Jen Van Meter and Roberto de la Torre‘s “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage” miniseries is set to launch in September, but it features a very different version of the character than Valiant’s ’90s version. First introduced in the pages of “Shadowman,” the modern Doctor Mirage is Dr. Shan Fong, paranormal investigator with the ability to speak with deceased spirits — and during the course of the upcoming 5-issue miniseries, Van Meter and de la Torre alongside colorist David Baron will develop the character far beyond her brief appearance in “Shadowman.”
Although Doctor Mirage has the ability to speak with spirits, there’s one person that she can’t communicate with: her deceased husband Hwen (a throw-back to the name of the original Dr. Mirage) — and when the opportunity arises for her to possibly see her husband again, Shan heads off on a journey to the afterlife realm of the Valiant Universe, exploring the Deadside and more in her journey.
Van Meter spoke exclusively with CBR News about her take on the series, and building the character up from her brief introduction in the pages of “Shadowman,” maintaining the couples’ action/adventure vibe of the original “The Second Life of Doctor Mirage” series from the ’90s, expanding and developing the afterlife and magical lore of the Valiant Universe and more.
CBR News: Jen, tell us a bit about “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage.” What’s the general concept behind the book and where does it pick up with Shan following her brief introduction in “Shadowman?”
Jen Van Meter: Well, when I met the character when I saw her appearances in “Shadowman” and Valiant asked me what I would do with her, I wanted to try to capture that really fun couples feel that the original series had. We were talking about how to bring that back in, and one of the things that I really loved about the way she was introduced in “Shadowman” was that she had a snap to her. I was thinking about that personality type and the kind of thing that she’s now able to do — she’s talking to the dead, and she is able to see and fight these monsters that are coming through. What I thought would be a really powerful place to start would be to assume that she has had a great love that is the one person she can’t reach. She can talk to all the dead but the one she’s lost. What I want to do was give her an opportunity to go on an Orpheus-style adventure to reclaim her lost love.
One of the things that gives us the opportunity to do is build on what’s already been introduced in “Shadowman” in terms of her personality and abilities, but also to explore this vast [world] in addition to the Deadside, because “Shadowman” establishes the presence of this place where all the monsters and demons are. We started talking about the afterlife and where the spirits go and the structure of the world outside this world for the Valiant Universe. The idea of being able to send her on an adventure that takes her through those places and expands on what can be there and what it can be like to be there was another thing that I found very captivating. It really is a huge open book as far as what hasn’t been done. There’s tons of possibilities. What we are looking to do is send her on this grand quest that also loops back into building on what this relationship was in her past with her dead husband and what it would mean to try and get him back.
I love that Shan’s husband shares his name with the original Doctor Mirage. How much of the book will focus on Shan coping with the loss of her husband while she’s on this Orpheus-like journey?
I want to be able to move into the journey itself pretty quickly, so when we meet her in that first issue, I wanted to show what her experience is like alongside or underneath what we’ve seen so far. When she’s introduced in “Shadowman,” she has all that snap and she’s vivid and she’s got a real spark to her, and I thought, “How does that match up with having lost somebody and really and truly grieving for that loss?” I thought about all the people that I know, who have to figure out a way to move on. If she’s in a position where she doesn’t think she’s ever going to see him again, she’s not going to get him back, she’s got to figure out how to make a life without him.
We kind of meet her in a moment where we can see what she’s like when she’s off camera, when she feels the freedom to express what that loss and that conflict is like for her. But, we’re going to move fairly quickly into — and I don’t want to be all spoiler-y — but the possibility of getting him back is going to motivate her action for the rest of the series. We’ll see some flashback stuff about what their life was like together, and it deals a lot with why she has thought she can’t have him back and what that has meant to her.
This is the first series Doctor Mirage has gotten since “The Second Life of Doctor Mirage” in the early 1990s. Given that this is a different version of the character, what has it been like to develop Shan with a relatively clean slate?
It’s been a phenomenal experience. I’ve got a history of doing my own stuff, creator-owned stuff, and I’ve done work-for-hire where I’ve done licensed characters. This is the first time I’ve been in this middle space of, it’s definitely a [work-for-hire] property, it’s Valiant’s character and I’m working with some of the same structures and issues that come up when you’re working in that environment, where you’re thinking about continuity, thinking about what’s going on in other books — but there really hasn’t been a ton of development for her, and so there’s also this breadth of possibilities that I’ve found really energizing for this book. She hadn’t shown up much in “Shadowman” and there wasn’t a ton of information about her. We really got to sit down — me and Alejandro [Arbona], my editor — and talk about who she could be and what kind of things would put her in the place where we find her in “Shadowman.” Also, trying to figure out what her backstory was. One of the things that I like is that when she was reinvented for these issues prior to my coming in, I think the idea had been to take Hwen and Carmen from the ’90s series — sort of do a mash-up and create this character that has the traits of both of them, to call back that way.
When we started talking about this new series and who her husband would have been and bringing in elements from the original Hwen character, then it became clearer that there was a really nice feeling of trying to go for the spirit rather than the letter of what had come before, and trying to play with some of the feel of that old material. It is really terrific stuff, and there’s so much there.
It’s not like I’m building it from the ground up, from scratch, but there’s certainly a lot less already-trodden ground than I’m used to when I work on a book like this. It’s very exciting and it’s been just a delight to get on the phone or email with Alejandro and dig deep into, “Well, what about this?” We’re talking about some extra material for issue #1 that I think is going to be very fun and open some of that up. That’s all stuff I’m really excited about.
The concept of Deadside and the paranormal, magic part of the Valiant Universe gets explored a bit in “Shadowman,” but how does “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage” develop and grow that mythos? It seems like a prime opportunity to explore those concepts.
Well, I will say there was a stretch of time when I was working on issue #1 and I was waiting on a little feedback at one point, so I had some time until Alejandro got back to me. I wound up filling it by making a map of — I can’t say the underworld, because it’s not just under — but I drew a map out for my own use of the Deadside, and where you go if you were really, really good, and where you would go if you were a druid and good/bad wasn’t necessarily an issue, and where demons come from. I had this big, sprawling craziness that when we started talking about the idea that this whole idea of the space outside this plane being populated and zoned by different characteristics and traits. It allowed us to start building a vocabulary for Shan, and [stating] that not everybody that deals with the occult universe is going to have the same words for stuff, because they’ll have encountered it through different traditions. There’s this idea that all this stuff is there, and where you go when you are a Valiant Universe wizard traversing multiple planes may depend on the magic you use to get there or the way that you were thought to do it. The way things look when you’re there may depend on what you were trained to expect, but it’s all there for everyone to encounter.
So, she could end up encountering stuff that Shadowman has already seen, but it may not look exactly the same when she sees it because she’s coming from a different educational background. It’s not something I’ve ever gotten to do before in terms of playing with the philosophies that might inform a grand-scale structure to something like this. But one of the things I hope comes out of it is that in making the one thing we need, we wind up making 50 other things by assumption. We’ll say, “She’s going to go to this place that’s really bureaucratic, and if there’s a place that’s really bureaucratic, there’s this other place that’s really, really not.” We may never see it, but it’s there for someone else to use, or it could be there for her to visit later.
I love it because it is a kind of world building that has not been something that I’ve gotten to do a lot with in other projects. It can be super exciting — I find the part where you’re talking with an editor about, “Well, what are the rules of this place, what are the rules of doing this kind of magic?” so much fun for me. Every time you say, “If there’s a trade-off where you have to give this to get that,” then all of a sudden, there’s tons of story bubbling out of that.
Who’s the main villain of the series, and how does he cross paths with Doctor Mirage?
It’s tricky. There was a thing not too long ago because someone’s written a book about Operation: Paperclip, where post-World War II, the rocket scientists from soviet Russia and Germany [were recruited by] CIA and spies, who grab these guys and bring them back to the states, give them clean histories, so that they’ll help us build rockets and help us in our space race stuff. What I had proposed [for “Doctor Mirage”] was that there were these guys who were doing similar things with Occulting. Back in the day, they were gathering up the sort of occultists we assume exist when we watch something like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — the Nazi cultists. There’s an imaginary program where we’re gathering up their guys to get them to do magic for us. I’ve got some guys left over from that project who have tripped over something that is very powerful and it has made them very powerful and they really want to hang on to it.
Shan is getting involved in their story by way of a member of the group who thinks he wants out. That’s probably the best way to say it without being all spoiler.
You’re working with Roberto de la Torre on art, who also has done quite a bit of work for “Shadowman.” What about his art do you think makes it a good fit for “Doctor Mirage?”
Oh my gosh! One of the things that I love is that he has an amazing grasp of spooky. The atmosphere and the stuff that I have seen so far has just been phenomenal. There’s a skritchiness — I’m terrible with art words — about his technique that I think works really well for what we’re trying to do. He makes it a very touchable world. For me, at least, I really like what that texture is doing to the way the scenes feel. He’s opening with a piece that is largely about where Shan’s at in her head, and in that he beautifully captures the sense of isolation that I wanted for her. Just a couple pages later, I’m writing a script that says, “It’s got to get progressively creepier,” and I’m looking at the pages coming in and I’m looking at it get progressively creepier in this gritty, touchable way that I think makes the world really rich. The issue #2 stuff, when we start really seeing some cool monsters, I’m super excited to see what he’s going to do. His imagination is already just really startling to me. He’s really great at the juxtaposition of weird and normal in a way that I think is just really captivating. His storytelling is great — one of my struggles writing it is that there are huge chunks where everything — we know what Shan looks like, and that’s an established thing. Everything around her is going to end up being made up. Everybody’s going to be seeing it for the first time, she’s seeing it for the first time. It is potentially a space where the ordinary physical operational rules don’t apply. If you’re in the spirit world, there’s this one key, this one character’s body that is the recognizable thing, and everything around it could be totally whacked out. I’m trying to [figure out] how the whacked-out-ness stays, but the logic of visual storytelling from panel to panel keeps working.
[Roberto] is really good at it, which makes him exactly the person that I needed to work with for this, because he’s really good at making sure the storytelling is coherent, even as the stuff we’re showing gets weirder and weirder. His stuff is really beautiful, really emotionally evocative, and I think people are really going to dig it.
What do you think makes the series unique? What do you think the series brings to the table that’s missing from Valiant’s current library?
There’s definitely other people doing humor in the Valiant catalogue right now, and I don’t think what I’m doing is slapstick-y, but I think Shan as she was introduced to me is a pretty funny gal. She’s quick-witted. There’s a humor to the interactions that I think is really fun, but I also think that as the story progresses, it will build — and what I’m building towards is a romantic adventure that is something we don’t see a lot in the Valiant line-up; the dynamic in and between a couple as opposed to a team.
It’s something that it seems like I’m seeing less and less over the last 20 years in adventure comics in general; that kind of “we are a pair together, having an adventure” is something that comes and goes, but I haven’t seen it a lot lately. I’m really excited to be writing towards that because I think it’ll be fun and it’s one of the things I loved about the original series. It’s something I’m looking forward to trying to engage, because I think there’s real room for it in storytelling and in character development. People’s relationships are fun and funny and dynamic, and I don’t buy it when people say, “A fixed relationship is a boring thing, there’s no drama there.” In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. [Laughs]
It’s also a different kind of supernatural adventure than what we’ve seen in “Shadowman,” which I think is a little more — I would say that by comparison in the Valiant catalogue, “Shadowman” has its roots more in a horror tradition and I’m looking at something in the adventure/romance/mystery tradition a little more.
Check back with CBR this weekend for more with Jen Van Meter in CBR’s latest Sunday Conversation!