Superheroes began as power fantasies. What if… you could leap tall buildings in a single bound? What if you were bulletproof? What if you were suddenly stronger, faster, more agile than the bullies who tormented you? What if…
What if you could still see and speak to your long-dead spouse?
It’s a weird idea for a power fantasy, admittedly. But The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is a weird book. Until its publication, Valiant Comics had been dominated by male-led titles that offered, essentially, grittier or more comedic takes on pretty standard superhero fare. Much of it was very well done, but little of it felt fresh. The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage felt like a revelation.
The book opens with our heroine, Shan Fong – the titular Doctor Mirage – on the verge of a nervous breakdown as she prepares to visit a support groups for widows. There, she has been asked to use her unique power, her ability to see and speak with ghosts, to deal with the grief of their recent loss. Shan doesn’t like using her power, not since her husband’s death, at least in part because she can’t find his spirit. She can help bring anyone closure except herself, and she has no idea why.
Early in The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Shan is given a choice: Help an eccentric, reclusive billionaire break his ties to a supernatural entity… and, in doing so, get a lead as to what happened to her husband after death. She’ll have to cross over to the other side, abandoning her body on Earth as her spirit deals with demons, lost souls, and the games the dead play. It’s a bad deal for a shady cause, but Shan can’t pass up an opportunity to see Hwen again, so she takes it.
Because the story begins so long after Hwen’s death, the series runs the risk of being unable to sell the romance – we can see that Shan’s grief is powerful, but we can’t fully understand why. Writer Jen Van Meter cleverly structures the middle chapters of the book around a series of flashbacks: To ‘pay’ for assistance from various ghosts in the underworld, she has to tell them stories, so she tells them stories about her life with Hwen, his death, and what it all meant to her. It’s a lovely story, and Van Meter does a great job at selling how much Hwen means to Shan quickly, and how hard his loss hit.
As she talks about Hwen and begins to process his death in a way that she hadn’t before, she begins to heal, until the moment she’s finally confronted with Hwen’s ghost and is forced to make an awful choice. Over the course of the series, her healing is illustrated wordlessly by Roberto de la Torre and David Baron. When we first meet Shan, she is overcome with grief, so de la Torre uses wide shots or top-down angles to make her appear small and powerless, while Baron uses shadows to obscure her face. But as the series progresses, Baron’s colors get more vivid, forcing her out of the shadow, de la Torre begins to give us more traditional close-ups or images at bottom-up angles that make her feel confident and powerful. As Shan begins to leave her shell and finds a way to move on, the book’s art quietly sells the character’s arc.
We all want another moment with our loved ones after they go, and while we know it is impossible, there’s a part of us that just keeps dreaming. The ability to revisit a lost loved one or a past relationship is a common trope in romantic fantasy, in part because it is so universal a feeling. But few have captured the naked longing half so well as Jen Van Meter, Roberto de la Torre, and David Baron, or have tied it so thoroughly to a genre conceit. The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is the rare fantasy adventure that simply doesn’t work if you don’t buy the central romance – the loss, the longing, and the passion – and while I would have liked to see a little more space dedicated to their relationship as a living couple, I think the book did a good job of selling the underlying emotion.
Thankfully, the series got a sequel: The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage: Second Lives. The same creative team is back, but with Hwen back in Shan’s life – as a ghost, but… – it gives the group more of an opportunity to play with their relationship and build a real, earnest rapport between the two of them. Comics tend not to handle love terribly well, but The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is a supernatural romance that makes it look easy.
The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is written by Jen Van Meter and illustrated by Roberto de la Torre & David Baron. The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage collects the first five issues of the series for $9.99. The second arc, titled “Second Lives,” is currently being serialized by Valiant Comics, and will be released in a collected edition later this year.