One of the most surprising comics of last year for me was The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage by Jen Van Meter and Roberto De La Torre from Valiant. So when I had the chance to speak with Jen at this year’s Emerald City Comic Con, I jumped at the chance — and was delighted to hear that she had come up with a large cosmic background for this wild and wooly story.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: So how did you end up at Valiant?
Jen Van Meter: I think I had been on [Associate Editor] Alejandro Arbona’s radar for a little while. I know that he had worked with Kelly Sue DeConnick at Marvel and she and I often sing each other’s praises.
But when he called me for this, I had a secret suspicion that she may have said, “I don’t have time to do that project.” And if so, more power to her because it came at a perfect time for me and it has been a delight to work on. What they came to me with was, “In Shadowman this reboot of the Doctor Mirage character appears very briefly. She’s kind of a tabula rasa. We’ve got her doing this one thing and we’ve got her appearing in this one event. And that’s really all that’s been established about her. We’d like to do a book. What would you do?”
What I knew about Doctor Mirage from the original material was that I really loved that couple vibe. It’s so rare in a comic to have that sort be at the core of something that goes on. So what I wanted to pitch to them was giving her an adventure to go find her dead husband. Because in the original series, Hwen is Doctor Mirage and he’s got his fabulous Brazilian wife, Carmen, and he is a ghost. This happens fairly quickly and that’s their situation.
When she got rebooted in Shadowman, she was introduced as a solo character named Dr. Mirage who had some of the old name and some of the old attributes and some different ones. So I had pitched to them, “What if she’s got this kind of tragic story where she can talk to all these ghosts and everybody but her husband?” And they really liked it. So I proposed sending her on sort of an Orpheus journey to go and find him. Now that all five issues are out, it is not that much of a spoiler to say it would be a mean story if she didn’t actually find him.
CB: Yeah, it would be very cruel to be your character. But I love the married couple, too. I mean, their relationship feels very real. It is not shallow at all. They have such a deep knowledge of each other.
Van Meter: I wanted to give them that. It was fun to every so often be able to drop the story and to say, “Here’s what they’ve lost and here’s what they want back. And here’s kind of who they are together.” I’m really, really excited that Valiant wants to do more because now I’ve set up like space for a richer story. I’ve set up space maybe more depth than I could have gotten if I’d just dropped straight into them as a couple.
CB: The marriage is just so beautiful in that story. I really responded to that because there is this intimacy in their relationship that feels very real, knowing that you don’t necessarily get so much in comics.
Van Meter: Thank you. I felt like the only way to sell somebody on a romance that was not happen straight on the page in front of them… Ninety percent of this material she’s looking for a guy who isn’t there. And the only way I was going to make it work was if I could really make the relationship when you saw it as weighty and as meaningful as possible. If you got that, I’m so glad.
CB: I can imagine them fighting about where she left her keys one day and then going off and fighting evil in another dimension the next day.
Van Meter: Right. I loved the challenge of really trying to not shorthand it. Because people know when you are giving them some sort of shorthand symbol for something like affection. If you are like, “Oh, and she’s got a piece of jewelry that he gave her…” People know what you are trying to tell them and sometimes they will forgive you, but they can also tell that you are sort of short handing a real relationship. You are just giving them the same symbol we always get.
I felt like the challenge was to make it feel as real and as sincerely itself as possible. I had such a blast doing it because you don’t often get a gig where somebody says, “We really want you to spend the time on that.” And in fact, I love these guys because my work for hire has typically been that I pitch a story, I write twenty pages a script, and what I get back is, “Well, we really need you to cut this part down and push up the action over here. Cut this part down. Push up the action over here.”
I love that my biggest note from Alejandro was, “Well, the action, Rivera can really do that in one page and I think you ought to take more time here. You can tell what you want.” And I’d be like, “Yeah, I did want it, but I was really afraid you were going to tell me I needed more demons.” And I really love that throughout the process everybody on the team was like, “No, this is a horror story and it is an adventure story. It is also our big love story, so if you need to give it room, give it room.” And they were really not typical of my franchise writing experience in that regard.
CB: So it is a little bit in between Spider-Man and Hopeless Savages.
Van Meter: Yeah.
CB: It is work for hire, but it is still very much your passion project.
Van Meter: Well, and I have never, ever come into a project like this at the beginning. Every work for hire or licensed thing I’ve ever done really has been, “Here’s this mountain of stuff everybody else has done and what we’d like you to do is write a little story that fits in between these two issues.”
That’s great work and it can be fun and it is its own puzzle-solving problem. It is often kind of delightful because I get a chance to write a Wolverine story. That rocks! But you are writing next to and against and away from everything else somebody else has done. This has been kind of a fantastic and strange thing for me because it is licensed material. They own the rights. They certainly have a lot of sway and the right to say, “You know, we’d really rather you not go that way. I’d really rather you go this way.” That is all entirely their right. They use it so… I’ve not felt forced at all.
If they are steering me, they are doing it with extraordinary restraint and diplomacy because I am being allowed to feel very much invested personally in this material. And it allows me to give them, I think, better work than I could do with somebody saying, “Well, here’s the story we want you to write.”
They are really generous conversationally about what should happen and about sort of taking our time with the character working in to the larger Valiant Universe and not rushing that, which I think is a smart move for the character. I think it is good in the long run for the line.
But you know, I’ve had a lot of people tell me that it was their first Valiant book and that one of the reasons they were able to approach it was that they’ve been told it wasn’t super tied in. But having experienced it, now they are willing to try other Valiant books, so yeah! You want to be that kind of door for your company.
CB: It is part of their re-launch where everything is kind of starting fresh, too. They are all very creator-driven series. You are kind of part of this nice wave as well.
Van Meter: I got to go out to the retreat in New York and meet everybody else. That was a fun room to be in. I’ve known the work of all of those guys for a long time. I don’t think I’ve gotten to sit down and have a conversation with Kindt and Lemire and Dysart and all those guys from Valiant. We haven’t had time to visit at shows because we are all doing our own thing. So it was really neat to be in the room and get to talk about sort of what everyone has percolating underneath what they are doing.
CB: All those thought exercises you do when you are creating them, right.
Van Meter: And talking about the heart of it because I think there is an illusion that when someone is writing giant armor fight comics, it is easy to imagine that they are not putting the same emotional thought into it that someone is who is, say, writing the memoir of their teenage years or what not. They get to be in the room with people who are talking about, “This whole scene is just because I really, really want everyone to see how painful this is for him.” And everybody is talking about the weight of it. And it is wonderful to be there for that. And it is great to work with a community that is kind of this ugly armored speedboat.
CB: Yeah, it is charging ahead.
Van Meter: Yeah! And everybody is so nice and so smart and so committed to the big projects. It is really cool to be a part of it.
CB: How much of that mystic world did you create versus based on mythology or part of the Valiant universe?
Van Meter: Alright, so what we knew from the Valiant universe when I arrived was that if that if you are Shadowman, you can go to the other side where there is something called Dead Side. It all kind of looks Louisiana voodoo mythos stuff. That is what is there. You can come and go pretty freely and nobody else can, right? Except we looked at it and we were like, “But that’s not Hell. It’s not Heaven.” It’s not the only afterlife there is because that would suggest that in the Valiant Universe, every after everything for everybody is kind of filtered through this one particular mythos.
That didn’t make a lot of sense. There was nowhere to write that that didn’t involve tangling other people’s story continuity like a ball of yarn. What I proposed was that Shan, Dr. Mirage, when she is talking to the dead, she is talking to the ghosts that have stayed here; they haven’t moved on.
When they move on, there is an infinite variety of places they could end up going because what I proposed to them was if the afterlife was kind of based on imagination and belief, there is a Heaven or there is a Valhalla. There is a Hades. There is a vast afterlife where all the Egyptians have all their furniture and cats. And all of those places are there for you, but so is the mountain of thirty-seven hells for thieves. If you cross over and you know that what you need is to go to the hell for people who are cruel to animals, that is there for you.
CB: That’s very interesting. That is implying that the soul lives on forever, for eternity and in your own special world.
Van Meter: Kind of, and yet I theorize for the purpose of the Valiant Universe that there are overlaps. There is a great library that kind of oversees things and there are embassies that might if you were very involved in your particular church, it might be that that church is your embassy to the great library that is sort of the real super heaven.
I don’t know exactly, but one of the things I kind of wanted to say is someone like Shan doesn’t visit for long. It takes a lot of energy to be there, so it is not like she can report back facts. She can report back, “Well, this is how it looked to me.” Because most of the people who go there, they are never going to tell. Right? They are on the other side and they are done with us.
The metaphor that I used to talk to Alejandro about it was that I imagined the entire material world, that all of it that is in space, the moon, everything, the planet that the X-O Manowar started on, it is all like one big building in the middle of a park. That is the material world. And when you live and work in an office building, some people have wandered out and can see a little bit what is out there, but most people do not have that. They are in a cubicle over there. So I said the ghosts that Shan talks to, they are like the people who retire but they can’t quite leave.
CB: Oh, I love that.
Van Meter: They are walking around with their box because they don’t know what to do it. Or maybe they’ve still got an old beef with somebody. So she kind of escorts people to the door. But there are also monsters out in the park and wild animals. And it is light and warm in there and they would like in. And then beyond the park, there are vast, vast expanses of neighborhoods full of everything. And it could go on any way.
I drew this horrible map trying to describe it to Alejandro, and then in the creative retreat in New York I was trying to describe it again to Matt Kindt, who sat there and was just like…
CB: Well, of course!
Van Meter: And he drew this thing that I was like, “Oh, it’s like we found it under a very secret rock.” It is so beautiful. He got his watercolor pens out. But we are kind of talking about is you want to imagine that afterworld or that other world as being as full of possibilities as this one. And if this one can have X-O Manowar in it and also ten thousand year old dudes who learned poetry and also Ninjak and also Rai, then I want an afterworld that can accommodate all of that too. Like I want another side that’s got enough room.
CB: It can accommodate anything.
Van Meter: Yeah! I guess the way I think of it is (I don’t know if this true. I need to find some kind of arboreal scientist to tell me) I was told once and it stuck with me the idea that when are you looking at a tree, like you are driving down the street and are like, “Look, beautiful elm tree,” that in a healthy tree, the root system is going to be as big as everything you see above.
CB: Yeah, I’ve heard that.
Van Meter: That that’s kind of how they stay rooted, right? One of the problems with conifers is they get this really big long taproot, but they are not necessarily spreading out.
Van Meter: So I guess I was trying to mirror that and say the other side’s got to be as big. Then we just hint at it. We say her adventure is she is going to go through some neighborhoods. Hopefully we will indicate that there is so much more that she hasn’t seen.
CB: Are you implying that she is going through these neighborhoods because of the bond that she has to her husband? That they are more or less in sync with their views of the afterlife? Because if so, that is a really interesting character moment, too.
Van Meter: I think if he hadn’t died and the two of them set out through the door and started walking to where the Pale Mistress is, they would see different terrain. But I think they share some things in common because they are both approaching imagining in a similar way. They’re both coming from a place where they are not necessarily thinking that this comes from a god. They are kind of thinking of it as a science. They think of themselves as sort of scientists. So potentially what they see is going to be more similar than what she would see and like Gilad would see.
CB: Right, right. They are both attuned to it.
Van Meter: Yeah, and they’ve read a lot of the same books now. Their headspace is kind of the same.
But on their trip out after she finds him, I did try to play a little bit with the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the same to them. She’s kind of got to guess some stuff. When Roberto was drawing, they keep going back to this wall by this barrier that is supposed to be protecting us from all the monsters and demons. At one point there was an exchange that Roberto was slightly concerned about because if he keeps drawing the wall looking differently, people will think that he doesn’t know what it is for.
I was like, “We’ll talk about it. Tell him to trust me. We’re okay.” Because what we want to do is set people up for the fact that it shouldn’t look the same. It’s turning, you know? I hope we sold it because I would hate for Roberto to think I undermined him. But it was so exciting to be working out with Alejandro, like, “What are we trying to convey here? And are we opening too big a door to too much?” And then sitting around at the retreat and then being like, “So what’s the rule about this?” And them saying, “The rule is if you can figure out a rule, if you are wizard and you get there, you don’t belong.”
The analogy I gave was sort of like Shadowman is the one character in this whole universe that has dual citizenship. That’s his deal. Everybody else looks like a freaking tourist. And it is dangerous. And if you get out unscraped, you are kind of lucky. But I am hoping that we have made it rich enough that other writers might want to try and play with it too because there is all this stuff.
CB: I could have guessed about this backstory, but I had no idea you’d thought this through at such a deep level. It’s so interesting.
Van Meter: The thing is Alejandro would say he never should have let me have so much time to think about it because I probably put off writing the script to #1 for way too long trying to sort it. I think he would have liked me taking three weeks or less to think about it. But it was such a good time talking about it and really thinking what it would mean to have these rules, to have this space laid out. I’m glad that we did it because by about issue three, if we hadn’t had these conversations in some depth, I think I would have dug myself into a hole where I wouldn’t have known how to tell people what the motion of the story was.
CB: you must be dying to work on the next miniseries. You have so much in your heard about these characters, I can imagine.
Van Meter: Yes, there is so much to do.
CB: So much to do? You’ve probably have years of thoughts about where they are going to go, then.
Van Meter: If Valiant lets me keep going, I’m going to keep going as long as they let me because I am in love now. I am in love with these characters and I’ve fallen in love with this team. They’ve been a great company to work for, and I would happily keep writing Shan as long as they’ll let me.
CB: Well you have a new series coming out this summer, is it?
Van Meter: Late summer/fall.
CB: But you have a new miniseries planned out for them.
Van Meter: We do. And it is going to be a little bit more fun because Shan would get to have some fun now. And that’s going to be cool. When I completed that proposal, that outline, I put in three or four, sort of, “Here are some other stories I’d would like to tell about them. They don’t necessarily have to happen in any particular order, but I thought you guys might want to know.” Because I decided to stop waiting to be asked.
CB: I think you want to spend more time in this universe with a few people.
Van Meter: Oh, yeah. It is a delight. It is such a terrific team of people to work with. I feel really blessed. So as long as Roberto wants to draw it, I want to write it.
CB: So do you have this background as deeply organized as the world of the Hopeless Savages, too? Or was that more improvised?
Van Meter: Hopeless Savages is a little more improvised. Either that or it is as deeply thought out, but on a much more gut level. The range on Hopeless Savages is fifteen years now I’ve been working with these characters. There are times I have to go back and look at the stuff. I’m like, “What did I name that character?” which is kind of weird. But it is a different world in terms of the world building.
CB: How is it coming back to them after how many years? It hasn’t been fifteen since you last wrote them.
Van Meter: We did 2000, 2003, about 2005 or 6 was the third miniseries. And then after that I did one little… I had intentions of doing a whole series of little like one-shot stories that for a variety of personal and professional reasons, I was just like, “I can’t do that right now.” So it is about six years ago that I sat down and said, “I am going to start writing the next story.”
I really struggled with it for a very long time because my life had changed and I didn’t think of myself as a really big Zero; I thought of myself as a really small Nikki. So much had changed and I didn’t know how to feel I was being honest about the characters. James Lucas Jones, who is the editor on the book, gave me some very healthy advice and then went and found Meredith. When I saw her art, it was like a whole bunch of stuff fell into place and I knew what I wanted to do.
CB: I assume your relationship with your characters has changed.
Van Meter: Yeah. And you want to be really fair to them. And you want to get them right. Especially with something like an indie book, after a few years it is easy to kind of lose track of who liked this and are those people still out there? And should I do more of this? So the people who have come up since the announcement to tell me that they are looking forward to it have made my day because it is like, “Oh, good! They did want it. Yay!” I think it may be one of the best things I’ve ever written.
CB: That’s great. Wow.
Van Meter: But it is kind of weird to say out loud.
CB: Do you find that you empathize with different characters in the stories?
Van Meter: I empathize with all of them.
CB: Or see yourself maybe in them in a different way.
Van Meter: Yeah, that is more to the point. I identify with them differently. I empathize with them and I relate to all of them. But I think, too, that when I sat down to write this, I was a little afraid I couldn’t be fair to Zero anymore. But that is partly that you get to a certain age and you judge fifteen year old you differently than you used to, you know?
CB: Yes, yes.
Van Meter: When I started writing Zero, I thought of fourteen-year-old me as a more maligned person than she probably was, you know.
CB: I don’t know if you have kids, but raising a fourteen-year-old, too, you have such a different perspective on it.
Van Meter: Oh, yeah, for good and bad.
Van Meter: There are things that I am like, “Oh, did I look like that to my parents?”
CB: Right, exactly! “Was I that much of a…”
Van Meter: And then there’s other stuff where I think, “Oh, they’ve got it so hard, these poor kids. It is even harder than when it was my turn.” There are times when I feel like they’ve got it really rough. And then of course she’s growing up in this little zone where there’s no smartphones yet. Inside the book time is passing differently, which is kind of weird, too.