The new TPB and thoughts on rereading comics.
Reading a comic as it comes out, issue by issue, takes some dedication. A strength of character I just don’t have any more- but they are our saviors, the ones who determine whether a title is picked up again or a one shot. I did my time- The Maxx in the 90s, Transmetropolitan into the aughts, Nowhere Men more contemporarily. Publishing delays can be painful, unpredictable, seemingly endless. Following something as it comes out, as single issues or in collections, it takes a lot of mindful reading. A lot of rereading.
As each new trade paperback comes out, I start a series from the beginning- no big deal for volume two, but by the time volume four comes out, yeah, you’ve got some reading to do to catch up. Image titles, from the star-crossed lovers of Saga to the barbarian Earth Empire of Prophet, make these periodic rereads work well. Both of those titles hit the four trade mark this year, and stay fresh by expanding the scope of the setting while keeping the plot moving forward. The later books reveal the true depth of the storytelling, each volume’s pace and parts change when placed in the context of the larger tale.
My experience with Marvel titles is different, perhaps because the stories are complete rather than ongoing, perhaps because Marvel titles are by their nature ongoing, characters passed off from one creative team to another. Arcs end, books don’t. This enables you to cherry pick the best books from the best runs- Ed Brubaker’s Daredevil starts strong with Murdock in prison and ends with a two part ninja epic teaming DD with Kingpin against the Hand, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, where Tony Stark hides the government super hero register from Norman Osborn in his own brain and deletes it (and gets rebooted by Dr. Strange), Rick Remender murders the Punisher and brings him back as Franken-Castle- Marvel titles don’t change when you read them again but their sharp ideas stay eternally fresh. Marvel is fun to read again and again, even when you know they’re coming the great moments stay gold.
Something happened to me while reading Valiant’s recently collected The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage that these other books haven’t done. I missed something on the first read.
Doctor Mirage is dense. Packed with ideas. It is a kind of Indiana Jones adventure- replete with magic artifacts and Nazi cultists- but the journey is into a totally foreign, exotic and bizarre fantasy spirit realm to rescue a lost love. In five issues. Not only is it a fun game of Call of Cthulhu, it takes time to flesh out the story of Shan Fong-Mirage and actually uses it later in the story. It’s all told in an explain-as-you-go style so the plot can move forward through the myriad details. So, you’re thrown into the deep end from the first issue, but it’s not hard to follow. There’s just a lot going on.
All of this writing is done by Jen Van Meter. Back in the heyday of Oni Press, beside Greg Rucka’s pulp Antarctica series, Whiteout, and Chynna Clugston’s teenage Mod romance Blue Monday stood Van Meter’s Hopeless Savages, which I guess is a kind of punk rock Boondocks? Hopeless Savages was about a family of outsiders functioning in the normal world.
Shan is a different kind of character. Not just the fact that the titular character is a she, or a person of color, or that those facts are facets of her character incidental to the story and not solely present as a vehicle to sell a book. Comic guru and known Valiant advocate Rob Bricken recently covered a gigantic preview of the series for io9 in which Van Meter expands on her choice to tell a story with an older woman who continues to evolve, to quest for things, to grow.
At the same time, this book has the look. Doctor Mirage looks like she could be an X-Man. It is does straight up Books of Blood horror like Jeff Lemire’s Animal Man, the paranormal professional bravado found in Hellboy or even Ghostbusters, an anything goes afterworld as broad and fantastic as Bill Willingham’s Fables.
So what I missed on the first read was some subtle foreshadowing, a little piece of backstory that tied into a big reveal late in the series. Not “getting it” did not mean the reveal was less powerful, I just didn’t think of it because the twists and turns of the plot pack enough of a punch to stand on their own. But on the reread, the foreshadowing is (obviously) clearer, the moment is bigger and it makes that later reveal into something huge. That oh wow moment when you’re exposed to another layer of the writing. Deep, subtle, fine stuff.
The writing is there. The art is there. The colors are there. The artist for Doctor Mirage, Roberto De La Torre, harkens back to the draftsmanly, Romantic style of Barry Windsor Smith, the no frills power of Michael Lark. Maybe even a touch of Weird Fantasy? There’s so much ground to cover. Simple and cool character design. Domestic stuff out of costume. Then, demon-filled hellscapes. More mysterious corners of the Other World devoid of demons. Flashbacks to occult ceremonies. So many types of so much to look at. David Baron’s colors separate worlds with limited palettes- color keys- that match the old school style of the art, but there is expressionism in there, too, the colors expressing the mood instead of the scenery, colors dictating the tone. Even Dave Lanphear’s text design is ingenuitive, every player is putting in extra to make this work work.
Damn it, Bricken, I guess I’ve got to try Archer & Armstrong now.
The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage
Written by Jen Van Meter
Illustrated by Roberto De La Torre
TPB collects Dr. Mirage #1-5