Martin Pasko and Walt Simonson did more than just produce a superb story in First Issue Special 9, they turned Dr Fate into a viable modern-day character. Though it took DC until the Eighties before they began to take Fate’s possibilities seriously, there were multiple attempts during that decade to turn the master magician, the Lord of Order, into a viable feature.
Pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths there was a back-up feature in The Flash for eight issues, later collected in a prestige format mini-series together with the Pasko/Simonson story, then post-Crisis a four issue mini-series that killed off Kent and Inza Nelson and introduced a new Dr Fate, an ongoing series of forty-one issues, the longest run Fate had after More Fun Comics, which was effectively two series stapled together, the first (of twenty-four issues) featuring Eric and Linda Strauss, the second (seventeen issues), bringing back Kent and Inza Nelson.
All of this was separate from Dr Fate’s regular gig in the Justice League/Justice Society team-ups, where he was the most frequent participant from the JSA, and his involvement in the team’s second life in All-Star Comics and Adventure Comics.
If you’re thinking that all of this could easily turn out a mish-mash, you’re not far wrong. I have all these solo issues on DVD now, together with a much later solo mini-series which has very little relationship to these efforts to establish the character, which I’ll precis at the end.
For now, let’s look at how Fate fared in the back of The Flash in 1983.
There were two stories in this run, each of four instalments, the first written by Pasko, building on the factors he’d set up in First Issue Special – Fate’s connection to the Egyptian Gods, Kent Nelson’s position as host for Fate and Inza’s continuing inability to reconcile herself to the need to share her husband with something she couldn’t understand and her loneliness when Fate is away on missions – and the second was written by Steve Gerber, with Pasko, which expanded the story in the direction that was later to be taken with the character.
The episodes were all drawn by Keith Giffen, with inks from Larry Mahlstedt, in the clean, open, neo-futurist style he’d used on the Legion of Superheroes, which had brought him great acclaim. Giffen drew fantastic scenes and made superb use of colour overlays to add a psychedelic aspect to his art.
The second story picked up on a thread introduced by way of foreshadowing by Pasko. This was museum director Vernon Copeland, a handsome man in his (probably) fifties, with distinguished white hair at his temples. Copeland is new at his job, with an affinity for women his own age that leads him to brush off the flirting directed at him by his sexy secretary.
Vern wants to get Kent Nelson, noted archaeologist, to contribute to the museum, but in the only photo he has, Kent is almost completely obscured by Inza, who Vern thinks is absolutely hot.
Which is unfortunate because, when Vern calls in the Gerber/Pasko story, Kent is off being Dr Fate and Inza answers the phone. When Vern hears she was on the relevant dig with Kent, he enthusiastically invites her to lunch. He thinks she’s even hotter in person, whilst Inza not only enjoys flexing her own archaeological muscles, she finds Vern rather dishy. Some of that is a response to the obvious way that he’s into her, but an equal part of it is that he looks like Kent would, if Fate had allowed him to age to his real age. Suddenly, they’re kissing. At the very moment that Fate, reaching out to Inza, connects with her and sees. At least it’s Fate, not Kent. So far.
Of course, the whole thing is a plot to destroy Dr Fate by driving a wedge between Kent and Inza, until the former refuses to transform again. Fate is faced with two renegade Lords, one of Order, the other of Chaos, allied for their own ends. His only recourse is to draw Inza herself into the merge, giving him the power to defeat his foes, her her first insight to what it’s really like to be the Lord of Order, and both a true understanding of the gulf between their separate situations.
Where Pasko or Gerber would have gone with that, and with Vern Copeland, who’d already tried to separate Inza from Kent deliberately, claiming he didn’t deserve her if he neglected her, still set on pursuing our red-headed lady was not to be known. The back-ups ceased, Vern Copeland was forgotten, and the next time DC tried to activate Dr Fate, Crisis on Infinite Earths was over, and more than one superhero was undergoing change.
The path had been laid for the character’s most extraordinary transformation. Inza Nelson had been allowed, for a couple of pages, to share the transformation into Dr Fate and it was this aspect that J M de Matteis picked up on with a four-issue mini-series out to create a new Dr Fate. Art was by Giffen again, but this was the other Giffen, the one who’d rejected his clean, well-structured art for something fractured, angular and distorted, as influenced by the Argentinian artist, Jose Munoz.
I bought the mini-series at the time but didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was that it took away Kent Nelson, who’d been Dr Fate all the time I’d known him, a lot was down to Giffen’s art but as much of it was de Matteis’ construction of a new structural underpinning.
de Matteis was always into stories with a spiritual underpinning, drawn from Eastern philosophies rather than Western mythology, to which I always respond more instinctively. Building on the fact that Dr Fate, or rather Nabu, was now established as a Lord of Order, part of the eternal struggle between Order and Chaos that everyone ripped off from Michael Moorcock, de Matteis now introduced the idea that Earth cycles through four cosmic cycles, starting with an era of pure Order, passing through two ages of increasing Chaos influence and ultimately putting us now firmly in the fourth of these cycles, the Kali Yuga, the age of pure Chaos.
So, despite the battle between Order and Chaos having gone on for over half a million years Order has decided not to bother for the Kali Yuga. Why should they raise a mystical finger when all they need to is go for an extended tea-break and come back when it’s their turn again?
This defeatist attitude riles Nabu/Fate, who is the descended one because he was sent down to Earth to fight against Chaos and won’t give up now. As a result, he’s kicked out of Order and, effectively, defrocked. The fight is his own. And he’s handicapped.
Because Inza is dead. Later, it will be ascribed to suicide, to knowledge of the discovery that will not be made until the last issue of this mini-series but for now it’s fudged, it could just as easily be natural causes, despite Nabu’s spells that keep both Nelsons young. Either way, Kent has aged considerably (no, he doesn’t look like Vern Copeland, Vern is completely forgotten) and is only hanging around to assist Nabu in selecting a new Dr Fate. Nabu at this point is a wide-open mouth in Nelson’s stomach, with lots of predatory teeth, which is a sight you don’t want to see.
The choice falls upon Eric Strauss. The pattern is going to be the same. Eric is only ten years old but he’s going to be accelerated to manhood, exactly like Nelson. Only he’s not like Nelson in almost every way you could probably imagine. His Dad, who’s dead, was a big-time gangster. He’s being brought up by his stepmother, Linda Strauss, a somewhat skinny short-haired blonde, though you can tell very little from how Giffen draws her.
The relationship between Eric and Linda can only be classed as dodgy. Linda has feelings and, dare we say it, stirrings about her ten year old stepson. He’s so wise, so mature, an old soul, and besides she only married his Dad for his money, which doesn’t say much for her to begin with.
And then suddenly Eric’s a grown man, age undetermined but impliedly on a par with her, and whilst she’s outraged at what has been done to him, there’s a part of her that, to put it bluntly, can’t wait to get at him.
But the big reveal comes when Eric insists on having Linda with him when he transforms into the Doctor, whilst Nabu tries to insist she stay out of it. This is no mere misogynist gesture, because Eric realises the real and awful truth, which is that Dr Fate was always intended to be the merger of male and female (into a very male looking form but we’ll deal with consistency when anyone gives a damn). Fate should always have been Kent and Inza, but Nabu shunted the redhead aside so he could control Dr Fate himself, naughty naughty.
Cue therefore a complete meltdown from Eric, calling Nabu as evil as Chaos, the effective merger of him and her and Fate saving the temporary day. After that Kent dies peacefully but the now no-longer-Lord-of-Order Nabu takes over his aged body to act as trainer and advisor to Eric and Linda who, henceforth and forever, will be Dr Fate.
Actually, they won’t, but you know how these things go.
This was where Doctor Fate’s first ever ongoing series under his own name began. It’s written by de Matteis, but art duties have transferred to Shawn McManus, the artist of all the bucolic-looking, cartoon-like fill-ins on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, most notably the homage to Pogo. McManus was perfect on those, his style involving rounded characters and perpetual broad grins suggesting we’re mere inches away from the top of the head falling off, but dare I suggest he’s not the best fit for a superhero supernatural series which is going to involve demons, as well as a very awkward psychosexual setup involving a twenty-nine year old woman hot to trot and a ten year old boy in the body of a twenty-nine year old man who is nowhere near the emotional maturity to handle jumping her skinny bones. The situation is not helped by McManus’s style on Linda’s short hair doing very little to make her look tempting (bring back Inza!).
The note being struck at first is predictable: it’s all about arguments. Nabu argues with Eric about his abandoning the connection that lets him advise them, Linda argues with Eric about the bombastic way he talks, he argues with her about being a weak part of the combination, oh it’s a happy little household indeed.
Meanwhile, an overlooked demon invader of hideous mien stalks towards Fate’s sanctum to be attacked thoughtlessly when actually he’s a non-bad demon who only wants to live in Earth in peace once Nabu talks to him, and is adopted as the household pet, Petey, shape-shifted into a dog. Since de Matteis is, and the humour definitely was Jewish, it’s highly appropriate for me to say, Oi vey!
This formulation would last exactly two years. I did have the run but I sold it, unhappy at too many aspects of it, from the jokey art to the mystical writing and some extremely glutinous combinations of the two. One major departure was that Fate’s golden helm was no longer a helm but Fate’s head, which may not have looked much different but was hard to reconcile to.
The panel to panel writing is even more irritating now. de Matteis was dialoguing Justice League International as a superhero sitcom and carries that over to this series. Not having re-read the JLI in a couple of decades, I wonder how I might feel about it now, but it’s tedious here thanks to the self-consciousness with which it’s laid on.
The constant bickering between Eric and Linda, both in propria persona and in the shared consciousness of the Doctor was repetitive in the extreme over the early issues, with Eric playing the bombastic card, the gothic language, the uncontrolled temper underlined by the fear of inexperience, and Linda trying to play an equal role. It was enough to drive anyone mad and Eric was a long way down the road already when, as early as issue 4, he lets Linda take over, producing a female Doctor Fate, and one with much bigger tits than she had, a fact rather blatantly highlighted on the cover of the next issue, along with her ass. Karen Berger is still editing this, isn’t she?
The first serialised story took five issues to get through, ending with a ton of metaphysical nonsense bound up in over-ripe smiles and the non-death and non-rebirth of the universe. I don’t remember it being so utterly awful back then, I may have been thirty years and more younger but I wasn’t that undiscriminating.
McManus started inking his own pencils in issue 7, in which Petey went back to Hell to fetch his demon girlfriend, a story that was literally unreadable, and that before the constant cutesy dialogue. We were only just half a year into the series and Eric was laid up with dysentery (who cares?) so Linda had to become tits-and-ass Fate again, painfully, only half as strong and with practically no knowledge of the magic side of things, that being Eric’s job. I am already being tempted to go and re-read Swing with Scooter.
Anyway, if you believe the story, Eric died in issue 9, and Darkseid turned up to loom ominously. Even though it was continued on the next cover, he wasn’t actually dead, although don’t start planning any parties because de Matteis is off on another of his spiritual ascensions. A new fetus is about to arrive on Earth that will be the first in a new order of Humanity, outgrowing gods, especially Order, Chaos and New. In fact, that’s why Order wants to speed through the Kali Yuga, to get rid of it before it gets rid of them. Darkseid offers to kill it in return for a half share in the Universe, whichever side wins.
So Darkseid goes to kill Dr Fate in the form of Eric, because Linda’s out of town. Eric becomes Dr Fate on his own but is Boom Tubed to Apokalips. Linda becomes Dr Fate on her own as well and goes to Apokalips to rescue Eric. Vel Semeiks and Mark Buckingham fill-in at the crucial moment. Eric-Fate and Linda-Fate hold hands and defeat Parademons. On Earth, Nabu admits that the energies he used to age Eric from 10 to 29 are killing him. On Apokalips, the Strauss’s defeat Darkseid by opening their love for each other in his heart (oh, now he’s raping Kirby’s creations as well).
Having won the day, Linda’s just about to take the exhausted Eric home when a soldier throws a spear at her. Eric jumps in the way. He dies. I told you not to start planning any parties. We are halfway through de Matteis’s run but don’t worry, it gets worse.
So, in the space of one year, a Doctor Fate intended to be the merger of male and female, animus and anima, is reduced to anima only, to play the weak female stereotype with a survivor incapable of handling the power and the responsibility. What is this, still the Fifties? Was Karen Berger editing this? No, she’d moved on, to better things (i.e., absolutely anything else) and left it to Art Young now).
Before that there was an odd story in issue 13, concluding the death of Eric story. McManus suddenly sharpened up his art whilst de Matteis provided a surprisingly excellent portrayal of Linda in denial-grief over the loss of Eric. She insisted on forcing herself to become Dr Fate, despite the absolute torture that represented, and going off to Limbo to bring him back, at which point the story nose-dived into what de Matteis had Linda call ‘cosmic platitudes’, though immediately afterwards she Understood. Having a Christ-substitute Guide drawn to look like de Matteis himself was the nadir.
Bringing back Fate’s oldest nemesis, Wotan, and guest-starring Justice League Europe resulted in a mish-mash with another glutinous ending, transforming the villain into a proto-saint by confronting him with the ultimate power, God as Love. You can go off redemption when it’s flung at you so relentlessly, like a custard pie to the face.
The basic problem is that I am completely out of sympathy with de Matteis’ spiritual beliefs, which are the core of the series. In real life I have ended up an atheist, a pragmatist, insistent upon actuality and fact, and the nebulous and, indeed, platitudinousness of de Matteis’ portrayal of a Universe where God is Love and everything is Love, and the pain and suffering of being human can be borne by recognising this Universe of Love is just wishful thinking to me of a kind to which I can’t respond. Or, to put it more crudely, it’s bullshit.
Anyway, the endgame starts in issue 17. Eric and his Guide pause at the edge of Nirvana because he needs to go back, via a convoluted past of people’s previous lives. This is because de Matteis is introducing Eugene de Bella, a slightly overweight, manically happy guy with a wife, a ridiculously beaming daughter called Faith, a de Matteis moustache and another baby on the way. This is the guy de Matteis kills off in a car accident in order that Eric can merge with his body and reanimate it, leading the depressed Linda to beam a truly mad smile that just hurts to look at, it’s such a harbinger of obsessive danger: “He’s alive!”
The story grinds slowly. Linda can’t become Dr Fate any more. An Anti-Fate is constructed by Chaos and takes two full issues of brooding before deciding to act. The Phantom Stranger drops in on Eugene de Bella to talk to Eric (and his sickeningly cute six year old) to unveil the plot that Eric and Wendy’s forthcoming child is the progenitor of the new humanity Order and Chaos were trying to prevent, and Nabu-as-Kent Nelson takes everybody to the reconstructed Fate’s tower in Salem, where the real helm and amulet have also been re-constituted, and Petey the demon and Jack Small the lawyer, who I’ve been trying to avoid mentioning, are sent into the amulet to bring out it’s occupants, the souls of Kent and Inza Nelson… Has this entire run, and its preceding mini-series, just been an elaborate bluff?
Four more issues to the end, four issues none of which were worth describing except the last one, which was in the form of a bedtime story told by The Phantom Stranger to Eugene and Wendy’s six year old heap of sugar daughter Rainie, who could give you diabetes just from looking at her and who, this you hadn’t guessed already? was the new seed of humanity. Along the way, Kent and Inza agreed to come back from their private heaven of normality in the amulet, despite Inza fighting every step of the way until she’s convinced to do so by her imaginary son, whilst Linda became Dr Fate one last time in conjunction with Nabu, got their asses soundly kicked and she died. Which was all right because Wendy de Bella was about to suffer a fatal cerebral haemorrhage and have Linda take over her body, just as Eric had Eugene (so the two could finally shag to their hearts’ content without it being seriously icky).
And everything ended with the cosmic smile that signalled nothing more than the urgent need to turn the page as fast as possible. This has to be the most appallingly sickening series I’ve read and I cannot believe I once actually bought all twenty four issues. Should a time machine come into my possession, I shall be going back to give my younger self a good shillelaghing for doing so.
I am at least pleased that this issue saw a complete sweep-out, de Matteis, McManus and Young getting the kick in the seat of the pants and being replaced by a completely new creative team, starting with editor Stuart Moore and going on to penciller Vince Garriano and, most welcome of all, writer William Messner-Loebs. This was going to be much better.
I was already a fan of Bill Loebs for his independent series Journey, which he wrote and drew, and it is one of the minor tragedies of my life that not enough people bought Journey to sustain it indefinitely. But Loebs was a refreshing mind, and a very left/socialist oriented one, to bring to bear on any subject, even when he was clearly writing beneath himself on superheroes, like the Wally West Flash and the new Dr Fate.
Because Loebs wasn’t just going to bring back Kent and Inza, oh no. There were a few twists immediately. Instead of being trapped in Fate’s tower in Salem, Kent initiated a merge, first of himself and Inza, then of the tower with a tall, thin apartment block in New York that Sven Nelson owned and Kent inherited. Which is now the last intact building in a neighbourhood that’s not so much run down as being actively decimated, a place for poor people, most of them not white, driven down by the underside of the Yuppie dream.
Meanwhile, the Lords of Order are abandoning Earth to its own fate except for one crusty old bugger determined to wreak revenge on the traitor Nabu and Dr Fate. Only this time, when Kent and Inza try to merge to defend themselves, only Inza makes it through the mix. We have a new, inexperienced female Fate again, one who will approach superpowers with non-male thinking who, in the meantime, defuses Shat-Ru by binding him into the (mummified) body of old Kent, from which he can’t escape without burning it up before he can escape. If you get my drift.
Loebs was taking the series in a unique direction. Inza as Fate thought as a woman, with the instinct to deal with her neighbourhood and the people in it. Doing things that were in themselves trivial, like repairing broken traffic lights and giving people new dresses, things that directly benefited people in ways they could see and feel, without their having to be hurt or threatened first. Kent worried, argued, feared. She wasn’t doing it right, which meant she wasn’t doing it the way he had, even as he was incredibly grateful not to have to be Fate any more.
But was Inza doing too much? Was she retarding people by making them too dependent upon her?
Garriano left after five issues, leaving Peter Gross to take over the full art job for an issue before Chas Truog spelled him. And Loebs dealt with the question of the use of power by having Inza Fate refuse to allow a young Policewoman die, shot in a bloody stupid accident. The energy this took was taken from the living, causing Inza’s elderly friend Mary to have a heart attack. Unintended consequences: even good things have them. And the saved woman understood who Fate really was.
And from there it was one step to taking a Master of the Universe, a man who openly didn’t give a shit for those who had no power, and stripping him of everything: power, money, empire and identity, and using those resources for public benefit.
It was glorious, on one level. All the rich shits should have that done to them, for simply stealing all the air for themselves, but at the same time it was the ultimate in Might makes Right, a level of power that no-one should have. Power Corrupts: What the Hell else is it for? as Howard Chaykin put it.
The path crossed for two issues with DC’s other 1991 Summer crossover, War of the Gods, something for which Dr Fate was well-fitted, En route, four Egyptian gods claimed to have blocked Kent Nelson out of the transformation on the basis that they’d find the inexperienced Inza easier to overcome but it didn’t work out like that.
Loebs then turned the screw by presenting Inza with a tragic outcome based on her not helping someone, causing a backlash where she tries to do everything. This brings Government and Big Business down on her tail because, you know, it’s wonderful that people are happier and safer and more content but they’re not smoking or drinking or doing drugs in the same quantities any more, and we can’t have that, fortunes are not being made out of weakness.
It’s a savage point, an extreme satire yet one that, in the world in which we reside, one of an unwanted truth. Kent has to go in to bring her down, and which point Inza’s swallowed by the Helm… Whilst we’re set up for the big reveal, Kent resumes being Dr Fate in his own way, with the half-helm of yesteryear before coming to the rescue of Inza, prisoner of a Lord of Chaos, because it is Chaos-Magic, not Order, that has infused her tenure, hence Kent’s exclusion.
And in the end, Dr Fate’s investment in people was repaid. When Inza, without chaos-magic or order-magic still defied the Chaos Lord, the neighbourhood stood with her to back her as she had backed them. All over the world, the currents of love and magic in every human being fuelled her. It was another retcon of Dr Fate, in its way as mystical as de Matteis’s gloop, but far more moving and impressive because it needed no gods, just humans to be human in their best way, to be ourselves as we can be. And no damned stupid smiles.
In a way, that was the end. Even though there were four issues left. After a weak fill-in, Loebs contributed a mini-arc of three issues dealing, with a fair degree of reality with the aftermath of what had just happened. There’s an instinctive groundedness to this coda that would permeate the best of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City only a few years later. Of course, being politically sympathetic never hurts.
The whole thing is a gentle easing down, a steering into the skid. There’s a calmness to it that you know can’t last because, after all, it’s only possible to be a different kind of superhero for so long until the novelty wears out and they want the same thing back again. Inza wrapped things up in swaddling clothes, and it was done.
Dr Fate was cancelled after forty-one issues, a decent enough run. For once, it was not cancelled because its sales had fallen too low, but because without a powerful new direction, and a creative team eager to explore it, it would have run itself into the ground, into cancellation, probably within half a year. Why do that? Let it rest in goodwill, and return when someone was fascinated enough to kickstart it again.
That was the theory. In practice, Mike Carlin exerted his influence to get the Justice Society finally killed off in Zero Hour: Crisis in Time, and the next Doctor Fate was no Doctor. The Doc returned as Hector Hall, and later Kent V Nelson, about whom I’ll write another time in a kind of coda to this piece, but this was the last time Kent and Inza Nelson played their signature role.
I’m very glad Bill Loebs put in that year and a half and Fate didn’t end on de Matteis and McManus. But in dozens of old comics the Doctor Fate who matters to me will always exist, in one form or another.