“The Death of Doctor Fate”

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By the time I got into regularly buying new comics in the spring of ’76, the Jesus craze was largely over, having peaked around 1970-71 with Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell, and the larger “Jesus Revolution” that made the cover of TIME for their June 21, 1971 issue. It was in this atmosphere that Marvel made Adam Warlock (formerly “Him”) into a Jesus analogue in the debut issue of Marvel Premiere, as recounted by Alan Stewart on his blog late last year.

As mentioned, this was all before my time. In my own experience, my first superhero-as-Christ figure was Doctor Fate. And with this being the Easter season, I thought it would be an appropriate time to look back on how Doc, one of my very favorite superheroes, died and rose back to life.

“Hellfire and Holocaust”

Precisely one month ago, I wrote of my first encounters with Moon Knight and Tigra the Were-Woman at the Village Smoke Shop in that seminal spring of 1976. Well, going by the pub dates, it must have been about a month or two later that I came across this comic at that same Smoke Shop:

All-Star Comics #61

 

That’s All-Star Comics #61 (Jul.-Aug. 1976), and looking at that cover now, I can see why it grabbed me. It’s got every color of the spectrum on it, first of all, and then it’s got super characters almost everywhere you look, topped off with that red, white, & blue bicentennial banner. Whenever I wanted to fill an entire page of construction paper with superheroes (pretty much a daily leisure activity for me between the ages of four and eleven) I would create a similar design with so many colors it would look positively garish. (If I didn’t use every crayon in the box I’d feel like I was cheating myself somehow.)

 

A kindergarten masterpiece of mine depicting the (male) Super Friends. I only drew the male heroes because girls were still “icky” to me at the time. (Or so I told everyone. I actually had my first big crush in kindergarten.)

 

The fact that this Doctor Fate guy gets burned to a crisp on this cover was likely also intriguing to me. And while we’re here, I want to add that nothing screams “THE SEVENTIES” to me like Ernie Chan doing a DC cover. When I first started buying comics every week at the Smoke Shop, it seemed that Ernie drew literally all of them.

Written by Gerry Conway (just prior to his departure back to Marvel) and illustrated by Keith Giffen and Wally Wood (an inspired artistic pairing), this one was a banger. We start off with Doctor Fate and the Golden Age Green Lantern fighting this baddie named Vulcan. Right from the jump, I’m fascinated by both heroes. GL may have “green” in his name, but his costume is dominated by the red shirt and the purple cape & mask, which thrilled the child-me. (I loved garish colors, remember?) Fate had a more concordant color design with the blue and yellow, but there were other aspects of his look that felt just as wild to me—chiefly the amulet, the cape-with-collar, and that helmet. Plus “fate” felt like an exotic word to my juvenile ears. It might have even been the first word I ever tried to look up in a dictionary. I was utterly smitten.

Back to the action, GL takes the first crack at Vulcan, dueling with the villain for two pages before Doctor Fate steps up. This leads to a flashy page design by Giffen, finished beautifully by Wood, to portray their conflict.

Ultimately, the power released during their battle causes the building to collapse, with Fate left at the bottom of the rubble.

Meanwhile, Carter Hall (Hawkman) is looking over a recent archeological find along with his colleague, Dr. Kliburn. The find? The (seeming) remains of an ancient resident of the million-year-old lost continent of Lemuria, perfectly preserved in a block of amber.

Back at the site of the building collapse, the remaining JSAers dig out Doctor Fate, while uptown Power Girl encounters an alien being who might hold the key to defeating Vulcan. With the alien Xlk-Jnn in tow, Power Girl catches up to Hawkman and the Star-Spangled Kid while they’re battling Vulcan in a New Jersey freight yard. Vulcan is ultimately dispatched, though not before he fries Xlk-Jnn. The heroes’ victory is then further tarnished by Dr. Mid-Nite’s revelation in the final panel that Fate is at death’s door and only a “miracle” can save him.

“When Fall the Mighty”

The next issue, All-Star Comics #62 (Sept.-Oct. 1976), Conway still gets a plot credit, but Paul Levitz has picked up the scripting duties while Giffen and Wood remain the artists. (Strangely, Giffen is credited for “pacing” while Wood is credited for “pictures.” I can only guess Giffen did loose layouts and not full pencils then?)

The opening splash shows Fate hooked up to a very elaborate life-support system, barely holding on. One curious image here is in the lower right corner of the page, where we see Green Lantern crumpling Fate’s helmet in his hand out of frustration. Later stories will reveal that Fate’s helmet is a mystical object of immense power, but in 1976 it was still nothing more than a costume ornament. In fact, pretty much all of the finer details of Doctor Fate’s origin, background, and even his powers would not be spelled out until three to four decades after his comics debut.

Fate first appeared in More Fun Comics #55 (May 1940) and would be among the original heroes to form the Justice Society of America (JSA) in All-Star Comics #3 (Winter 1940), but didn’t get any kind of origin story until More Fun Comics #67 (May 1941)—and even this didn’t amount to much. It wasn’t until late 1975, in a story by Marty Pasko and Walt Simonson from First Issue Special #9 (Dec. 1975), that the idea of Kent Nelson (Fate’s secret identity) and Doctor Fate being two distinct beings occupying the same body would be introduced. And even then, the Fate identity being a form of Nabu and tied to the helmet was still to come. (I would have to go back over all of Fate’s appearances in the 70s and 80s to be absolutely certain, but I don’t believe these particular details would be formalized into canon until Doctor Fate’s brief run as a backup series in The Flash in 1982, as written by Pasko and Steve Gerber and drawn by Giffen.)

Back to 1976: So with Fate slowly dying and his fellow JSAers feeling utterly helpless, Power Girl notices something in Fate’s brainwave scan.

The ankh would come to be so closely associated with Doctor Fate that one might presume that this was part of the character from his conception in 1940, but once again, it only became a big part of Fate’s presentation when Walt Simonson started using it in that issue of First Issue Special. Here, the heroes interpret the ankh to be some form of communication from Fate, pointing them in the direction of Egypt. As GL is about to set off for the Middle East, the Flash returns along with Hourman. Flash insists on accompanying GL on his quest while Hourman declares, “Retirement or no retirement, I’m standing by him [Fate] until the end!”

This was Hourman’s first appearance in All-Star Comics since issue #7 (Oct.-Nov. 1941), a span of almost exactly thirty-five years! (Granted, there was a quarter-century gap between issues 57 and 58 of the series, but still!) As for his friendship with Fate, this was yet another relatively-recent development, despite the fact that the two were among the founding members of the JSA all the way back in 1940. In truth, the Golden Age heroes did not interact very much back in the good old days and none of them developed any deep relationships with each other. Fate and Hourman would forge more of a bond when they teamed together in a couple issues of Showcase in 1965, specifically issues 55 (Apr. 1965) and 56 (Jun. 1965).

So with Hourman at the hospital now to sort of take his place, Hawkman decides to take the opportunity to fly home and check in with his wife. When he gets there, he’s not going to like what he finds, as that Lemurian he unearthed has broken free of that block of amber. The poor soul to first discover this turn of events is Carter Hall’s colleague, Dr. Kliburn, as revealed in another imaginative, full-page layout courtesy of Keith Giffen.

After killing Kliburn, the Lemurian kidnaps Shiera Hall (Hawkman’s wife), revealing his name, Zanadu, as he teleports away with her. When Hawkman arrives and pieces together what happened, he knows he’s got some major trouble on his hands, so he sends out the high-alert signal to all of his fellow JSAers. This is going to lead to the best part of this particular issue: the cover-promised return of the granddaddy of ‘em all, the Golden Age Superman.

…Now you know you’ve been blogging a long time when you start quoting and referencing yourself, which is where I find myself right now, as I have discussed All-Star #62 before. Nine years ago, in fact, back in the Pronto days, before I had moved here to Paradox, where I have been blogging ever since. Back then, this issue came up during a discussion of Superman’s most memorable appearances in the Bronze Age… so take it away, Crusty of 2013!

With the team shorthanded, Hawkman sends out the big emergency alert to all members…but only one responds to join up with Hawkman’s skeleton crew.

But that one member ain’t exactly chopped liver. With him around, every other super hero is basically rendered superfluous, since this one member happens to be the greatest hero of them all: Golden Age Superman.

Golden Age Superman is the “original” Superman—the one who appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. If you figure he was twenty-two years old at that time, this would have made him an even sixty by 1976. So we get an age-appropriate Clark Kent/Superman, with hair graying at the temples, but still quite robust. And to say his reintroduction to the proceedings here is appropriately dramatic would be quite the understatement.

The sequence in which Superman first appears is a perfect marriage of words and pictures. The reader only gets one full glimpse of his profile in one panel; otherwise he’s in shadows or facing away from us. Nor does the narration explicitly state who it is. But then it doesn’t really need to. I’m not sure there’s a soul left on Earth (short of someone raised in a cave that has literally spent his or her entire existence cut off completely from modern civilization) who would miss the oh-so-classic cues.

A man sits at his desk in the “quiet office” of a “major metropolitan newspaper” when the signal comes. “He’s seen the signal many times in his career, and each time his response is the same…for he can do nothing less.” Rising from his chair, he “moves swiftly, surely through the darkness… Finally, a familiar door…a store room opens…a white shirt is unbuttoned in a time-worn gesture…a figure transformed… The gently aging man who was once a mild-mannered reporter is reborn…”

Bounding across the city skyline, we can only just discern the outline of a familiar, caped figure as a citizen below shouts, “Look…up in the sky!”

Cut to JSA headquarters, with Hawkman lamenting the team being “shorthanded,” only to be corrected by the proud figure suddenly straddling the doorway:

“No. I don’t think so.”

Fully revealed to the reader at last, it is indeed he: “SUPERMAN!”

And despite all their troubles and all the dangers they’re facing, seemingly from every side, you know the Justice Society is going to be alright. Absolutely everything is going to be alright because he is here.

Though Superman sold millions of comics back in his Golden Age heyday, most people of the time probably still knew him best from the old movie serials, the classic animated shorts from Fleischer Studios, and his radio and (later) television shows. The sequence above evokes all of them to perfection.

From the dark silhouette changing into costume (classic Fleischer) to the timeless cry of “Look…up in the sky” (immortalized in all of the aforementioned), it feels like Superman has returned to us at long last—despite the fact that he never really went away.

Does this sound like a big deal to you? It should—because it is a big deal. It’s a big deal because the writers and artists involved treated it as such. Their love and reverence for this character shines through every glorious four-color printed dot.

Topping it all off is the unparalleled pen of Wally Wood. He was in the midst of a six-issue run here as the inker/finisher (All-Star Comics #58-63), followed by full art chores on issue #64, and then, finally, full art and plot on #65. Best known for his all-time classic EC work, his T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, and his (all-too-brief) stint on Daredevil, “Woody” was one of the greatest of the greats; and, to the best of my knowledge, this was his only brush with Superman. Personally, I would consider his whole run here must-see stuff for all comics aficionados.

Immediately after his arrival, Supes joins up with Hawkman, Wildcat, and Power Girl and they track down Zanadu in Japan. Superman and Power Girl attack the ancient sorcerer (or Chaos Lord, or whatever he is—it’s never precisely clear) head on, while Hawkman and Wildcat assist and protect civilians on the ground. This plan of attack does not go well. Zanadu’s magic causes Power Girl to sink into the earth while Superman gets entombed in molten rock. And on the ground, Wildcat attacks Hawkman in a murderous rage, set off, seemingly, by some “strange” and “haunting” music.

“The Death of Doctor Fate”

With All Star Comics #63 (Nov.-Dec. 1976), we finally get to the Doctor-Fate-dying part of this post. The creative team remains Levitz, Giffen, and Wood.

So talk about your perfect villainous timing, the music that set off Wildcat came from the Fiddler, classic foe of the Golden Age Flash and the JSA in general. He’s also got Solomon Grundy, one of the heaviest of heavy hitters, with him as part of the then-latest version of the Injustice Society (aka the Injustice Gang). Luckily, Superman and Power Girl escape Zanadu’s traps and put an end to their threat, though Zanadu himself, along with the captive Shiera, has teleported away yet again.

Back at the hospital, Fate’s time has finally run out, in a very dramatic and emotional scene.

Right after Fate has (apparently) left this mortal coil, there’s another red alert—Zanadu is back in town. Hourman and the Star-Spangled Kid are anxious to answer the call, finding relief and release in taking action after what they’ve just gone through. Dr. Charles McNider (Dr. Mid-Nite) is a different story, however, having “failed as a superhero and as a surgeon,” he’s ready hang it all up.

The Kid and Hourman enjoy a brief but fun little melee with Zanadu that sends the villain tumbling through the roof of JSA headquarters. Sufficiently enraged by the pair of heroes, Zanadu promises he “shall forswear his plan to destroy this city of ants… and concentrate his power on you instead!”

This is where the fun REALLY begins.

Figuratively speaking, Zanadu just took a haymaker, got knocked on his ass, and is being given the standing-eight count. As he’s still on his knees, he mentions, “It seems you have a master sorcerer in your midst, mortals.” By the time he rises to his feet, he finds the odds against him have greatly increased, as Superman, Hawkman, Wildcat, and Power Girl have arrived, and they’ve freed Shiera. Zanadu is angrier than ever now, declaring, “But you have not saved yourselves! For Zanadu is still the mightiest– and the power of chaos shall still crush you all!”

Whoooooa… what a sequence. Even Superman—SUPERMAN!—is left in a stuttering stupor at what he has just witnessed. How cool was Doctor Fate? Dude is crushed under a fallen building, dies, and then shakes it off when a Chaos Lord/Wizard/Thing turns up and his team needs him. And then he just waves this monster away with a flick of his wrist like it ain’t no thang.

Tonight, you have seen a dead man walk— and a being who lived millions of years— die.

It’s times like this when I wish I was a better writer. I wish I could capture in words just how much this thrilled me as a kid when I first read it (and honestly, just how much it still thrills me when I read it today). Suffice it to say, I was left in awe of Doctor Fate and he would remain one of my favorite superheroes forever afterward. More broadly, the JSA had become my favorite DC super-team at this point and, to this day, I absolutely love their whole 70s run in All-Star Comics.

He Is Risen

In hindsight, this was kinda the second “resurrection” story in a row, right? Because the glorious return of the Golden Age Superman the previous issue felt like a figurative resurrection too, counterbalanced by Fate’s more literal return to life here in issue #63.

Now I’m sure it wasn’t the intention of the writer, Paul Levitz, to create any kind of Jesus allegory here—unlike Marvel’s Adam Warlock, where the Christian symbolism was VERY intentional. But any time a character dies in a story and rises from the grave, it’s going to evoke Jesus in the minds of many members of the audience, particularly in Western culture. Plus the ankh does bear some resemblance to the crucifix.

For the record, I was raised Roman Catholic in a very Italian household, where a crucifix was hanging in nearly every room and from every neck. While I was certainly aware of the story of Jesus at this point, I can’t tell you I recognized any such symbolism here. Could it have still registered on some unconscious level, somehow? While unlikely, I wouldn’t call it impossible.

Bits and Pieces

A few missteps this storyline that I feel should be noted: first, the whole time Fate is dying, we never see his wife, Inza, at his figurative bedside. This was a fairly big swing and a miss, though having no knowledge of Fate or his backstory when I first read it, it certainly didn’t bother me at the time.

You may also notice that the heroes are almost always in full costume everywhere they go, even when they’re in places like the hospital, with Fate. As an adult with a degree in English lit, I recognize that the most important character work in comics usually occurs when the heroes are out of costume, but again, as a kid, the lack of civilian identities being shown here was actually a selling point for me.

I mentioned my fondness for drawing superheroes earlier, and I can tell you that out of all those drawings, I never bothered to draw a Clark Kent or a Peter Parker so much as once. As a child, all I cared about was superhero action and fight scenes, and these three issues are practically non-stop action. Two of my other DC favorites from this era were much the same—Freedom Fighters and The Secret Society of Super-Villains hardly every featured anyone in their civilian lives, just super-people in crazy costumes punching each other in the face, which was all I wanted in those days. And if it’s done well enough, I can still enjoy such stories even today.

This “Super Squad” thing also needs to be addressed, I guess. If you’ve been following this blog with any kind of regularity, you should know (as I’ve covered it more than once) that All-Star Comics got its start in 1940 and became the regular home of the Justice Society of America with its third issue. Superheroes started losing some steam as the 1940s became the 1950s, and the JSA had their final adventure (for a while, anyway) in All-Star Comics #57 (Mar. 1951). The following month, the title changed to All-Star Western for its 58th issue. In 1976, All-Star Comics was revived, picking up where it left off with issue #58 (Feb. 1976), and once again featuring the JSA… though DC seemed reluctant to fully acknowledge this for some reason.

The covers for the first eight issues (#’s 58-65) of the revival seemed to highlight the “Super Squad” in larger, more prominent text than it did the JSA, despite the fact that the former group barely ever existed in any real way. The first two issues of the new All-Star (58-59) placed more emphasis on the newly-introduced Power Girl, along with the Star-Spangled Kid and the Golden Age Robin, who were referred to as the “Super Squad.” They were supposed to be this sort of subset team of younger heroes that worked alongside the JSA, but after those first two issues, Robin disappeared and would not be seen or even referenced in the pages of All-Star again until a year and a half later, and the Super Squad was never referred to as such again at all. The covers were slow to change, obviously, but by All-Star #66 (Jun. 1977), the cover title finally displayed only the “Justice Society of America” on it. Really, this is the way it should have been from the start.

The Artists

I also want to single out the art here for some special praise. I don’t know who chose to pair Keith Giffen (a newcomer) and Wally Wood (a veteran master of the craft), but I feel this was certainly an inspired decision on someone’s part. Giffen was a young Turk, bold and experimental with his designs and page layouts that toyed with symmetry and juxtaposition. Wally Wood was Wally Wood—one of the best to ever put pen to paper in the comics field. Giffen’s work felt fresh and new, while Wood’s inks gave it a classic feel at the same time.

Having already discussed Giffen’s panel arrangements and layouts, let me touch on his character designs for a moment. Zanadu felt like this amazing synthesis that was equal parts Ditko and Kirby—the body and head were Ditko (to my eyes, at least), while his costume was very Kirbyesque. Xlk-Jnn’s design is appropriately alien, and Giffen also did the issue that introduced Vulcan (#60), which was yet another strong design. Meanwhile, Wood’s inks were so smooth and beautiful they’re almost mesmerizing. Putting together a new kid with a master, like Wood, could have been a disaster, but it worked magnificently.

I may be projecting here, but I get the impression that Wood really enjoyed this particular assignment, as he stayed on for a significant stretch, from issue #58 (Feb. 1976) through #65 (May 1977), moving from inks, to full art, to actually plotting that last issue. While most of his generation took greater inspiration from newspaper strips than comic books, could he have possibly had a fondness for the JSA? He was born in 1927, so he would have been thirteen when that third issue of All-Star came out—might he have read it as a kid? Or otherwise became a fan of the team during this time?

Wood also would have been eleven when Superman first appeared in 1938, so perhaps he had a particular fondness for the original Man of Steel. If so, this would have been his sole brush with the character (or at least his sole, serious brush with him, as he had been the artist on Kurtzman’s “Superduperman” in MAD). It would please me to know that he was as thrilled working on the art for that sequence where the Golden Age Superman returns as I was to see it and read it as a kid.

For any who might be unaware, Wood had a difficult life, particularly in his later years. He had a number of health problems, battled depression, had issues with alcohol, and finally died by suicide in November 1981. This is why I’d like to think he enjoyed his assignment on All-Star—it would be some comfort to know he got a little joy out the work (or a little joy out of anything, really) during those years near the end.

Hopefully all parties concerned received the appropriate praise for their work on these comics, because they really are great. More personally, they bring back some wonderful memories from my childhood and I will cherish these stories for all of my days.

3 thoughts on ““The Death of Doctor Fate””

    1. Ah, thank you, Alan– I knew there was a good chance Wood might have have had another brush or two with Supes elsewhere.

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