It’s been three long years since Shan Fong, Doctor Mirage, has had her own title, although she has been a mainstay of the Valiant Universe since then, last appearing alongside Faith and the Eternal Warrior in “Faith: Dreamside” & “Incursion” respectfully. Now, under the pen of Magdalene Visaggio, Nick Robles, Jordie Bellaire, and Dave Sharpe, she returns in a new mini-series, separated from death. . .and from her husband, Hwen.
A big thanks to Magdalene for chatting with us about “Doctor Mirage” and the crucible that Shan is about to embark upon.
This is your first series for Valiant. What’s it been like working within that universe?
Magdalene Visaggio: I haven’t been quite as much working within it, in the sense that “Doctor Mirage” isn’t connected at this point; it’s very siloed, a very internal story. So, while we’re playing with Valiant concepts like the Deadside and characters like Doctor Mirage and Hwen, the story is really kind of its own thing and hasn’t really touched the other parts of the universe.
What was it about Doctor Mirage that made you want to work with her?
MV: Well, I’m a really morbid person and she’s a character surrounded by death. That’s a topic I have a longstanding fascination with. It’s something I talk about a lot, something I think about a lot; you tell me how healthy that makes me. And she’s got a really interesting angle to come at it from because she’s a character who’s never really had to grapple with loss. She’s never really not had the hope of getting someone back because. . .she sees dead people, so death isn’t really the end for her.
So, they came to me and, one of the things they said upfront about the book is that Hwen won’t be in it, Hwen’s gone, her husband and I was like, “Oh, interesting. This is an opportunity to make this character who’s never really had to deal with death in a personal way, is now gonna have to.” I realized I had this opportunity to do a book about grieving and an opportunity to get Shan her own way.
In the two books that Jen Van Meter wrote, it’s all very centered on Hwen. And so I was like, this is a really exciting opportunity to get her away from doing things for or around Hwen. This is really a chance to take this character who’s touching topics and themes that I’m really interested in and shove them off in a whole new direction. That was really, genuinely exciting for me.
Hwen’s disappearance happens after the “Incursion” event, correct?
MV: Actually, originally it was going to happen during “Incursion.” Once that was changed, I was already neck deep in the story. We had to figure out, well, how is this all gonna fit together?
I think we made it work.
Bit of a puzzle.
The first issue opens on this bit of narration from Hwen and Shan’s past, specifically the show. Is that time going to be explored? Or, because as you said, this is now more focused on Shan, are we going to see the past in a new light?
MV: Not really. This is all about Shan’s next chapter and getting her to move on, so I have no plans on turning her to television. The TV stuff in the book is a dissociative process, her distancing herself emotionally from her circumstances by narrating to herself in that big announcer voice.
And not reminiscing about the past and using that to frame her present.
MV: If anything, she feels stuck in the present and is trying to get the past back.
A bit like how her powers work, it’s all about conjuring the past, or accessing it.
MV: Yeah and so we decided this to very much be a future facing story.
Speaking of the future, with the new character Grace, how did you want to approach her character in relation to Shan because she is this funhouse mirror reflection of Shan’s current quest?
MV: The whole thing with Shan is that I wanted her to have a foil with agency. Part of the problem with the Hwen character is he’s a passive observer type and he’s very supportive and kind and I really wanted to push her out of her comfort zone. That’s really where it started from. We’ve already got the story where she can’t see the dead but I didn’t want her wandering alone. Then I was thinking, who’s the least Hwen-like person it could be.Continued below
The thing that I’m really excited about with Grace is she’s this opportunity to yeah, be kind of a fun house mirror of Shan. She’s sort of a skewed reflection. She’s got her own really weird, unique relation with death. She’s got her own weird, unique ability to see beyond the veil but it’s not quite the same.
What I want these two to have is this weird, symbiotic mentor-mentee relationship where they each kind of improve each other, even if they don’t get along. I think there’s a lot that Shan can take from Grace. Grace’s impulsiveness, Grace’s brazenness, her courage, her willingness to dive off a cliff just to see what’s down there, is something that Shan, at the start of our book, doesn’t have. She’s very much in retreat.
Grace is the impetus for everything. Grace is the push force that’s getting Shan out the door and into this much larger, stranger world than she’s ever experienced before.
As the series progresses, they start to explore the Deadside. Are there any veiled hints you can give about where they go, what they see, the types of lessons they encounter and barriers they start to run up against or break?
MV: The book’s about coping with loss and climbing out of the pit of despair. As for what they encounter, I think I put it best at the end of the first issue, they’re going to go to the parts of hell that even the devil is scared to visit. It’s this kind of Hero’s journey kind of story that’s all about, how to put it . . .there’s a lot that happens in this book.
And it’s all working towards building Shan back up.
MV: Yeah. That’s the whole thing. We can look at this metaphorically as this big mental process for Shan. As getting her to a place where she feels she has agency again because at the start of it, she doesn’t. She feels like nothing she does matter. She’s trying to re-open the portal to the deadside, she’s trying to summon her husband, she’s trying to learn all this magic and she’s terrible at it. She feels powerless and inert so this is about the movement from powerlessness to agency over herself, which she feels she doesn’t have.
A lot of that is rendered beautifully by Nick Robles and Jordie Bellaire. What’s it been like working with the two of them and then also Dave Sharpe on lettering to flesh out the world and make it this psychedelic, ominous piece?
MV: I haven’t really had much contact with Sharpe, that really goes through Editorial. That said, I think he’s doing an absolutely bang up job. I work closely with my editor, Lisa Hawkins, on how we’re feeling about the lettering but she communicates all that to him. As for Nick and Jordie, they’re really doing something extraordinary on this book; it doesn’t look like anything, which I wanted.
I told Nick very early on that my reference point for this was Steve Ditko’s “Doctor Strange,” that kind of weird, psychedelic thing. But I wanted him to do his own version of that. I wanted him not to recreate what Ditko did but to summon up the same well of weirdness and see what came out. And he absolutely delivered. He gives us impossible landscapes where the angles don’t make sense, where lines start intersecting with the horizons in ways you don’t think they should. It’s all very hallucinogenic, which is something I’m really fascinated with, altered states of consciousness.
Jordie absolutely brings that forward with her colors. She’s doing very weird colors. It’s hard to describe because I don’t have the technical language for it but there’s these chunky shapes that she’s doing that don’t really correspond to anything on the page. It’s just some color, which almost gives you the sense of having colored spots in your eyes, like you’re not seeing clearly.
Which is a really critical element to the story, the distance between perception and reality. The whole crazy Deadside world Shan sees, she sees through a hallucinogenic experience. Grace is on a hallucinogen and she’s able to extend that effect out to Shan. Jordie and Nick have really together created a very destabilizing, very unsettling visual sense that the readers aren’t gonna, I expect, feel like they have their feet on solid ground.Continued below
Has the collaboration between the three of you shaped any changes in the story?
MV: Not especially. The writing process was more or less done when they came on board. I’m trying to remember the timeline. I can’t say it really changed much of the story but I can say that, Nick has made some very fascinating design choices that add extra layers to what I wrote, which is really what you want, you know. An artist needs the freedom to elevate the book and I’m really impressed with the work that Nick has done.
Doctor Mirage is one of my favorite Valiant characters, so seeing her go through all this is really cool.
MV: Thank you. I’m really excited about the direction of this book and it’s stunningly beautiful.
I love that two-page spread that Nick did for issue one.
MV: Yeah, that was mind-blowing when we finally got the colors in on that. The whole thing is just extraordinary.
You can really feel the Ditko in that.
MV: He really brought that spirit forward and that was what I thought was really exciting. It was the spirit of Ditko, it was the spirit of that 60’s psychedelic, that Ditko did in a more pulpy way, but really brought to life and given new dimensions thanks to all the new illustrative techniques we have.
This is tangentially related but are there any themes within. . .because you said you’ve been fascinated by death, and kind of talk about it, not a lot but, it’s a theme that runs through your work, like in “Eternity Girl” and now here, but they’re approaching from different angles coming out from the different characters. I wondered if there was something about Shan that you wanted to explore that you couldn’t explore with the others.
MV: Well, the big difference between Shan and Caroline is that Caroline wants to die and Shan doesn’t. Caroline is grasping after death and very explicitly, this is a book about Shan trying to escape it. It’s all over the marketing, so it’s not a spoiler, but the book is about Shan finding out she’s dead and trying to essentially climb out of Hell, which is the opposite journey that Caroline did in “Eternity Girl.”
So, while Caroline is trying to find a reason to live, and that’s sort of her conflict, she’s on this collision course with oblivion, Shan has already got her reason to live, but she doesn’t even really know what it is.
I’m gonna back that up a little bit actually because what’s really interesting to me about Shan is that, sure enough, Shan’s kind of in this dead state. She’s, like I said, inert. She’s not doing anything and just kind of stuck and then someone walks in and says, “You’re dead,” and then suddenly she’s on this big, wild adventure across psychedelic landscapes. Death is kind of her entryway to life, which is just 180 degrees removed from Caroline. So, in a way, it’s sort of following up from “Eternity Girl.” “Eternity Girl” end with Caroline deciding to live and this one is sort of the process of coming back to life, if that makes sense?
Coming to terms with death.
MV: Yeah. Or, to coming to terms with loss. Like, Caroline has to come to terms with living, while Shan has to come to terms with death being something that actually has power over her now, you know? If nothing else, Hwen is dead, Hwen’s gone. There’s no getting him back. That’s kind of the point, that she can’t get him back, so this is how do you keep moving, how do you keep living, when you’ve lost the reason to live.
For most people, death and loss are synonymous but for Shan they never were.
MV: Yeah, exactly. I say right at the outset that the first ghost she ever remembers seeing, she was four years old. This has been a constant presence in her life and now it isn’t.
This is a five issue series. Do you have plans for anything beyond this?
MV: I have plans. We’ll see how the book does. I already know what I want to do for the second arc, if we get it.Continued below
Here’s hoping you do.
MV: Fingers crossed.