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Friday, September 5, 2014

Comics Spotlight Review: The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1

Doctor Shan Fong sees dead people.  While she has been eking out a living helping the grieving let go of lost loves, she herself is unable to overcome her own husband's death, as his spirit seems to have vanished.  It's a life she hates, and it doesn't make nearly enough money to hold onto the house her husband left her, so when a reclusive billionaire offers her money for a consult, she can't say no.  But in the grand traditions of cases you can't say no to, this one comes with a dark secret and some strings attached and sets her on a dangerous path.

It's a simple premise, but writer Jen Van Meter absolutely nails it.  The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1 isa smart, well-paced, emotional book that just happens to fit well into the Valiant Universe, particularly alongside the interesting-but-often-troubled voodoo mysticism of Shadowman.  Van Meter's take here is more measured, more patient than the typical superhero opening chapter, which helps dull at least some of the impact of the exposition-heavy middle of the issue.  Because we already care about Shan and know what's coming - and because of some wonderfully atmospheric work from the art team - a segment of the book that could have been toxic is instead moody and even a bit tense.

A big part of that is how fantastic Van Meter did introducing our lead character.  Doctor Mirage plays into a tricky archetype - the prickly but gifted investigator.  Not only is it something we've seen a thousand times before, but it's tough to make it more than an archetype.  Perhaps Van Meter's strongest creative choice was in staging Mirage less as a sarcastic asshole (a la House) or above-it-all manipulator (like Constantine), but as a woman ravaged by loss and half-trapped in the world of the dead.  Rather than turning us against her and slowly winning us over, Van Meter immediately establishes sympathy and then moves on from there.  Shan is a surprisingly winning character.

Valiant continues to nab top-tier artistic talent and put them on books that let them shine.  Roberto De La Torre's style with The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is chilly and a bit ethereal. In a neat touch, the character designs are simple, the characters portrayed as typically quite small against large, detailed background spaces.  In superhero comics, you often see angles that emphasize the power and size of the heroes, an illusion of nobility; De La Torre often goes for wider shots, showing small people in a large world.  Even when we get close to a character, their features often become more obscured, covered in shadow.  We can spend time with these people, but everyone we meet in this issue wears loss and tragedy like armor against the world.  Only Shan's agent seems to be a normal, functional person; only Shan's agent is never once obscured by shadow or distance.

Colorist David Baron makes similarly strong creative decisions.  Baron's colors are muted, casting a funereal pall over the issue that suggests many of these characters feel only half alive.  The colors are muted, but the full palette is used.  It's the characters, not the world itself, that give the book its feel.  Tellingly, it isn't until the book gets truly supernatural that Baron slips into a more monochrome color use, and it has a dual effect: It feels appropriately otherworldly... but it also feels teeming with life in a way the rest of the book isn't.

The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1 is a fantastic debut issue to what promises to be one of the year's strongest new books.  Travel Foreman's eye-catching cover (above) sells the grim, naked longing that sits at the heart of the book and the darkness closing in around them both; like everything else in the book, it is smart, subtle, and distantly emotional.  I love a good cover, something that can really capture the essence of what you're about to read, and Foreman nailed it.  Jen Van Meter, Roberto De La Torre, and David Baron did their part as well, crafting a great introduction to a little-known character, and I urge you all to check the book out.

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