Since the independent market came to prominence in the 1980s, comics readers have grown used to the idea that, sooner or later, somehow or other, most stories will be completed in something like the form that their creator envisioned. Breaking the link to mainstream, own-all-the-rights, mass market publishers enabled creators to hew more closely to the idea that first inspired them, and to proceed with sales far lower than those that DC or Marvel would have countenanced, but which could still sustain them because they took a far greater share of the income.
That hasn’t always been the case, and there are still stories that disappear, never to be concluded.
Take the example of Journey, written and drawn by Bill Messner-Loebs, and sub-titled ‘The Adventures of Wolverine MacAlistaire’. Journey, and MacAlistaire made their debut as a back-up two part story in Cerebus in that period when Dave Sim was flirting with the idea of helping independent creators to improve their visibility by contributing to a successful, noticeable title. Loebs had already seen the benefit of this policy, contributing a five part tale, ‘Welcome to Hell, Dr Franklin’, a fantasy centred upon Ben Franklin. Sim and his wife Deni were impressed enough to offer to publish Loebs for a six-issue mini-series, and the two-parter was designed as a lead into that, introducing Josh ‘Wolverine’ MacAlistaire.
The setting was the frontier, the time somewhere around 1810. MacAlistaire was a fur trapper, out on his own, living off the wild, unsuited to civilization and to more than occasional human contact.
What Loebs was capable of was established on the very first page. MacAlistaire, a lone figure silhouetted against the sky of a grassland dotted by intermittent trees. Birds pour into the sky. He walks towards a stand of trees, the narrative captions slowly setting the time, the place, the pace. It’s the laconic words of a frontiersman, telling tales around a fire, years later. It ends with the words: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin… that was where the Frontier commenced back then… the old Northwestern Territories… No Civilization…No farms… Hardly any Indians… just trees and skies and considerable silence.
I can’t speak for you but that was – is – enough for me. I’m taken there, secure that I’m in the hands of someone who, like the once-legendary, but now near-forgotten trapper himself, knows where he is.
What followed that first page was an astonishingly powerful 14 page sequence that, in an era when the X-Men, under Claremont and Byrne, was the standard to which all aspired, demonstrated that the stakes did not need to be universe-threatening to be extremely intense and powerful.
Simply put, MacAlistaire disturbed and fled from a bear, exhausting himself in a fruitless attempt to escape until the bear finally got bored and turned back.
The sequence began with a bravura pair of pages in which Loebs manipulated the possibilities of comics without ever varying from a static, rigid grid and camera angle.
Both pages are identical: the ‘camera’ is set at ground level, two hundred yards or so from the stand of trees MacAlistaire was approaching. On the left hand page, the laconic dialogue, the campfire voice continues to set the scene, out there where a man has only himself to rely upon. The first two panels are empty of movement, only the narrator metaphorically settling himself down.
But in the third panel, MacAlistaire bursts from the trees, running at full pelt, his pack bouncing. He’s clearly terrified, which grows as he nears the camera, the sixth and final panel focussing on his moccasin as he passes the ‘camera’.
On the second page, we learn why MacAlistaire is running, as the bear emerges from the woods, in pursuit. But without moving the ‘camera’ an inch, Loebs emphasises the relative speeds for pursued and pursuer: the bear does not appear until the third panel of six, and by the fifth, his paw is almost blocking the camera’s view: the sixth panel is empty of everything but the prairie and the trees, and the narrator’s little joke.
It’s not until the second chapter that we get to the point of the mini-series, the MacGuffin. MacAlistaire encounters a pair of French trappers, one of whom is carrying a parcel to be delivered to a settlement the other side of Lake Superior, and agrees to carry it in return for a trade of (decidedly inferior) goods.
In the end, it would take until issue 22 and a change of publishers to deliver the parcel to New Hope. Indeed, from the very earliest of stages, it didn’t look at all possible for Loebs to get MacAlistaire to his destination in anything remotely like six issues, as his journey would take him through a series of encounters with the wierd, the wild and the strange in that empty, unimaginable land. The series became open-ended, to the delight of its readers who were having too good a time to want this to stop any time. The journey was too much fun.
As for Loebs’ art, it was obvious from the first cursory glance that he had seen Will Eisner draw before. Indeed, to begin with it was impossible to see beyond the extraordinary similarity of line work. But Eisner was an artist of the city and the streets, and Loebs was an artist of the wilds, and though his drawing was superficially close, his choice of angles, his sense of pacing was his own, and the longer the series persisted, the less Loebs looked like Eisner-manque, and the more he looked like Loebs-prime.
I mentioned earlier a change of publishers: without warning, Journey 15 appeared published by Fantagraphics instead of Aardvark-Vanaheim. The circumstances behind the switch have never been disclosed, but the hints dropped in interviews and exchanges between Sim and Fantgraphics Publisher Gary Groth paint an image of a total breakdown in the creator/publisher relationship with Loebs and the Sims, with the former apparently turning up at the printers and demanding all his artwork. There were also stories of Dave Sim shouting threats to kill Loebs in the background of a telephone conversation between Groth and Deni Sim that Sim later passed off as humour.
Either way, Fantagraphics took over. There was little change, except in the publisher’s logo, though after two issues on the standard newsprint AV used, the stock was upgraded to a whiter, sturdier paper.
Eventually, after all the diversions, after the long digressions to Fort Miami, facing attack by Indians, MacAlistaire arrived at New Hope, accompanied by the acerbic, self-superior poet, Elmer Alyn Craft (whom many have chosen to see as a stinging satire on Groth himself: though Kraft was introduced long before the move to Fantagraphics, the parallels are easy to see).
What the pair found there was a community sinking under the weight of old sins and hypocrisies. The parcel turned out to be a Bible, delivered to Elinor, who had briefly been a lover of Kraft. But there were undercurrents associated with the death of Elinor’s late Reverend husband that slowly unpeeled over an intense winter until everything was laid bare to be seen, and the community given a chance to survive, free of its secrets.
Which was the cue for Kraft to stay and MacAlistaire to move on. The series ended with issue 27 and whilst it is mostly forgotten now, it is still a masterpiece.
In what way then is Journey Uncompleted? It was always a picaresque series, dependant upon movement from setting to setting. MacAlistaire was never a man to be comfortable in staying in one place for very long. There would always be more to tell, in the same way that no superhero comic really ends. And his past lay behind him, though close to the surface: nightmares about the Dark Man, a continually shifting series of claims about what his father did, occasional glimpses of what Ol’ Josh had seen and done, all contributing but never explaining the need to move on, the desire for silence, the fear of living over his own grave.
That was, however, the intention. Despite everything Fantagraphics had done, Journey still did not sell in enough numbers to sustain itself as an ongoing project. Loebs had made enough of a splash with it that he had begun scripting series for DC: The Flash, Dr Fate. Scripting only: there was no way his art would ever be considered appropriate for mainstream comics.
But he and Fantagraphics had no wish to abandon Journey. Thus it was announced that the series would continue, but as successive limited series, the first of which was to be Wardrums, a six issue series in which MacAlistaire became involved in the war of 1812 between America and the British.
What’s more, Wardrums would be printed in sepia, to reflect its olde worlde nature.
So the series began, though a wonderful tale of MacAlistaire’s encounter with a very territorial beaver had nothing to do with the war of 1812. That would undoubtedly be a part of issue 2.
But issue 2 never appeared. Or rather it did not appear for three years, a fact humorously recognised in its indicia by Loebs. It came out without fanfare, without any being aware, in black and white, the sepia promise forgotten. At a later date, I read reference to the art for issue 3 being destroyed in a housefire. It took me until 2014 to locate a copy of Wardrums 2, to complete what there was of MacAlistaire’s adventures, even though there was no point, no earthly prospect of the series, the story ever coming near to completion.
So far as I am aware, Loebs only drew two more comics, two issues of a new series titled Bliss Alley, published by Image in 1997, centring upon a street tramp with hallucinations, named Wizard Walker. It was the most untypical thing Image ever published and I seized greedily upon it whilst expecting it not to last: there was never a third.
Loebs and his wife Nadine fell on hard times in the 2000s, forced to live in a homeless shelter. As long ago as the 1980s, I was openly stating that we fans of Journey needed to find a rich patron who would settle a private income on Loebs so that he could write and draw Journey forever. But millionaires tend to back the wrong things.
Because of Wardrums, Journey is technically and emotionally incomplete. It would always have felt like that, even if that 27 issues series had been the whole of it, because of its nature. It was a journey, and it would not be finished until Wolverine MacAlistaire reached the end of his trail. We walked beside him for far too short a time for it ever to feel complete.
Wonder Woman marks another problem. For one, there is her anomalous status within the Forties Justice Society of America: a guest in All-Star 11, taken on as secretary in issue 12 and, two early adventures aside, a permanent onlooker, frequently appearing in only a single panel, for years. Even when the Amazing Amazon finally started getting into the act properly, in All-Star 40, there was never any time when she was granted membership.
The bigger issue is that Wonder Woman was one of the Big Three, the Trinity, the three archetypal heroes for whom there was no break, no discontinuity, but continuous publication that spanned the Golden and Silver Ages, that spanned Earths 1 and 2, before and after they were created. Wonder Woman is one of the unchanging ones, the primal three who, no matter what twists and turns and occasional changes will be made, will always be the one version.
A decade ago I wrote an unpublished essay, poking fun at the convoluted state of affairs that had come into being, whereby there had been a total of five Wonder Womans at that point, but of which three of them had been Princess Diana (errr…) of the Amazons.
I’m tempted to copy and paste it here, although any updating of it would now have to recognise seven Wonder Womans, five of them Diana. But it’s not of a piece with this series, so I will deal with the character in a straightforward manner, though in rather less depth than usual.
Whatever her standing as a Forties member, Wonder Woman is indelibly linked with the JSA, having made her first appearance in All-Star 8, in an unrelated bonus story. She was created by psychologist William Moulton Marston, under his pen-name Charles Moulton, and drawn by artist Harry G. Peter, Marston’s personal choice (over the objections of Charlie Gaines at All-American), although Peter’s contract did not allow him to claim any creative aspect.
Marston, who had already played a large role in creating the Lie Detector Test, was a free-thinker who espoused the principles of free love and of bondage/submission as a cure for human violence (a course he advocated freely through his creation: those old Wonder Woman stories are seriously weird-in-a-not-good way). Wonder Woman came about in part due to the early backlash about comics, their violence and their overall suitability for kids.
Marston advised All-American that they needed a female superhero, to introduce loving authority into their comics. Gaines invited him to create such a character, and agreed a deal whereby Marston retained a proprietary interest in the Amazon: should All-American/National/DC fail to publish her for one month, the rights would revert to Marston or his heirs. Marston originally named his creation Suprema, but Sheldon Mayer replaced it with Wonder Woman.
Marston created his character out of myth. The Amazons, under their Queen, Hyppolita, had retreated from the world to hidden Amazon Island, where they lived in peace and were perfect specimens of womanhood. Hyppolita, a beautiful blonde, longed for a child: the Gods instructed her to form a baby from the clay of the riverbank, into which they breathed life, creating Diana, the best Amazon ever.
In 1941, an American plane, containing Colonel Steve Trevor, crashed through the barriers surrounding Amazon Island. Diana saw, and fell irreversibly in love with, the first man she saw. After learning of the War in Man’s World, Hyppolita decided to send an Amazon representative there, to spread peace. She organised a competition to find a worthy winner, but forbade Diana to take part. Diana entered wearing a mask (that would have fooled no-one) and won. Reluctantly, Hyppolita gave way and allowed her daughter to don the special costume that had been made for the winner – coincidentally consisting of a bustier red top decorated by the American Eagle and blue culottes, decorated with silver stars, just like the American flag.
Diana then ventured into Man’s World with Col. Trevor. Almost immediately, she met Army Nurse Diana Prince, who was identical to her and who was crying because she couldn’t get to the West Coast to be with her fiancé. So Diana gave her the money and took Miss Prince’s ID, to be near her beloved Steve.
The following week, Wonder Woman’s regular series started in the first issue of All-American’s new anthology title, Sensation Comics. Sheldon Mayer had her added to the next JSA story in preparation, in which the JSA disbanded to go to War and Wonder Woman subbed for the Spectre, and invited the kids to vote on her as the Justice Society’s first girl member.
Before the votes came in, narrowly in favour, Gaines had decided that Wonder Woman was big enough to get her own title – faster than anyone before her – which debarred her from membership. So, rather than have her elected directly to Honorary Membership, which would have been silly, Mayer added her as Secretary, which was merely demeaning.
As I’ve already said, it took until All-Star 40 to get Wonder Woman into the action regularly, and by the JSA’s final appearance in issue 57, she was the only member appearing anywhere else, in her solo title, Sensation having bitten the dust as well by then.
Wonder Woman stayed in publication throughout the Fifties. After Marston’s death in 1947, the series was taken over by Robert Kanigher, who softened the bondage elements and, indeed, trivialised the series out of all recognition. I’ve recently had the experience of reading Kanigher’s last two years of work on the title which, according to all I’ve heard, is of a kind with what he’d been doing for years, and it’s underpinned by what I can only describe as utter contempt, for the character and the reader alike. Hardly surprising that, for decades, the series sold terribly, being kept alive by the reversion deal that would have cost National all its lucrative licensing rights.
At some, unidentifiable, point, the series stopped being about Wonder Woman 1, of Earth-2 and became that of Wonder Woman 2, of Earth-1 (see, it’s starting to get crazy already). Wonder Woman 2 was a founder member of the Justice League of America in Brave & Bold 27, and a regular in the series until 1969.
The two versions of Wonder Woman were identical up to that time. The Earth-2 Wonder Woman didn’t appear in any team-ups with the Justice League until 1967, and tended not to appear very often, because no-one could tell the difference, except during the period from 1969 to 1972 when, under Mike Sekowsky’s editorship, the Earth-1 Wonder Woman lost her powers, pulled her hair back into a pony-tail, dressed in white jacket and trousers and took on crime as a Diana Rigg/Emma Peel figure.
When this version failed, Wonder Woman regained her powers but had to undergo a twelve-issue Labours of Diana trial, each supervised by a different JLA member before the League would take her back. Then the series switched to World War 2 and the Golden Age Wonder Woman for a few years, until the success of the TV series and Lynda Carter jumped it back to the present day. In any guise, it continued to flounder.
In the Eighties, her costume, which had undergone periodic minor changes – culottes to tight shorts, boots to laced Grecian sandals, shorts to cycle shorts, back to boots, cycle shorts to swimsuit bottoms – underwent a major and permanent change at the request of a major women’s foundation, with the American Eagle replaced by a stylised WW logo across the most famous breasts in comicdom.
Also, Roy Thomas brought the Golden Age Wonder Woman up to date in Infinity, Inc, showing her as older, married to Steve Trevor, and with a teenage daughter, Lyta, who became the superheroine The Fury.
However, both these Wonder Womans were swept aside in Crisis on Infinite Earths, the Earth-2 version being elevated to Godhood, together with her Steve Trevor, as part of the Greek Pantheon, and the Earth-1 version having her chronal pathway reversed, all the way back to the clay of the riverbed.
So, from two all-but identical Wonder Womans, we were down to none. Like the rest of the Trinity, DC were set on a total reboot for Wonder Woman, this time by plotter/artist George Perez. Perez retained the shape of Wonder Woman’s origin but produced a stronger mythic bedrock: Amazon Island became Themiscyra, Hyppolita black-haired not blonde, the Amazons were now the reincarnation of women murdered in hate by men, and Diana was the soul of the child of the only one (Hyppolita) who died pregnant.
Steve Trevor was reimagined as a man in his early Fifties, removing at a stroke the romantic entanglement that had been so hideously and embarrassingly used for so many decades (especially by Kanigher). Diana entered Men’s World as an innocent, with no need of a secret identity, as an Ambassador of Peace.
Wonder Woman 3 (still Diana, although in context, the first Diana of one) was of a different order to her predecessors. The series became a top-seller for the first time since the Forties, and deservedly so.
The removal of a Forties Wonder Woman from continuity left the JSA without a secretary. By a retcon, strongwoman Miss America was eased into that role and all those adventures, though very few stories were told, or retold, with her in that role. It would be superseded in the late Nineties by another, more pertinent retcon.
The new Wonder Woman briefly joined Justice League Europe but tended to go her own way, not returning to a Justice League role until the 1997 reboot. Before this, there were a couple of changes.
After Perez, Bill Messner-Loebs took over as Wonder Woman writer. For issue 0, he had Diana back on Themiscyra whilst Hyppolita re-enacted the contest to be Wonder Woman, only for Diana to be beaten this time by Artemis, a fierce fighter from a more warrior-like strain of Amazons. Artemis went out in Men’s World in the Wonder Woman costume (Wonder Woman 4). She was a full-figured woman with a spectacularly long red ponytail and impossibly long legs (a product of the prevalent artistic ‘styles’).
However, Diana did not take her demotion lying down, and returned herself to Man’s World, without powers, this time dressed in dark blue: jacket, bra and cycle-shorts.
As Wonder Woman 0 followed issue 93, the imminent arrival of the anniversarial 100 suggested Artemis would not be a long-term character, and she duly died in battle in that issue, allowing Diana to resume her rightful role.
Surprisingly, not for long. Incoming writer/artist John Byrne was quick to kill Diana – who was translated to the Greek Pantheon. This time she was replaced by Queen Hyppolita, acting out of guilt over her role in Diana’s death. In honour of her senior status, the Queen’s dignity was preserved by her wearing a star-spangled, but still abbreviated skirt instead of the bathing suit bottom.
Wonder Woman 5 did not last long either (Diana proved to be very unsuited to be a Goddess and wanted back), but did last long enough to go back in time to the Forties with Jay (Flash) Garrick to help him resolve a newly-recollected matter. Jay returned almost immediately, but Hyppolita stayed on an extra half-hour, during which she lived Wonder Woman’s entire Forties career as it had originally happened – bye bye Miss America(n pie) – and set the temporal record on its head.
Though Wonder Woman 5, Hyppolita thus became Wonder Woman 1 (in post-Crisis continuity) as well as Wonder Woman 3 in DC history, whilst Diana now turned out to have been named Wonder Woman due to memories of the Forties career her mother had whilst continuing Diana’s career. Don’t worry, it all makes sense to comics’ fans.
I’m going to draw a veil over the following decade of Wonder Woman’s career, in which changes have occurred (including a radical change of costume that everybody knew was never going to last). But post New 52, we have yet another Wonder Woman, who is yet again a variation on Diana, who we may as well call Wonder Woman 6, and a quickly-killed alternate Diana/Wonder Woman (7) in Earth-2.
There is obviously far more to write about the legacy of Wonder Woman but, excepting those two brief interpolations of Artemis and Hyppolita, neither of whom were ever more than just interpolations, it is one woman and one character’s story. There is no real legacy to be discussed here, any more than there is for Superman or Batman.
In contrast to the previous subjects in this series, Doctor Fate’s history is much more simple. Even though DC’s Master of Magics is, courtesy of the New 52, into his seventh incarnation, more than even Green Lantern, those characters have progressed linearly, with only the briefest of overlap as the Helm of Nabu is passed on to its next wearer.
Doctor Fate was created by Gardner Fox and artist Howard Sherman for More Fun Comics 55, published, in contrast to the other heroes so far, by Detective Comics. He was not the first magician in comics, but instead of lounge suits, or turbans to indicate his mystic character, Fate wore a full-face golden helm, with gold cloak, epaulettes, high-waisted trunks and boots, over an azure long-sleeved top and leggings.
The good Doctor was not, at first, given a secret identity. He was Doctor Fate and that is what he was: a mysterious figure composed of magics, gothic and Lovecraftian in adventure and voice – the latter emphasised by Sherman’s eccentric lettering – until Detective abruptly had him take off his helmet at the end of More Fun 66, revealing to his companion, red-haired debutate Inza Cramer, that he is a man named Kent Nelson.
Nelson’s origin proved to be somewhat disturbing. Aged 12, Kent had accompanied his father Sven Nelson on an archaeological dig that uncovered a lost pyramid in Egypt. After their superstitious bearers had fled, the Nelsons entered the pyramid alone. Kent opened a sarcophagus, releasing a poison gas that killed his father. The sarcophagus contained a mummy, which gave its name as Nabu, from the planet Cilia, who had come to Earth in ancient times. Nabu placed Kent in suspended animation, raised him to adulthood, taught him great magical powers and sent him out into the world to fight evil as Doctor Fate. Creepy or what?
And it was not long before DC further softened Fate’s spooky series. For no given reason – save that Detective Comics, having a former peddler of soft porn and an associate of several mobsters for an owner, wanted to avoid any attention from the bodies already accusing comics of being unsuitable for children – Fate abruptly put aside his helm for a half-face version exposing his nose and mouth, dropped the magic except for flight and invulnerability, and starting talking like a good ol’ red-blooded American boy instead.
Doctor Fate, though owned by Detective Comics, was a founder member of the Justice Society, published in All-American’s All-Star. He appeared in issues 3-12 and 14-21 before being dropped from the line-up with no ‘onstage’ explanation. The Doctor lost his place as a consequence of war-time paper rationing, forcing All-Star to cut its page-length and the JSA line-up. Doctor Fate, and his fellow victim, Sandman, were supposed to bow out in issue 20, in which they only appeared in the opening and closing chapters, but they were inexplicably revived the following issue, to the extent that they appear to have been inserted into a story already drawn.
All this did was to postpone the inevitable three months, and to make Fate’s final All-Star appearance almost simultaneous with his last appearance in More Fun 98. Only three other JSA members in the Forties would make fewer appearances.
It was almost twenty years before Nelson returned. Doctor Fate did not appear in either of the Justice Society cameos in The Flash 129 and 137, these being based on later All-Star issues, so his return came in Justice League of America 21 where, for no apparent reason, he chairs the first new Justice Society meeting, even though once-permanent Chairman Hawkman is present.
Unlike Hawkman or Atom, Schwartz and Fox brought Doctor Fate back in his original helm and with his magics intact, although he spoke the same bland dialogue as everyone else. If anyone was concerned at all these seemingly random changes, they would have to wait twenty years for the explanations.
As we’ve seen already, Doctor Fate was a minor character in the Forties. But, from his return in 1963, the Master Mage grew in strength, becoming one of the more popular JSA members when it came to the annual team-ups and in years to come, when DC made their first attempt to remove the JSA from the Universe, the only Forties member to be retained.
This came about somewhat slowly at first. After the new Atom, Schwartz had announced an end to the creation of new adaptations. Instead, he started on a short-lived programme of reviving the original Golden Age heroes themselves, testing for a market for old glories. The first beneficiary of this was Doctor Fate, teamed with Hourman for two memorable, if commercially unavailing, issues of Showcase, drawn by Murphy Anderson. The pairing was eccentric – a man of magic and a man of science – but the stories were fun, and the second unveiled the new Psycho-Pirate, who now literally manipulated emotions.
Apart from that, Fate would appear in the annual team-ups. After Fox left Justice League of America, writers such as Denny O’Neill and Len Wein would start to develop Fate’s speech towards the mystic and melodramatic again. But it would not be until 1975, in First Issue Special 9, written by Martin Pasko, and drawn by Walt Simonson, that Fate would be simply, yet radically redefined. It is probably the most significant story in the Doctor’s whole career.
It was Fate’s first ever full-length story and whilst Simonson brought his signature visual flair to the issue, marrying Fate’s exercise of his powers to the Egyptian Ankh, a link that would remain forever, Pasko deftly reconstructed the Doctor as two separate entities: Doctor Fate as the intangible entity within the Helm (later specified as Nabu himself) and Kent Nelson as his frequently unknowing human host. All portrayals of Doctor Fate since have derived from this story.
Pasko also introduced another element that would be of growing significance, and that was Inza Nelson’s discomfort with the life forced on her: decades spent alone, friendless, in a windowless magical tower in Salem, kept young by Fate’s magic but, by that very token, unable to come to terms with the continual disappearance of her husband and the abiding fear that he may never return.
For the moment, the redefined Doctor Fate continued in the revived All-Star, and in the subsequent JSA Origin, coming almost forty years after their début. Fate was a prominent part of this series.
After the JSA’s continuation run in Adventure was cancelled, the emphasis in All-Star Squadron took matters back to the early Forties. Roy Thomas used this period to cram in as many retcons as he possibly could, as we saw with The Atom 1, and this extended to Doctor Fate. The good Doctor was, in 1942, confirmed in his half-helm phase (which Thomas preferred), but a later story provided a simple explanation which made good use of Pasko’s story: Nelson simply put the Helm of Nabu aside the first time he found something in the Helm trying to take him over.
Thomas couldn’t resist returning to this theme later, when Nelson was forced to return to his old helm, and the powers it represented, to battle the sorceror Kulak: during the battle, the helm was wrenched from his head and donned by Kulak, only for the latter’s third eye to reflect upon himself and send him tumbling through an infinity of dimensions.
A footnote promised a story that would detail how Nelson recovered the Helm of Nabu just before Justice League of America 21: no such story ever appeared.
Finally, in America vs. the Justice Society, Thomas also explained away Doctor Fate’s resignation from the JSA as being a consequence of Nelson’s growing conviction that he could do more for the War Effort by (magically) retraining in medicine and becoming a military doctor.
By this time, Crisis on Infinite Earths was in preparation for its 1985 publication. Before that, there was one final, and significant, Doctor Fate series to contemplate. This appeared as a back-up in The Flash 305-312, two four part stories, one written by Pasko, the other by Steve Gerber, both drawn by Keith Giffen in the ultra-polished style that had made his name on Legion of Superheroes.
Both returned to the theme of Inza’s inability to accept the life she led. She found herself the object of fascination of a certain Museum Director, to the extent that, at the very point Fate was battling for his life and desperate for the anchor and escape that Inza provided his host, she was enthusiastically kissing the guy. Fate’s enemy sought to have Nelson doubt his love, and refuse Doctor Fate, a plan that came close to fruition, and to causing Inza’s death. But a furious Nelson saved Inza’s life by drawing her into the transformation into Fate with him, giving her for the first time insight into what it meant to be Fate. It seemed strange that this moment should be left dangling, but it was not forgotten. The mysterious Museum Director, on the other hand, was.
As I’ve already indicated, after the Crisis the Justice Society were shoveled into a limbo they were not supposed to return from, saving only two of its junior, 1970’s members (which, sadly, did not include the original Huntress, but the Crisis had painted DC into too many corners there). Doctor Fate too was preserved.
At first, it seemed that Doctor Fate would simply be folded into the new DC Universe. His first appearance, unlikely as it seemed, was in Super-Friends 2, a limited series focused on selling toys, which may or may not have been in continuity, and whose major distinction was art by Jack Kirby. Indeed, the series was partly created to enable Kirby to redesign all his Fourth World characters of the early Seventies – Darkseid et al – and thus qualify him to receive royalties on all their future appearances, a generous gesture by DC in a different age from now.
And, in the pages of Legends, Doctor Fate would help found the newest Justice League, and feature prominently in its first half-dozen issues. All these appearances, it should be noted, were of Doctor Fate, and not Kent Nelson. And, after forty-eight years, they were a farewell to Fate’s oldest and longest identity.
It was not the first time it had been done since the heyday of Julius Schwartz: in the run-up to Crisis, Roy Thomas alone had three times come up with new figures to take old names, as we will see. Now it was the turn of writer J M DeMatteis with Keith Giffen (using his drastically different angular new style) to introduce the new and unexpected Doctor Fate in a four-issue mini-series.
It fed from that last back-up story in The Flash. When Kent and Inza had merged, they had become aware that they had always, from the very beginning, been intended to form Doctor Fate together, but that Nabu had excluded Inza so that he could control Fate’s powers. Distraught at the waste of forty years of her life, Inza committed suicide. Kent, devastated, rejected all of Nabu’s spells, growing old overnight. He had agreed to assist Nabu in finding the new Doctor Fate, after which he would be released to die and join Inza.
We were then introduced to an extremely odd couple, Eric and Linda Strauss, related by marriage. Eric was the 10-year old son of a prominent mobster, and Linda was the guy’s 29-year old second wife and Eric’s stepmother. The two had a strange affinity, that rather disturbed Linda (as it should!), but the upshot was that these two were to be the new Fate. Eric was accelerated into manhood, his father died and the two were free to freely (and creepily) associate, both in real life and as Doctor Fate 2.
The mini-series was followed by an ongoing series, written by De Matteis but drawn in a very bucolic fashion by Shawn MacManus. In keeping with the times, dominated by the interpretation of the JLI as a situation comedy, much of the new Doctor Fate was played for laughs, in among the superheroics, with the Strauss’s stumbling in their new role(s). Kent had died, but his aged body lived on, occupied by Nabu as the pair’s advisor, whilst a dog-like demon from Hell named Petey became the pair’s ‘pet’ and their gangling, clumsy lawyer neighbour Jack C. Small got very curious about them.
But De Matteis had a serious story in mind, which played out over the first 24 issues of the series. As early as issue 5, Eric fell ill (with a cold) and was unable to merge, leaving Linda to become a decidedly female Doctor Fate alone. This was featured in Fate’s second and final Justice League adventure, to much confusion and sly glances from the increasingly juvenile male members (sic). But the situation suddenly developed tragic dimensions: Linda-Fate was drawn to Darkseid’s realm of Apokalips, the still sickly Eric transformed into a male Doctor Fate to come to her assistance but, in getting Linda-Fate away, Eric-Fate was killed.
And without Eric, Linda could not handle the full energies of Fate alone. It became a race against time to find a new Doctor Fate, before his uncontrolled energies were unloosed. In the meantime, De Matteis – who was always prone to the glutinously spiritual – had introduced a treacly sweet little girl with cuddly parents who were going to die early, but she’s going to become a new messiah and need parents to guide her until then: to round his story off, Eric and Linda were reincarnated into those parents to protect the horribly smiley little creature, and Petey and Jack ventured into Fate’s Amulet of Anubis, where they found the spirits of… Kent and Inza Nelson, and son.
The Nelsons had not died after all. Nabu had housed their spirits in the amulet where they could enjoy a full, normal life, including children, the life that Fate had denied them, but which they were now being called upon to leave. Though Inza in particular fought against acceptance, at last the Nelsons agreed to return, and become Doctor Fate once more.
Bill Messner-Loebs took over Doctor Fate with issue 25 and immediately threw a new spanner in the works. Rehoused in rejuvenated bodies, and merging the Salem tower into a New York brownstone in a run-down area, the Nelsons set out to resume as Doctor Fate 1. Unfortunately, Kent didn’t make it through the transformation, leaving Inza to perform alone as Doctor Fate 3.
Loebs’s series reflected his socialist leanings, a background that encouraged Inza to explore her own, female instincts towards the use of power, which was more proactive, more devoted to improving people’s lives and much less directed at thumping people magically.
Kent, at first happy to cede a role he’d never really enjoyed, grew concerned about Inza’s handling of the role, which in turn led to words and a temporary separation. As things grew more complicated, Kent constructed a version of his second period costume: half helm, blue and gold top and jeans, with minor magics to assist him, to aid Inza and to draw out the Chaos Lord who had created this situation by blocking Kent from the merger and feeding Inza Chaos-derived magics. In keeping with Chaos’s lack of rationality, this had all been done out of nothing but fun and malice.
Loebs’s run lasted a further 16 issues, including a couple of fill-ins. When he moved on, there was no-one with any clear vision of what they wanted to do with Fate and so, though the series was still selling above the cancellation level, DC decided to end it rather than start a half-hearted new phase that would quickly decline.
The Justice Society were back by this time, though their short-lived series had come and gone without the Doctor. It was rumoured that it had been cancelled politically, as bad for DC’s image. Whether this was true or not, the JSA’s next appearance was in Zero Hour where their ranks were decimated and the team finally disbanded. Doctor Fate was at that fateful fight, in male form at the last, but The Extant used his powers to split Fate into Kent and Inza, and age them to a point where they were too frail to undertake the transformation.
The next Doctor Fate did not actually use the title, simply calling himself Fate (The Doctor is Out). Jared Stevens was a smuggler and mercenary hired by the Nelsons to retrieve Doctor Fate’s accoutrements – the helm, cloak and amulet – from Egypt. When he delivered them, the Nelsons were attacked and killed by demons. Stevens tried to defend himself with the amulet, which exploded, scarring his right side: he wound up with a red ankh tattoo over his eye, the rags of the cloak wrapped around his arm, and with a dagger and ankh-shaped throwing knives instead of the helm.
It was all part of DC’s new ‘Dark Side’ strand, part of the ongoing, increasing trend (I cannot say progress) towards ever more adult situations and stories, adult here being taken in its limited definition as more bloody and violent. As (Doctor) Fate 4, Stevens was now an Agent of Balance, not of Order, but basically he was a demon-hunter with the kind of knife that featured in the Hollywood film Jagged Edge, which was what counted. He lasted five years and two series: 22 issues of Fate and 12 issues of The Book of Fate for which he was retconned into a grave-robber who had the powers of Fate forced onto him by an incredibly aged and all-but-mad Kent and Inza, looking to dump their lifelong burden onto someone else’s shoulders. Neither series was particularly likeable and by the end of The Book of Fate, Stevens was formally abandoned by every occult force that mattered. It was an ideal set-up for the next stage.
James Robinson’s extremely successful Starman series, which had also come out of Zero Hour, had fueled demand for the return of the JSA, and this time DC were willing to accede. Robinson’s concept for the new JSA series involved a considerable modification of the team. It would still include the few surviving originals, but it would develop into a family, with first, second and third generations of heroes, welcoming, assisting and training new legacies.
Robinson and his writing partner David Goyer built the JSA’s return about the funeral of the original Sandman, and the off-stage and off-handed murder of Jared Stevens by The Dark Lord, a figure who was disposing of magically powered characters, intent on seizing those of Doctor Fate, who was due to be reborn. The ad hoc JSA protected the newly-borns who, it was prophesied, included the next Fate and succeeded in enabling the chosen one to be immediately accelerated to manhood and to take on Fate’s role: Doctor Fate 5.
When the new Doctor Fate removed his helm, he was immediately recognised as the former Infinity Inc. member the Silver Scarab, aka Hector Hall, son of the Golden Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Doctor Fate 5 was actually Hector’s third identity, having spent some time as Sandman 3 (as we will see). His costume revived the azure and gold look, with the resolutely Egyptian addition of a ceremonial gold collar.
Doctor Fate 5 did have his own five issue mini-series at one point, but the Hall version spent most of his time in and with the JSA. This version of Fate was racked by Hall’s insecurity and doubts. He obsessively searched for his lost wife, Hyppolita (The Fury) Trevor, which blinded him to an assault by the Dark Lord, who had been revealed as Mordru, the Legion’s sorcerous foe a thousand years hence. This led to him being put through an Intervention inside his amulet, by Nabu and all the previous Fates: the Nelsons, the Strausses and Stevens, plus Kid Eternity, who was thrown in for reasons too complex to go into now.
It was only a temporary success, and Nabu once more took control of Doctor Fate before Hall, again, fought his way back, collecting Lyta en route, but completely ignoring her story as played out over many issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.
This on-going emphasis on Hall’s inadequacies did nothing to establish him or Doctor Fate as a vivid character again, and it came as no surprise that Hector Hall was, in the end, swept away very easily. In Day of Vengeance, one of the forerunners to Infinite Crisis, The Spectre (as we will see) went wild and tried to destroy all magics. Hall and Lyta were imprisoned in a dimension inside the helm of Nabu, where they froze to death in snowy mountains, their spirits at the last being taken by the new Dream (of the Sandman mythos), who was based upon their son Daniel Hall (later, again, later).
For the remainder of the struggle against the Spectre, Nabu himself incarnated the Helm, cloak and amulet, until, by cornering the Spectre into killing him, he forced a resolution to the crisis in magic.
But the helm needed a new master, to enable a Doctor Fate 6. After passing through various hands, it came to its new host, homeless and severely depressed psychologist, Dr Kent V. Nelson, a distant grandnephew of Kent Nelson himself. The younger Nelson was introduced in a mini-series written by Steve Gerber, but sadly Gerber died before completing its final instalment. Four other writers wrote separate four page endings, and the younger Nelson, in the traditional costume, but without the gold trunks, went on to join the latest incarnation of the JSA.
How this latest Fate would have developed remains unknown, as the New 52 threw out all this old continuity, none of which has now ever happened. A brand new Doctor Fate is in the process of emerging, in Earth-2: Doctor Fate 7 is Egyptian and so far is only known as Khalid. All I can say is that that seems to be a very unsatisfactory end to a long career.