Tuesday, October 19, 2010

J. M. DeMatteis' "Masterpiece": Dr. Fate

Greg Burgas, in his sporadically published column "Comics You Should Own", on the Comics Should Be Good blog at Comic Book Resources, says of J.M. DeMatteis' Dr. Fate that it "...might be his masterpiece." It is certainly one of his most personal and heartfelt works.  It is also one of  his most creatively, if not commercially, successful, since, unlike Seekers Into The Mystery, which dealt with similar themes, DeMatteis was actually allowed to bring his story in Dr. Fate to its intended conclusion. Furthermore, while it may not be as famous or celebrated as Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns, it does just as much, if not more than, those more notorious series to explore and expand the boundaries of the types of stories and themes that the super-hero genre is capable of tackling.  Surprisingly, all this comes in what was marketed, at least initially, as another goofy Justice League International spin-off.
Not that there isn't plenty of goofiness in the series.  It sometimes seems as if there are two J.M. DeMatteises. There is the serious, even grim at times, DeMatteis who will often infuse his work with his obviously deeply held philosophical beliefs inspired by Eastern religion and mysticism.  Then there's the comedic genius who occasionally partners with Keith Giffen to write silly dialogue for second string super-heroes.  Perhaps appropriately, given the nature of the series' title character, it is on Dr. Fate that the two sides of DeMatteis acheive a near perfect balance to create a series combining, in DeMatteis' own words, "bathroom humor and Eastern philosophy"
Said title character is not the same Dr. Fate who'd been a member of the Justice Society for four decades.  This is a new Fate, formed by the merging of two people. They are Linda Strauss and her stepson Eric Strauss, who was mystically aged from a ten year old to an adult by the original Fate, just as had been done  by the Lord of Order known as Nabu to the young Kent Nelson before he became the first Dr. Fate. It is revealed that Fate was always supposed to be two people, but Nabu had hidden that knowledge from Nelson and his wife Inza in order to control Dr. Fate.  He at first attempts to control Eric in the same way, but sees the error of his ways and allows him to merge with Linda to become Dr. Fate. Eventually we will learn that both Eric and Linda are "old souls" who have been together through countless lifetimes and reincarnations and have a very special destiny ahead of them.  After the creation of the new Dr. Fate, Kent dies, just as Inza had before the series began, and Nabu inhabits his body to act as mentor to the new hero.
The passing of the torch occurs in a four issue mini-series by DeMatteis with art by Keith Giffen, who had earlier illustrated the characters adventures in a series of back up stories in The Flash. The story continues in an ongoing series illustrated by Shawn McManus.
The first issues of that  series expand the series' cast with the addition of Linda and Eric's neighbor, a lawyer named Jack Small, and Petey, a demon brought to Earth by inept sorcerer Joachim Hesse, who speaks in a Yiddish accent and disquises himself as a dog when other people are around.  
Jack and Petey provide much of the humor in the series, as Petey tries to adjust to his new home and Jack struggles to cope with the weirdness he has reluctantly been drawn into. In fact, during the final third of his run, as the main story turned more philosophical and serious, most of the comedic bits would be left to these two characters.  Another source of humor throughout the story was Nabu's efforts to adjust to life as the human Kent Nelson.
McManus' art is well suited to Dr. Fate. Dark and moody, but at the same time slightly cartoony, it perfectly captures the tone of DeMatteis' writing.  
Ultimately the series is about LOVE.  More specifically, it is a meditation on the power of love to redeem and transform us, both as individuals and as a species and to guide us to our ultimate destiny.  The evil plans of the villains in the series, from vampire Andrew Bennett, of the "I, Vampire" stories from House of Mystery, to the original Dr. Fate's oldest and most persistant foe, Wotan, are stopped not by the power of the hero but by the power of love.  One by one, they are shown the love which shapes and guides the universe and are transformed by it. This love, which you could call God, is depicted here as a glowing semi-circle of light, a giant cosmic smile which is mirrored on the faces of all who encounter it.  Love, in this case the love that Eric and Linda have for each other, is so great a force that even the mighty Darkseid cannot stand against it.
This may seem like some pretty heavy stuff, but DeMatteis leavens it with humor even at the darkest moments.  Plus, his gift for creating a compelling narrative and interesting, well rounded characters keeps the story from reading like a religious pamphlet. Instead, he shows that such deep and mature themes can be handled in an entertaining way within the framework of a mainstream super-hero story.   I would argue that Dr. Fate, through its subject matter and its approach to it, does more than the ultra-violent and supposedly "realistic" Watchmen or The Dark Knight Returns to demonstrate the true potential both of the comics medium and the super-hero genre.
This is a series that I would highly recommend reading.  However, you're going to have to go digging through the back issue bins to do that.  Unfortunately, none of the series, not even the initial mini-series, has been collected or reprinted, and appears unlikely to be any time soon. Still, it's well worth the effort. Dr. Fate is a wonderful series that will leave you, like many of its characters, with a huge smile on your face.

1 comment:

  1. ... and so it did. Left me smiling, that is.

    Thanks, Ray, for patiently waiting until I got over my stuborness and finally read this wonderful series. Like certain movies, the marketing campaign to promote the work left me cold. Ever see a trailer that makes a movie look either dull or not at all like what the true movie is? DC's in-house ads for Dr Fate did exactly that. The ads made this look like a domestic sitcom with superpowers, like DeMatteis' Mister Miracle series was. As you say in your review, it is so much more than that. For you other readers out there, consider the recommendation in the above article strongly seconded.