Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives volume 1

By Gardner F. Fox, Hal Sherman, Stan Aschmeier & Jon Chester Kozlak (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1308-0 (HB)

There are many comics anniversaries this year. Some of the most significant will be rightly celebrated, but a few are going to be unjustly ignored. As a feverish fanboy wedged firmly in the past, I’m again abusing my privileges here to carp about another brilliant vintage book, criminally out of print and not slated for revival either physically or in digital formats…

One of the most interesting aspects of DC’s Golden Age superhero pantheon is just how much more they gripped the attention of writers and readers from succeeding generations, even if they didn’t set the world alight during their original “Glory Days”.

Numerous relatively short-lived or genuinely second-string characters with a remarkably short shelf life through the formative years of the industry have, since the Silver Age which began in 1956, seldom been far from our attention and been constantly revived, rebooted and resurrected.

One of the most revered, revisited and frequently revived is Doctor Fate, who first appeared in 1940, courtesy of writer Gardner F. Fox and the uniquely stylistic Howard Sherman. Although starting strong, he was another incredibly powerful man of mystery who failed to capture the imaginations of enough readers to build on the chimeric tone of the times. He even underwent a radical revision midway through his initial run and lost his strip even before WWII ended.

Since his Silver Age revival, however, Fate has become a popular cornerstone of more than one DC Universe and he’s still going strong, albeit in some daringly radical forms…

Following the historically informative and laudatory Foreword by big-time devotee fan and Golden Age Keeper of the Flame Roy Thomas, this monumental 400-page full-colour deluxe hardback (representing the entirety of Doctor Fate’s run from More Fun Comics #55-98 from  May 1940 to July/August 1944) introduces the potentate of peril in a 6-page parable wherein he combats ‘The Menace of Wotan’.

During those simpler times origins and motivations were far less important than plot and action, so this eerie yarn focuses on a blue-skinned Mephistopheles’ scheme to assassinate comely lady of leisure Inza and how her enigmatic, golden-helmed protector thwarts the plot. Our hero deals harshly with the nefarious azure mage, barely mentioning in passing that Fate possesses all the lost knowledge and lore of ancient civilisations.

That’s probably the biggest difference between the original and today’s Fate: back then, he was no sorcerer but an adept of forgotten science (a distinction cribbed from many Lovecraftian horror tales of the previous two decades of pulp fiction): a hair-splitting difference all but lost on the youthful readers.

In #56 – which boasted the first of 11 cover spots for the Wielder of Old Wisdoms –‘The Search for Wotan’ sees Fate carry Inza up the Stairs of Judgement to Heaven where they learn their foe is not dead but actually preparing to blow up the Earth. Foiling the plan but unable to permanently despatch the big blue meanie, Fate is forced to bury his enemy alive at the centre of the world…

‘The Fire Murders’ in #57, sees certified doom-magnet Inza targeted by mystic arsonist Mango the Mighty before her guardian Fate swiftly ends the campaign of terror, whilst in the next issue a modern mage recovers ‘The Book of Thoth’from its watery tomb and unleashes a wave of appalling, uncanny phenomena until the Blue-and-Gold Gladiator steps in.

The self-appointed bulwark against wicked mysticism levitates out of his comfort zone in More Fun #59 to repel an invasion by ‘The People from Outer Space’ but is firmly back in occult territory for #60 when he destroys ‘The Little Men’ employed by a mythic triumvirate of colossal Norns to crush humanity.

Behind #61’s striking Sherman cover, ‘Attack of the Nebula’ pits the Puissant Paladin against a cosmic cloud and wandering planetoid summoned by an Earthly madman to devastate the world, then sees the doctor derail a deranged technologist’s robotic coup in #62’s ‘Menace of the Metal Men’ and save Inza from petrification by ‘The Sorcerer’ in More Fun #63.

Like many of Fox’s very best heroic series, Doctor Fate was actually a romantic partnership, with Inza (after a number of surnames she eventually settled on Cramer) acting as assistant, foil, and so very often, target of many macabre menaces. In #64 she and Fate – who still had no civilian identity – share a pleasure cruise to the Caribbean where a slumbering Mayan God of Evil wants to utilise her unique psychic talents in ‘The Mystery of Mayoor’.

She got a brief rest in #65 as Fate soloed in a bombastic battle to repel an invasion of America by ‘The Fish-Men of Nyarl-Amen’ but plays a starring role in the next episode as Fate exposes a sadistic crook trying to drive his wealthy cousin to suicide by convincing her that she is ‘The Leopard Girl’

A year after his debut, More Fun Comics #67 (May 1941) at last revealed ‘The Origin of Doctor Fate’: revealing how the boy Kent Nelson had accompanied his father Sven on an archaeological dig to Ur in 1920.

Broaching a pre-Chaldean pyramid, the lad awakened a dormant half-million-year-old alien from the planet Cilia, and accidentally triggered security systems which killed his own father. Out of gratitude and remorse, the being known as Nabu the Wise trained Kent to harness the hidden forces of the universe – levitation, telekinesis and the secrets of the atom – and – after two decades – sent him out into the world to battle those who used magic and science with evil intent.

That epic sequence only took up three pages, however, and the remainder of the instalment finds time and space for Fate and Inza to turn back a ghostly incursion and convince Lord of the Dead Black Negal to stay away from the lands of the living…

Fate graduated to 10-page tales and held the covers of More Fun #68-76: beginning a classic run of spectacular thrillers by firstly crushing a scientific slaughterer who had built an invisible killing field in ‘Murder in Baranga Marsh’, before gaining a deadly arch-enemy in #69 when deranged physicist Ian Karkull uses a ray to turn his gang into ‘The Shadow Killers’

In #70, the shadow master allied with Fate’s first foe as ‘Wotan and Karkull’ construct an arsenal of doomsday weapons in the arctic. They are still too weak to beat the Master of Cosmic Forces though, whereas rogue solar scientist Igorovichwould have successfully blackmailed the entire planet with ‘The Great Drought’ had Inza not dramatically intervened…

With involvement in WWII now clearly inevitable, covers had increasingly become more martial and patriotic in nature, and with More Fun #72 (October 1941) Fate underwent an unexpected and radical change in nature.

The full-face helmet was replaced with a gleaming metallic half hood and his powers diminished. Moreover, the hero was no longer a cold, emotionless force of nature, but a passionate, lusty, two-fisted swashbuckler throwing punches rather than pulses of eerie energy. His previous physical invulnerability was countered by revealing that his lungs were merely human and he could be drowned, poisoned or asphyxiated…

The quality and character of his opposition changed too. ‘The Forger’ pits him against a gang of con-men targeting Inza’s family and other farmers; altering intercepted bank documents to pull off a cruel swindle, whilst a far more rational and reasonable nemesis debuted in #73 when criminal mastermind ‘Mr. Who’ uses his body-morphing, forced-evolution Solution Z to perpetrate a series of sensational robberies.

Despite a rather brutal trouncing – and apparent death – the brute returned in #74 with ‘Mr. Who Lives Again’ seeing the sinister scientist employ his abilities to replace the City Mayor, whilst in #75 ‘The Battle Against Time’ finds Fate racing to locate the killer who framed Inza’s best friend for murder…

Underworld chess master Michael Krugor manipulates people like pawns but ‘The King of Crime’ is himself overmatched and outplayed when he tries to use Inza against Fate, after which #77 saw a welcome – if brief – return to the good old days as ‘Art for Crime’s Sake’ has the Man of Mystery braving a magic world of monsters within an ancient Chinese painting to rescue young lovers eldritchly exiled by a greedy art dealer…

Issue #78 features clever bandits who disguised themselves as statues of ‘The Wax Museum Killers’, whilst #79’s ‘The Deadly Designs of Mr. Who’ reveals how the metamorphic maniac attempts to impersonate and replace one of the richest men on Earth, before #80’s innovative felon ‘The Octopus’ turns a circus into his playground for High Society plunder.

In More Fun #81 cunning crook The Clock uses radio show ‘Hall of Lost Heirs’ to trawl for potential victims and easy pickings whilst the next issue saw Fate expose the schemes of stage magician/conman The Red Sage. He was offering Luck for Sale!’

‘The Two Fates!’ then sees fortune tellers using extortion and murder to bolster their prognostications only to be stopped by the real deal…

In #84, the energetic crimebuster braved ‘Crime’s Hobby House!’ to stop thieving special effects wizard Mordaunt Grimmusing rich men’s own pastimes to rob them, before big changes for Kent Nelson occurred in #85.

Here the society idler quickly qualifies as a surgeon and medical doctor, embarking on a new career of service to humanity. Additionally, his alter ego ditches the golden cape, to become an acrobatic and human – if still bulletproof – crimebuster, exposing a greedy plastic surgeon helping crooks escape justice as ‘The Man Who Changed Faces!’

The medical theme predominated in these later tales. ‘The Man Who Wanted No Medals’ was a brilliant surgeon who feared a crushing youthful indiscretion would be exposed and #87’s ‘The Mystery of Room 406’ dealt with a hospital cubicle where even the healthiest patients always died. In ‘The Victim of Doctor Fate!’, Nelson suffers crippling self-doubt when he fails to save a patient. Those only fade after the surgeon’s diligent enquiries reveal the murderous hands of Mad Dog McBain secretly behind the untimely demise…

Charlatan soothsaying scoundrel Krishna Das is exposed by Fate and Inza in #89’s ‘The Case of the Crystal Crimes’, after which ‘The Case of the Healthy Patient!’ pits them against a fraudulent doctor and incurable hypochondriac. Mr. Who then resurfaces, using his chemical conjurations to shrink our hero to doll size in #91’s ‘The Man Who Belittled Fate!’

The Thief of Time struck again – whilst still in jail – in More Fun #92 as ‘Fate Turns Back The Clock!’ before superb Hal Sherman ended his long association with the strip in ‘The Legend of Lucky Lane’, wherein an impossibly fortunate felon finally plays the odds once too often…

As the page-count dropped back to 6 pages, Stan Aschmeier illustrated the next two adventures, beginning with 94’s ‘The Destiny of Mr. Coffin!’ with Fate coming to the aid of a fatalistic old soul framed for being a fence whilst ‘Flame in the Night!’ sees a matchbox collector targeted by killers who think he knows too much…

With the end clearly in sight, Jon Chester Kozlak took over the art beginning with More Fun #96 and ‘Forgotten Magic!’, as Fate’s Chaldean sponsor is forced to remove the hero’s remaining superhuman abilities for a day – leaving Fate to save trapped miners and foil their swindling boss with nothing but his wits and courage.

The restored champion then exposes the spurious bad luck reputed to plague ‘Pharaoh’s Lamp!’ and ended/suspended his crime-crushing career in #98 by sorting out a case of mistaken identity when a young boy is confused with diminutive Stumpy Small AKA ‘The Bashful King of Crime!’

With the first age of superheroes coming to a close, new tastes were developing in the readership. Fate’s costumed co-stars Green Arrow, Aquaman and Johnny Quick – along with debuting concept Superboy – moved over to Adventure Comics, leaving More Fun as an anthology of cartoon comedy features.

Initially dark, broodingly exotic and often genuinely spooky, Doctor Fate smoothly switched to the bombastic, boisterous, flamboyant and vividly exuberant post war Fights ‘n’ Tights style but couldn’t escape evolving times and trends. Here and forever, however, both halves of his early career can be seen as a lost treasure trove of tense suspense, eerie enigmas, spectacular action and fabulous fun: one no lover of Costumed Dramas or sheer comics wonderment can afford to miss.
© 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1944, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.