‘Death-Defying Dr. Mirage': Jen Van Meter explores love, horror, heroes

Sept. 04, 2014 | 6:22 p.m.

Valiant Comics’ latest superhero project, “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage,” marks major steps for the publisher. It’s the first time a female character has been the central character of a Valiant title, and it’s also the company’s first book headlined by a female writer, with Jen Van Meter taking the reins to deliver a supernatural love story with rich emotion and a creepy atmosphere.

The five-issue miniseries debuting this week spotlights Dr. Shan Fong — known in more colorful circles as Dr. Mirage — a paranormal investigator with the ability to communicate with spirits. She regularly helps people deal with their grief thanks to her extraordinary ability, but the one person she really wants to talk to is the one person that is nowhere to be found: her deceased husband Hwen. A new case presents an opportunity for Shan to reconnect with her lost love, making Van Meter’s story a combination of superhero, romance and horror genres that is heavily informed by her diverse introduction to the comic-book medium.

“I grew up going to summer cabins and things like that where people would leave behind generations worth of the comics kids had brought with them while they stayed for summer vacation,” Van Meter says. “So I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a comics reader, because I think I learned to read reading comics. And reading them without much of an eye toward genre. Opening doors and finding piles of ‘Millie the Model’ and ‘Eerie’ and ‘Jonah Hex’ and ‘True War Stories’ all piled together, and you just read whatever was on top or had a cool cover.”

The creation of the direct market happened right around the age when Van Meter was old enough to spend her own money, which led to a gap in her reading because comics were moving from spin racks and grocery stores to specialty stores. It wasn’t until her early adult years when she rediscovered comics thanks to high school and college friends who had stayed with the medium and knew where comics could be found. Even then, Van Meter was primarily reading vintage comics and random issues rather than long runs. She read whatever was in front of her, or what people had in their rooms when she was hanging out.

As Van Meter ventured deeper into the comics industry, she began meeting people who were making their own. “There was a lot of dialogue about self-published comics and ways of getting your own stuff out there,” Van Meter says. “So when I started thinking about myself as somebody who might make a comic, initially I thought I’d be making tiny zine comics to share. And it didn’t actually occur to me to pursue mainstream work until I fell into it. But then there I was.”

Van Meter cites “Love and Rockets” as the first comic that gave her the kind of strong emotional reaction that pushed her to create stories with similar impact, but early horror comics have also played a large part in her work. “That Warren Comics style of the way the page turn works and the way suspense works is something that I’ll always be striving to capture in my own imagination,” Van Meter says. “And it crosses out of the genre. I want to be able to do that in a funny book. I want to be able to do that in an adventure book. But the way those stories were paced and used reveals will never stop mattering to me.”

Outside of comics, Van Meter mentions William Gibson as a major creative inspiration, but he’s just one of many authors that directly influenced the writer. “I spent several years in graduate school working on immigrant narratives,” Van Meter says, “and when I was planning to be an academic, my goal was to be working with early 20th-century American stuff and folk tales and the crossover between community legends and this building of the legend that comes when you’re doing things like the ‘rags-to-riches’ story.

“That body of literature that I was reading has really influenced the way I think about telling stories too because there are these patterns of who people are always being the result of things that have already happened to them. When I look at my own stuff I see it coming back again and again and again. That flashback pattern that I do in ‘Hopeless Savages,’ I don’t think I really realized at the time, is almost a thesis of everything I do. There’s something that happened when you were a kid that matters right now. Always.”

Dr. Mirage No. 1: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

Dr. Mirage No. 2: Cover | Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 8 | Page 12 | Page 15 | Page 16 | Page 17

Dr. Mirage No. 4: Cover

Hero Complex readers can check out the first five pages of “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage” No. 1, released Wednesday, and the first four pages of No. 2, on sale Oct. 8, along with an exclusive first look at colored pages from the second issue and Kevin Wada’s cover of “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage” No. 4 in the gallery above or in larger versions via the links above.

In a recent telephone interview, Van Meter discussed how Shan and Hwen’s past affects their present, working in the space between genres, and collaborating with the art team of Roberto De La Torre and David Baron.

Hero Complex: How does the idea of past decisions constantly influencing the present play into “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage”?

Jen Van Meter: I’ve been thinking about this a lot because when we first started talking about this title we were talking about, “Is it a romantic adventure — somebody finding their lost love — or is it more of a horror story? And is it one person’s adventure or a couple’s adventure?” And we started realizing it was all of those things because there’s a way in which what we’re doing is watching this individual hero, Dr. Mirage, going to look for her lost love, like Orpheus going to look for Eurydice or something. But there’s another way in which what we’re seeing is just a chapter in the lifetime adventure of these two people. As if we just fell into it at the moment when she has to go looking for him.

And as we get deeper and deeper into the project, the more I realize — there’s a whole thing that I wrote and retooled not too long ago for later in the story when I realized that it was really important to me that the reader get to see who [Shan and Hwen] were way in the way back, before when they met. And I hadn’t expected to want that in this story, and I realized that the way they met mattered to who they were going to be when they reunite so much that to not show it was to take crucial information away from the reader.

This is the first time in a long time I’ve gotten to do stuff with really broad, scary supernatural landscapes and things like that, and there are pieces of this story that are very influenced by my love of horror comics. And getting to think about pacing in those terms and reveals in those terms and what we show to freak you out about all the things we’re not showing, that kind of thing is getting to come up a lot for me in a way that a lot of the things I’ve gotten to do recently have not. That’s been really fun too. And Roberto De La Torre is on the other end of the script and taking anything I can come up with and making it 80 times creepier, and 80 times more interesting and evocative than anything I could have imagined when I wrote it down.

HC: “The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage” No. 1 doesn’t really feel like a superhero book. It’s a bit reminiscent of the “B.P.R.D.” and “Hellboy” titles at Dark Horse in regard to the pulp and horror influences.

JVM: This book starts in the place where superhero comics start in that you’ve got a character who can do something everyone else can’t. But for me, a superhero comic is about watching that person rise above the challenges that are presented to them because they can do something everybody else can’t where everybody else is. So Spider-Man can do something everybody else can’t, and the reason his stories are superhero stories is we’re watching him deal with police who don’t trust him, girlfriends and all the other people who can’t. And I think when we first looked at this story and we went, well, the place to take her — this woman who can talk to the dead — is where everybody’s more powerful than her and everybody’s more supernatural than she is and where her powers are pretty piddling. It’s a different kind of story then. A superhero story where you’re the least super superhero.

[Shan] is really the least super superhero in her story because I’m not spending much time at all in the realm where she’s the most powerful person she knows. It sets up who she’s been before we meet her, and I think ideally, if we get to do a lot more with her — which would be my goal — we would come back around to more of the superheroics. Or more of the supernatural adventure. It would be something I really want to do more with. I think that’s what I loved about the original [“The Second Life of Doctor  Mirage”] series, that it was science action superhero ghost stories. I love the original series for that, but this very quickly took a very different tone as we developed what it was going to be.

And so it’s sitting in a place between genres right now, but I like that space too. It makes all the decisions I have to make as a writer less—when you’re really firmly squarely in a genre place that you’re comfortable with, sometimes the next thing that you have to do seems obvious and it’s really relaxing as a writer because you say, “Ah yes, the next thing that has to happen is this.” And sometimes that’s because you really know the conventions and demands of the genre you’re in really well, and sometimes it’s because you’re on a path that’s so well trod you don’t even think to go off of it.

I like that this book has fallen down so neatly between several things that I’ve gotten to work on before. Different styles. Every decision is a decision. Nothing feels really obvious to me, and that makes it really wonderful. But it’s weird because then writing the book becomes kind of like the story itself. I’m trekking through unknown wilderness sometimes, and it’s fun. But it also feels really risky sometimes, which is kind of exciting and terrifying. (Laughs.)

"Dr. Mirage" No. 1, page 1. (Valiant)

“Doctor Mirage” No. 1, Page 1. (Valiant)

HC: It’s interesting that “The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage” No. 1 starts with a grief counseling session rather than a more superheroic opening, or even something more horror-influenced and creepy. Why the decision to begin the story that way?  

JVM: One of the ways that I wanted to set up [Shan’s] life now as separate from her life before she lost Hwen is that she remembers her time with him as action-packed fun adventure, and she thinks of her time without him as much dimmer and much more ordinary. What I wanted the reader to come in and see was the reason why her life without him is regularly a daily white noise of sadness. And one of the ways to do that is to say Shan, like all the other people, has lost something that is a dull roar all the time. And I think people who talk about grief talk about how it’s not the days you want to rend your clothes and sob, it’s that it’s there with you all the time. And it chews on you.

I thought that one of the saddest things about [Shan] is that she can help everybody else deal with that and not herself. I couldn’t think of a better place to start in terms of saying, “OK, this is the saddest thing about this person. This is the problem she’s got to solve. She can deal with this for everyone but herself.” How else do you introduce a character except to say this is the problem they’ve got to solve? But another thing I wanted to say was that one of the tropes of a comic book story, typically, is that you meet your lead and you find out what’s really cool about the thing they can do. And on some level, if you’re a thinking person, being able to put people’s minds at ease about the passing of their loved ones is a pretty cool skill. That is a remarkable, wonderful talent. The cool thing that [Shan] can do is that she can chase goblins away from you or un-haunt your house or banish monsters. And I thought in terms of setting up how she looks to herself right now, I needed to draw attention away from the cool stuff she can do toward the stuff she has to do.

HC: This is the first Valiant title spotlighting a female character. What do you think Shan’s perspective brings to the Valiant universe?

JVM: I think line-wide there has been some really great humor in the Valiant catalog. And I think there’s been some terrific action adventure, superheroic kinds of stuff. This iteration of Dr. Mirage was introduced in ‘Shadowman,’ which had some really terrific horror elements. I feel like Shan as a character, one of the things she’s introducing that I haven’t seen a ton of in the Valiant line is — it’s a tricky question, because I don’t know that she brings particular traits to the Valiant line that haven’t been there in other things. It’s not as if gender gives you some kind of monopoly on feeling certain ways, doing certain things, being certain things. I think I, as a writer, am more interested in certain kinds of interpersonal dynamics, and a story with a woman lead that has a lot of broad supernatural elements and that is positioned in a funny place between genres, it allows me to go to a place that a lot of the other genres and characters might not let me go. But I can’t really speak to where the writers of those books are taking their books.

I’m not somebody you would ever want writing a much more — that’s not fair. If you ask me to write a really broad comedy, if you ask me to write a war book, if you ask me to write a crazy superheroic mega-book, the places I’m going to go aren’t the same places other writers are going to want to go. Male or female. And that’s really regardless of the lead you give me to work with. But I think for people who have been reading the Valiant line, maybe the place that this book will go that that other stuff they have been reading has not had a chance to go is the dynamics between the characters being the story. The elements that are romantic comedy, the elements that are a couple having an adventure, nothing goes anywhere if the way people are interacting isn’t working. But you can say that of any team book too, right? So it’s a tricky, bubbly question.

I have heard a lot of really positive things from people who like the old book from the ’90s, the original ‘Second Life Of Doctor Mirage.’ I’ve heard a lot of positive things from people who have seen #1, and that makes me happy because [‘The Second Life Of Doctor Mirage’] was a really special thing in its time, and was doing some stuff that then seemed really novel in terms of a couple and their problems as a couple being just as important as the monster they were fighting. That part was really fun and funny, and the other place that I remember it was in elements of what Grant Morrison did in ‘Animal Man’ around the same time. Where this guy’s family life really mattered to what was going on in the rest of the book.

I certainly have heard from some women who have said, “I am really looking forward to this. I haven’t found a lot that I wanted to read in the Valiant lineup currently.” And I’ve recommended some things that I think they would like if they haven’t checked it out, because I think there is stuff there that a lot of women readers might have overlooked. If [“The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage”] puts a new set of reader eyes on the line, that’s great.

HC: What do artist Roberto De La Torre and colorist David Baron bring to the table? Knowing you were going to work with them, did that influence what you put in the story?

JVM: Roberto, David, and David [Lanphear], the letterer is also a David.

HC: Those letters are great. The color coordination works really well. 

JVM: I had a friend who is a letterer once tell me, “If you notice the lettering, then I’m doing it wrong.” And I thought, “OK, I see what you mean. You want it to be seamless.” But it had been a while since I was like, “Look how the lettering is really changing the mood on this page.” [Lanphear] is doing really brilliant work. David Baron and Roberto are working together so beautifully. Roberto De La Torre is almost the exact opposite in many ways of a lot of the artists I have worked with in the past in terms of I had gotten very used to being pretty bluntly literal in my scripts and saying, “This is what I want to see.” Not in great detail, but basically saying, “I want to see the two of them talking. And I want to feel this way about it.” And what I would get back would be two people, and they are talking, and the artist has done what that artist does to make me feel this way about it.

Those interactions you work out over time with each artist because everybody has different things they want from each other in terms of those communications, but I had tried over years and years and years to learn to really back off from the long, detailed “there’s a desk, there’s a pencil sharpener on it and there’s a fern in the back, but not the kind of fern with bushy leaves” because you learn over time how much B.S. that is and how little of it a great artist needs. I’ve had the honor of working with so many really great people.

"Dr. Mirage" No. 2, page 12. (Valiant)

“Doctor Mirage” No. 2, Page 12. (Valiant)

One of the things that really surprised me the first time I got art back from Roberto De La Torre is that I sent a script in that says, “Here’s what we see and here’s how we feel,” and it was clear to me that he’s so much more interested in how we feel. He’s very expressionistic, and I hope my artist friends don’t come after me and say, “No, that’s not at all the word you want.” (Laughs.) What I mean by that is that if I say in a script, “Here are two people and they’re talking on a balcony and this is what they say and this is what the scene is about and we can see the moon,” I am delighted and surprised when what I get back is a panel of just the moon, but it’s the best, moodiest moon, and it tells everything we needed to know.

He is very interested in the way things feel, and produces these pages that are really emotionally driven, and there’s this great deal of texture. When I first started seeing his pages, he’s got that scratchiness — I don’t know the word for it — but there’s a scratchy quality to his work that makes me want to touch the pages and expect to not find them to be smooth that fascinates me. I think those two things work together. That texture of line is working with the emotional texture that he’s so interested in.

When you’re working with somebody new, even if you’ve seen a lot of what they do, you don’t necessarily see the script that it came from, so your first script for somebody is sort of your generic script, and then your scripts start changing a bit as you see what it is they need and don’t need from you, or want and don’t want from you. The thing that has changed the most in my scripts for Roberto is that when I introduce a new place or a new character, I spend a lot more time on how they feel, what their role in the story is: “The next four pages take place in this place, and the thing you need to know about it is that this is where this kind of person winds up. It is a hell for this kind of criminal.”

And after that, I don’t really need to tell him a lot about how it looks because what he produces will feel just right. I know it. He’s just got this incredible imagination for the surreal, which is perfect for the kinds of things I wanted to accomplish in this book. So I feel like we are working together really nicely, and I hope he feels the same (laughs). But I am enjoying it thoroughly, and I think that what he does is so exquisite and special and unlike any work I’ve gotten to work alongside with in a really long time, and it’s very exciting for me.

And then what Dave Baron does with the colors is he just brings in these gorgeous lights, and he too is very sensitive to mood. His understanding of what Roberto is trying to accomplish on a page and what I’m trying to accomplish on a page, it’s like he’s the lace that brings the two sides of the shoe together. I don’t know how else to put it. I’ll see the final pencils and say, “Wow, look at Roberto’s pencils, those are perfect for telling the story I want to tell right now. Look how well we’re doing this together.” And then Dave comes in and just gorgeouses it all.

He’s got an understanding of light that is blowing my mind every time I see new pages. I think that’s the thing that I noticed the most, and that’s not to say it’s the only thing he’s good at, it is to say that given he’s working with a penciler that uses these dark darks and shadows really heavily, watching David come in and say, “Oh, there’s this tiny window in the background. Well, if that’s the light source, look how those beams move at sundown when you get the really bright light.” You know when light falls and you can see the little specks in a sharp beam of sunlight in a shadowy room? He’ll look at a page and go, “That’s where that would fall.” And you get, all of a sudden, all of the mood and the time of day, and everything just drops onto an already amazing page and it’s startling to me how beautifully they work together. I don’t know if they have worked together before this project, but I feel like they were made for each other in a really beautiful way. And I am continuously thanking my lucky stars that I found my way into this.

– Oliver Sava | @LATHeroComplex

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