In "The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage: Second Lives" #1, paranormal investigator and TV star Shan Fong -- aka Doctor Mirage -- has been reunited with the ghost of her deceased husband Hwen, but both are desperate to find a way to bring back some level of physical contact to their relationship. Creators Jen Van Meter and Roberto De La Torre return for the follow-up to last year's series, and this time Shan and Hwen embark on a quest to obtain an ancient but corrupted spell that could not only help them, but also countless other spirits who long to interact with the living. The love connection between flesh-and-blood wife and ethereal husband is clear, although it is repeatedly told more than shown, and the chemistry gets further diluted with the addition of several more paranormal characters later in the issue.
Van Meter faces a difficult challenge: to convincingly convey more than just an emotional connection between a couple where no possibility of anything more exists. The opening flashback sequence -- which goes back to when Hwen was still alive -- establishes that he is looking to get a little bit of intimate action, but an urgent mission precludes that. A later scene features Shan enviously eyeing a newlywed couple sealing their vows with a kiss, lamenting that such a simple act is impossible for her and her ghostly husband. Repeated references like these are the only method Van Meter has to communicate the couple's former physical bond, and the verbal repetition of this shortcoming doesn't carry the same weight as showing or even visually hinting at intimacy.
De La Torre might not have the opportunity to draw much intimacy, but he does get to draw plenty of mildly-fascinating paranormal elements, including lots of ghosts and even an evil spirit or two. His grungy, charcoal-textured inks give Van Meter's story its paranormal, otherworldly vibe through the dusty confines of an attic full of ancient texts and potential supernatural wonders. David Baron applies the colors in broad strokes; most panels -- and often entire pages -- are rendered in similar tones, sometimes blurring the details of De La Torre's art but, for the most part, successfully getting the intended occult-like mood across.
The second half of the story is where De La Torre really gets to stretch, with a new locale and plenty of new characters both real and ethereal. It's also where Van Meter's story slows down drastically. The quest for these ancient scrolls leads to a dilution of Shan and Hwen's story, as over a dozen other new cast members convolute the story. The little that happens at this point carries no emotional drama whatsoever, and it all takes place amongst characters who are unknown and barely even introduced. It's as though the story is handed off to a new cast while those already established sit on the sidelines. It's a disappointing turn that adds a new conflict to the story but kills the momentum heading into the next issue.
The achingly symbolic and visually striking regular cover by Jelena Kevic Djurdjevic captures the emotional essence of Shan and Hwen's difficult challenge, but it's a concept that isn't really capitalized on inside. "The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage: Second Lives" #1 doesn't really hit it off; a mildly compelling plot gives way to an expansion that's far less enticing, and -- by the issue's end -- there's really not much of a case being made for picking up the remaining three issues.