Comics Ate My Brain

February 14, 2009

Fate Accompli, Part One

Filed under: dr fate — Tom Bondurant @ 4:11 pm
Today I want to look at the first part of DC’s Dr. Fate series, which ran for 24 issues (and an Annual) from 1998-90. It’s the kind of series which doesn’t seem all that relevant today (there have been, what, four Fates since then?); but I remember it as well-crafted and I just completed my collection. Join me, won’t you?

* * *

The late 1980s were a pretty good period for DC’s superheroes. Crisis On Infinite Earths gave DC plenty of opportunities to experiment, especially with characters who had previously been only visitors to the main-line Earth. The new Justice League (soon to be Justice League International) was a representative sample of the merged Earth; and it included Doctor Fate, late of Earth-2. Therefore, I wasn’t surprised to see, not too long into the new Justice League‘s run, a Dr. Fate miniseries by JL‘s braintrust, Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis.

This four-issue miniseries (cover dated July-October 1987) bid farewell to Kent Nelson, the old Doctor Fate. Nelson started out as a costumed sorceror who used mystic artifacts (a helmet and amulet) to wield powerful magical forces. Over the years, the Doctor Fate stories revealed that while Kent himself had learned some basic magic, the real power came not simply from the helmet and amulet, but from the omnipotent being inside them: Nabu, the Lord of Order. Indeed, Nabu was only one Lord of Order among many, and they collectively opposed the Lords of Chaos. It all broke down along pretty clear good vs. evil lines, with the Lords of Chaos being creepy, green, scaly things with lots of sharp teeth, and the Lords of Order being soothing blobs of light, like bubbles in a cosmic lava-lamp. You wouldn’t think a being like Nabu would settle for mere backseat superheroics, and eventually, he didn’t. In time, Nabu completely controlled Doctor Fate whenever Kent put on the helmet.

At the end of the miniseries, however, the status quo had changed radically. Doctor Fate still looked the same — blue-and-yellow costume, yellow cape, featureless golden helmet and matching amulet — but inside “he” was the union of two people, Eric and Linda Strauss. Until Nabu magically aged him to adulthood, Eric had been a ten-year-old boy, and Linda was his stepmother. Kent Nelson, who himself had been aged similarly by Nabu, and who had subsequently been fighting the forces of evil since the 1940s, was allowed to die. For his part, though, Nabu assumed human form, using Kent’s body to do so.

Again, on the outside nothing had changed about Dr. Fate. In fact, he went on to appear in a number of different superhero titles in 1987 and ’88, including the Millennium crossover and the Cosmic Odyssey miniseries. None of it had anything to do with the Strausses or Nabu/Kent. Heck, I didn’t know it wasn’t the original until I saw the chronology on DCUGuide.com.

And then, towards the end of the year, DeMatteis and artist Shawn McManus launched an ongoing Dr. Fate series. Initially it read like a variation on the superhero sitcoms DeMatteis was writing concurrently in Justice League International and Mister Miracle. Indeed, DeMatteis added a hapless straight-man neighbor (lawyer Jack Small, who was tall, ha ha) and a cute demon with a funny accent (Petey, who disguised himself as the ugliest dog in the world). Schtick was plentiful, as were running gags, and really, the comedy — especially the bit about Nabu wanting to be called “Kent” — got old after a while.

Still, the first arc made it clear that the yuks were just the enticement; and the real message of Dr. Fate was ecumenical. Over the course of twenty-four issues (and an Annual), DeMatteis and McManus (and occasional guest artists like Tom Sutton, Jim Fern, and Joe Staton) were telling the larger story of Fate’s struggle between the extremes of Order and Chaos.

But I’m getting ahead of myself….

* * *

The first year or so of Dr. Fate contained basically three arcs. Issues #1-6 saw our heroes team up with Typhon, Lord of Chaos (inhabiting Jack’s body, naturally) and trying to stop Andrew “I … Vampire!” Bennett from bringing on the Mahapralaya, where all creation is washed away and returns to its source. Andrew just wanted to die, but kept being reborn, and the Lords of Order told him the end of creation would be pretty final. (Thus, Typhon’s involvement: the LOOs wanted the current age of Chaos to come to an end, and the LOCs didn’t.) It all went down at a temple in India, where Bennett and Fate realized that no matter what happened to the material world, the eternal forces behind creation remained constant and benevolent. In other words, no Mahapralaya yet, because you can’t hurry a supreme being.

A couple of shorter stories followed: issue #7 spotlighted Petey; and issues #8-9 told the story of amateur sorcerer Joachim Hesse, who was trying to replace the god Indra and just ended up ticking Indra off. In the latter issues we learned that Linda could become Dr. Fate (in female form, obviously) on her own, which she had to do because Eric had fallen sick.

The book then took an unexpected turn. In issues #10-13, Eric and Linda each became their own Dr. Fate, and together they fought Darkseid; but at the end of issue #12, Eric died– taking with him the possibility that Fate will be a new form of humanity — and issue #13 was all about Linda letting go.

* * *

Now, a brief interlude: at that point, all those years ago, I dropped the book.

It’s hard to remember why — maybe I was bored with it, maybe I had budget issues (this would have been my junior year of college), or maybe I just wanted to free up a spot for the new Legion of Super-Heroes.

In any event, I look back now and wonder what was going through the minds of DeMatteis and editor Art Young. Was it poor sales? DeMatteis and McManus (and Young) would stay with the book through #24, almost another year; and their successors would produce seventeen more issues. My experience notwithstanding, Dr. Fate never had the aura of a title no one wanted to read. You certainly couldn’t say it “limped along” for forty-one issues. In today’s environment, after #13, I’m inclined to think that DeMatteis would have left the title, and DC would have brought in another creative team for a few issues of closure.

Looking back, though, it seems like DeMatteis really did have just twenty-four issues’ (and an Annual) worth of Dr. Fate in him, and Eric’s death was just part of the story. I’ll have more to say about the practical aspects of DeMatteis’ story (seen, of course, from the outside perspective of a reader who’s too smart for his own good) — but for now, let’s get back to the plot.

* * *

Issues #14-15 guest-starred Justice League International (including some of the new JL Europe), as old Fate foe Wotan tried to gain ultimate power from, oddly enough, that temple in India where issue #6 concluded. Instead, Wotan was blinded by said power, and went off to be rehabilitated by the temple’s residents.

After a standalone issue (a flashback to E & L’s early days as Fate), DeMatteis’ last act began. Issues #17-24 involved the Phantom Stranger, the creation of an Anti-Fate who served the Lords of Chaos, and the introduction of a pleasant couple with a special little girl. Meanwhile, Linda gradually lost her ability to turn into Fate, Nabu stopped wanting to be called “Kent” (a nice payoff for that particular gag), and Jack and Petey explored the world within Fate’s amulet.

It may be too glib to say that everyone lived happily ever after, but that’s what happened. (In fact, that’s exactly how the Phantom Stranger — who at one point became extremely happy, smiling a big toothy smile which was actually kinda creepy — put it in issue #24.) Eric and Linda were reunited, stepping into the bodies of the recently-deceased nice young couple so that they could take care of the little girl, who was revealed as the new hope for a new form of humanity. Nabu left Kent’s body, choosing to be reborn as Linda’s unborn child; and Kent and his wife Inza returned to life, ready to take over Doctor Fate with #25.

* * *

As a singular body of work, I found DeMatteis’ and McManus’ Dr. Fate fairly satisfying. The ending is a little too perfect, although I’m sure that’s the point; and the same goes for the lessons learned whenever someone tries to use that Indian temple for his own selfish purpose. There is a lot of repetition in these issues, and a good bit of symmetry, but it is the kind of thing which inspires multiple readings.

As an ongoing prospect for a comic-book series, however, Dr. Fate is fascinating for the frustrations I imagine it would provoke in today’s environment. There’s nothing wrong with the basic premise — in fact, it’s the deliberate explosion of that premise (i.e., Eric’s death) which is the source of my fascination. Today, Eric’s death would signal either that the series was being retooled (presumably to improve sales) or that it was going through a ’90s-esque cycle of death, replacement character, and rebirth. The notion that this version of Dr. Fate was finite hardly seems commercially viable to me these days. Indeed, if (as #24 suggests) Kent Nelson was returning to the role , it would make Eric & Linda placeholders, if not the “bait” in a bait-and-switch. Now, Dr. Fate was a very sweet series, and I don’t mean to treat it so cynically; but I’m sure you’ll understand that I’ve been conditioned towards cynicism over the past several years.

Thankfully, I take away from Dr. Fate a message of hope and renewal. DeMatteis argues that although we never really die, each life we live is still worth living. How appropriate, then, that he used a quirky take on a self-perpetuating corporately-owned superhero — one of the most durable of fictional creations — to make his point.

And now I’m off to read Doctor Fate issues #25-41, so watch out for Part Two….

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