Walking Into The Worst Days: Jen Van Meter Talks ‘The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage’
Valiant Comics is well into its Valiant First initiative, a months-long event in which the company debuts a slew of #1 issues. The event ends with a bang in September, with the debut of The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage by writer Jen Van Meter and artist Roberto De La Torre.
The premise of the new series is somewhat similar to The Second Life of Doctor Mirage, the 1993 series that featured the title character and his wife solving supernatural mysteries. This new version has ghostly sleuthing in it, too, but the 2014 Doctor Mirage is definitely not the same character. Dr. Shen Fong is a highly skilled professional working through some personal demons of her own. We sat down with Van Meter for a long chat about her approach to the book. Also, Nazi wizards.
ComicsAlliance: “Mature” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in comics, and isn’t always an indicator of actual maturity. But I got some preview materials and when I saw what was happening in the first scene of this first issue, the word that immediately sprang to mind for me was maturity. It’s a mature approach to the notion of a paranormal investigator or somebody who can see and talk to ghosts. I just wonder, what inspired that particular approach to the character of Dr. Mirage for you?
Jen Van Meter: I feel like you normally think for a mature audience or a mature title, that we have come to a place in popular culture where that tends to be code for, either there’s a lot more violence then you’d show a kid, or, there’s a ton of sex or cussing in it or something like that. Which in its own way, tends to be counter-productive to using the word well, because often then the word winds up slapped on something that at it’s core is really, really immature.
When you talk about that first scene, I’m definitely thinking about things that happen to grown ups and to grown up perspectives on the world. I don’t think that that makes it inaccessible to say, a 17-year-old reader. But if you’re going to write the story that deals with somebody who can talk to the dead, then you’re writing a story about death and dying. It seems to me that the minute that you bring the full scope of your understanding of the world and your imagination to death and dying, you really have to think about the broad range of experiences that happen to people over a course of short and long lifetimes. So, if I’ve got Doctor Mirage meeting six widows who are all longing desperately for some contact with the person that they lost, they can’t all be 30.
She’s encountering people almost always at one of the worst moments in their lives. If you’re meeting somebody like Doctor Mirage, you’re meeting her because either you lost somebody and it grieves you deeply, or you are needing her because poltergeists are making the walls of your house bleed snot.
From a character perspective, one of the imaginative challenges becomes, “Who is this person that keeps walking into the worst day of somebody else’s life’ over and over and over again?” As I was trying to develop the personality of the character, I was thinking a lot about other people I know who handle things like that, like ER Doctors. I know a couple people in medicine who deal with fairly traumatic sides of what they do and I’ve know some cops in my life. I was trying to kind of think about what their resilience is, what are the personality quirks that go with being able to keep that job and stay healthy. Where are the cracks for people that are having a hard time with that role? The maturity to it for me is trying to bring a thoughtful perspective to what it would be like to really be this person and not have it all be just battling monsters.
CA: To me, the element of maturity that’s there, in addition to everything you just said, is also just a sense of depicting a certain type of experience and a certain type of character that you don’t often see in comics. To describe a little bit of what happens in that first scene, basically, Shan, Doctor Mirage, is in a room full of widows, helping them deal with their lingering feelings about having been widowed. I wonder if that was a very specific move on your part to do something that is different in that sense.
JVM: Yes. I pitched this book and said, here is our general take on what we would like to see happen, what would we do. That scene – the first three pages, were pretty much the first thing I knew concretely that I wanted to see. I didn’t know that it would come first in the book, but it was the first thing that I knew I want to show at some point. Part of that was that her own feelings of not being aware and sort of the weird position in which she finds herself with something that I was thinking a lot about. But, I think that my gut and my subconscious went straight to the thing I’ve never seen before too. I think that whenever I think of that “person can talk to the dead”-type stories, I just see, “avenge me” so much.
CA: Well, they’re always parts of crime stories, right?
JVM: I’ve seen, “Here’s where my body is” kinds of things so much. I think ghost stories so often are about hanging around because something was left unfinished and we tend to gravitate toward sort of the operatic style of, “My murder was never solved,” that kind of thing. I think that what I wanted was to think about all the things that we leave unresolved.
CA: I was just going to say, this scene is more about resolution for the survivors than the dead. Which is the inverse of what you normally see.
JVM: With this book, we got the opportunity to sort of set the rules for, if you’re a ghost, why are you there? Why did you stick around? I have seen a lot of material that kind of focuses on, “Well, if you’re a ghost, you stick around,” “If you’re parting was traumatic, then you’re angry,” or ‘You stick around and there are some things that you’re vengeful about. Something like that. I thought, “What if you stick around because you’re just not quite ready to move on, because you don’t know how?”
Part of that has to do with the people who keep you here, the people that you stay for. Why do you stay? Do you stay because there’s information that you need to give them so they can move on? Do you stay because you’re afraid for what happens to them if you move on? I think like that, and I think in the case of the widows in that scene, part of it is what I kind of wanted to poke at a little bit is that things aren’t resolved for the dead if they’re not resolved for the living, that their story isn’t that some of these ghosts are there because they’re needed, in some way or another. They’re trying to get the person they’ve left behind to a place that doesn’t need them to stay.
Some of that comes from my own experience of losing people. There’s a reason we often cling to the idea that they could communicate. I look around at the crazy con-artists pretending to channel people on TV and stuff like that and I think well, there would be no business for that sort of hucksterism if there weren’t people desperately longing to believe that their loved ones are right there, looking out for them. It’s a very accepted notion.
I was kind of trying to think about that longing for it to be true. It’s messy stuff, right? I believe grief is about us, it’s about the unique experience of the living. I like the idea that people get tethered and so, the feelings of the dead and the living are sort of binding in some way, having a character that can essentially act as a translator or a facilitator of some kind. Give me the opportunity to at least dig around a little bit in the big drama in the small thing. It’s a big sort of explosive drama in moidah, and that type of thing.
CA: Now lest our readers think this book is nothing but heavy, deep stuff–
JVM:It’s the saddest thing ever! (laughs)
CA: But later in the book, the notion of Nazi wizards comes up. There’s definitely some high adventure in here too.
JVM: Oh yeah!
CA: What kind of balance did you want to strike between the heavier subject matter and in some of the pulpier stuff. Because again, Nazi wizards are in here.
JVM: I know, right? Nazi wizards. For me, there are a lot of genres and categories of popular fiction that I have enjoyed and that I’ve never gotten a chance to write. I haven’t written a ton of straight up horror, I haven’t written a ton of fantasy. I’ve written a good deal of action/adventure/sci-fi kinds of things, but in any of it, I feel like the first goal is to say, “Whatever the rules are for this world, who are these people moving around in it?”
What I wanted was to really make sure that every step was a way of saying, if I’m working in a world where you can talk to the dead and magic is real, then everything else has to come out of that, in a way that sort of seems native and comfortable. That expression that people use when they talk about [Star Wars] A New Hope, like, talk about how it felt like a “used universe,” with scuffs on things? I wanted to say, if there are people who have made careers fighting demons and talking to ghosts, then that’s also a world where government agents have suited up to go look for Nazi occultists that come and work for the U.S. If that’s happened, then the kinds of stories we tell when we tell spy stories apply with magic and the kinds of stories we tell when we tell an adventure story, apply with this sort of magic. So all of the different kinds of things that can happen in any fictive universe has to be able to happen in this one. If you’re Shan Fong, if you’re Doctor Mirage, and a mundane day at work is talking to ghosts, then an adventurous day is fighting Nazi wizards.
The range of what is on your scale of ordinary has to fit in a way that seems plausible. The original Second Life of Doctor Mirage, the old series, one of the things I loved about it was that it had a real pulp-adventure feel with this married duo kind of charging through their adventures. But then in the middle of it, there was all this really grounded stuff. I thought that the way that it could balance the seriousness of “Everybody dies in a zombie attack,” which if you believe it’s going to happen, then it’s a serious thing. The seriousness of this life we lead is being hard on our marriage. What’s serious in these worlds, needs to feel serious and what light of them of has to feel light. What I was aiming for, totally, was a sense of there being a lot of opportunity for adventure and crazy and whacked out, freaky nonsense, and yet have it feel sort of grounded for the people who are living it.
CA: Doctor Mirage is not Doctor Strange. She is not the magic person who is doing everything in a theatrical way. She’s very professional and very businesslike and, like you’re saying, she exists in this world where this stuff is kind of normal, so she treats it in this way where it’s like, “I’m a person who does a job and I’m good at it, but, if you present me with particular circumstances that I don’t like, I will tell you so.”
JVM: I figure that in the world she lives in, there are people who use and do magic who are much more flashy and much more whiz-bang about it. But for her, I think she thinks of herself as more of a scientist than a show person. I think that when she shows up to solve your problem, she thinks of herself more as like a doctor making a house call. She’s a specialist in a highly refined field and for everybody who gets a Dog Whisperer show on TV, for instance, there are dozens of people working in the field of animal care who would be disgusted with the idea of having a reality show and who just want to show up and train the dog.
Part of the back story for this character is that she spent some time doing the flashy public stuff. Before we’re meeting her in this book. All she really wants to do now is show up and fix your problems and go home, because, she hasn’t got any interest in people clapping for her or being amazed or anything like that. She just wants to do the job.
CA: There’s a real confidence to the character that I think is appealing. There’s a scene near the middle of the book in which she’s called to a house to try to investigate this case, and a character tells her, “I’m not good with this particular kind of magic stuff and I need your help with it.” After she hears that and kind of sets to work, she says, “You’re not good at that, but I am.” A lot of her dialogue is like that. It’s firm. It’s forceful.
JVM: Someplace in the early write ups for this, we were emailing back in forth with [editor] Alejandro [Arbona] about who Shan is and how she relates to her work and her luck. One of the things I wrote was her marriage was a great marriage because they each had skills the other one didn’t have. He was really good with the living and she was really good with the dead. She’s not super patient with living people and their need to be made to feel good about whatever is happening and things like that.
I’ve got some stuff coming up in later issues where we’re going to see her younger, and see the elements that have always been there, and the elements of that that are part of her experience now. I do like that there is a sort of, it’s not super confrontational, but there is a toughness about her that I really like.
CA: In those flashbacks, are we going to see a lot of her with her husband? The way you described it as them being complementary to each other, it’s a really interesting dynamic and be very telling to the kind of person she is now. Plus, the character name of her husband, who is mentioned a couple of times in the first issue, is a name that would be very familiar to people who know the previous Doctor Mirage series.
JVM: Yes, we will see them together as they were. They aren’t very long scenes, but I am hoping that they are meaty and crucial. So you’ll come away feeling like you didn’t necessarily see five years worth of flashbacks, but you saw a really important five minutes. So, we’ll see what they were like. We’ll take some important moments. I don’t want to keep moving forward without kind of sharing what it is she feels she lost. I think, narratively, that it would be a huge mistake and he’s not a macguffin. He’s a significant piece of the story, in his absence. I don’t want to just say, “Someplace out there, there’s a dead husband. Believe me, he was nice.”
But, yes, name is Hwen and we did that as a shout-out to the original material from the ‘90s. It’s a funny thing because think of when Shan was introduced in Shadowman, when this iteration of Dr. Mirage was introduced, I don’t know that there was a long term plan for her husband to show up, or for the character to have the opportunity to have some title necessarily. I don’t know exactly how all of that shaped up. I think this iteration of her initially looked kind of like a combination of Carmen and Hwen from the original series, sort of taking elements of their two personalities and their two backgrounds.
So then the question becomes when he’s introduced, and we’re going to come out with this name, but is he the same guy? No. He’s not the same guy. There are ways in which their dynamic has some similar tension between who gets grumpy and who can laugh it off. Who’s all brains and who’s all action, that kind of thing. But it’s going to take a little bit, because they’re different people.
One of the things that excites me about doing these flashbacks is being able to work out the nuances of what two people really working in harmony can play out in a way that it’s engaging where you can see. I’ve known a lot of really great couples in my life, who treat each other really, really well. That doesn’t mean there’s no dramatic tension. That doesn’t mean there’s never a fight. What it does mean is that stuff all manifests differently than it does in a couple that’s a really bad fit for one another, it’s just different. Trying to figure out, like what’s the scene that you show that let’s people really do that in a really connected way? It’s something that has been a fun puzzle. What do we need to see about these two people that’s going to tell us what we need?
CA: About the plotting of the first issue, talk to me about how you decided what to show and what not to show. You’re almost playing it out like a magic trick, where a reader doesn’t really know what they’re seeing until a little bit later and then they can go back and pick up on things that maybe they didn’t necessarily pick up on before. I don’t want to give too much about this scene away because, there is that reveal. There are things that are realized that you don’t necessarily see coming, but the way that you structure it is really interesting to me.
JVM: I knew that the overall arc of this story was going to be, “I’m taking this character on a journey. The first issue, a lot of it is, “Why is this journey important?” and “Why is the character going on this journey?” I wasn’t necessarily going to drive straight into “character on a journey.” I knew that this first issue was a lot of grounding, because I’ve got a world to establish, I’ve got some rules to set, because otherwise none of it makes any sense.
That being said, I don’t think I consciously thought to myself, “I want this to unfold like a magic trick,” but, I love that allusion and I wish that I was smart enough to have just said, “You’re absolutely right, these kind of things I was totally planning.”
It was important to me to say, “I am establishing a character who knows a ton of stuff that put the rest of us and for the lot of the people in her world are clouded in mystery.” She knows a lot of stuff that is hidden from the rest of us.
CA: Well, that happens. What makes it different from your standard magic trick, is that you have Dr. Mirage there to both literally and figuratively pull aside the curtain.
JVM: That was a moment where I was like, “How this has got to work is this” and it took me a couple tries to write that scene and get it nailed down the right way. I got this really interesting note from Alejandro on my very first draft of that sequence where he said, “I know exactly what you were going for and it would work in a movie, but we have to change it because I don’t think people are going to see what you’re after here.” It took me a couple back-and-forths with him to figure out how to do what it was that I was going for.
I did want to say, “We’ve got this person who knows a lot of stuff, but now we’re telling a story about all the things she doesn’t know.” You know, her personality, she’s super confident, she’s super straight forward. There’s a ton she’s confident about. There’s a ton she’s not, and trying to set this first issue up, the fun and the challenge of it was say, “What I really want to do is get enough of the rules of this world out there that we can see all this stuff that she knows and that makes her a master technician in her world,” then, confront her with a whole bunch of stuff that’s still behind the curtain for her, have that translate for us.
What I’m hoping with this story, is that each issue will kind of roll out some new layers of the world for the reader, and also for her. Because, I think one of the things that I’m really interested in – and it goes back to that question with maturity – as my kids grow up, as [Van Meter’s husband] Greg [Rucka] and I age and I look at my friends, all the stuff that my peers and my family, my parents, their peers – things that people are going through. As I get a little wiser and more perceptive, one of the things I think about is how very frequently we underestimate our own resilience. Going back to that whole thing about the worst day that you have, so often we are surprised to have gotten through something that at the time you think, “I will never get through this.” One of my great joys in writing superhero stuff has always been that you get to fantasize about being somebody who really can fly over and fix it. You get to fantasize about a level of ability to intervene or do something about a bad day that most of us just don’t encounter.
The feeling of either a lack of resiliency or a lack of will, or a lack of power – is something most of us deal with all the time. One of the things that’s been really interesting to me about this character is being able to set up a lot of will and resilience and power and a set of circumstances that for her, challenge that in a way that I haven’t seen before in an adventure comic.
I think this is a really fun and interesting book because I think of it as mostly a quest narrative with a grown woman at its center. I don’t see a ton of those. I did want the first issue to feel magical. The trick was to give her this real technician’s personality. In the face of that, what would look awe-inspiring or stunning or shocking to her?
I suppose the analogy is that you know, if she thinks of herself more as a plumber or an ER surgeon than she does as a wizard, then what I wanted was the story about the ER surgeon who shows a particular surgery and they open the person up and, oh my gosh, a colony of fairies living in there. Something so extraordinary it would rock everything that makes sense to them as a scientist. That’s what I was going for.
The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage by Jen Van Meter and Roberto De La Torre is available online and in stores this September from Valiant.