Hero worship: A simple twist of Dr. Fate

Some superheroes just grab your attention when you’re young, at the perfect age to be spellbound by flashy capes and cowls. It’s usually all about the look. Maybe you were blown away by Hawkman’s wings, or Batman’s cowl, or Wolverine’s claws. For me, it was the spell cast by Doctor Fate.

I’m cautiously interested in the upcoming Black Adam movie, although it’s not so much for Dwayne Johnson as the titular antihero. Instead, I’m psyched to see what they’ll do with one of my favourite super-teams, the Justice Society, with the spooky Dr. Fate personified by Pierce Brosnan.

My first exposure to Fate was an action figure, part of the Super Powers line of the 1980s. I still own that figure 37 years on. The catchy combination of blue and gold on his costume, perhaps, struck some primal chord for me, or maybe it was that cool helmet. I just knew I liked the way this guy looked. I still do.

Dr. Fate has never quite been a marquee attraction – debuting in 1940 in More Fun Comics, created by Gardner Fox and artist Howard Sherman, he was an original member of the Justice Society. He’s Kent Nelson, who owns the mystic helmet of Nabu giving him immense magical powers – in later interpretations, he’s actually possessed by the spirit of Nabu as Fate. 

Fate’s original early 1940s stories are a dark delight – he’s given no real origin for some time, and is a mysterious, omnipotent figure waging war against evil in the stark, dreamlike fashion of early comics.

Like a lot of Golden Age comics characters, Fate’s hard edges got smoothed off fast – his striking helmet became a rather dorky-looking half-helm, he lost the cape and he started dropping corny quips. 

Dr. Fate is always best when he’s mysterious – popping up to great spooky effect in books like All-Star Squadron and Justice League of America. 

There have been a handful of terrific Dr. Fate solo comics – a memorably strong adventure by Walt Simonson in the 1970s, and a very abstract, emotional miniseries by J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen in the late 1980s I quite liked. His only solo starring series of any real duration was a 41-issue series that started out quite well, with Fate’s identity being shared by a troubled boy and his stepmother (long story) and a welcome sense of humour, before it kind of dissolved into new-age mysticism.

Fate has seen many ups and downs – an utterly awful “extreme” ‘90s reboot, a long parade of other characters than Kent Nelson donning the golden helmet. Kent Nelson himself isn’t a terribly strong character on his own, but somehow Fate still really works best when he’s the man wearing the helmet. Black Adam isn’t even his first live action appearance – he made a cool cameo on an episode of Smallville years back. 

I don’t know if Black Adam will be any good, but what little I’ve seen of Dr. Fate in it is pretty groovy… with one exception. For some reason, they’re depicting the Helmet of Nabu without any eyeholes. It’s … striking, but also weird, like having a Superman without the “S” or Batman without the pointy ears. The all-seeing eyes of Dr. Fate have always been a critical part of his look, and it’s a curious choice. Maybe it’ll look better on screen. 

I could never really pin my Dr. Fate fandom on one particular quality to the character – there are other spooky mystical heroes like Dr. Strange and The Spectre, after all, and like I said, he’s starred in a handful of good comics over the years, but more often, he’s the man in the background, popping up to drop some magical deus ex machina. 

In the end, it all still comes back to that distinctive look by Fox and Sherman more than eight decades ago now – sometimes, that’s all you need to make a character stick in your mind. A look can imprint on you when you’re young, and you might just always be a bit of a fan. Perhaps it’s just Fate. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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