Welcome to GAME CHANGERS, an interview series at Comicosity looking at female protagonists in comic books from the last decade or two (or more!) — and the original creators who brought them to life.
Today, we chat again with writer Jen Van Meter about the newest character to grace this column, who has a pedigree stretching all the way back to Valiant’s first incarnation in 1993. Reimagined for the 21st century as a woman, Doctor Mirage has returned to the page and is the first (of hopefully many to come) female-led comic to be published by Valiant — with issue #2 hitting stores TODAY (Preview Now Available)!
Who is Doctor Mirage?
Alter Ego: Shan Fong
First Appearance: Shadowman #5 (2013)
Introduced by Justin Jordan and Lee Garbett
Developed by Jen Van Meter
Published by Valiant Comics
Shan Fong is a parapsychologist — a scientist who investigates paranormal phenomena related to the human mind in some way — who has traveled the world to investigate the unexplained, from ghosts and curses to possession and back again. What makes Shan different from many other investigators, however, is her own ability to speak to the dead. All the dead, that is, except her own husband Hwen.
Engaged in the past by Shadowman to defeat Master Darque and Baron Samedi, Doctor Mirage is semi-retired, but maintains her skills with the help of a special suit designed for encountering the dead, and regular incantations that keep strangers (including the IRS) away from her home. Dragging her into the spotlight again is a new job, one that may hold the key to getting in touch with her lost husband. That’s if she survives the assignment.
A few words from her creator
Matt Santori-Griffith: How did the decision to re-imagine Doctor Mirage come about?
Jen Van Meter: The character Shan Fong — the mixed race woman who talks to the dead — had been introduced as Doctor Mirage in an issue of Shadowman. She shows up in a two-parter consulting with the police department about “where the bodies are buried” basically. And then she shows up in this whacked-out, Mardi Gras adventure where she’s on a big float and gets drawn into stuff.
So, she gets established in the Valiant continuity as this one woman, but all we really knew about her was that she adopted a dog, she can talk to ghosts, and once upon a time she had a TV show. Alejandro Arbona, the book’s editor, had gone to Valiant and said, “We’ve got this character. We should give her a book.”
Then, I get this call from this editor who I have respected from afar but never had the opportunity to work with, who says, “Here’s this tiny piece of character that we have, and a look. What would you do?” From there, we back-and-forthed it. It’s one of those things where now I don’t know what ideas were mine and what ideas were Alejandro’s and which ones were something in-between. But what we started talking about was, what if this character we’ve met in these brief flickers in Shadowman is a widow? What would take her on an adventure to restore that partnership?
Someplace very early in that conversation, it occurred to me that one of the saddest things in the world would be if you could talk to the dead, except for the one dead person you really wanted to. I’m a huge earnest sentimentalist, so if you give me a hook like that, I’m kind of stuck. I can’t not do that.
From there, it became about what they were like as a couple and how the loss of Hwen is this massive thing for Shan. What was her life like before he died and what is her life like now that he’s gone? What I pitched them was that I wanted to tell a story about how she thinks that her life is empty without him, or that she is somehow lesser or broken without him.
That’s going to motivate a journey to find him. By the time she finds him, she’ll have figured out that she wasn’t broken or empty. She wasn’t half-done or incomplete without him. What she was, in fact, was not moving on. And the minute she starts moving to get a thing, then she figures it out. “I am complete. I always was.”
But that’s the illusion of love, isn’t it? That you start to feel like you’re not a whole person without that other person. It’s a wonderful illusion until you’ve got loss. It’s gorgeous to be with the person who makes you feel more complete. And it’s horrible to be without them.
I wouldn’t call it a coming of age story, because Doctor Mirage is a grown-up. And that’s one of the things that I was really excited about doing this book. She’s like 35 — old enough to have lived and had mature problems, and paid the bills and stuff. That was just so exciting to me, because typically in work-for-hire, I find that I’ve worked mostly with that TV trope of twenty-year olds who are playing teenagers playing moms. Age gets smooshed into this tiny acceptable sphere that looks like 25 all the time.
If she’s old enough to have been married, spent some time being married, and then had some time being widowed, she can’t be 22. We get to have a grown-up and yet at the same time, you grow up in a relationship. When you meet someone in your twenties, by the time you’re in your thirties, you don’t really remember who you are without them. It’s this idea of taking this person with really cool skills and traits, and saying, it’s not that she’s broken. It’s just that she thinks she is. It’s telling a story that grown-up characters rarely get to have — that self-discovery journey.
MSG: Doctor Mirage’s subtle “magic” (if we can call it that) seems to combine with her sense of loss in a very interesting way. Are there rules to her powers and magic?
JVM: I want there to be. There’s a moment in a later issue where she has somebody in one of the many afterlife realms she’s in says, “You mean, you don’t even know your true name? What kind of witch are you?” And she’s like, “I’m not a witch. I’m a scientist.” because in her head, there are very clear rules for these things that somebody has taught her. They’re written in books. And learning how to do things is sort of like learning chemistry. They’re like recipes. But that’s her approach. It’s how she was taught to do it.
I just realized that a lot of the way I’ve been thinking about magic, and the manner in which different practitioners approach it in the book, is pulled from listening to artists talk about one another’s work and training. So, there are magicians who self-taught and brilliant, but kind of scattered. And there are occultists who are very by-the-book, they went to a really good school, and know all the formal stuff. It’s much harder for them to break from that training — what they were told is the “right way.” There are magicians who are really into their vision, and magicians really into the ethics of what they’re doing.
She is somebody who came into her art with some raw talent and was not necessarily that interested in being that type of artist, but got a lot of great training and fell into a community that she really valued. So, that’s what she does. One of the things about her husband is that he was the passionate one. He was the one who had this great heart and wanted to work with kids and talk about what a difference he could make in the world. And she needed that.
MSG: The idea of taking existing characters and bringing them back “gender-bent” as the colloquialism is now, or making ethnicity changes to promote a sense of diversity, is something I’d like to get your gut-check thoughts on. It’s something I clearly feel very strongly about, but I’m interested in hearing as a creator, how does that play into your thought-process?
JVM: I think that when I see the debate come up, when I see someone say, “I always loved that character and he was a white dude. Now he’s a black lady and I hate that.” or whatever, there is a piece of me that gets it. For that person, this character was some sort of security blanket, or some sort of nostalgic totem. We all have them. And you don’t want to see that messed with in a way that implies that this character is not for you anymore. I get where that resistance comes from.
But I think it ignores a significant commercial question that is at play in these things. When we are talking about Marvel and DC and Valiant, we are talking about a body of characters and works that are owned and licensed. They are commercial property. And when you are in a moment in time, when they are not the only game in town, a creator that wants to go to Image and make a story about a multi-racial family in a Winnebago having crazy adventures in Australia or whatever, he or she can do that. DC and Marvel and Valiant are not their only option right now.
Very often, when the question comes up, it is asked, “Why can’t they just make a new character and leave MY character alone?” If someone wants to make a new character and go off and get crazy, they don’t need to ask permission from the only publishers in town anymore. And if a major corporate entity turns to any writer/artist team that could sell or launch a new book featuring an entirely new character — essentially saying, “We want you to do all the hard work in creating a new character for us from scratch.” — and you won’t get anything at the other end, the answer is often, “Why? I’ll just work with what you’ve got.”
On the one hand, when I’ve built new characters for work-for-hire, people have asked me why I did all that work for them to own it. And I think, well, I hope it’s not my last good one. But on the other hand, there’s something to be said that when you’re going to go through all the labor of creating something from scratch, why not do it for yourself, right?
But that leaves the publishers in a position where if they want diversity, they have to find it in their own toybox. So, we either need to go back to other iterations of these characters, or we tell a story where something changes. We have to find this diversity and be willing to find that in our own history.
For me, it represents a real nerviness on the part of these big institutions to take these really recognizable things — or maybe this second tier thing we’ve forgotten about — and we’re going to repurpose and re-evaluate them in light of a context that says, just maybe, the field of what stories are about could be broader and more complicated. Maybe we get something more out of finding out what happens when these things are a little more malleable.
The ideal is that people start to remember that the reason we came to comics for many years was that we wanted wonderful tales with a lot of adventure and people trying really hard to do good or important stuff. And maybe there’s value in telling ourselves that those types of stories are not exclusive to straight, white dudes. Maybe there’s some good to be found in re-evaluating what that means.
And I really do admire the executive decision made to risk it. You know that they had to sit in a room and acknowledge that this was going to piss some people off. The willingness to do that is in the face of “what else can we do?” though. In most cases, the option to create a new character and slap its name on a new book just isn’t there in this marketplace. What they could have done in the 60s or 70s isn’t necessarily available to them today in the same way.
While I get this “cringing for the loss of my special thing,” it’s important to remember that no one is burning those issues. They’re all digitally archived now and can be read forever and ever, and they’re all unchanged by these things happening. And maybe on the other side of it, you get a new definition of heroism, and a new definition of character.
“De la Torre’s take on [Doctor Mirage] gives the character a smart, sophisticated look, but echoes the sort of sorrow underneath that [Jen] Van Meter is delivering in her dialogue…. Van Meter’s handling of the character out of the box should be propelling this title to everyone’s pull list, particularly if you have not had much exposure to the Valiant Universe to date.”
– Matt Santori-Griffith, Comicosity
Where can I read more?
- The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1-current (2014)
For a full list of Comicosity’s Game Changers, please visit our index.