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DC retools Doctor Fate in '07 to be its black magic master

By Jim McLauchlin

Posted December 3, 2006  11:00 AM

Looks like this Doctor is finally giving himself a checkup.

DC Comics’ Doctor Fate has always had the ingredients to be a hit—great name, striking design, one of the best accessories in comics with the Helm of Nabu—but this doc has often called in sick. Doctor Fate has wandered through several solo series, only to be met with early cancellation. Hell, his most popular run was probably as a backup feature in Flash in the early ’80s. But with DC’s Infinite Crisis paving the way, the good doctor is finally looking healthy.

“We’re rebuilding Doctor Fate as our premier magic character in the DCU,” says DC Executive Editor Dan DiDio. “We’ve blown up magic, and we’re rebuilding it in a way that will reverberate in our universe forever.”

Infinite Crisis and the subsequent Day of Vengeance one-shot ended DC’s “Ninth Age of Magic.” Magical power is now raw in the DC universe, waiting to be redefined. Taking the helm—literally and figuratively—will be comics vet Steve Gerber (Hard Time), writer of February’s new Doctor Fate ongoing series. Doctor Fate has long been a “Lord of Order” in the DCU…and that’s about all readers knew about him. That’s also a problem Gerber is dead-set on fixing.

“His powers and the source of his powers have never been clear,” Gerber muses. “His limitations have never been made clear. We’re going to change all that. With this new series, we’re going to plunge right into the DCU’s newly-evolving Tenth Age of Magic. The new Doctor Fate series will weave that mythology.”

Taking the helm on the page will be Kent Nelson—but not the Kent Nelson you know. This is the grand-nephew of the original Doctor Fate. The old Kent Nelson was an archeologist who discovered the tomb of the mystical Nabu in Egypt, and was trained by Nabu in magic. He became a longtime member of the Justice Society of America. The Helm provided the link to Nabu, and has sometimes allowed Nabu to posses the wearer. The helm has been passed through at least six bearers (and will go through a few more; see sidebar), and that’s also part of the problem.
“The character has been twisted and turned in so many directions, with a lot of people wearing the mask, that it’s time to get back to the core concept and what people recognize,” DiDio says. “It’s time for a permanent home.”

Gerber concurs. “All the previous incarnations of Doctor Fate were banished as of Day of Vengeance,” he says. “We’re starting with a clean slate, and a completely disinfected helmet.”

It’s certainly not the first time someone has taken a new stab at Doctor Fate. Geoff Johns has been writing the character in JSA, and thinks this take may be on the mark, for all the “ingredients” reasons already mentioned. “You gotta have a gold helmet, and that’s about it. It’s a blank slate beyond that,” he says. “So many people have worn that helmet, dating back to the Golden Age. It’s not carved in stone.”

Creators such as Johns really dig the Doctor, even though fans have been lukewarm at times. Former Doctor Fate writer William Messner-Loebs knows that tune. “It was never a huge seller when I was on it, but it was one of my favorites,” he says. “You get latitude on it. You can try ideas they might not let you on more established characters. Doctor Fate has almost godlike powers where he can bring people back from the dead. I did a story on why you shouldn’t bring someone back from the dead. Try that with Batman!”

Gerber will define those almost-godlike powers, and also take the shackles off them. Goodbye, Egyptology; hello, world of possibilities. “Doctor Fate should be the gateway character into DC’s whole magical universe,” Gerber explains. “He shouldn’t be tied to one culture’s mythology. When mystical characters get pegged to an area of academic study, like Egyptian mythology, the characters are instantly limited.” Gerber’s been waiting for the chance to free Doctor Fate up…well, for a long time.

As a young reader in the early ’60s, Gerber was checking out DC’s Justice League of America. Editor Julius Schwartz ran a list of the old Justice Society members, and Gerber fixated on one name. “Doctor Fate! Just incredibly cool!” he exclaims today. Gerber dashed off a letter to Roy Thomas, who was producing Alter Ego, one of comics’ first fanzines—think of it as a proto-Wizard. “Roy actually drew me a little pencil sketch of the character so I could see what he looked like,” Gerber gushes. “I was struck by the simplicity of the blue-and-gold costume, the mysterious full face-mask…I fell in love with him. I’ve been bugging DC to let me do something with Doctor Fate for years.”

Gerber’s time has come, just as Fate’s time has come. Gerber will weave psychology, one of his avid interests, into the book as well. “The book is about the intersection of psychology and magic,” he says. “It’s about where demons of the mind and demons of the spirit meet, and how they act upon each other to affect the physical world. It is really scary sh--.”

It’s about time someone got scared. “If anything, writers have been too reverent toward the character’s history,” Gerber offers. “No problem coming up with an all-new Crimson Avenger or Dr. Mid-Nite, but somehow, Doctor Fate couldn’t be touched? Well, we’re touching. We’re touching in inappropriate and unfamiliar ways.”

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