Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Fickle Finger Of Doctor Fate, Part 1

We usually talk about how certain old comic book characters were much more popular back in the 1940s. Whether it's Blackhawk or Captain Marvel or the Sub-Mariner, there are just some four color heroes who hang in there despite their heyday being well in the past. However, they seem destined to never reach those lofty heights again.

Dr. Fate is something of the opposite case. He was essentially a highly-touted also-ran during the Golden Age. He appeared on some covers, qualified for the Justice Society, and was published for a few years. But? He never broke out as a star. Contrast that with his fortunes since his revival in 1963. He became one of the mainstays of the revived JSA, rising to become arguably one of the most popular of the bunch. He has starred in several solo series and been immortalized in toys, cartoons and even live-action television. He's still a second-stringer, but a reliable one who turns up often. Not a bad showing for a guy who couldn't even hang onto the cover spot for More Fun Comics.

As you might expect, Dr. Fate proved popular enough to earn an Archive of his Golden Age exploits from DC Comics. But Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Vol. 1 is an Archive with a difference. It is a hardcover (the product page is wrong in this respect) that collects EVERY SINGLE Dr. Fate solo strip from the 1940s. It is not cheap, but it's almost 400 pages of rare stories starring a classic character. I finally scored my copy earlier this year.

The fascinating thing about this book is to watch the progression of the strip through its four year lifespan. The Dr. Fate that debuts in More Fun #55 is only superficially the same Dr. Fate that takes his final bow in More Fun #98. Therein lies a story that I think is worth exploring.

Doctor Fate first appears with no explicitly spelled-out backstory. By this, I mean we are told a background for him, but it is not shown. What's more, it varies from story to story. In this initial conception, the good Doctor is apparently ancient. He is also quite otherworldly.

One of the things that struck me about the first year or so of Dr. Fate is just how inherently bizarre it is. Much has been made of Fletcher Hanks and his Stardust the Super Wizard, but I would contend that Dr. Fate approaches that level of surreal crazy. The key difference is that both the story (by Gardner Fox) and art (by Howard Sherman) are clearly superior for Doctor Fate. Which isn't to say they aren't strange. Both the plots and the dialogue are rather unnerving and (dare I say it?) even a little creepy for the era. The art is compressed into small panels that tell the story in the limited space provided but add a sense of claustrophobia to even the grandest of events. If I had a word to describe the travails of Dr. Fate and his female companion Inza, it would be "unease".

Oh yes, Inza. Her Golden Age portrayal is a revelation. While frequently a damsel-in-distress, she is a strong and capable one. While her relationship with Dr. Fate is not one you could characterize as "romantic" at first, it's clear he both loves and (more importantly) respects her. For her part, she is ready and willing to participate in Fate's insane adventures, which is quite a switch from the characterization attributed to her during the 1970s and 80s. How did THAT happen, anyway? To give you an idea of her perceived importance in the strip, there are several stories in which she receives a special billing on the splash page! I can't recall many girlfriends who ever merited a "co-starring" in their hero's strip.

For whatever reason, some tinkering with this formula was felt to be necessary. Inza was absent for the tale where Dr. Fate must turn back the challenge of invading fish men, but her removal was only for one story. There was something bigger in the offing. More Fun #66 features a story with a leopard girl, and everything is...different. The panels are larger. The tone is much more down-to-Earth, albeit still in the realm of fantastic. Even the mysterious Doctor Fate comes across as more approachable. This is accentuated by the end, in which he removes his helmet and reveals his secret identity of Kent Nelson to Inza.

I cannot overemphasize what a fundamental change the last was in the strip. Not only had Dr. Fate never removed his helmet on-panel prior to this, but there was never any indication that he HAD an alter ego! Until this story, he was just Dr. Fate, and that was that. Kent Nelson's first appearance here seems a signal that they want to humanize the hero and make it easier for kids to relate to him.

This is the approach to Dr. Fate utilized throughout the Silver Age and Bronze Age, which is why it is surprising to realize it only lasted for six months in the Golden Age. The next story (#67) relates an origin story for Fate that had previously been deemed unneeded. This is the foundation for his character in later years, though it does seemingly contradict his portrayal during most of the prior year's worth of stories. Not to worry, this was addressed in later retcons (some ingenious, some not so much).

Thus begins the much more obvious romance between Kent Nelson and Inza Cramer (whose surname fluctuated). Heck, they even go on a date where Kent WEARS HIS GOLDEN DR. FATE CAPE WITH HIS DRESS CLOTHES. Kent and Inza's relationship would be pretty consistent through the latter-days of the feature.

Issues #69-#71 form a probably accidental sequence that paves the way for yet another new direction. In #69, we meet Ian Karkull and he ends up getting trapped in the form of a shadow. In #70, Karkull returns for Round Two, and teams up with old Fate foe Wotan. Wotan's return is odd in itself. He appeared in the first two Dr. Fate stories, but not again until he inexplicably returned over a year later (his red outfit and green skin being supplanted by a purple suit and Caucasian skin in the process). This teaming is foiled by Our Hero is what feels like a climax. And then, in #71...

Remember how I said it was obvious in #66 that things were different? I get the same vibe from the story in #71. This story very much feels like it could be about ANY superhero, and just happens to feature Dr. Fate. I realize that could be said for much of the output of the Golden Age, but I don't think I'm barking up the wrong tree when I contend those early Dr. Fate stories had a flavor all their own. That is missing here. The artwork and everyone featured in it look the same. But the characters sound different. They act differently. Dr. Fate wins in the end, but you get the impression of him being just another long underwear type instead of an enigmatic sorcerer.

Things were about to change radically in the Dr. Fate strip. And the surest sign would be a slight alteration in his costume. That will be where we pick this up in Part 2 (whenever that may be).

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