Inside Pulse 12

Retro-Reviews: Dr. Fate #1-4 By DeMatteis & Giffen For DC Comics

Dr. Fate Vol. 1 #1-4 (July – October 1987)

Written by J.M. DeMatteis (#1-4)

Penciled by Keith Giffen (#1-4)

Inked by Dave Hunt (#1-4)

Coloured by Anthony Tollin (#1-4)

Spoilers (from twenty-nine years ago)

I just finished reading the first twenty-four issues of the second volume of Dr. Fate, and I was struck by how dependent that entire run is on this miniseries, which came out a year before.  Despite always liking Fate, and having always been a huge fan of this era of Keith Giffen’s art (a little more experimental than his Quiet Darkness era on Legion of Super-Heroes, not as abstract and weird as say, Trencher), I never read this comic.  

The day after I finished issue twenty-four of the ongoing series, I was in a comic store in a small town on the way to somewhere, and I came across the miniseries, for only a dollar an issue.  It felt, if you pardon the expression, like Fate, so I had to pick it up.  That means that this column is out of order, but that also provides a rare chance to look at how the writer, JM DeMatteis, set up his longer story, while still (hopefully) telling a complete story here.  Let’s take a look and see what we can find.

As always, it’s helpful to keep track of the characters that played key roles in these issues.

Dr. Fate

  • Kent Nelson and Nabu (#1)
  • Eric Strauss and Nabu (#1-2)
  • Dr. Benjamin Stoner and Typhon (#2-4)
  • Eric and Linda Strauss (#4)

Villains

  • Lords of Chaos (#1-4)
  • Typhon (a particular Lord of Chaos; #1-4)
  • Dr. Benjamin Stoner (#1-4)

Guest Stars

  • Lords of Order (#1-2, 4)
  • The Joker (#1-2)
  • Martian Manhunter (#3)
  • Guy Gardner (#3)
  • Mr. Miracle (#3)
  • Batman (#3)
  • Phantom Stranger (#3)

Supporting Characters

  • Linda Strauss (#1-4)

Let’s take a look at what happened in these books, with some commentary as we go:

  • This series opens with Dr. Fate (who we learn is Nabu, driving Kent Nelson’s body) baiting and fighting some minor demons sent by Typhon, one of the Lords of Chaos, in a park in New York City.  Eventually Typhon himself shows up, and while Fate fights him, the Lords of Order recall our hero to his home dimension against his will.  This becomes an opportunity for the Lords of Order to explain the whole Kali Yuga thing, and how the Earth is descending into a period of complete chaos, after which the universe will begin again in a state of beautiful order.  We see that Kent Nelson, Nabu’s host body, is very old.  Then we switch to the park again, where ten-year-old Eric Strauss is being encouraged to play by his stepmother, Linda.  We learn that Eric is very mature and wise for his age, and that he and Linda have a strong bond, that survived her marriage to his cruel father, who is now dead of cancer (his mother committed suicide).  When Linda is not looking, Eric is taken from the park by Kent Nelson; Eric claims he’s always waited for Kent to come to him.  We cut to Arkham Asylum, where Dr. Benjamin Stoner is chatting with Typhon.  Kent takes Eric to the Tower of Fate in Salem, where we see that Nabu manifests as a mouth in the middle of Kent’s stomach.  Nabu ages Eric to a full grown man.  We see that Linda has spent weeks looking for Eric, and is beginning to despair when Dr. Fate appears before her to tell her that Eric will return.  We learn that Fate is now Nabu riding Eric’s body, but when they get into another fight with Typhon, Nabu abandons him.  Typhon manages to remove the Fate-ness from Eric, leaving him naked in the snow of the same park.  Dr. Stoner shows up with a cop (despite this being New York and not Gotham), and takes him into custody.  We see that he locks him up in Arkham, with Typhon looking on, while Kent cries over Inza Nelson’s grave.
  • Kent reflects on his life, and how Nabu aged him and turned him into Dr. Fate in the 1940s, but also how he kept him and his wife Inza young for decades, although the strains of chaos affected her, perhaps leading to her suicide.  We see that Dr. Stoner has been torturing Eric, who is going mad, in an attempt to find the helmet and amulet of Fate for Typhon.  Linda is certain that Eric is still alive (this is a theme that is returned to in the ongoing series later), and something tells her to drive to Massachusetts.  Stoner, following Typhon’s commands, kills a nurse at Arkham in order to help Typhon’s demons grow, which are in turn fed by the madness of Arkham’s inmates.  Kent and Nabu make contact with Eric, and Nabu joins with the boy against his will, turning him into Dr. Fate.  Fate fights the demons, and Nabu motivates him by telling him that Linda is dead.  Fate learns that Typhon has been hiding inside Stoner, and we learn that Nabu has changed Fate so that the helmet and amulet are part of the hero’s body.  Still, Typhon is able to peel them off the hero, and Nabu abandons Eric, returning to Kent’s body.  Stoner puts on the helmet and becomes Dr. Fate, but a twisted, grinny, Venom-style version.  Kent argues with Nabu, and the Lords of Order arrive to force Nabu to come home.  He rejects them.  Linda finds Kent, and asks him to help her find Eric.  Eric, meanwhile, walks out of Arkham, determined to face Stoner and Typhon again.
  • Dr. Stoner, as Dr. Fate, flies around spreading madness throughout the world.  The Justice League (made up of Martian Manhunter, Guy Gardner, Mister Miracle, and Batman) meet in a weird-looking headquarters that is half cave to discuss what’s going on with Fate; we learn they were gathered by the Phantom Stranger.  In Salem, Kent acts all defeated with Linda, and recounts the many ways in which Nabu manipulated him throughout his life.  He starts to argue with Nabu about how they need to help Eric, when Eric arrives.  The Justice League (and Phantom Stranger) confront the evil Dr. Fate.  Fate appears to kill both Batman and Gardner quickly, although the Phantom Stranger claims that he really just transported them back home, not really caring about them.  The Stranger’s goal in using the League was to plant doubt in Stoner’s mind, which has happened.  The League is teleported away, and the Stranger tells Fate he loves him (really).  In Salem, Linda and Eric embrace, and Nabu understands something he never did before; in denial, he tries to get rid of Linda, but she refuses to go.  Fate attacks the Stranger because he’s reawakening the caring part of Stoner’s nature.  Typhon convinces him to embrace chaos, and he rips the Stranger’s head off.  As Fate approaches the Great Pyramid in Egypt, someone, most likely Eric, waits to stop him.
  • In Egypt, Kent Nelson narrates a bit of a recap of the series to this point, while we see more images of Chaos, personified by green wisps of smoke with devilish grins, spreading around the world.  Eric, Linda, Kent, and the little orange wisp that is Nabu face off against Dr. Fate, who is made of Typhon and Dr. Stoner, who is amused by this challenge.  Fate blasts Eric, but he reforms.  While it looks bad for Eric, Nabu refuses to help, no matter how much Kent tries to convince him to.  Kent figures out that Linda should be part of the Dr. Fate matrix as well, and convinces Linda to go to the besieged Eric.  Nabu tries to stop her, but relents when he sees that Eric’s essence is about to be destroyed.  Eric and Linda form Dr. Fate, separating Lord Typhon from Stoner’s dying body.  Typhon retreats, and the heroes head back to Salem.  Kent asks Nabu to allow him to die.  Later, Eric, Linda, and Nabu (as a glowing ball thing) stand over Kent’s grave, and Nabu is called home by the Lords of Order.  Once there, he rejects their worldview, and insists on returning to Earth.  In New York, some time later, Eric and Linda talk, and when Linda makes a move to kiss him, Eric denies her.  Nabu shows up wearing Kent’s body and makes it clear that he’s going to stay with them.

I really should have read this miniseries before reading the ongoing, but DeMatteis did such a good job of recapping it throughout the series, I didn’t feel like I missed much.

It’s interesting to put this mini, and the book that followed it, into the context of DC Comics in the late 1980s.  The inside cover of each issue listed the DC Deluxe Checklist, a listing of other titles in DC’s Deluxe format (how I miss both the New Format and Deluxe Format, which were much more of a pleasure to hold and read than today’s comics), and I saw that this book came out at the same time as the end of Watchmen, during a period where DC was reexamining its characters, and reintroducing them in the wake of Crisis.  This stuff is contemporaneous to O’Neil and Cowan on The Question, Byrne on Superman, Baron on Flash, Moore on Swamp Thing, and Ostrander on Firestorm, just to list things that were clear from this checklist and house ads.  I’m not sure that DC has ever been as exciting as it was during this very fertile period of time.

Clearly, this book is not remembered or spoken of in the same way as any of those runs, but there was a charm to this comic.  I see how DeMatteis laid the groundwork for his upcoming exploration of organized religion and the concept of a singular god, but avoided all of that stuff in this miniseries, which is much more focused on adventure.

DeMatteis and Giffen are a known quantity, but this was early in their collaborative partnership, and things feel very different from their work on Justice League, which was coming out at the same time.  The characters in this comic may bicker, but it’s never playful or funny (although that was very common in the ongoing series).  Even when the League makes its appearance, there is no humour to it (which reminds me, how did the Phantom Stranger come back from the beat-down that the Typhon/Stoner Fate gave him?).

Giffen’s art has always appealed to me, but it’s really very strange.  He likes to draw very detailed foregrounds, with the superheroic action happening in the background, mostly in shadow.  In fact, for way too many talking heads pages, he either leaves a character’s face in shadow, of gives us an extreme closeup of only part of their face.  It leads to some pretty jarring storytelling, and often just what is going on is left unclear.  This style is something that I associate with the Five Years Later run on Legion of Super-Heroes (which is one of my all-time favourite comics runs), and I was a little surprised to see him employing it so early here.

One thing that I found interesting here was the way in which the Chaos-controlled Dr. Fate, which consisted of Typhon and Stoner, looked so much like Venom, the Spider-Man villain, with his wide, toothy grin.  What’s interesting about that is that Venom did not appear in full until 1988, a year after this comic came out.  I wonder if the way Giffen drew Fate here influenced Todd McFarlane in his design of that iconic villain.  

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got my hands on this miniseries, but now it’s time to return to the regularly scheduled ongoing, to take a look at William Messner-Loeb’s run, which picked up where DeMatteis left off.

If you’d like to read my column about the Dr. Fate comics that came after this series, you can check this link:

Vol. 2 #1-24 – Eric and Linda Strauss as Fate; DeMatteis and McManus

Like the ongoing series, it doesn’t look like this miniseries was ever collected in trade, so you’ll have to either hunt it down like I did, or visit Comixology to read it.

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