Review by Win Wiacek
Numerous relatively short-lived or genuinely second-string characters with a remarkably short shelf life through the formative years of the comics industry have since seldom been far from our attention, constantly revived, rebooted and resurrected.
One of the most revered, revisited and frequently revived is Doctor Fate, who first appeared in 1940, courtesy of writer Gardner Fox and the uniquely stylistic Howard Sherman. Although starting strong, he failed to capture the imaginations of enough readers, underwent a radical revision midway through his initial run and lost his strip even before Word War II ended.
This monumental 400-page full colour deluxe hardback re-presents the entirety of Doctor Fate’s 1940s career. The Potentate of Peril is introduced along with his most commonly revived foe, Wotan. During simpler times, origins and motivations were far less important than plot and action, so this eerie yarn focuses on a blue-skinned Mephistopheles’ scheme to assassinate comely lady of leisure Inza, and how her enigmatic, golden-helmed protector thwarts the plot. Our hero deals harshly with the nefarious azure mage, barely mentioning in passing that Fate possesses all the lost knowledge and lore of ancient civilisations.
That’s probably the biggest difference between the original and today’s Fate: back then, he was no sorcerer but an adept of forgotten science, a distinction cribbed from many Lovecraftian horror tales of the previous two decades of pulp fiction.
Like many of Fox’s heroic series, Doctor Fate was actually a romantic partnership, with Inza acting as assistant, foil, and so very often, target of macabre menaces. A sequel sees Fate carry Inza up the Stairs of Judgement to Heaven where they learn their foe is not dead, but actually preparing to blow up the Earth. Foiling the plan but unable to permanently despatch the big blue meanie, Fate buries his enemy alive at the centre of the world.
A year after his debut, Fox at last revealed ‘The Origin of Doctor Fate’. We learn the boy Kent Nelson accompanied his father Sven on an archaeological dig to Ur in 1920. The lad awakened a dormant half-million-year-old alien from the planet Cilia, and accidentally triggered security systems that killed his father. Out of gratitude and remorse, the being known as Nabu the Wise trained Kent to harness the hidden forces of the universe – levitation, telekinesis and the secrets of the atom – and – after two decades – sent him out into the world to battle those who used magic and science with evil intent.
That epic sequence only occupies three pages, however, and the remainder of the instalment finds time and space for Fate and Inza to turn back a ghostly incursion and convince Lord of the Dead Black Negal to stay away from the lands of the living.
In late 1941 the full-face helmet was replaced with a gleaming metallic half hood and Fate’s powers diminished. Moreover, the hero was no longer a cold, emotionless force of nature, but a passionate, lusty, two-fisted swashbuckler throwing punches rather than pulses of eerie energy. The quality and character of his opposition changed too. He now faced robbers, spies and swindlers.
His final year instituted more changes. Society idler Nelson quickly qualifies as a surgeon and medical doctor, embarking on a new career of service to humanity. Additionally, his alter ego ditches the golden cape, to become an acrobatic and human – if still bulletproof – crimebuster.
Initially dark, broodingly exotic and often genuinely spooky, Doctor Fate smoothly switched to a bombastic, boisterous, flamboyant and vividly exuberant, but couldn’t escape evolving times and trends.