JSA Legacies: No. 5 – Doctor Fate


Doctor Fate 1, by Alex Ross

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.

The half-helm Doctor Fate

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.

Doctor Fate 2 – the Linda Strauss half

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.

Doctor Fate 3 – Inza Nelson

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.

(Doctor) Fate 4 – Jared Stevens

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.

Doctor Fate 5 – Hector Hall

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.

Doctor Fate 6 – Kent V. Nelson

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.