Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: 1st Issue Special #9; Dr. Fate

I have talked about the DC Relaunch a lot over on my home site Supergirl Comic Box Commentary and obviously most of that discussion has been centered around the Superman Family.

But this relaunch touches everybody in the DCU and touches some bodies more than others. Some characters are nowhere to be found in this new order. In fact, the entire Justice Society has been 'given a rest'. Here is a link to that news: http://robot6.comicbookresources.com/2011/06/dan-didio-dc-comics-has-decided-to-rest-the-justice-society/

Now I have been collecting JSA on and off for a bit and I felt their sudden departure from the new DCU warranted a post here on DC Bloodlines. And me being me, I figured some obscure back issue from the 1970s would be the way to go. And since Dr. Fate is one of my favorite characters, and I feel woefully underutilized by DC, I thought I would review his solo story from 1st Issue Special.

My first encounter with the JSA and Fate came in the form of this DC Special Digest which reprinted a couple of Golden Age JSA stories, the first appearance of Power Girl in All-Star Comics, and this Fate story. I have fond memories of these digests. I kept a small stack of them at my Grandparent's house so I would have something to do if I became bored there. Trust me, they were pretty dog-eared by the end.

Well, I loved that Fate story a lot; I was simply mesmerized by the art and the story that when I found 1st Issue Special #9 later on in life, I bought it. In fact, the cover above is a scan of the comic from my collection, autographed by cover artist Joe Kubert and interior artist Walt Simonon. I really try to pick issues that are important to me to get signed at cons.

1st Issue Special was a sort of Showcase like book put out in 1975 and 1976, trialing characters to see if there was enough interest to warrant a new title. The list of characters is interesting and diverse, from Jack Kirby doing Atlas and Manhunter, to Steve Ditko doing Agent:Assassin and The Creeper, to The Warlord by Mike Grell. This has to be a relatively early work from Simonson but the art still pops off the page today.

But of the handful of those issues I have read (including the Mikaal Thomas Starman issue), I love this one the most. Written by Marty Pasko you learn everything you need to learn about Dr. Fate in a short 19 pages. And he gets to fight a mummy! A mummy!

Add to that the brilliant draftsmanship by Simonson and the crazy cover by Kubert (a flying Sphinx knocking over buildings) and you have a win that you to can own for around $5 if you find it in the back issue box.

From the opening splash page, you are drawn into the story. Fate is surfing the wind, talking about a long-dreaded struggle he is rushing to face. It is a great opening image.

But for me, it showed from the start just how stylistically Simonson was going to pencil this issue, from the great font for Dr. Fate, to the concentric circles of varying sizes sprinkled about, to the details on his shoulder straps standing in stark contrast to the blank helmet. I am going to gush a lot about Simonson throughout this post, so bear with me.

Fate heads to the Boston Museum of Egyptology only to come across a grisly scene. A recent sarchophagus acquisition held the living mummy Khalis. And after murdering the 2 museum curators on hand, Khalis engages Fate. But there is more than meets the eye here. Khalis recognizes Fate, talks of a past with Nabu, and wades into battle.

I love how Simonson adds dust and bits shedding from Khalis, letting the reader sense just how he is moldering, decomposing. The cracked and breaking word bubbles add to the effect. And I also love the warped ankhs seen in Khalis mouth.

Surprisingly, Khalis is able to defeat Fate pretty handily. And we learn why. Much of Fate's power comes from his Amulet of Anubis. But that amulet is also Khalis's source of power, it obeys him. Armed with his powerful artifact, Khalis stumbles out into Boston to have his revenge!

Beaten senseless, Fate stumbles back to Salem and enters his doorless tower to rest and recuperate. Nabu recedes into the helmet, leaving a battered Kent Nelson to heal with the help of his wife Inza.

You definitely sense just how frustrated Inza is. She is trapped within the tower, isolated from the world except for her husband. And he, of course, is sharing his body with Dr. Fate. So she barely has any time with Kent. Tired of living alone, fearing for her husband, and feeling helpless, she leaves the sleeping Nelson.

This is the end of this touching scene ... a scene where Inza finally vocalizes her feelings to her husband only to find that he has passed out and hasn't heard a word of it.

I love the small column to the right with the Fate helmet formed by shrinking horizontal black lines. That felt very Steranko to me.

When he awakens, Kent hits the books to learn as much as he can about Khalis.

A worshipper of Anubis, Khalis was a mad priest who preached fiercely for the God of Death. Pleased by Khalis' service, Anubis gave his servant the Amulet of Anubis.

Armed with that power, Khalis enslaved the city, forcing them to build a temple to Anubis. That is ... until Nabu showed up. The Lord of Order removed the Amulet from Khalis, freeing the city from his power. The slaves got their revenge ... live mummification of Khalis. But Anubis isn't out of the picture. He makes Khalis a member of the undead until he has been reunited with the Amulet.

As a kid, I thought this was too fantastic. The idea of them holding down Khalis as the embalmed him was chilling.

And I love the hieroglyphic scroll Simonson uses here to bookmark the flashback.

And, like many good first issues, we get a retelling of the hero's origin story.

Again, so much of this works because of Simonson's art. I love the young Kent seemingly gestating in the ankh as he learns his mystic secrets. And the figure of Fate, arms out, mirroring the ankh below also works. This added visual vitality spiced up this simple regurgitation of the origin.

Time heals all wounds. Given some space, Inza realizes that leaving Kent in his time of need might not have been the best idea. And since he was so easily trounced by Khalis, maybe Inza should do some research on her own.

But it turns out that Fate might not need the extra help. With Anubis being a God of Darkness, Fate assumes light to be a weakness for Khalis. So Fate casts a spell which drains all the light from Boston and focuses it into a beam. It nearly destroys Khalis but the mummy is able to barely survive and slink off.

This is another one of those great Simonson panels. I love circle of Ankhs which manifest as part of the spell, the perspective just perfect. And again, we see Khalis literally decomposing before us, bits of him blasted away within this globe of light. Just some sick stuff from Simonson throughout this issue.

But things get wilder still. First, Inza has discovered a key vulnerability of Khalis on the sarcophagus he was entombed in.

And then, sick of skulking, Khalis decides to change the settings of the game, using his magic to manifest a pyramid into the Boston skyline, right next to the Prudential building. (That's my home town!) Then he calls upon Anubis himself. When I first read this comic, I loved the story twist that Anubis has no recollection of Khalis or his service to him. It was just delicious to think of Khalis sitting in that casket dreaming of serving his god, a god who has forgotten him. Frustrated, Khalis actually rips the mummification bandages off his face, hoping Anubis will recognize his faithful servant despite the rotting flesh.

When Fate shows up, Anubis makes Khalis a new deal: destroy the Lord of Order and he will bestow more rewards on his supplicant.

But Fate is ready. Armed with the spell Inza found, Fate channels Ra the sun god, unleashes a withering beam of light and heat, and vaporizes Khalis. What a great panel, the hawk head, the sun, the helmet of Nabu all surrounding the action pose of Fate. Really spectacular!

With Khalis turned to dust, Fate reclaims the Amulet of Anubis. The magical pyramid and Anubis both fade away.

But as important as Anubis leaving is Nabu receding, letting Kent and Inza share this victory together. They make a good team.

Fate has since had a varied career including a pretty odious retcon where he had a Cable-like appearance and wielded a knife made from the melted Helmet of Fate. But no matter what Fate story I read, this one ... a perfect blend of story and art ... has remained my favorite. There is no denying that this is a fun 'done in one' issue. How this didn't garner enough mail to prompt more stories has always mystified me.

Hopefully, at some point Fate will reappear in the DCnU. And hopefully it'll have this sort of feel.

Overall grade: A+


Diabolu Frank said...

I'm really kicking myself for misplacing my copy of The Immortal Dr. Fate without ever having read it. That Simonson art would look pretty nice on white stock with quality reproduction.

Did the importance of the Amulet of Anubis to Dr. Fate predate the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto? One of the DC databases said it debuted with Fate in the '40s, but this is the first I've heard of it as a story point.

My uncle was a Dr. Strange fan, and after pulling the Brunners and Smiths for himself, he gifted me a box full of '70s stories in my early days of reading comics. Obviously, that's where my preferences lie, but I've never felt any competitive antagonism toward Dr. Fate. They may both be premier mystics in their respective universes, but each has his own vibe and style.

I always had trouble "getting" the original Dr. Fate, and maybe I still do, but I had a bit of an epiphany during Shag's "Super Powers Collection" crossover a few years back. It seems to me that Dr. Fate is both Merlin and Arthur, the knighted hero and the arcane practitioner. I think maybe folks can't balance the two aspects, so the character tends to be too far into the modern magic tradition, and you end up with bearers like Jared Stevens cutting usage checks to John Constantine. Pasko seems to have a better handle than most here.

I'm not so hot on the domestic stuff. Where the Hawks benefit greatly from one another, it felt to me like Dr. Fate was defined in the Bronze Age by having to deal with Inza's moaning. "I'm lonely! You're always working!" It's the sort of thing people read comics to escape from, y'know?

Based on the preview panels, that is some seriously innovative art. Ditko had his organic Daliesque landscapes and Lovecraftian abominations, so Simonson counters with ornate classicism complemented by a more contemporary aesthetic, marrying past to future. There's a visual intelligence here that is rarely seen in comics. Besides the rest you covered, I'd like to add that I love the representation of Anubis as an animated icon. Morrison often tries to reach a fourth dimension, but I find something living only in two-dimensions at least as mind bending.

Man Anj, you've spoiled me this month! I'm going to miss these great posts every Tuesday, but at least I still have Supergirl Comic Box Commentary to keep me. Thank you so much!

Anj said...

It has really been a pleasure. I am sure with this DC Relaunch, I'll be hit by another Bloodlines idea.

As for this issue, it completely stands the test of time, especially the innovative art. That is what makes it special!

The Irredeemable Shag said...

Anj - Fantastic write-up! From one die-hard Doctor Fate fan to another, you've really hit the important points of this story.

There is a great article/interview in Back Issue Magazine #24 (available digitally also) about this particular story. Definitely worth reading for a fan such as yourself.

I love this comic! Additionally, the Flash back-ups, reprinted in Frank's lost IMMORTAL DOCTOR FATE are well worth looking up. Here is my personal Doctor Fate Essential Reading List. I'd love your thoughts on it.

The Irredeemable Shag

Samax said...

great stuff! Simonson is my favorite artist all-time, and this stuff is really sweet! I've seen the panel of Fate surfing on the wind and knew automatically it was Simonson, but never knew what issue it was! I'm gonna hafta see if my local shop has it!