DC Comics History: Dr. Fate
By Deejay Dayton
May 31, 2015 - 3:35
Created by Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman, Dr. Fate debuted in More Fun Comics 55, complete with a romantic interest, Inza Nelson, and an arch-villain, Wotan.
With his head completely covered in a golden helmet, and the odd proportions of his blue and gold costume, Dr. Fate was an extremely mysterious figure. It would be a few months before we ever saw the character without his mask, or learned his origin. At first, Dr. Fate credits his various powers to being composed of pure energy, but he would show a propensity for spell-casting right from the start.
Dr. Fate lives in a tower is Salem, shown for the first time in More Fun 58. Salem was chosen for the obvious connection with magic and witches, though the tower itself has a more medieval appearance.
It's a couple more months before we get to see how difficult it is to enter or leave the tower, as Inza discovers, in More Fun 60, that there is no door. The tower can only be entered by Fate himself, or through his graces. Dr. Fate even has to use a strange machine to peer through the walls and see who is outside. In later stories, he would just be aware of this magically.
In More Fun 67 Dr. Fate is finally given an origin story, and it's a doozy. Previous issues had seen Dr. Fate mention his longevity. In one story he commented that he was around in 1698, and in another that he had faced a foe over 400 years earlier.
Now we see Young Kent Nelson accompanied his archaeologist father on an Egyptian dig. The boy came across what appeared to be a statue, but was actually the form of Nabu, and ancient being from a wandering planet called Cilia. I always found it weird that there was an alien aspect to this character, and that's generally ignored, or re-interpreted as a mystical dimension.
Kent's father dies from poison gas, and so Nabu raises the child, training him in his arcane knowledge and abilities. Was Nabu responsible for the father's death? It is not stated that way in this story, but it certainly seems to be the case, even indirectly, and later stories would lay the blame more strongly on him.
Nabu gives Kent Nelson the garb of Dr. Fate. At this point, there is no indication of Nabu taking residence in the helmet, that was a much later development.
The last few pages of the story return to the present, as Inza attends a society party at which a man is threatened by shadowy beings. She calls on Fate, who traces the shadows to the underworld, and takes Inza along because...the party was getting dull, maybe? There they face off against Nergal, a lord of the underworld who gets cowed by Fate pretty quickly. All he has to do is threaten Nergal and he backs down.
Still, the origin story is good, the best Dr. Fate story to date. Sadly, it was also pretty much the highpoint of the series. Within a few months the character would begin to lose his various powers and attributes.
More Fun 71 contains the last "full helmet" Dr. Fate story, although the half-helmet debuts on the cover of that issue. It sees the Earth stop rotating, leaving half in baking sunlight and half in darkness. Inza is travelling in New Mexico at the time, and begs Fate to help out the people there. He uses his magic to create globes that will induce rain, which also has the effect of making the Earth rotate again. Because. It just does.
Dr. Fate's story in More Fun 72 officially changes the helmet, and slightly alters his never-well-defined powers. We also get to meet Inza's family, who are farmers. That surprises me, because Inza has, up to now, been shown as a well-off member of urban society. Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman also give Fate a ring he can use to view people, and the crystal ball makes an appearance again. Now that he has half a helmet, he also appears far more often as Kent Nelson.
He goes after some forgers, who have been taking advantage of the simple farm folks, including Inza's grandparents. The forgers trap him and gas him, and it works. Because he no longer has his full helmet.
He recovers and captures the bad guys, beating them into submission. He explains to Inza that his body is partly composed of molecular energy. I'm no science whiz, but isn't everyones? But the half-helmet leaves his breathing vulnerable.
There is never any mention of the other helmet, what happened to it, or why he is now wearing this one. As with the Ring of Life, the explanation would wait until All-Star Squadron.
As Dr. Fate, he stops wearing his cape. There also seems to be little of his strength or notion of being able to turn his body into energy or such. He gets knocked out (with ether), then bound and tossed into a corner. No way this would have happened to the character two years earlier.
Of course, he gets free and stops the bad guy, who had killed the doctor who did reconstructive surgery on his face. The story ends with a bit that cannot help but bring "Inglourious Basterds" to mind, as the bandages come off to reveal that the doctor had carved swastikas all over the criminal's face.
Despite this new profession, we rarely see Kent Nelson acting as a doctor. The one major exception to that is More Fun 87, which pits him against a murderous rival physician.
As much as Dr. Fate had been de-powered, it seems it wasn't enough. More Fun 96 sees him visited by a Chaldean wizard, (but seemingly not Nabu) who removes his memories of his magic. Perhaps it's all a bad dream brought on by sleeping in a helmet, but it seems to happen. Dr. Fate discovers that without his magic skills, he's really not of much use. He still has an air of authority, which he uses to rally a crowd at a cave-in. At the end, he simply bluffs his way against the armed villain. Sad. Once again, I am left wondering why they even bothered to continue this series, and the Spectre, when they so clearly didn't want them to be what they were.
In later continuity, this story more or less matches Nabu removing most of Kent Nelson's powers when he gives up the full helmet.
The villains that Dr. Fate faced over the years changed along with his power levels. At first he was often fighting mad scientists, aliens, giants and other magical creature, my favourite being the bizarre Fish-Men of Nyarl-Amon in More Fun 65.
Wotan, who Dr. Fate faced in his debut tale, would also be his first recurring villain.
Established as a rival sorcerer of equal power, Wotan takes control of an innocent man's mind, forcing him to try to murder Inza Cramer. As their magic cancels each other's out, Dr. Fate resorts to physical violence to defeat Wotan. Curiously, this precedent would become Fate's standard pattern, taking out magical enemies by beating them senseless.
Wotan returns in the following issue as Dr. Fate brings Inza across the River Styx and through the gates (of heaven?) to make sure Wotan is really dead.
In the afterworld, Fate and Inza see that Wotan is still alive, and living in a classy art deco house, which he has turned into a laboratory. Wotan seems as comfortable with science as he is with magic, as he has invented a device with which he intends to blow up the world.
The story fizzles out a bit in the end, as Dr Fate simply uses his powers to render the machine inoperable, and then punches Wotan into submission. He does imprison him in a creepy underground cell, which is sort of neat. Still, Wotan does return later in the run, teaming up with another of Fate's enemies.
In More Fun 64 Dr. Fate encounters an old (though never previously seen or mentioned) for, Mayoor, a Mayan sorcerer,
Mayoor is not shy about letting Dr. Fate know what he is up to, sending him a message in his tower. Dr. Fate defeated and imprisoned Mayoor long ago, and by implication this occurred during the heyday of the Mayan empire, around the 1400s. Again, later continuity would demand that this was Nabu, rather than Dr. Fate, who was Mayoor's opponent.
Mayoor entices one of the other people on the expedition into working with him against Fate, but the doctor is forgiving about that. Not so when it comes to Mayoor, who he incinerates. It's a shame that Dr. Fate is so murderous with his enemies, as this one could easily have made a return.
Dr. Fate tracks Karkull down, and the scientist tries to kill Fate with an energy ray, but only succeeds at briefly rendering him unconscious.
Karkull uses the shadow machine on himself, but Fate destroys the device, leaving Karkull trapped in shadow form. The story comes to an end this way, with Karkull bemoaning his situation, but the narrative in the final box informs the reader that, in fact, the story will continue in the following issue.
In fact, More Fun 70 not only brings back Ian Karkull, but teams him up with Wotan. Villain team-ups were extremely rare in the 40s, so there was much to be excited about, although the story itself is a bit of a let-down.
An arctic explorer, and friend of Inza, relates experiencing unusual winds on his last trip north, so Fate monitors his next trip using his crystal ball.
It turns out Wotan and Ian Karkull have a base of operations up there. Wotan had mentally contacted Karkull, who freed him, and in return Wotan gave Karkull's shadow form the power to touch and handle things. Sadly, Wotan's skin seems to have had all the green leached out of it during his imprisonment.
They kidnap Inza, but Fate does not let that stop him at all, and takes the two of them down fairly easily. They both appear to die in flames at the end of the story, though of course neither really did. Even so, this marks the final Golden Age appearances for both of the villains. Both were next seen in the 80s, in All-Star Squadron.All of these stories happen before Dr. Fate's decrease in powers and helmet size. With his drop is powers, he was given some new, recurring villains.
Mr. Who debuts in More Fun 73, another mad scientist, but with enough character to be fun. And a "Z" solution that allows him to grow to giant size.
I enjoy the page of Fate fighting with the giant spider, Mr. Who heading out to commit a crime, and leave the hero to die. Dr. Fate is able to emit energy to free himself, but fights the spider bare-handed.
Mr. Who returns in the following issue as well. We learn that Solution "Z" is even more potent than thought, as it enabled Mr. Who to grow gills and survive being underwater. He returns to the city, and goes after the mayor. Solution "Z" also allows Mr. Who to shape change, and he tales the mayor's place.
Once again it is Dr. Fate's need to breathe that causes him problems, while bullets are no threat. Fate does expose Mr. Who's impersonation of the mayor before being taken down.
The story concludes with Fate capturing Mr. Who, but the narration at the end implies that Mr. Who will escape prison anyway, and be back next issue. In reality, it took him a few issues to return. The prison was a bit better than the narrator thought.
Mr. Who returns in More Fun 79 and breaks into a millionaire's home, and the formula allows him to take on the man's identity, as it did with the mayor many issues ago. Kent and Inza are friends with the impersonated man, of course.
Mr. Who's own formula gives him away, making him grow large when Dr. Fate approaches him while he is in disguise. The last we see of Mr. Who, he is in prison. Mr. Who's appearance in the pages of All-Star Squadron take place shortly after this story, and before his final appearance in the 40s.
More Fun 91 marks the final outing of this villain. Mr. Who invents a shrinking formula, and forces it on Dr. Fate, who then gets stuck in a bird cage. Mr. Who uses it as well, to evade capture when their robbery goes awry.
Another new villain, the Clock, whose face resembles a dial, debuts in More Fun 81. The Clock is passing off one of his men as a violin instructor, to gain access and knowledge of society people. He comes into contact with Kent and Inza at a party, but Kent shows off some honed observation and deduction skills in exposing the man.
At one point, the Clock manages to capture Fate and has him tossed down a well. Fate has to rely on ingenuity to survive - but in earlier days he simply would have flown out. Even after he got the half-helmet, he was still flying around in stories. Now, even that is gone.
The Clock does make one more appearance, in More Fun 92.
The only other villain that Dr. Fate faced who is worthy of note is the Lucky One, who appeared in More Fun 82.
He runs really large and elaborate cons, convincing people he has great luck. As usual, Kent and Inza learn of him through society friends, and Dr. Fate goes into action. Aside from that, this story has much better visuals than any story in while. Still no magic from Fate, but that was far in the past now. The villain does not appear again, but certainly seems to be cut of the same cloth as later JLA villain Amos Fortune.
Dr. Fate goes out with a whimper, not a bang, in More Fun 98. I credit the unnamed nurse on the first page as being Inza. The last time we definitely saw Inza, she was training to become his "assistant." In a number of stories, Kent Nelson has been shown with a nurse, but she is never identified. I see no reason to think this would be anyone other than Inza. It's a dull little tale, nothing original about it. And nothing very Dr. Fate about it either.
Dr. Fate had already been dropped from the Justice Society line-up in All-Star Comics, so this was his final appearance in the Golden Age. He returned, along with the Justice Society, in the pages of Justice League of America. His full helmet was back, and his powers stronger than ever. Inza was back a few years later, ageless due to the presence of Dr. Fate.
Dr. Fate: More Fun Comics 55-98 (May 1940 - Aug. 44)
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