The history of Doctor Fate kind of parallels the history of the Golden Age of comics: it starts with wild energy and enthusiasm, goes through a few spasms as it tries to find its way, and ends up being familiar, ordinary, and almost boring. The 44 stories reprinted in this deluxe hardcover, spanning the years 1940 to 1944, show how comics evolved from being compellingly primal to being dully predictable.
The earliest Doctor Fate stories reprinted here are amazing. In these stories, Doctor Fate is a complete mystery to readers, never appearing without his mask until the final panel of his 12th story. Until he unmasks and revels himself as human Kent Nelson, Fate can literally be seen as a force of nature, an avenging spirit set with the task of destroying evil in all its forms throughout the world. The Doctor Fate of these early stories kills evil-doers at will. No evil person is safe from his wrath. In one story Haldane the Sorcerer is thrown off a high tower due to his evil acts. In another the evil Wotan is “encased for eternity in an air bubble – and hidden beneath the earth he would have destroyed.” In yet a third story, Doctor Fate kills every member of an alien race bent on attacking the Earth by throwing their planet into the sun. And in perhaps the most amazing moment of that series of stories, Doctor Fate destroys the entire lost city of Nyarl-Amen because the fish-men who live there are attacking the surface world.
Despite his bright yellow-and-blue costume, Doctor Fate is a strange and mystical force in these early stories. He lives in a remote tower in the city of Salem, protecting the Earth as he has for thousands of years, and lives completely apart from humanity. He lives apart from everyone, that is, but his beloved Inza Carmer, a woman whom he rescues in his earliest stories and with whom, at least reading between the panels, it seems he is having a torrid romantic affair. By the third story the couple seems almost inseparable. Inza attracts danger, so Fate is always watching her. But Inza Carmer is no Lois Lane; instead, she seems Doctor Fate’s emotional equal, a woman of immense inner strength and determination who acts as Doctor Fate’s ally. One of the most interesting things about reading so many all these stories together is getting to see this affair develop over time; the romance between Kent and Inza is surprisingly realistic and interesting.
Howard Sherman’s art in these earliest stories is rather stiff and amateurish, but somehow that amateurishness makes the stories even spookier. Sherman’s simple rendering makes the stories they depict seem even more eerie than would have been the case with a slicker artist. His stylized lettering style also brings a whole different dimension to these stories.
In short, if this book had only collected stories from More Fun #55 to 71, it would have been a real masterpiece, 134 pages of gorgeously intense and off-the-wall Golden Age action and mystery. These stories show the true genius and majesty of the best Golden Age stories: they are bizarre stories that seem improvised from page to page, and which somehow transcend their own limitations.
With the Doctor Fate story in More Fun #72, however, the whole tone of the stories changed. The transition is marked by a simple cosmetic change: Doctor Fate’s full-face helmet now only covers the top of his face and his nose and jaw are exposed. This is not simply a cosmetic change, however: with the change in mask, the whole tone of the stories changed as well. No longer was Doctor Fate a nearly invulnerable, inhuman hero who seemed to channel mystic wisdom. The new Doctor Fate was a two-fisted man of action, fighting common criminals like the bank robbers he battles in More Fun 72. Along with that, Doctor Fate developed a weakness: though he was still incredibly powerful, Fate’s lungs were his weak spot. Any criminal who could expose Doctor Fate to gas or to anything else that would stop his breathing could defeat the hero.
And, like Superman with his kryptonite, Doctor Fate’s lungs became a fetish for writer Gardner Fox. Nearly every story from this era has a scene where criminals try using some trick to cause Doctor Fate to stop breathing. It feels very formulaic, and makes these latter stories more difficult to read.
At the same time, Sherman’s art gets looser and more professional, this actually works against the innate wonderful weirdness of the stories. As Sherman gets slicker, his odd quirks disappear out of the stories, giving the stories much more of a generic Golden Age feel. It doesn’t help that Fox has Doctor Fate battle such clichés as a crime carnival and a wax museum where criminals dress as bad guys. And the criminals from this era are unexciting. The evil Mr. Who, who drinks a powerful substance that makes him invulnerable to harm, is very dull compared to the amazingly odd Wotan of previous stories.
Of course these changes were made to increase the popularity of the character, and it seems to have worked to the extent that two-thirds of this book contains the half-masked Doctor Fate. But these changes also make much of this book a real struggle to get through. As it is, the first third of this book is as interesting, exciting and weird as anything that American comics produced in the 1940s. I won’t say that those stories make the book worth its $75 cover price, but they are awfully wonderful.