Current Reviews


Countdown to Mystery #1

Posted: Tuesday, September 25, 2007
By: Chris Power/Thom Young

Chris Power:
Thom Young:

“More Pain Comics Part One: Descent into the Psychosphere” (Dr. Fate)
Writer: Steve Gerber
Artists: Justiniano (p), Walden Wong (i)

“Occultation” (Eclipso)
Writer: Matthew Sturges
Artist: Stephen Jorge Segovia

Publisher: DC Comics

Chris Power: I am virtually unfamiliar with Steve Gerber’s work. Even though I grew up in the 70s/80s, I managed to miss Thundarr the Barbarian, and I have never actually read any of Gerber’s previous work. I’m not sure how that is possible, but it is true.

On the other hand, I am a big fan of magic in the DCU. It’s one of those unexplained phenomenon that most DC characters do not know how to deal with very well, and in some cases are the only thing that can really cause them problems.

Dr. Fate, with his relatively convoluted history, has always fascinated me. He was one of the few legacy figures in the DCU that made a ton of sense, because it was the passing down of the Helmet of Fate and the Amulet of Nabu that made someone Dr. Fate.

Geoff Johns did a good job modernizing the character and gave him a lot of personality and history, attaching Nabu fully to the likes of Black Adam, and even made the connection with Hawkman with the return of Hector Hall.

I was sad to see Hector Hall and his wife Lyta leave the DCU, but I wasn’t angered or threatened by that change like so many others in recent years. Their story ran its course and ended in a way that left them at peace. On the other hand, the death of Nabu and the Lords of Order and Chaos felt kind of forced, but paved the way for what could have been an interesting change in the magic of the DCU. However, I have been very disappointed with the magic related reboots and new titles that have come from the DCU lately. In particular, I feel that there are no rules being laid down for the characters operating in the new age of magic. I’m looking for an interesting character from Gerber, and the rules that he is bound by in this new world.

Thom Young: I know relatively little of what Geoff Johns did with Dr. Fate in any of the titles he’s written, so I can’t comment on that at all. I can, however, comment on my respect for Steve Gerber.

When I was a kid, Gerber was my second favorite comic book writer after Steve Englehart. However, any of his on-going series that I really enjoyed a lot seemed to get canceled soon after they began—such as Mister Miracle (first series #23-25), Void Indigo (a graphic novel and two issues), and Omega the Unknown (only ten issues).

When he was writing Howard the Duck in the 1970s, I didn’t care to read about “funny animals,” so I never read his longest on-going series. I did, however, enjoy his graphic novel, Stewart the Rat, that he wrote for Eclipse Comics in 1980 to raise money for his lawsuit with Marvel over ownership of Howard (Stewart the Rat was recently re-issued by About Comics and it is worth picking up).

Gerber has also written a number of mini-series that I have greatly enjoyed—such as The Phantom Zone in 1981 and Nevada in 1998. Unfortunately, Nevada came out almost ten years ago, and Gerber hasn’t recently written anything that I consider to be as great as any of the titles I just listed.

I enjoyed his Helmet of Fate: Zauriel one-shot enough to give it three and a half bullets when I reviewed it several months ago, but there were a few places where it didn’t work for me. I feel the same about his effort in the Dr. Fate story in Countdown to Mystery #1—it’s enjoyable enough, and it’s not poorly written, but he’s not producing “masterpieces” that I enjoyed from him 30 years ago.

However, I felt the same way about Englehart’s recent work as well—until he finally produced a new “masterpiece” last year with Strange Westerns Starring the Black Rider. Thus, I have a great deal of hope that Gerber will also end up producing a great story in the subsequent installments of this eight-issue mini-series.

Right now, though, this Dr. Fate story spent too much time re-capping the Helmet of Fate one-shots. Apparently, this recap was provided because the helmet absorbed aspects of the personalities of all the characters who wore it in those stories. However, the notion of “multiple personalities in the helmet” doesn’t appeal to me. I hate the use of that concept in Ragman’s costume, and I have a feeling I’m not going to like it here either.

Finally, while the notion of Dr. Fate once again being Kent Nelson appeals to me, I don’t much care for the idea that he’s a psychiatrist rather than an archaeologist. This new incarnation strikes me as being too much like Dr. Strange in two ways.

First, the All-New Dr. Fate is a “ruined medical doctor” who becomes a skid row bum just as Dr. Strange was in his 1963 origin story. Strange eventually went to Tibet to ask the Ancient One to restore the use of the fine motor skills in his hands. Instead, the Ancient One made Strange his apprentice.

Gerber’s story here may have a bit more verisimilitude in that it doesn’t involve a skid row bum being able to travel halfway around the world without any means to do so, but it’s still the story of a medical man reduced to living homeless in the streets and stumbling across the Helmet of Fate in a dumpster.

Second, the All-New Dr. Fate seems reminiscent of the 1978 Dr. Strange TV movie that was partly based on Englehart’s work. In both the All-New Dr. Fate and the Dr. Strange TV movie, the sorcerer is a psychiatrist.

Chris Power: I really must pick up Gerber’s Mister Miracle stuff, given that I’ve always enjoyed stories involving the New Gods. The only contact I have had with Howard the Duck was the awful Lucas produced movie, and the less said about that the better.

I also enjoyed the Helmet of Fate: Zauriel, with Zauriel being one of my favorite characters, being originally a replacement for Hawkman and instead becoming a very interesting character during the Morrison JLA run. I must admit I was pleasantly surprised to see him used well.

Even though not penned by Gerber, I think it is worth mentioning the other four Helmet of Fate books. I did not read the Sargon book and so cannot comment on it, but the Detective Chimp book didn’t really leave me with much of an impression as to why that book was even written. Ibis was bizarre, so much so that I honestly did not understand what would happen with that particular character having control of the helmet. However, the Black Alice book resonated. It left me wanting to see a story about a character trying to resist her own darkness while trying to bend the helmet to her will. I think it was Black Alice that set me up for a very epic story in Gerber’s series.

I must admit that Gerber’s opening scene actually surprised me. I am not sure what I expected, but having an exploitation video of homeless people fighting wasn’t it. I have to admit though, the scenes left me moved, with the art communicating the brutality of the beating that is inflicted on Dr. Kent Nelson. I swear I could hear the clank noise as he was dropped in the dumpster.

I have to wonder if Gerber is looking back at the evolution of media in general after a long career, and perhaps is making a commentary on the state of affairs in not only comics, where shock value plays more of a role than creativity. Perhaps I am just jaded by my recent reading of various books, but even if Gerber didn’t mean for that to come through, I took it anyway.

However, for about three scenes, we spent a lot of time reading about all of the material that happened from the death of the Lords of Order and Chaos to the present. Longtime readers of the Fate series did not need most of this recap, and not much of this recap actually would impart anything useful to new readers. I felt that it probably could have been summed up in one page “Lost at the end of the last Crisis, traveling through the great beyond, the Helmet of Fate returns to earth and finds a new owner”—and we would be into the story. The different aspects could have come out over the whole series.

That being said, the imagery attached to the helmet first being worn was spectacular, with the pencils and inks working really well. I have to admit, I must credit the colorist as well. It takes some guts to put that much primary yellow in the frame of a realistic scene.

I like the idea of the blending of the history of the Helmet with the personality of the host. This is consistent with the previous incarnations. And the convenience of having Kent Nelson as the possessor of Fate is a nice return to the origin. However, I agree with you, Thom: it does feel a little too familiar. I suspect the reason for the shift from archeology to medical physician is to de-couple Fate from the history Johns established.

Nabu was linked by Johns as being a wizard in ancient Egypt, an advisor to Prince Khufu (Hawkman’s reincarnation), as well as the DCU now resident centerpiece Teth-Adam. With the loss of Nabu, it may be that Gerber or the DC editorial board (if it exists) decided that they needed to really drop that aspect of the character and make a clean break. That being said, the same break could have been made with Nelson sleeping with a student and maintain that aspect for future stories.

Moving on to our first encounter with the new Dr. Fate, the image was fantastic. Thank goodness that they moved back to the full helmet (however the Amulet of Nabu is also notably absent). It makes me wonder when and why that changed. I thought the half helmet (and the reason for it being sawed off) looked silly. However, DC was clearly committed to that image at one point, going so far as to issue a Heroclix with the DC Origin set based on that form.

Finally, I liked the first real threat to Fate; he looks like something out of my worst nightmare, but the artist managed to make the proportions believable and the inker gave it depth. I’m impressed, and interested in what is coming.

Thom Young: Well, I don’t necessarily like moving the character away from his Egyptian roots if that’s what DC is doing, but I have an even bigger problem with making Dr. Fate too similar to Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Case in point is the “threat” that you mentioned that appeared at the end of this first chapter.

It’s very apropos that you think he looks like something out of your worst nightmare because he reminded me of Dr. Strange’s nemesis Nightmare. I’m beginning to wonder if Gerber dusted off an old Dr. Strange story he had lying around in his desk (or on his computer) that he has only slightly revised into the “All-New Doctor Fate.”

As for the Amulet of Nabu—I noticed it was missing in the interior pages, but Dr. Fate is wearing it on the cover. Maybe it’ll show up in a subsequent issue.

As for the half helmet—I don’t know anything about Heroclix but the half helmet is actually part of Dr. Fate’s history. In More Fun Comics #72 (1941), the helmet was modified into a half helmet when the focus of the stories shifted away from magic to Dr. Fate as a more standard superhero. If I remember correctly, it was later explained in a story in the 1970s or 80s that the half helmet is an indication of Fate (or the helmet) having lower power levels. The full helmet is supposed to indicate maximum power levels.

Chris Power: Indeed. Perhaps this explains the confusion of that particular Heroclix set where players and comic fans could not figure out which character origin was being depicted in the sculpts.

Moving on to the Eclipso story, I am not sure it was a great idea to involve the Spectre right away. This character seems to have been poison to everything he shows up in lately. However, I like the character of Crispus Allen, and I keep hoping someone is going to do something interesting with him other than have him moan. Maybe if he could share some of his thoughts with the new traveler (the dead career thug) they have picked up, we could find the long promised potential of this character.

What were your impressions of that story?

Thom Young: The Eclipso story brought this issue down for me. I’d give the Fate story three and a half bullets, but I’d only give the Eclipso tale two and a half. I think the illustrations on both stories are excellent. Justiniano on Fate really reveals himself to be great at moving the story along from one panel to the next. There is a natural flow of the images.

On Eclipso, Stephen Jorge Segovia has a “sketchy” style that appeals to me a great deal. However, I don’t particularly care for his version of Plastic Man—nor do I care for the appearance of Plastic Man in this story at all. The idea of Eclipso “tempting” Plastic Man with the promise that “no one will ever laugh at you ever again” is just ludicrous and shows a lack of understanding of Plastic Man as a character.

I fully expected Plastic Man to laugh in her face and slip away—but, no, he becomes her minion and pathetically asks, “So . . . did anyone ever, you know, respect me?”

Why is this even part of the story? Is DC planning a complete re-working of the Plastic Man concept now that Ralph Dibney has joined his wife as a ghost? Is this supposed to be some sort of not-so-subtle-but-confused plot point where the woman (Jean Loring) who killed the Elongated Man’s wife is now enslaving the character of which the Elongated Man was created as an analog?

I didn’t care for a lot of Matthew Sturges’s dialog, but the line in which Plastic Man sounds so pathetic is a particular example of bad dialog that stood out. Another was when the career thug the Spectre killed is told by the Spectre to “be on your way” and the thug replies, “Be on my way where, exactly? I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in anything. I got nowhere to be on my way to.”

The thug’s response is an idiotic statement masquerading as a theological concept. In a universe in which the supernatural obviously exists and the Spectre is explicitly identified as an agent of the Judeo-Christian God, the notion that a person who proclaims himself to be an atheist has “no place” to go in “the afterlife” is ridiculous.

I’m an atheist. However, if I died and was suddenly confronted by “God’s ‘Spirit of Vengeance’” telling me to “move along,” I would suddenly re-think my belief system instead of proclaiming “I have nowhere to go since I’m an atheist—therefore I’ll tag along with you, Mr. Spirit of God’s Vengeance.”

In fact, I’d re-think my beliefs (or lack of beliefs) if I encountered anything after my death. The thug may be too intellectually handicapped to realize he needs to re-think atheism (though I doubt he would then even call himself an “atheist”), but the Spectre should surely point out the folly of his statement and send him on his way.

If it wasn’t for my interest in Gerber going back to my childhood, this would be the only issue of Countdown to Mystery that I’d bother reading or buying. As it is, Gerber’s really going to have to show me something that makes me want to keep buying this series after the next issue or two.

Chris Power: Interesting. I hadn’t considered the thug’s statement about being an atheist a problem, but it is, certainly. What distracted me in that scene, though, was the movement of the Spectre into the two separate characters. I did not understand this in all of the other Spectre books as well: why is Crispus Allen always separate from the Spectre? And when they are joined, the Spectre is the dominant form (with a van dyke). This is contrary to every other incarnation of the character.

I was really hoping to see Crispus, a former detective, being like Jim Corrigan and solving supernatural related crimes. Instead, we have an emo-former detective wandering around moaning about his lot in the afterlife.

But I digress, I actually wasn’t keen on Segovia’s art style when I first saw it, but I thought that the inks and colors were properly done, setting a dark mood for the story. In particular, the dark reds in the evening scene were very subtle.

However, like you, I did not like the portrayal of Plastic Man. The line that threw me over the edge was the bit about his son. In the modern DCU, Plastic Man and his son are on fairly good terms (as far as I know from the JLA Trial by Fire story line; not a ton has been done with Plas since then).

Additionally, why is Eclipso even bothering Plastic Man? He isn’t related to the magic of the DCU at all, and he has never really encountered Eclipso before to my knowledge. My only thought is that Plastic Man is actually one of the more powerful beings on the planet, and Eclipso thinks he could be useful as a weapon.

Finally, we come to the big ending. I won’t go into it, but to give the readers a hint, I think it ties into Final Crisis more than most of Countdown has. I’m not terribly keen on the possibility of radically changing the origin of Eclipso, I liked the idea of a Spirit of Wrath being the dark side of the Spirit of Vengeance. We will have to see what happens. At least I got my Jean Loring Eclipso Heroclix before the character potentially gets gobbled up in the next event cycle.

Thom Young: I agree with you in that I’m not keen on changing Eclipso’s origin either—but even the idea of Eclipso and the Spectre having related origins as God’s “Spirit of Wrath” and “Spirit of Vengeance” (respectively) goes against what I would prefer.

I remember reading a reprint of Eclipso’s “original origin” when I was a kid (from House of Secrets #61). Of course, there is nothing about the Spectre in the original story at all. In fact, there’s nothing about Eclipso being the “Spirit of Wrath.”

Eclipso was simply “Mr. Hyde” to Bruce Gordon’s “Dr. Jekyll.” The interesting twist to Robert Louis Stevenson’s story was that Gordon’s transformation was due to having been scratched by the black diamond—so that he became Eclipso during solar eclipses.

Of course, the problem with that concept is that solar eclipses don’t occur very often, and they only last for a few minutes—which is why Gordon eventually transformed into Eclipso at night (I guess he should have been re-named Dusko or Nighto).

Still, I remember being “creeped out” when I first read that reprint—and I wish the current Eclipso would evoke a similar feeling of creepiness.

Chris Power: I was unaware of the original origin of Eclipso. That sounds like a very good representation of a classic character of fiction in the modern genre of comics. It is a shame it has been lost from the universe and now may become even more muddled. It is interesting how quickly that information has disappeared in the many retcon series in the DCU, as the current status quo wasn’t established until the early 1990s.

The creepiness factor was captured during Johns’ era of JSA during the “Princes of Darkness” storyline, but it has been absent since Eclipso’s teeth were pulled in the “Black Reign” story with Alex Montez. I keep hoping that the Jean Loring version will fill me with true dread, but it just does not seem to ring true.

I would say that we sound like we agree on most points in this issue, even down to the ranking of it. I would say that the good evens out the bad, with Gerber’s dialog and the art overall saving what is yet another lackluster tie-in title. We will have to see what the future holds for the magic in the DCU. I know that most of my questions weren’t answered in this volume, at least not yet.

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