weird cheerleader thing doing in here?"
Ketner: "You have one female character and she's dumb." It's not the intention but, alright, back to the drawing board.
Djeljosevic: So what is the collaborative process like between you guys?
Ketner: He writes a script and then I do really rough thumbnails, just so everybody's clear on what the panels are gonna look like, make sure the storytelling's good, make sure there's enough room for the lettering and stuff like that and then I pretty much blow up those thumbnails and start penciling right over them. I say "penciling," but I use a Wacom Cintiq. Everything's digital now. There's no original art to sell, which sucks, but before the scriptwriting we'll have a few conversations about where the story's going and stuff. Most of that stuff's up to him, though.
Seifert: I usually come to him fairly late in the process. By the time I come to him, I'm like, "So this is the story and this is what happens" and Lukas'll be like, "Oh, and this could happen!" I'm like, "No, because this and this and this and this happened."
Ketner: Every once in a while I'll have an idea that might work, but usually it's just like "Oh, yeah that'd be cool if thishappened!" and he's like, "No, it wouldn't. That would not be cool at all."
Seifert: I'm not usually like that! I'm like, "That would be cool, but I need to do this other thing instead because this builds tothis and this and this..."
Ketner: You're much nicer about it. "It would be awesome, but it would ruin everything!"
Seifert: Lukas has a great mind for very funny, goofy jokes, but most of them we haven't been able to include because it would distract from the story that we're trying to tell.
Djeljosevic: Do you have any examples? Maybe one that's, like, totally extreme?
Ketner: There was that one time I wanted to include the Witch Doctor song or something like that --
Ketner: -- and you were just like, "Dude, I -- no. There will never be a reference to that godawful song in our book." "Okay, yeah, I think you're right about that."
Djeljosevic: The "Ooh-ee-ooh ah-ah" song?
Seifert: And I'm even more dead-set against that because I try to follow news of our book on Twitter, and if you look up "Witch Doctor" on Twitter, it's 10,000 people retweeting the lyrics of that song and telling the same two stupid, stupid jokes about witch doctors.
Djeljosevic: What are the jokes?
Seifert: "What do you call an elephant witch doctor?"
Seifert: "Mumbo jumbo!"
Ketner: What's the other one?
Seifert: "What did the doctor say to the witch?"
Seifert: "It's okay, you'll just have to lie down for a spell!"
Seifert: (spikes his crumpled Hostess Fruit Pie wrapper on the table top) Yeah, there's like three of them, and I have to read them every day on the Internet!
Seifert: And the rest of it is idiots who can't spell complaining about Obama and calling him a witch doctor.
Djeljosevic: Oh lord.
Seifert: So, the only people who use the term "witch doctor" on Twitter who aren't talking about our comic are idiots. You can print that. I am not afraid to say that.
Djeljosevic:"Only idiots and racists don't like Witch Doctor."
Seifert: I wouldn't go that far…
Djeljosevic: So, what you're saying is Twitter's not cool anymore. Is there a potential for more Witch Doctor in the future?
Seifert: We announced a one-shot that's coming out in December. It's called Witch Doctor: The Resuscitation. It's taking the "kidney thief" urban legend where the guy wakes up in the bathtub of ice and running off in a completely different direction, laughing gleefully. And then in the spring we've also got another miniseries coming out.
Djeljosevic: Does it have an awesome subtitle?
Seifert: It does. We didn't actually announce it at the panel [at SDCC], so I think we might just hold off on that. So, our second miniseries is gonna be in the spring, and that's gonna be fun.
Ketner: It's a little ways off, too, so it's probably not set in stone yet. I mean, it is that we're doing it.
Seifert: I may get completely tired of it, because I have that problem where I get really get excited when I first have the idea for a story, and if I don't write it right then, like, when I get around to writing it, I'm like, "Oh, this? Oohkay" and the result is not as fun. So, we'll see.
Djeljosevic: It shouldn't have to feel like work.
Seifert: We know what the miniseries is gonna be. If the miniseries that comes out is different from what we know the miniseries is gonna be, who knows?
Ketner: I'm the same way. I hate finishing drawings that I started a week ago. I'd rather just redraw it.
Djeljosevic: Any upcoming projects, besides Witch Doctor?
Seifert: We've got one other thing we've been working on for a couple of years which neither of us really want to talk about because it's -- ah, god. But, yeah, I'm looking forward to be able to pick up more projects. I've got a couple things that have been greenlit that I haven't had time to work on, so hopefully there will be more news about me doing non-Witch Doctor stuff in the next few months, and then news of Lukas drawing non-Witch Doctor stuff.
You can find out more at the Witch Doctor official website.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter as @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his newest comic, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics.