*Retroactive Fandom* The Riddle of The Spectre


A few words of context

In 1986, when things were otherwise then they are now, and I was active in UK Comics Fandom, I wrote an article about The Spectre that was published in Arkensword, a high quality fanzine published by Paul Duncan of Coventry that was one of only two then-fanzines to enjoy a circulation of over 1,000 copies.
The piece was written in the immediate wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths, as a prelude to a new version of the Spectre, written by Steve Gerber, that promised to modernise the character, and to introduce an alter ego relationship relevant to the 1980s.
No such version ever appeared, nor any hints as to Gerber’s plan. According to Wikipedia, Gerber missed the deadline for issue 1, to be drawn by Gene Colan, in order to watch the last day of filming on the Howard the Duck film, and DC cancelled the project: not worth that last day, eh? The prospect of Gerber’s series led me to publish an article on The Spectre to date, on the various, contrasting incarnations of the character that had been thrown together without the least regard for continuity between the various versions. It was fun, and I made fun of the twists and turns that were, frankly, irreconcilable.
Ironically, a few years later, I came up with one small idea that made the whole pre-Crisis history come together. Though I’d been out of fandom for some time by then, I wrote my idea up as a sequel. Arkensword was dead, as were most of the fanzines I’d read or written for. I can’t remember if it was ever published and, if so, in what magazine. I don’t even have a copy myself.
Recently, I thought of these paired articles and decided I would reprint one and rewrite the other here, to give them a decent home. That was until I re-read ‘The Riddle of The Spectre; or, Continuity? What Continuity?’. If you really want to know what I wrote in 1986, you can go hunt out a copy of Arkensword 16 for yourself, because I’m not willingly going to let anything that awful be published on my blog. I need to rewrite both. Besides, I’ve thirty years of new information I didn’t have back then to include.

The Riddle of The Spectre

The Spectre is dead: Long live The Spectre.
In the tradition of Julius Schwartz, at the beginning of the Silver Age, Steve Gerber has been commissioned to create a Spectre for the Eighties. Back then, things like that happened without any thought for previous versions, which is why so much time and effort went into Crisis on Infinite Earths. No longer will that happen, Marv Wolfman assures us: Gerber’s Spectre will be the only Spectre there has ever been.
Thus passes Jim Corrigan, died 1940, deceased 1985. He leaves behind a history so convoluted, so inconsistent, so thoughtlessly plotted as to defy the very notion of continuity itself. It has been rumoured that Roy Thomas planned to straighten all this out in a Graphic Novel, but if The Spectre of old is now dead – which was the point all along – is there any point?
But it’s a shame to leave it like that. There are happy memories for some of us invested in one part or another of The Spectre’s career, and a lot of fun to be had picking over the bones of Jim Corrigan’s afterlife.
The Spectre debuted in More Fun Comics 52, February 1940, published by Detective Comics. He was created by Jerry Siegel, with artist Bernard Bailey, Siegel’s most substantial creation outside of Superman. The Kryptonian was about the vast enhancement of the body’s attributes: strength, speed, invulnerability etc. The Spectre was possibly the only idea that could extend beyond that: incomparable, illimitable power, bounded only by the imagination. Though at that time, the imagination was pretty bounded by writer’s crude notions.
Jim Corrigan seemed to have it all made: a successful Police Detective, engaged to marry heiress Clarice Winston, bringing in half of Gats Benson’s mob. In retaliation, Benson kidnapped Corrigan and Clarice, sending Jim off to swim in a barrel of concrete. Jim died. His spirit ascended but, at the borders of Heaven, was sent back by a Voice (presumably that of God), to combat evil.
Corrigan returned as a ghost, to resurrect Clarice, who had been shot, round up the rest of the mob and frighten Benson to death with a glance. He then jilted Clarice without explanation. How could he tell her he was no longer alive, did not breathe, could not… hold her.
As The Spectre, Corrigan appeared to be dressed in white and dark green, but don’t be fooled: hood, cape, trunks, gloves and moccasin sandals were costume, the white areas were The Spectre’s body.
As a character, The Spectre’s series was full of potential rarely realised. There was a freewheeling aspect to it typical of a time when anything went because no-one knew what might work. There were even flashes of genuine imagination, every now and then, but there were too many lame monster and magic stories, the thudding dullness of Corrigan’s Captain being convinced the Spectre was behind every crime and berating Corrigan for not bringing him in, and too much stiff and stilted art from Bailey. At first, the avenging ghost used to leave almost as many bodies in his wake as did the villains, but this didn’t last as long as a later writer suggested, as Detective Comics realised they had a money-making industry on their hands and started smoothing off rough edges.

The Spectre – Golden Aga

When Charley Gaines, at All-American Publications, Detective’s sister company, ordered up All-Star Comics to promote both company’s characters, The Spectre was chosen to represent More Fun, alongside Doctor Fate. Perhaps, as a Detective Comics character in an All-American comic, there was a subconscious bias against Corrigan, but despite his popularity, he never got considered for the JSA chairmanship, the route to a solo title.
Nor did he shine overmuch, despite being potentially more powerful than all the rest of the team put together. Gardner Fox wrote him competently, but lacked the intensity that Siegel could bring to the solo series, and even had him gassed into unconsciousness in issue 13 (drawing a retcon from Roy Thomas courtesy of The Monitor in 1985). And unlike other members, changes in The Spectre’s series were not taken up in All-Star.
To my surprise, instead of being parcelled off in Corrigan’s origin story (which required two issues to complete), Clarice Winston hung around a very long time, still in love with Jim (and he still in love with her) in a very touching manner that provided an oft-needed touch of stability.
But in More Fun 74, the series was changed permanently in a bad way by the introduction of Percival Popp, the Super-Cop, a short, klutzy and over-eager Private ‘Tec who wanted to team up with Jim Corrigan. At a stroke, The Spectre became second fiddle to his comic relief, a fate that other heroes didn’t suffer until much later in the decade.
An issue later, Popp’s investigations threatened to expose the barrel of cement in which Corrigan’s earthly remains lay in the river, so The Spectre got permission from the Voice to restore Corrigan to life. Which wiped out his excuse for not marrying Clarice, except that Popp took up so much of his and Spec’s time, she was pushed out.
And in issue 90, Corrigan went off to War, leaving The Spectre behind and suddenly invisible for the rest of the run until issue 101, after which More Fun was abruptly repurposed as a comic comic. And at more or less the same time, The Spectre was forced out of All-Star by the split between All-American and Detective Comics. Thus ended the Golden Age of Jim Corrigan.
Twenty years passed. Superheroes went out of and came back into fashion. In 1966, Julius Schwartz had stopped introducing new versions of old characters and was testing the revival of JSA characters in Showcase and Brave and Bold: Dr Fate and Hourman, Starman and Black Canary, all written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson. For Showcase 60, Schwartz planned to pair Dr Mid-Nite and The Spectre, but in the end went for the Ghostly Guardian alone.
I bought ‘The War that shook the Universe’ one Saturday afternoon, walking from my Gran’s in Droylsden to the newsagents at Fiveways, poring over the spinner rack, and selecting this after a good half hour’s consideration. It was a good choice. Fox wrote what was the first retcon at DC, explaining why The Spectre – an all-powerful, immortal being – should have ‘retired’ for twenty years. Ingeniously, Fox conjured up Asmodus, an evil, demonic equivalent whose arrival on Earth had cancelled out both his and The Spectre’s energies, trapping them in their respective hosts.
The Spectre was released by the death of Asmodus’s host and had to fight the demon’s plot to trap him permanently within Corrigan. But Asmodus was only the herald of the greater menace, Shaithan, who arrived the next issue and who very clearly stood for the Devil himself. To defeat both adversaries, The Spectre required illimitless power, power of and from good (which, in 1966, included American soldiers fighting in Vietnam). He was, in short an incarnate form of Good.
Response was mixed: I loved both issues but many readers didn’t, rejecting the very idea of supernatural characters and menaces in the Silver Age of scientifically minded heroes. Schwartz, who was expecting to start a solo series, was surprised at the unfavourable commercial response. Fox’s approach wasn’t entirely successful, adopting a dry, mytho-religious tone that tried to reduce The Spectre’s supernatural abilities to semi-scientific energies.
Still, Schwartz didn’t give up. A third Showcase appearance in issue 64, half a year later, winding back on all-powerful entities to a ‘mere’ ghost was added to The Spectre’s appearance in the 1966 Justice League/Justice Society team-up. This was undertaken without any supernatural elements whatsoever, The Spectre being treated as ‘merely’ a character with immense power and a pycho-matter body.
The story called for Earths-1 and -2 being pulled into hyperspace on a collision course, and The Spectre physically holding the two planets apart until, in order to save everything, he agrees to the Earth-1 Atom shrinking him to one inch and then expanding him again, a process that causes any subject so treated (except Ray Palmer) to blow up.
It all sounds a bit callous (not to mention risky for the two planets) but worry not. Being all-powerful, The Spectre merely willed the atoms of his body to regroup themselves from all over the Universe.
These two stories lifted The Spectre over the hurdle and he gained his own comic in 1967, starting with one last, and unsatisfactory, Fox/Anderson story, then falling to lesser hands, amongst whom Neal Adams had to be classed. Weird and wonderful were The Spectre’s adventures, but most of all they were not very good. It was a different failure of imagination: in making The Spectre seriously all-powerful and Good with a capital G, it begged the question of who or what could pose him a threat.
In an attempt to combat the sales drop-off, DC tried to side-slip towards the still-successful Mystery market. Steve Skeates was brought in to do this, in keeping with the prevalent trend towards Relevance. As a punishment for casually killing crooks when he had much too much power to need to do so, The Spectre was sentenced to read from the Book of Judgement, short, pallid, sub-EC stories. Once again a supporting character in his own series, The Spectre only lasted one more issue before suffering his second cancellation.
Thus far, for all its changes of emphasis and direction, The Spectre’s story has been reasonably straightforward. But that was before Denny O’Neill. This is where it starts to get tricky.
In the late Sixties, O’Neill was DC’s hottest writer and Julius Schwartz’s go-to guy for updating series that had run out of steam. On the evidence of Justice League of America 82 – 83, it’s hard to see why. This was the out-and-out worst JLA/JSA team-up ever written, a nonsense farrago whose climax set Earths-1 and -2 onto a collision course again, requiring The Spectre to once more interpose his body between them, except that this time the resultant gravities tear him apart and he dies.
Come again? He’d already done that once and survived. Furthermore, O’Neill gave the impression of never having read a Spectre story before when, in order for him to enter the fray, Dr Fate has to summon him from imprisonment in a crypt (what crypt?), although the effectiveness of this crypt has to be questioned when set against Dick Dillin having drawn Spec as attending the Justice Society meeting in the first part. That one we’ll have to put down to pure sloppiness (did Julius Schwartz really edit this?)

The Spectre – Silver Age

So The Spectre was once again dead, for four years that is. Former EC artist Joe Orlando had joined DC as an editor, but was struggling with Adventure Comics, ever since it’s long-term feature, Supergirl, had been pinched for her own title. Six issues of floundering, including the debut of the mysterious Black Orchid, then a mistress of disguise with neither identity nor origin, led to a revival of The Spectre.
This was the infamous run written by Michael Fleisher, then a fixture at DC’s offices, researching his six-part ‘History of Superheroes’ (of which only two parts ever appeared). Orlando, who had recently been mugged in the street in front of his wife, was bubbling under with rage and susceptible to Fleisher’s proposal to go back to the character’s origin as an avenging ghost. With spectacular art from the then-little known Jim Aparo, a new series was launched in issue 431.
This version of The Spectre was controversial from the start for its gruesomeness. It went back to the idea of Jim Corrigan being a ghost that transformed into The Spectre and The Spectre not as an embodiment of Good fighting spiritual adversaries but as the pursuer, and executioner, of evil men, who would be despatched in various colourful, bloodless but graphic means: a hairdresser cut in two by scissors grown to massive size, a fake fortune teller turned into crystal, tipped over and shattered, and a man turned to wood and sliced up in a band-saw, etc.
I confess that I loved it in 1974, mainly for Aparo’s art, but even then I was aware that the stories were repetitious. Evil, heartless bastard villains prey upon and/or kill innocent citizens, The Spectre kills them brutally. The only real imagination lay in the latest graphic disposal.
The series rejected all versions before it. In the letters page, Orlando dismissed the crypt as Denny O’Neill’s problem, claiming his was the Earth-1 Spectre (whilst permitting an exchange with the reporter introduced to query The Spectre’s actions in which he’s sarcastically referred to as Clark Kent, leading a rookie cop to ask if he’s really Superman). Fleisher defended himself with the faux-naif claim that all these devices came from the original series. No, they didn’t, it was a lie. Jerry Siegel never wrote a scene in which his hero animated a hand-axe to cut his girlfriend into seven separate body parts in one panel (the scene got past the Comics Code Authority since it wasn’t actually Gwen Stirling being chopped up but rather a mannequin of her: then again, The Spectre didn’t know that until after he’d eviscerated her…) and that was before you thought of comparing the art of Bernard Bailey to that of Jim Aparo.
There was even a revoltingly predictable story in which Corrigan pleaded for relief from his task and was rewarded by the Voice by being restored to a human being. Except that the Voice didn’t tell him this had happened, so Corrigan only found out when he was shot. In this series, even God was a sick bastard. Jim took to the opportunity to visit the despairing Gwen (and impliedly shag her senseless, but then it was the first time he’d gotten any in thirty-four years). Then he got murdered by a mobster and returned to being a ghost. Sigh.
That story appeared in Adventure 440 and became the perfect, if unintended, finale of the run. DC had been taking heat from fans from the start, and, as soon as sales showed a slight downturn, publisher Carmine Infantino ordered the series cancelled, leaving three stories written and paid for but not drawn (these would be drawn by Aparo in 1988 for the mini-series Wrath of The Spectre, reprinting Fleisher’s run in issues 1-3 and presenting these ‘new’ stories in the fourth).
Immediately after this charming run, The Spectre re-surfaced on Earth-2 for the 1975 JLA/JSA team-up. There was no trace of the raving ghost: instead Spec stayed invisible and intangible throughout, merely intervening with the Voice to have six JSAers restored to life after they’d been killed by the JLA (don’t ask).
Were there now two Spectres after all? Jim Corrigan turned up in a single panel of the revived All-Star 70, without a sign of his ghostly companion, but the next two, almost simultaneous appearances to The Spectre himself were both clearly on Earth-1. The avenging ghost of Fleisher turned up in a three-part Dr Thirteen story in Ghosts, to enable the great sceptic to refuse to believe in him, whilst a version evidently much closer to Fox’s messianic agent appeared in DC Presents… to prevent Superman from entering Heaven, and to teach him a lesson about hubris.
In 1984, whilst writing Swamp Thing, Alan Moore introduced yet another, and utterly magnificent conception for The Spectre, as the Guardian of the Road to Hell, only for Roy Thomas to negate this idea by having The Spectre turn up back on Earth-2, in America vs the Justice Society, a courtroom drama featuring the framing of the JSA for treason as an excuse to summarise their every adventure.
Thomas posited that there was and only ever had been one Spectre, and that he’d moved to Earth-1 for unspecified reasons. Yeah, right. This Spectre was a mess of previous versions. He was no longer invisible, intangible and benevolent on Earth-2, and instead he threatened to destroy the planet for the crime of trying the JSA (they turned down his offer to move them to Earth-1, so he quit Earth-2, forever, sobeit.)
Marv Wolfman used The Spectre in Crisis, to directly challenge the Anti-Monitor at the Dawn of Time, causing the shattering of existence, and putting Spec in a handy coma for the rest of the series. Roy Thomas used him at the start of The Last Days of the Justice Society, having him destroyed and wiped out of existence, all the way back to his start. But it was Alan Moore who gave The Spectre the closest thing to a fitting finale, even in defeat: his arrogance at his powers and his desire to use them to the glory of God leads to him allowing the bird carrying the pearl of distilled horror to pass, to summon the Ultimate Darkness, the Shadow cast out by Light. The Spectre believes he will defeat the Darkness, but he is beaten, unhooded, broken, even his powers inadequate.
The Last Days of the Justice Society came out a week later, with a passing reference to the struggle against the Darkness as ‘a mighty affair’, excusable if Thomas didn’t know Moore’s story in advance but nevertheless demeaning. Given Thomas’s attitudes to anyone else writing the JSA, the slight may well have been deliberate.
Such was the story of The Spectre, a confusion of different portrayals and states, impossible to reconcile into any cohesive history. It doesn’t matter now, because The Spectre is Dead. Long Live The Spectre.

The Riddle of The Spectre Revisited

(After some thought, I decided it was impossible to reconstruct the thoughts and associations of thirty years ago, so this part of the post will effectively be a new article, attempting to rediscover the tenor of my thoughts. Since I’m trying to reflect the ideas I had circa 1990, I’m going to ignore all later versions of The Spectre and his story.)
It started with a single moment of inspiration, from which I realised that all the contradictions and wildly fluctuating treatments of the Spectre’s pre-Crisis history could be resolved into a harmonious whole. The crucial point came in 1970, when Denny O’Neill decided to end the eighth JLA/JSA team-up by killing off The Spectre. I can see his reasoning behind that: O’Neill was much more comfortable with street-level heroes and the Sixties approach to The Spectre as cosmic incarnation of Good made it even harder to fit him into a story that he could resolve in an eye-blink than Superman.
So O’Neill imprisons Spec in a crypt from which only a séance can free him, just in time for him to intervene between Earths-1 and 2 on collision course, bouncing the two planets back where they belong but unable to prevent the gravitational forces from tearing him apart, thus killing – or rather destroying – The Spectre. But…
What if? What if, in that final moment, feeling himself torn apart, unable to recreate himself as he had in 1966, because he’d had notice of The Atom’s plans to blow him apart and time to imbue his molecules with a kind of spectral magnetism whereas now he only just has time to intervene at all, what if in that last moment as he thinks he’s falling into endless rest, Spectre’s survival instinct kicks in and he makes one final attempt to cohere, grabbing at an Earth to form upon? But he gets Earth-1…
How does that affect everything? Firstly, let’s work backwards.
Jim Corrigan became The Spectre in 1940, under order by the Voice to eradicate crime. At first, his methods are often brutal and he kills criminals with grim purpose. This was not the Voice’s intention so if we shift history slightly, The Spectre is instructed to raise Corrigan’s body from the dead and bond to it. Corrigan’s humanity tempers The Spectre’s darkness, and ameliorates his ruthlessness.
But now that Corrigan is alive again, he’s anxious to play his part in the War his country is fighting. He joins the Army, but the separation has an unintended effect: without Corrigan as a host, The Spectre cannot materialise. He can effect criminals but is invisible: he joins forces with private Detective Popp because he has no alternative: the police still don’t trust him.
This lasts until 1945 when The Spectre disappears completely for twenty years, forced into imprisonment inside Jim Corrigan by the arrival on Earth-2 of Asmodus, a demon of similar status to Spec, intent on spreading evil. The two beings cancel each other out until 1965, when the death of Asmodus’ host alters the balance. He can escape Earth, The Spectre is freed. The twenty years he has spent imprisoned, unable to use his magical energies, has built them up to an incredible level: it has also kept Jim Corrigan younger and fitter than he should be.
But this energy is not infinite. Gradually, and more so, as he faces menaces of incredible force, such as Shaithan, and the first threat of the two Earths colliding, these diminish, enough that, after a prolonged period of being absent from Corrigan, he reverts to his earliest form, that of the killing ghost.

The Spectre – Bronze Age

Corrigan’s outrage causes a permanent separation between the pair, and in order to discipline the Spectre, and ensure he doesn’t revert fully to his earlier savagery, the Voice confines him to a crypt (a-hah!) where he must read from the Book of Judgement until he understands humanity better. Only to be released by séance performed by a magical practitioner of great ability, such as Doctor Fate.
Whilst in the crypt, Spectre’s energies have again increased through lack of expenditure, giving him the power to separate the Earths from collision. But at a terrible cost…
Let’s move forward. The stress of surviving, and the enforced separation from Corrigan, leaves The Spectre weaker than ever before. He cannot return to Earth-2. It’s all he can do to ‘be’ Jim Corrigan, NYPD Detective. Slowly, his energies start to build up again, but without an anchor in the form of a human host, he reverts to his original form as the killing ghost. This time, out of step with Earth-1, he is even more inhumane the deaths he deals out more bizarre and horrific.
Back on Earth-2, Jim Corrigan is seen again only once, in a single panel of the revived All-Star Comics. Without his spirit to sustain him, the energies bequeathed him by The Spectre’s presence dissipate: I believe he doesn’t live much longer.
Finally, having borne his duty for too long, The Spectre appeals to the Voice for rest, and restoration of his human status. Besides, Gwen Stacey’s hurling of herself at him is getting too persistent to ignore. The Voice which is common to both Earths and to others, responds by granting his wish, knowing that without supernatural protection, Jim Corrigan will soon be killed again. But this is necessary to bind The Spectre fully to the Earth-1 universe. Now he is whole again.
Having died and been reborn again, The Spectre has the energies to try to return to Earth-2. He succeeds, partially, but he cannot materialise. He cannot approach the ageing Corrigan on this Earth, he is invisible but more than that, he is intangible. Understanding his estrangement from his former home, all The Spectre can do is plead with the Voice to restore the lives of six former JSA team-mates, inadvertently killed by the JLA.
The Spectre returns to Earth-1. Frustrated that he can no longer contact his old friends, The Spectre’s anger overwhelms him briefly, in opposition to the ultimate sceptic, Dr Thirteen, the Ghost-Breaker but after that he accepts his role and begins to grow in wisdom and authority. It is The Spectre who is sent to halt Superman when he threatens to break the bounds of heaven, and it is his decision to stop the Man of Steel without violence that earns him a vast increase of power.
But he hasn’t, yet, totally abandoned his life on Earth-2. With his increased energies, he fights through the barrier, only to discover his old comrades threatened with charges of Treason. Using all his energies to make himself visible, and placing himself under massive stress, enough to warp his judgement, he threatens to destroy Earth-2, and rescue the JSA. He could never have done it: not even at the height of his powers, back in the Sixties, could he have achieved that, but the bluff might serve to rescue the situation.
The JSA’s response is negative, however. They will not join with him. Spurned, The Spectre accepts the final breach and returns to Earth-1 permanently. As punishment for his recklessness, he is set to guard the access to Hell and prevent illicit incursion there.
From there, as the Multiverse is under attack by the Anti-Monitor, The Spectre travels back in time, with the heroes, to the Dawn of Time, where he is the only one with the power to stand up to the this adversary. Even he cannot defeat him, but the battle destroys everything from the Dawn of Time on, putting The Spectre in a state of shock until the Universe has reformed itself and the Anti-Monitor finally defeated.
Determined to redeem himself, The Spectre makes the mistake of assuming no greater foe can exist. He permits the passage of the Pearl of Ultimate Blackness beyond the Universe of light, sure he can overcome the Darkness, to the glory of the Voice, but to his horror, he finds himself but a child in its hands, beaten utterly, and broken. His energies have travelled back in time to the Spear of Destiny, opening the door for Hitler to undo the new history, but in his attempt to intervene he is wounded, fatally, by the Spear, and only has time to alert his old JSA comrades before he dissipates entirely…
The Spectre is Dead, Long Live The Spectre

Epilogue

Whatever Steve Gerber intended for The Spectre is lost to history: no hints, notes or rumours ever emerged from the cancellation of the project due to his deadline issues. The Spectres of Doug Moench and John Ostrander, not to mention Hal Jordan and Crispus Allen are irrelevant to this piece.
The second part of this retrospective was a self-indulgence in 1990 and is even more of one in 2020. Given that the history I’d reviewed so bemusedly for Arkensword had been swept into non-existence so far as the DC Universe was concerned, the entire piece was nothing more than an exercise in cleverness: see, look at me, I solved the riddle. That it was nothing but an exercise in advanced Roy Thomasness – but far less convoluted and congested I hoped was self-evident then as now.
I’m presenting the two pieces together in this package just for the hell of it, to see my thoughts in print. It’s not the only piece I have planned on The Spectre now I have access to the whole of his pre-Crisis history. Keep an eye open for an in-depth survey of Michael Fleisher’s little run…

More Fun Comics – The First Original


New Fun Comics

Getting my hands on a DVD-Rom of More Fun Comics, a National Allied Publications/Detective Comics inc./National Periodical Publications Golden Age title published from 1934 to 1947, completes my collection of what I think of as the Big Four, that is, the four comics who contributed characters to All-Star Comics and the Justice Society of America.
That’s my angle of interest, but it must be acknowledged that More Fun has a historical significance of its own. As New Fun it was the first ever comic book to feature all-new material, and in issue 6 it offered the first published work by Cleveland teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, two instalments of Henri Duval, Swordsman of France, before creating Doctor Occult in issue 8. By then, the title had become More Fun, as of issue 7 and, finally, More Fun Comics with issue 9.
My DVD-Rom is more in the mould of Flash and All-American than Adventure, but like the two All-American publications books, the title did not survive the Fories, being cancelled with issue 127, by when the reason for my interest had long since gone by the board. It starts with issue 8, so let’s look at that to begin with.
Cover-dated February 1936 and published by More Fun Inc., headquartered in Missouri, issue 8 is a revelation. It’s the last of the original, larger-scale format, 44 pages with card covers. Comic books began as reprints of newspaper strips and despite the all-original boast, the comic is still trying to stick with that formula. With the exception of a prose serial, everything appears for one page only, laid out like a Sunday strip: four tiers, mostly square panels containing illustrations more suited to books that comics, no animation or attempt at movement, a mixture of B&W, limited colour and full-colour, funny strips and adventure ones, multiple genres. When I said this was all-original, that only meant that none of this stuff had been printed before: there isn’t an original idea in the entire issue, and nothing is remotely readable.
The next issue shrank to comic book size and expanded to 64 pages, with some series jumping to two pages, and some new features appearing. If you’re expecting to hear about these, you’ll have to find another blogger: I’m an analyst not an annalist.
It’s more-or-less a given that Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson used original art because he couldn’t afford the Syndicate fees for strips, and the young writers and artists he used were much cheaper. I’ve heard them described as rough, naïve, inexperienced and, reading between the lines, too untalented to make it on newspaper strips. Now I know they weren’t exaggerating.
None of this is of more than historical interest to me, except for an almost unbelievable letter of praise from a girl reader living in Newton Heath, Manchester, and there’s a lot of it to get through before we reach the meat of the run for me.
The change I had my eyes open for finally showed up in issue 31, May 1938. Gone was Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. Vincent Sullivan was now Editor, not assistant Editor. More Fun was now owned by Detective Comics Inc. And inside the front cover there was a full-page ad for a new title: Action Comics no. 1.
There was no immediate change. New features replaced old but More Fun stayed the same. Dr Occult was dropped but Seigel and Schuster’s Radio Car, a Police series, continued its irregular course. Old features drifted on, unchanging. But with every month that passed, DC, as I suppose we should now call them, were becoming more aware of what a hit they’d bought from Siegel and Schuster, and Bob Kane, enlivened by ideas from Bill Finger, was shaping his own costumed character. Unseen and unheard, there was a tide rising and it was going to overflow soon.
For now, e.g., issue 41, the mix was still the same, various miscellaneous adventure series, a couple of gag strips. More pages were in full colour, through these continued to be distributed haphazardly throughout the comic, favouring the front of the book. The biggest difference was that every strip got at least two pages and several as any as four, making for only a dozen different series.
Issue 43, cover-dated May 1939, was released alongside Detective 27, with plugs for the new action-adventure strip starting that month, the Batman. And Charlie Gaines had established All-American Publications and All-American Comics. And by issue 49, there wasn’t a single gag strip in the book.
But patience eventually pays off. The long life of the original More Fun Comics, little changed from the title put together by Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson, ended in issue 51, cover-dated January 1940. in honour of that, let me list its contents. These were; Wing Brady, a Foreign Legion adventurer; Biff Bronson, an adventurer; King Carter, a globe-trotting cowboy adventurer: The Buccaneer, a sea-going adventurer; Kit Strong, a private detective adventurer, Lieut. Bob Neal of the Sub. 662, a Naval adventurer; The Flying Fox, an aviator adventurer; Detective Sergeant Carey, a Police detective adventurer; Sergeant O’Malley of the Red Coat Patrol, a Canadian Mountie adventurer; Bulldog Martin, an adventurer, and a single comic page starring Butch the Pup.
But the Buccaneer was ending. Its creator, Bernard Bailey would be drawing a new strip the following month, written by Jerry Siegel.

The white bits are not a costume

He’s there on the cover, with his green cape and hood, gloves and trunks, arms folded as he looks sternly down over a gang of crooks, The Spectre coming to turn More Fun around. Inside, he’s the lead feature, the first of a two-part telling of his origin as Jim Corrigan, hard-boiled Police Detective. The story’s familiar, as it should be given how often it’s been reprinted, but by the end of the episode, the ghost of Jim Corrigan is still wearing a tuxedo.
There’s one thing about the story that doesn’t sit all that well with me. Corrigan has blown out a party in honour of his heiress fiancee Clarice Winston to knock off some of ‘Gat’ Benson’s mob. Clarice is understandably angry with him for that. Corrigan’s hardly apologetic: indeed, he roundly tells her there’s only going to be one boss in this marriage, and that’s him. Clarice calls him a tyrant and a bully, but she still loves him.
Ok, it’s 1939, when marital relationships were looked on in a totally different light, and it’s hardly out of step, but it still jars modern sensibilities, or at least my modern sensibilities. But knowing more now of Jerry Siegel’s marriage and his personal history than I once did, I can’t help but sense a personal issue being worked on here. Jerry the mother’s boy, the nerd-before-there-were-nerds, who married against his Mother’s wishes, wouldn’t be the first writer to make his personal problems ‘work’ in his fiction.
The rest of the issue is unchanged, though I couldn’t help noticing that Bulldog Martin suddenly got a bottle of invisibility pills at the same time.
The other half of the story completes the tale with Corrigan’s revenge on Benson and his mob: dealing death with a glance, withering one into a skeleton, driving the rest out of their senses, you can already see where Michael Fleisher got his ideas from. Corrigan also revives Clarice from near death, breaks off their engagement rather woodenly, moves out of the apartment he shares with his best friend, all the time acting so strangely, and then sews himself a costume to wear as The Spectre. All these limitless super-powers and he gets out a sewing machine. It’s not the most favourable of signs.
Somewhat surprisingly, Corrigan gets the chance to relinquish his powers and receive eternal rest in his third episode, summoned to the edge of Heaven and getting an either-or offer from the Voice. Since he’s summoned in the split instant that a crooked Swami has fired a bullet at Clarice, who is proving impressively hard to shake off, Corrigan has no choice but to go for Option B: to be earth-bound, fighting crime until all traces of it are exterminated.
Only four episodes in and I have to say there’s a strange intensity about these early Spectre stories that just doesn’t come over in the solo chapters in All-Star Comics, which is self-evidently because those are written by Gardner Fox. Siegel brings a twisted perspective to Corrigan/The Spectre’s determined rejection of all human connection and an angry nihilism to the superficially charming Zor’s role as The Spectre’s evil equivalent.
I’m also intrigued that, whilst Corrigan and The Spectre are one being, the latter is already and constantly ’emerging’ from the former’s body, foreshadowing a significant development later in the series.

Half-helm only

The Spectre had obviously made a hit because in issue 55 he was joined by his partner in the supernatural, Doctor Fate. It’s a most odd first story as there is no origin, and whilst I knew this is held back some time, reprints had always centred upon Fate’s first meeting with debutante Inza Cramer. Here though, we start with Fate’s evil enemy, Wotan, targetting Inza to draw Fate’s attention, with the good Doctor – not described as possessing magic but rather the great secret of transforming Matter into Energy and Energy into Matter (what a gloriously meaningless attribute that is!) – not appearing until halfway.
So that was now two costumed heroes, both magical. Dr Fate took the cover for the first time in issue 56, continuing his battle with Wotan but overcoming him permanently (?), whilst the Spectre merely fought a gang of crooks. Elsewhere, More Fun was settling into a consistent run of adventure series, most of them veterans of the comic, though there was a new character, aviator Captain Desmo, who kept his face permanently concealed by flying helmet and goggles just as much as if he were a superhero.
And a new series, about Africa-based adventurer Congo Bill, facing up to a Phantom-esque villain called the Skull, started in issue 56. It’s a pretty basic adventure strip but it would last a surprisingly long time, hopping from title to until 1959, when, as we’ve already seen, it arrived in Adventure Comics, where Congo Bill was transformed into Congorilla.
The Doctor Fate strip also runs with a frenetic intensity. Gardner Fox just freewheels through each adventure, hurtling from one action to another, with very little evidence of a composed plot and a high-risk magical apocalypse threatened on every page. It’s gloriously goofy and gloriously weird. Both these strips burn in a way none of the other Justice Society members ever do. Though the basis of Fate’s power is still unsettled, now being an atomic force within him.
But the Gothic/Lovecraftian atmosphere of Fate’s series was fairly quickly decided to be a bit too intense for the readers, and this had to be dialled down. The first step, in issue 66, was to have the Doctor remove his helm and reveal a blond-haired handsome face: a human being, in fact, in response to Inza’s wish for someone she might love instead of a mysterious sorceror. Kent Nelson’s somewhat grisly origin, involving involuntary patricide, followed in the next issue.
At the same time, Congo Bill bowed out his short run in the comic.
Since their respective debuts, The Spectre had been the lead feature in More Fun and Doctor Fate closing things out. Now, in issue 68, the roles were reversed.
Despite Fate and the Spectre, More Fun had never wholly accepted superheroing.

The first time he was popular

Now the time was coming when this would change rapidly. Johnny Quick, a rip-off of The Flash in issue 71, Aquaman, a rip-off of the Sub-Mariner and The Green Arrow, a rip-off of Batman both in issue 73, all created by Mort Weisinger. In between times, Dr Fate got the toning down I knew was coming, getting rid of the supernatural and the eerie in favour of a half-faced helm that exposed his nose and mouth, and aiding his sudden vulnerability to attacks on his lungs. Only Radio Squad and Clip Carson survived the transition.
And Fate was not the only supernatural character to get toned down as issue 74 introduced The Spectre to Percival Popp, the Super-Cop. I have long read about, but never read, this comic relief character who was to dog Corrigan and his ghost for the rest of the series. Popp turned out to not be a cop but rather a private detective, determined to work side-by-side with Jim Corrigan. He was a short, skinny guy with a big nose, glasses and a shock of dark red hair. He could have been worse but he was bad enough: a comic relief character in January 1942?
The rest of the title was not at all impressive. Johnny Quick was crude. Aquaman and Green Arrow were as bland as their spells in the Fifties in Adventure, just cruder in style to begin with. And Doctor Fate had exchanged gothic/sinister tones for obsessive, pun-based wisecracking of a kind that makes Spider-Man look sophisticated.
The first history of The Spectre I ever read, as long ago as 1966, made mention of the time when the Avenging Ghost was permitted to resurrect Jim Corrigan’s body to life. I’d always been under the impression that this had preceded the arrival of Percival Popp, but in fact it followed it, by one issue.
Issue 75 saw Clarice Winston trying to re-enter Corrigan’s life. His cruel rejection of her in his origin is always held up as a key factor in that story but it leaves the impression that that was that for the lovelorn heiress. But Clarice remained as much in love with him as ever, and hopeful of getting married, and Jim still found her hard to resist. Now Popp, in his second apearance, took a hand in trying to put the two back together.

No comment

But Clarice was becoming the victim of an artist who was draining her life, and who was having a sculpture thrown into the river, exactly where Benson’s men had thrown Corrigan’s cement barrel. To prevent his body being found, and blowing his identity, The Spectre sought and received permission to restore Corrigan to life.
And the first thing Corrigan did was seek out Clarice.
It was a touching reward for her faith and patience. Now his excuse for not marrying her was, you’ll pardon the phrase, dead in the water. Did he get engaged to her? No, you’d think he was engaged to Percival Popp, in both his existences, since the little man became co-star of the series two issues later.
The success of the Green Arrow took me completely by surprise. By issue 76, he’d claimed the lead story and, an issue later, took over the cover. Clip Carson was dropped as from the same issue.
It might be germane to ask, if Green Arrow had become the most popular character in More Fun, as he self-evidently had, why was he not drafted into the Justice Society of America? There are two answers to that: America had entered the War, paper was rationed, no new titles were to be launched for the duration, and had they topped any reader’s polls, neither The Spectre nor Doctor Fate had anywhere to go to make room.
More pertinently, Green Arrow – and Speedy – already had a team to call home, Detective Comics’ Seven Soldiers of Justice, aka the Law’s Legionnaires, denizens of the recently created Leading Comics.
More Fun was now firmly a superhero comic. Clip Carson had gone, leaving only the long-running Radio Squad to disrupt the line-up. The Green Arrow’s stories were no better or worse than the ones in Adventure in the Fifties, the main distinction being that the Emerald Archer only fires real arrows, with points not gimmicks. Aquaman deals with mainly realistic sea adventures, without the constant ‘finny friends’ business, but he’s the entirely human son of a famous submarine scientist who’s taught him scientific ways of living under the water. Johnny Quick, now enjoying some solid art from ‘Mort Morton’, is the best of the bunch.
As for the old stagers, the de-powered Doctor Fate is not a patch on the full-helmed version. There are no magical or super-scientific foes, just ordinary crooks. The series is energetic enough and Inza is doing a sterling job of showing that you really don’t need to hide your identity from your girlfriend, but it’s still pallid stuff compared to the beginning. And The Spectre has now resigned himself to a full-time role alongside the ridiculous Popp. At least we no longer have to suffer the incessant and tiresome demands of the Cliffland Chief of Police that Jim Corrigan capture The Spectre because The Spectre is behind everything. Obviously. Not that much of a relief, sadly.
The War came to More Fun in issue 84, on the cover at least and, in passing, in Green Arrow’s strip. The next issue was billed as a big change in Doctor Fate’s life as the Doctor became a Doctor, retraining as a physician. This made me think: once again, the histories I’ve read of characters have not been as accurate as they might. Kent Nelson has always been portrayed as an archaeologist, like his father Sven, who changed profession to Doctor to be more useful during the War years. When he was revived in 1965, he was back in the digging business. Incidentally, having jettisoned the lower half of his helm, Fate dispensed with his golden cape as well.
In fact, throughout Fate’s series to date, once Kent Nelson was revealed, there was not one word about his profession. And how could he go on digs when he spent all his time in that walled tower in Salem?
Incidentally, the story revealing Nelson’s new profession saw Fate meet a plastic surgeon blackmailed into creating new faces for crooks over a brother in a prison camp in Germany, exactly the same set up as the Green Arrow story in the same issue.
Though he didn’t displace the Green Arrow from the leading position, Johnny Quick did get onto the cover for issues 86 and 87. As for issue 88, The Spectre story had him, and Jim Corrigan, as just a ghost again. There had only been one additional story after issue 75 to specifically reference Corrigan as human again (and dating Clarice), but this was a definitive continuity-reversal.
There was one final story to reference Corrigan and The Spectre as separate, and this was the one in which they separated. Corrigan the human could finally pass the physical, and went into officer-training, to fight the Japanese, leaving the Spectre behind to keep helping out Percival Popp. But separation from his host had the unexpected effect of leaving the ghost invisible. In possession of all his other powers alright, just not visible. So the once-mighty Spectre, who could kill at a glance, was now the stooge. Thankfully, not for much longer.
The same issue did include a development I was glad to see, the re-entry of Inza Kramer, fiancee to that dashing young Interne, Doctor Nelson. Aww, so sweet. Clarice Winston must have been green. But that would prove to be Inza’s final appearance in the series.
A minor detail that intrigued me by this point was a succession of adverts for Prize Comics, and then Prize and Headline Comics. No such titles were ever published by Detective or All-American, and these turned out to be titles published by Crestwood Publications, who had the bright and possibly unique idea of advertising in their bigger rivals line!
With paper rationing starting to bite, in the form of an order to reduce usage by 10%, More Fun, which had been monthly since it established itself, was demoted to bi-monthly status for the duration. All this was to was was to delay the changes lying directly ahead.
In the meantime, a slip on the cover of issue 93 plugged The Green Arrow and Speedy, whilst the Aquaman story was, for once, worth reading. The Monarch of the Sea guards a delayed freighter bringing supplies to Murmansk. The twist is that it has an all-female crew and, whilst Aquaman and the Germans patronisingly underestimate the ladies, they perform with calm confidence and aptitude, needing no condescension. Oh, and the Captain turns into a red-headed babe in a backless evening dress when they arrive!

Even less comment

Little things: Johnny Quick’s stories had adopted a comfortable formula by which the Mile-a-Moment hero has to help someone by doing a job that would take a dozen men a month to complete, but do it in less than twenty-four hours. At the back end of his run and using only the most minimal talents, Doctor Fate was only now being referred to regularly as ‘the Man of Magic’. And issue 94 saw the debut of Dover and Clover, twin private detectives who made Percy Popp look competent.
Nevertheless, they quickly proved to be so popular that they shared the cover of issue 98 with Green Arrow and Speedy, who were quoted as claiming this was “Our Mag”. Not for much longer it wouldn’t be but this issue saw the final appearance of Doctor Fate, in a sadly stupid and unbelievable little escapade that was below even the standards his series had sunk to. Cover date July-August 1944: in All-Star Comics 21, cover-dated Summer 1944, the Doc and Sandman were active in their last Justice Society adventure.
Fate was not replaced, unless you count a one-page comic historical feature a replacement. Two issues later, More Fun reached its historical 100th issue, without fanfare, celebration or effort of note, though Johnny Quick got the cover and the lead slot and Green Arrow was bounced back to fourth slot.
More Fun used to be The Spectre’s comic. It was so for the last time in issue 101 (January-February 1945). And the Ghostly Guardian, or else the Dark Knight as he was so frequently called over four decades before Frank Miller’s first Batman story, made his last appearance in All-Star in issue 23, Winter 1944. Like Doctor Fate, the disappearances were virtually simultaneous, and the last story undistinguished. Both had been undistinguished for a long time.
The Spectre’s replacement was introduced in a five-page prelude in issue 101. Superman had long been human until he reached manhood. Now he had a career to be revealed as Superboy, though not the Superboy Jerry Siegel had envisaged, nor a Superboy Siegel had any part in, More Fun‘s line-up would now consist of Superboy, Aquaman, Green Arrow and Johnny Quick, plus the stupid Dover and Clover. Sound familiar? It ought to, for reasons we’ll shortly learn.
Anyway, Superboy’s full-scale debut didn’t merit him the cover, which went to the twin detectives, nor even the lead slot, which was Green Arrow again. It was a younger Superboy than we would get used to, somewhere around age eight, and a Clark Kent who didn’t wear glasses and acted like a normal kid. There was some way to go yet.
And there was no rush to exploit the new character, though he was mentioned on issue 103’s cover, as Green Arrow and Speedy once again call out Dover and Clover for trying to take over ‘their book’, only for the clueless crime-crackers to turn up again to point out Superboy’s in it. And they showed him on the cover of the next issue, with the crime-fighting archers.
Superboy might have started without Jerry Siegel, but his name was on it, alongside Joe Schuster, next time around. There were none of the familiar characters, no Ma and Pa Kent, no pretty redhead next door. They wouldn’t come until later, and in a different title.
Because, after issue 107, cover-date January-February 1946, More Fun underwent a wholesale change of direction, to emulate its name by becoming a comic comic. The regulars, Superboy, Johnny Quick, Green Arrow and Aquaman, were shipped out en masse, to, as we have already seen, Adventure Comics, where they would stay for over a decade.

Alfred Bester created this?

With issue 108, Dover and Clover took over the cover, and the lead slot, greeting Genius Jones, who had travelled in the opposite direction and dropped into place behind them. The rest of the comic was new, or rather old – old hat, that is. A parade of silly characters and silly situations, without any of the ingenuity or humour of the newspaper strips of the era, or any of the rich cartooning abilities of their artists. But the next month, for the comic had been returned to monthly status now the war was over, just in time for its great change, Genius Jones – a creation of Alfred Bester, my life –  had both cover and lead slot and the detectives were back at the back.
In fact, they were settling in to alternate cover billing.
Now it’s fair to say that, with the exception of Sheldon Mayer’s Scribbly and the Red Tornado, I get nothing from the Golden Age humour strips. Even Johnny Thunder was nigh on intolerable at times, when Peachy Pet took the lead. So from More Fun‘s change of direction to the end of the run, there is little to interest me. Nevertheless, I read each issue (semi-) diligently to check for anything requiring comment.
For the record, the line-up after the alternating leads consisted of Curly’s Cafe, Windy, The Gas House Gang, Rusty, Cabby Casey and Cunnel Custard, but if you want any more details than that, buy your own DVD!
That was until issue 121, which introduced Jimminy and his Magic Book, a fairytale adventure that got not merely cover status but two well-drawn stories inside. Genius Jones and Dover & Clover continued, as did Rusty, Windy and the Gas House Gang but everybody else was dropped.
There wasn’t much left. Howard Post’s art on Jimminy (whose other name was Crockett) may well have been the best ever to appear in More Fun, with a foreshadowing of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but More Fun was heading for cancellation. Superman crossed the cover of issue 125, Cabbie Casey replaced Rusty in issue 126, and with issue 127, cover dated November-December 1947, with no less than five Jimminy stories and one final Dover & Clover, it was gone.
So ended DC’s oldest title and Genius Jones andDJimminy went with it. Depending on dates, Dover and Clover may have had as much as ten more appearances in them across other titles, but they ended up in deserved limbo too. And, in the absence of a DVD of either or both of Leading Comics and Star-Spangled Comics, that completes my adventures in the Golden Age.

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.