Saturday, January 14, 2012

Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Vol.1 review:

By Gardner Fox & Howard Sherman. Collects More Fun Comics #55-98.
 It is safe to say that, of all the Archives, Doctor Fate embodies the Golden Age at its two extremes: One extreme is groundbreaking, experimental, progressive in some ways, and fascinating to read even today. The other extreme is tiresome, plodding, and really not worth reading for pleasure.
 For the first 135 pages, Doctor Fate Archives features some of the wildest, eeriest and most entertaining stuff the era has to offer as far as mainstream comics go. People who heap praise on Fletcher Hanks might want to reconsider his status as a god of weird comics, because as far as surrealism goes, it’s hard to find a true equal coming out at the same time, although some of the better Plastic Man and Spectre stories come close (and of course, Plastic Man would eventually surpass both in terms of surreal craziness).
 It’s also worth pointing out that artist Howard Sherman is a far superior draftsman to Hanks; some of the art is truly jaw-dropping in its elegant simplicity. Sherman puts an amazing amount of detail into the architecture and backgrounds, and his use of shadows suggests that if given a few years, he could have evolved into the Golden Age equivalent of Gene Colan. Some of the figures are a bit stiff, but it all helps to add to the mood of the stories, as if they were drawn by a medieval monk after discovering art deco and pulp magazines. This is one of the few Archives I would have liked to have seen in black and white, although I shouldn’t complain too much, as this is probably the single best Archive DC has put out in terms of getting the coloring and art reproduction right (although there is one major goof; a villain with green skin is later depicted with Caucasian skin in a sequel story).

 Doctor Fate himself is fairly simple as a character, but that’s part of the appeal, he isn’t simple merely because writer Gardner Fox isn’t interested in giving him characterization, but because Fate clearly works best as a character whom we don’t know much about. Fate’s entire face is obscured by his helmet, he kills his enemies without the slightest remorse (often preferring to burn them to death), dwells in an eerie tower in Salem, is specifically stated in more than one story to be thousands of years old, and often seems to pop up out of nowhere just in time, as if he’s always watching and waiting. Fate is an eerie, often frightening figure, sometimes implied to be little better than the evil sorcerers and mad scientists he encounters.
When it comes to mysterious characters that function more as a presence, Fate is up there with the best of them.
 As with the works of Fletcher Hanks, Fate is virtually omnipotent, and often functions as a wrathful, old-testament god, from whom no sins can be kept secret. Part of the appeal of these stories, I must admit, comes from seeing what Wertham called “The Superman Complex” in action, wherein the reader experiences “Sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again while you yourself remain immune”. Okay, maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but fans of Dirty Harry movies would find themselves right at home here. What keeps all of this from becoming boring and/or morbid is that all of Fate's foes are super-powered villains whose power is equal or superior to his, several of them even manage to return. Four of them; Wotan, Nergal, The Fish-Men of Nyarl Amen, and Ian Karkull have gone on to become little used but recognizable villains in the DCU.
 Also, in stark contrast to how Shiera is treated in his Hawkman stories, Gardner Fox portrays Inza, Doctor Fate’s love interest, as an intelligent and sometimes fierce woman. Inza is fascinated by the occult, enjoys travel, and occasionally getting to take part in combat. She doesn’t do much beyond function as a damsel-in-distress and alert Fate to some new menace, but it’s made clear that Fate respects her as an equal, and sometimes pines to be a normal man so that he can have a full relationship with her. It’s not much, but at least she isn’t characterized as a “meddling little idiot” or a nag. Also, with her arched eyebrows and curly hair, it’s pretty clear that Howard Sherman had a huge crush on Bette Davis when designing her.
 Speaking of popular culture of the time that went into inspiring many of these tales, it goes without saying that these stories owe a great debt to H.P. Lovecraft. While Doctor Fate is generally characterized as a sorcerer hero in modern comics, he’s actually presented here as a scientist who has discovered a way to manipulate his atomic structure and the atomic structure of other things as well, thus making it appear that he can do magic. The man who gives Fate his powers is not a sorcerer, but an alien who was worshipped as a god (just like Lovecraft’s great old ones). Fate even denies the existence of vampires and werewolves in one story, just as how Lovecraft often showed contempt for such “traditional” horrors and hardly ever used them. We also have a “witch haunted Salem”, characters who speak in odd, stilted dialogue with truly bizarre tense, hidden races, abandoned megaliths built by aliens, as well as half man and half fish creatures that clearly were inspired by Lovecraft’s Deep Ones. Doctor Fate may well be the first Lovecraft pastiche in mainstream entertainment.
 While the stories are all very much the same, and often confined to only six pages, the sheer weirdness of the plots and villains, furious pacing, and a clear attempt to make sure that every page is densely packed with art and dialogue, makes it all palatable. The rigid 8-panel a page structure gives everything a creepy, claustrophobic feel. If I’d have to choose favorites, mine would be

 -The Fire Murders (wherein Fate battles a sorcerer who starts a spontaneous combustion racket, has a legion of zombie slaves and is, no joke, named Mango. It all ends with a weirdly fitting punishment).

 -The Sorcerer (a fun haunted house story with hidden treasure, demons and a nice coastal cliff mansion setting).

The Menace of Mayoor; which beats Erich Von Danniken to the punch by several decades in its depiction of an otherworldly being that was viewed as a god by the Mayans and built the pyramids).

-The Shadow Killers; which not only gives it’s villain a surprisingly sympathetic motivation (and has some parallels with Fate’s own origin) but  uses the concept of a “living shadow” far more inventively than the “Shadow-Thief” stories from Silver Age Hawkman comics. The later team-up between Wotan and Ian Karkull (this story's villain) is also fun; it may just be the first time two super-villains collaborated in the same story.
 However, it is a bit disappointing when Fate’s origin is revealed (his archaeologist father was accidentally killed by an alien named Nabu, whom the Egyptians worshipped as a god; Nabu taught a young Fate all his secrets to make it up to him) and he reveals himself to be a handsome young man beneath the helmet. He also stops outright killing villains, showing mercy in several stories to henchmen. This doesn't affect things too much, because the stories still have the same eerie tone, and in fact some of my favorite stories happen after the origin is revealed, but it’s clear that Gardner Fox is trying to lighten things up. It also directly contradicts the moments when Fate claims to be an immortal. Another plus is that the page count is expanded, and Sherman begins to experiment with different layouts, creating some of his best work during this period. Clearly, Doctor Fate was becoming popular.
 Unfortunately, that is one of the things that caused the character’s downfall.
The reasons for why are lost to time, some attribute it to the stories being seen as too frightening for children and drawing in complaints, but more than likely it was because the character’s popularity had a detrimental effect on his creators. Whatever the reason, in issue #72, Doctor Fate’s helmet is sawed off, exposing his chin and mouth, and he fights not weird menaces, but ordinary criminals. This results in a truly amazing drop-off in quality from the previous stories; merely altering the helmet affects the mood of the stories more than you’d guess. To be fair, the first story to do this isn’t too bad in itself, with some nice art and the villains actually putting up a fair fight, but it just doesn’t compare to what has come before. Also, now Doctor Fate is reduced to wisecracks. The next two stories introduce the mad scientist Mr. Who, who makes a surprising number of appearances in this volume, even making cameos in jail in stories that don’t feature him. Who’s shape-changing powers that allow him to do pretty much anything make him a formidable foe (at least in the first story), and he has a somewhat sympathetic backstory, but with his weird bow-tie and silly name, it’s hard to truly take him seriously. By the second Mr. Who story, it has become painfully apparent that Doctor Fate has been reduced to a generic superhero. The days of the moody, Lovecraftian Doctor Fate are gone for good (Well, okay, maybe the Lovecraftian feel isn’t doffed off entirely; in one story, Doctor Fate battles a frog-like man who disguises himself as a "Mr. Marsh").
 Once again, I chalk this up to the character’s own popularity poisoning the writers. Knowing they had a hit on their hands, Fox & Sherman must have concluded that Doctor Fate would be even more popular if he was less menacing and bizarre. They apparently never realized that it was those very qualities which made him so popular. Sherman’s art also changes. While he now is more experimental with panel layouts and draws more fluid figures, the art also becomes cartoonier, more pedestrian, just less interesting all around. He still occasionally hits one out of the park, like a beautifully drawn splash page with an oriental theme (for a story about a cursed Chinese painting), but otherwise, it mostly looks like generic, serviceable comic art, lacking even the surreal banality of Bernard Baily.

 Fox also occasionally hits one out of the park as well; a story involving a human chess game is particularly fun, and there are some amusing mystery plots which manage to be fairly baffling, although usually for all the wrong reasons. Oddly enough, the stories start to improve when Fox has Kent Nelson become an actual doctor in his Kent Nelson persona; though this is more because it gives it gives the character a feeling of identity. Fox also gives Fate a Dick Tracy-style rogues gallery. These stories aren’t great, but are much more entertaining than the earlier half-helmet stories. Still, it’s a problem; Doctor Fate shouldn’t be making stupid wisecracks, battling ordinary gangsters who run carnival rackets, and then getting yelled at in his secret identity for being late to work. Wasting Doctor Fate’s potential on those kinds of stories just feels wrong. I once had a paleontologist girlfriend who wanted to see Disney’s Dinosaur, and from the previews she thought it would be similar to one of those faux-nature documentaries you see on Discovery channel, filled with beauty and a sense of wonder. Instead, the film was filled with wisecracking lemurs and pop-culture references. Reading these half-helmet era Doctor Fate stories gives me much of the same feeling she must have had; seeing something wild and beautiful turned shitty and mundane.
 So, is the book worth getting for the early stories at least? I would say yes, as my glowing review of the earlier stories demonstrates, but those stories only take up 135 pages. The crappy stories take up 253, which is more than half of the book. It really, really isn’t worth it if you can’t get this book for less than $20.00, but it’s actually the most expensive of the archives, going for $75.00!!!! My guess as to why is because DC knew they probably couldn’t find a market for the half-helmet stories if they printed those in a second volume, so they thought they’d cram it all in here. I don’t want to say this volume is for completists only, because there’s some really good stuff in it, but you’ll have to be really curious and have lots of money to waste if you want to find out for yourself.
 I give the “full-helmet” stories a solid 5/5.
 I give the “half-helmet” stories 2/5.

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