Comics you should own: Dr. Fate
DC, 28 issues (4-issue mini-series, 24-issue ongoing series), cover dated July-October 1987 (mini-series); Winter 1988-January 1991
There is a great deal of potential for religious writing in comic books, but it has been largely underutilized. Religion divides people too much, and there is far too much potential for controversy. Luckily for comic book fans, we have J. M. DeMatteis, who has never been daunted by tackling difficult themes, including religion, and occasionally crafts an entire series around it. He explored religion, or more specifically spirituality, in Blood: A Tale, and in Moonshadow, but his blending of Eastern mysticism, Christian forgiveness, and humor reached its apotheosis in Dr. Fate, which should be regarded as his masterpiece.
Dr. Fate is an interesting character in that he is tied closely to DC's Golden Age but he has never really been an A-list hero. Therefore, when DeMatteis and Giffen began their mini-series in the summer of 1987, they could basically tear down everything about Dr. Fate and rebuild him. Everyone had a vague recollection of Kent Nelson and Nabu, but not to the point where anyone would miss them. So DeMatteis took the idea of Nabu animating someone who should be dead and ran with it, highlighting the dichotomy and symmetry between Chaos and Order, and creating his own version of Dr. Fate, one that could hew more closely to his ideas of reincarnation and redemption. DeMatteis had a grand story to tell, and Dr. Fate was the perfect vehicle.
In the mini-series, DeMatteis just wants to introduce the principals and change Dr. Fate's identity. The Lords of Order bring Kent Nelson to their realm and tell him that existence has entered the Kali Yuga, the final phase of creation. Once the Kali Yuga is done, the cycle of creation will begin again with the perfection of Order. So there is no reason to continue fighting, and Order takes the mantle of Fate away from Kent Nelson/Nabu. It is at this moment that we meet Eric and Linda Strauss, the central characters of DeMatteis' run on the title. Linda is Eric's stepmother, but Linda feels like they have a special connection that she can't explain. Kent/Nabu meets Eric, takes him to Dr. Fate's tower in Salem, and ages his body into a man's so that he can fight Typhon, a Lord of Chaos. Eric loses and is thrown in Arkham Asylum, where he is placed under the care of Dr. Benjamin Stoner, who has given himself to Chaos. Stoner breaks Eric's mind, steals Dr. Fate's helmet, and becomes an agent of Chaos, while Eric is discarded and wanders off. The Phantom Stranger and the Justice League confront Stoner, and in one of the more shocking scenes in recent comic book history, destroys Batman and Guy Gardner. We know they're not dead, and the Stranger quickly re-affirms that, but it's a visceral moment nevertheless. Nabu wants to keep Eric separate from Linda, but Eric won't leave her behind when they attack Stoner. Stoner almost defeats Eric, but at the last moment, Nabu reveals the secret he kept from Kent for so many years - Dr. Fate is supposed to be a union of a man and a woman, and Linda is as important to Dr. Fate as Eric is. With this blending, Fate defeats Stoner. Kent is allowed to die, but Nabu rejects Order's offer to return to their realm, inhabits Kent's body, and shows up at Linda and Eric's apartment in New York as their mentor. So the mini-series ends, setting up the regular series.
The mini-series is important to what DeMatteis wants to do, but it is less of a meditation on spirituality than a clearing of the decks. DeMatteis introduces the idea of the Kali Yuga, which will come up again in the ongoing series, and the male/female yin/yang concept is brought in. Benjamin Stoner, who appears destroyed at the end of the fourth issue, shows up again in a very crucial situation late in the ongoing, and Nabu inhabiting a human body is also an interesting subplot of the regular series. But for the most part, DeMatteis leaves the deep ideas for the regular series, probably because the mini-series was in order to sell the new Dr. Fate, which it did.
Giffen is an interesting artist and does a nice job with the mini-series, especially because for the most part he is called upon to draw creepy stuff like Dr. Fate (when it's Benjamin Stoner) with sharp teeth and claws. He would probably not be the best choice for the regular series, however, and I'm not sure if it was scheduling problems or if his workload was too heavy or if DC simply decided he was not the right artist for the ongoing. Shawn McManus, who hadn't done much yet in comics, took over, and the choice occasionally feels strange, but McManus was a superb artist to bring DeMatteis' ideas to life. McManus' work is somewhat cartoony, which is sometimes limiting, and it might seem strange to put him on a magic/fantasy book, but one of his strengths is facial expressions, and in this series, facial expressions are important. At some point, everyone in this book smiles (even Darkseid!), and McManus' smiles are broad and full of warmth. When characters express despair, fear, revulsion - all of these are perfectly drawn by McManus, and adds a great deal of humanity to DeMatteis' narrative. McManus' action scenes are not his forte, but they still work well, and his fantastical stuff - Order as a multi-colored cloud and Chaos as an orb full of grinning, drooling monsters; the recreation of the universe in issue #6; Eric's journey through the heavenly kingdoms; the inner world of Dr. Fate's amulet that two characters visit at the end of the book - is embued with his signature cartoony style that makes them at the same time otherworldly yet "realistic" in a way that another artist would not have been able to pull off. Surprisingly, his Darkseid is wonderful - a block of stoic rock who appears to be the murderous despot we all know and love, but is given a bit of humanity when McManus draws him smiling - a terrifying image, sure, but terrifying because it brings this horrible creature closer to us, and we don't want that. Darkseid has smiled before, of course, and it's always a bit creepy, but when McManus draws him smiling, it's not creepy, it's nice - and that's what makes it worse.
Despite the beautiful art, DeMatteis' story is the star in this series. Dr. Fate is a perfect vehicle for DeMatteis, because throughout his history, Fate has been tied to Order and Chaos, which easily transfers to a yin/yang situation, as well as springing from an Eastern tradition (yes, it's Egyptian, but it's more Eastern than Western), which is also something that DeMatteis wants to get into. Of course, Egypt was once a haven for Christianity, too, so when DeMatteis brings in certain Christian aspects in the story, it's not completely from left field. This stew might seem difficult to process, but DeMatteis never allows Dr. Fate to bog down into pedantry, something of which he is occasionally guilty. Whenever we think the series is going to become far too depressing, DeMatteis allows the characters to joke, or he throws in a story about a Shakespearean alternate dimension populated by demons, or Joachim Hesse, a seemingly inept but surprisingly successful sorcerer, shows up. DeMatteis knows that gloom gets, well, gloomy, so even though he is dealing with weighty topics, it always feels somewhat light. The art, of course, doesn't hurt, but the fact that DeMatteis lets us know early on that things will work out makes the depressing stuff along the way a bit easier to take. The only real time we get a bit worried is when Eric dies, but even then, DeMatteis never wavers from his contention that everything will be fine.
Yes, Eric dies. It's an interesting journey to that point, as Eric and Linda struggle to find their balance as the new Dr. Fate. Eric, humorously enough, is still a ten-year-old soul in an adult body, and like Captain Marvel, he occasionally lapses into kid-speak, especially when he's Dr. Fate and he thinks he needs to talk like a stereotypical superhero-wizard (at one point a character even references Dr. Strange). He's a willful kid, too, and won't allow Linda any kind of control within the matrix of Dr. Fate. It becomes important in the first big storyline, when Typhon enlists Fate's help to stop Andrew Bennett the vampire from ending existence. Bennett, you see, is tired of being a vampire and wants to die. He tries a few different ways (including drinking from the Holy Grail) but nothing works. He ends up at a Hindu temple dedicated to Krishna, in which is a flute that, when played by a "purified one," can end existence. Andrew Bennett is the purified one, and he plays on the flute. Things don't quite work out as planned - Andrew and Dr. Fate are the only beings left in the universe, and they are witness to the recreation of the universe, and Andrew is still alive. But that's not really the point, as he understands finally, at the end. This five-part story (issues #2-6) isn't about the destruction of the universe. It establishes several of the themes that DeMatteis will return to. First, the villains of this book aren't really the villains. Andrew Bennett wants to destroy creation, of course, but he's not a bad guy. As a vampire, he was somehow immune to the curse of bloodlust, and therefore has not succumbed to evil. He goes through the various stages of his journey - including drinking from the Grail - in order to be "purified" so that he can play the flute, but also so that he can understand the Smile, which he and Fate see at the beginning of the universe. The Smile is obviously God, and Bennett comes to understand the love and reverence the Smile feels for life and feels in return from those who know it. He was always rejecting life, but as he makes his journey, he realizes that his life is precious, and God is always looking out for him. In the morning, he burns up, but he is absorbed back into the great soul at the center of creation. He says that even if he is reincarnated (another theme of the book), he will appreciate life. This is something DeMatteis will come back to. All the villains - Joachim Hesse, a minor sorcerer who unexpectedly becomes king of creation; Wotan, a Dr. Fate Golden Age bad guy; Benjamin Stoner, who returns as the Anti-Fate and almost rips the world apart - come to realize that what is missing in their lives is love, and once they have experienced that love, they can no longer feel hatred in their hearts. At the end of the book, both Wotan and Stoner are in India, ready to help with Dr. Fate's final transition.
Another theme that DeMatteis introduces in the first extended story is that Order and Chaos are two sides of the same coin, and are unable to evolve because of their black-and-white view of life. They are the real villains of the book, as Nabu and Fate come to realize how multi-faceted life is, and how it is not something that can be simply divided into Order and Chaos. Order wants Bennett to play the flute, because then the Kali Yuga will end and the recreation of the first, perfect time of Order can begin. This is why Typhon allies with Nabu, but in the end, of course, he's still a Chaos-Lord, and he fights Fate by the temple. Order and Chaos are always scheming, and this leads to serious trouble for Dr. Fate. Eric gets sick in India, and Linda must become Fate alone to deal with Joachim Hesse, who has drawn a mystical circle in his apartment and must stay inside it with no food and without sleeping for forty days in order to become Lord of the Fourth Heaven. The current Lord, Indra, is a bit put off by this, and he attacks New York. Linda goes out with her lawyer, Jack Small (who has a crucial role in Fate's destiny), and a demon, Petey, who was trapped in the dimension (by Hesse) in issue #1 and has been adopted by Nabu and Fate (he's a nice demon). They leave Nabu with Eric, who is getting sicker and sicker. DeMatteis sets up the next big story arc in the two issues of dealing with Hesse and Indra, as Order and Chaos meet with Darkseid. They want him to destroy Dr. Fate, because Darkseid has brought to their attention that on Earth, a new humanity is coming into existence. This will be a humanity that transcends Order and Chaos, and Darkseid himself. It will, in his words, "will go beyond the pull of opposites! Beyond the controlling forces that exist outside themselves! Beyond the need ... for gods." Faced with their extinction, the three come to an agreement - Darkseid will kill Eric. He points out one of DeMatteis' themes - the two sides missed the foretelling of the new humanity because they are so locked into their roles. But he, Darkseid, contains both order and chaos, and he is privy to such information that they cannot obtain. Darkseid kidnaps Eric - who has some knowledge of the new humanity - and sends him to Apokolips, where parademons attack him. Before he succumbs, however, Linda shows up and the two Dr. Fates - they have both transformed - fight together. Again, we see a theme emerge - Eric and Linda are together, because their souls are united. Across galaxies they fight, and when they allow their love to flow into Fate, they are unbeatable. It's only when they resist - and they resist often, because they're human, after all, and the kind of love they have can be too potent for mere mortals - that they are vulnerable. Throughout the book, DeMatteis wants us to recognize that this kind of love between two people is possible, and that its transformative power is stronger than most people think. When we are tuned into the Smile, we can achieve miracles, and that's what Dr. Fate does. However, he also makes it clear that the Smile is difficult to discover, and that the journey, while not as important as the destination, also has a transformative effect, as Andrew Bennett, Linda and Eric, Jack Small, Wotan, Benjamin Stoner, and even Nabu come to recognize. Once Linda joins Eric in Apokolips, they are able to defeat the parademons and take on Darkseid himself. Instead of fighting him, they share their love for each other with him, and it staggers the lord of evil. He can't handle it - "My soul ... violated! My ... my - Damn you - what did you do?!" he shouts at the two Fates, and when Eric says, "We took the greatest power in our possession ... our love for each other ... and shared it with you," he can't comprehend it. He does, however, allow them to leave, but at the last moment, as loyal demon leaps forward and stabs Eric. As Linda and Darkseid watch, he dies. Darkseid, shockingly, does not punish the demon. Even he is not a true villain in this book, as even he is affected by the love Eric and Linda have for each other.
Eric's death takes the book in an interesting direction, as DeMatteis digs further into his grand themes: reincarnation, redemptive love, suffering and how it builds us up and is only suffering if we allow it to be, and forgiveness. Linda and Eric take separate journeys, naturally. Linda believes that she can bring Eric back, and goes into the spirit realms to find him. Instead she meets "the Guide," a spirit who shows up often in the latter half of the book to show the characters where they need to go. Linda wants nothing to do with the Guide, but he leads her to Eric's spirit, but Eric doesn't want to go back to life. He shows Linda what she needs to see: that many souls travel through each incarnation alone, but some travel in pairs because their love for each other is so strong. He and Linda are one such pair, and he reveals that in all their lives, they are linked in some way - even as enemies who hate with a passion akin to love. Linda still doesn't want to accept it, but the Guide kisses her on the forehead, and suddenly she realizes that Eric was staying behind in the spirit realm - a kind of halfway house for souls - to ease Linda's suffering, even though he should have moved on. It is enough for her to come to grips with Eric's death, and he is able to move beyond.
DeMatteis is still concerned with power and how it can be used, as the story with Wotan, which comes in issues #14-15, show. Wotan wants to become God, and he takes Nabu to the same temple in India where Andrew Bennett found the flute of Krishna. Linda and the Justice League arrive to fight him, but they fail. Again, DeMatteis is unconcerned with simple good-versus-evil battles. Wotan defeats the Justice League and enters the temple. He staggers out after a flash of energy from inside blinds him. His blindness, however, is the price he has to pay for enlightenment, as he realizes that the power he sought to usurp is love, and villains cannot use love to destroy. Wotan mentions earlier what the temple is - it's the tomb of the Avatar. Wotan tells Nabu that in every age, the essence of God descends to Earth in human form, but their wisdom has been turned into "dead, dry religion." The Avatar holds what Wotan believes in the key to absolute power, but he has always found out about the Avatar far too late for it to do any good. However, this time it has only been 20 years since the death of the last Avatar, and his power will still be contained within the tomb. DeMatteis injects a bit of "real life" into his comic, as his Avatar was an actual person, but I'm not going to get into it because ultimately it's not important to the story. Wotan doesn't understand until he comes face to face with it what kind of power it is. Like all villains, he thinks power is only in the ability to dominate, but when he enters the temple, he too, like Andrew Bennett, Dr. Fate, and even Darkseid, understands what true power is - love. He stays at the temple in order to learn more, and will show up again later in the series.
In the final third of the series, DeMatteis again shifts to Eric and his journey. We meet Eugene and Wendy Di Bella and their daughter Raina. Eugene is a bright and happy soul who has faith that the universe is a good place. Wendy is frightened because she's pregnant and they don't have enough money. Eugene thinks everything will work out, but then he is in a horrific car accident and he ends up in a coma. This is where Eric comes in. The Guide is with him because this is the end of his lifetimes, and the Guide will take him back to merge with God. At the last moment, though, Eric realizes that love is no good unless it is expressed. He thinks as he is about to be absorbed, "To reach the journey's end, to be that love, to smile that smile is one thing; oh, but to begin the journey anew in order to share those precious gifts ... that's the only dance worth dancing!" Without Linda, his destination is hollow, and he wants more than anything to share what he's learned with her. And so he returns and enters Eugene's body, while Eugene's soul goes off with the Guide. Linda immediately senses this, setting up the final act of DeMatteis' epic.
The final act involves some juggling of the canon, because DeMatteis, through DC editorial intervention or because he just wanted to make sure the next writer had something to work with, decides to bring back Kent and Inza Nelson. This time, as Nabu told Eric and Linda, they will be free to form the synergistic male/female yin/yang of Fate together, without Nabu's interference (this is a few years before Morrison's Doom Patrol, remember, with its own male/female bonding in Rebis). So Nabu sends Jack Small and Petey into the amulet of Dr. Fate to retrieve the souls of the Nelsons. So for the final seven issues of the DeMatteis run, we have three interlocking stories: Jack and Petey trying to find the Nelsons and running into problems because of it; Eric inhabiting the body of Eugene Di Bella and discovering that Raina is a key in the "new humanity" that Darkseid was trying to snuff out; and Dr. Benjamin Stoner once more becoming the Anti-Fate so that Order and Chaos can destroy this new humanity. Stoner defeats Dr. Fate (Linda melded with Nabu this time), but in the process, he touches the tomb of the Avatar, where Fate has brought them. This allows him to transcend the petty notions of Order and Chaos, just like Andrew Bennett and Wotan before him did. Stoner also joins the growing group of disciples around the tomb, and he and Wotan help ease Linda's pain as she, like Eric dies. Meanwhile, Eric, in Eugene's body, learns from the Phantom Stranger about the new model for humanity that he and Raina will help shepherd into existence, just before Wendy, Eugene's wife, also dies. She joins Eugene's soul as they go off to rejoin the Smile, and Linda's soul enters Wendy's body, reuniting her with Eric. Nabu joins with Wendy's unborn fetus, as he still rejects returning to Order and instead chooses humanity. Kent and Inza Nelson return to become the new Dr. Fate.
It's difficult to summarize these last few issues, because DeMatteis isn't concerned with the superhero trappings of the Anti-Fate vs. Dr. Fate battle as much as he is exploring his themes and introducing a new one, the one of family ties. Family has been important throughout the series, with Eric, Linda, Nabu, Petey, and Jack Small forming a disjointed but functional unit, but with the introduction of Eugene, Wendy, and Raina Di Bella, the ideas about family become more clear. In the final issues of Dr. Fate, four families show us how love and family obligations can bind us, but also free us. Benjamin Stoner sees Order and Chaos as his father and mother. From the very beginning of the series, we are told that Stoner cared too much for the inmates at Arkham, trying so hard to be their father figure that it drove him to madness. He returns to Arkham to spread that madness. He loved his mother so much that when she died, he needed to emulate her. She gave everything she had to a loveless marriage, and Stoner gave everything he had to the inmates, until he cracked. He sees Chaos as his father and Order as his mother, and he thinks to himself that he tried to bring his mother's perfect love to the inmates at Arkham, which would soothe their chaotic minds, but he failed, so he brings chaos from Arkham to the world outside instead. When he touches the tomb, he realizes that he cannot bring his mother's Order or his father's chaos to the world, because both of them, in their own way, were too set in their roles. He rejects both Order and Chaos, but he is also rejecting his mother's cold piety and his father's domineering rage. Stoner has been locked in a role, too, that of a little boy, but now he has grown up and moved on. His journey to enlightenment and his rejection of family is balanced by the Di Bellas, who make up an ideal family unit. Eric, now inhabiting Eugene's body, realizes that Raina needs a loving father in order to blossom, and it is necessary for Linda to take over in Wendy's body once Wendy's soul has moved on, because of the child she's carrying. DeMatteis bounces back and forth between Stoner's agonizing confrontation with his "mother" and "father" and Eugene/Eric and Wendy/Linda's almost perfect love. Eric has to overcome his fear of family as well, as his parents are very similar to Stoner's - Eric's father was even worse, as abuse of both Eric's mother and Linda is implied more than once. So Eric, finding himself in a loving marriage, has to overcome his fears as well. Stoner has to reject a flawed family, while Eric has to accept that not all families are flawed. The third family that enters the picture is the Nelson clan. Kent and Inza have been living inside Dr. Fate's amulet, and Kent has molded a perfect existence for Inza and their child. After Nabu shattered Inza's mind, Kent wants nothing to do with him, but Jack Small and Petey still have to convince him to return to the world. Kent understands that they can't continue to live in the amulet, but Inza wants to stay, because she has the family she always dreamed of. Her son shows her the way - he tells her that he knows he doesn't exist, and that in the real world, he can become a reality. Inza's desire for normalcy and the unconditional love of a child is so great that she created him from her subconscious, but that's all he is, a desire. She finally understands and the Nelsons return to the "real" world. The families are all reunited - Stoner has found his "true" family at the tomb of the Avatar, Eugene and Wendy's souls are united in heaven, the Nelsons can live free of Nabu's influence, and Eric and Linda are finally together as they should have been - as husband and wife. Even Jack and Petey get to join them in their new lives.
As DeMatteis points out, there is never really a beginning to the story, but nor is there an end. The Phantom Stranger and the Guide wander off into the Smile, leaving us with characters who have been freed from the pages to live as they can. This is truly a beautiful story, because DeMatteis has taken what could have easily turned into a dry dissertation on reincarnation and Hindu mythology and turned it into a love poem. The entire series is filled with love, not only for the characters, but for the art form of comics itself and its possibilities. DeMatteis shows us that superhero comics, with their insistence on duality, are limited. He frees Dr. Fate from those limitations by subverting our expectations even as he indulges in some of the cliches of the form. Dr. Stoner brings chaos to the world and beats Dr. Fate almost to death, but is stopped not by another hero stepping in, not even by a miracle resurrection of Fate, but by suddenly understanding how he has been manipulated and how he can break the cycle of violence. DeMatteis takes a superhero comic (with magical elements, true, but still essentially a superhero comic) and makes it "mature," not with violence, which has been the trend for the past two decades, but by showing that humanity is capable of growing up and leaving violence behind. This is a comic book for grownups not because it's edgy and shows "reality" as it can be, but because it challenges people to evolve out of that mindset and become something better. Even the most cynical reader, who dislikes DeMatteis' hippie ethos and Eastern philosophy, can't help but recognize the love at the heart of this comic book. Very few titles express it so eloquently.
As is the case with far too many of its titles, DC has decided to sweep this book back into the corner and pretend it doesn't exist. Therefore, none of it is available in trade paperback, not even the mini-series that started it. It's truly a shame that this book isn't recognized more as a magnificent achievement, because it takes everything that DeMatteis tries to do in other series and blends them perfectly, with an artist who is matched ideally to the subject matter. It should not be too hard to find nor that expensive, and it is certainly worth reading. You will not be disappointed if you take the time to get these issues.