Friday, August 9, 2013

1987 and all that 012: the doctor is in/out/in/out/in

by Matt Derman

...reading comics from the year i was born!

Dr. Fate #1-4 (DC)
by J.M. DeMatteis, Keith Giffen, Dave Hunt, Anthony Tollin, Agustin Mas

The heroes battle against the forces of chaos in J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen’s 'Dr. Fate' mini-series, but for the reader, embracing chaos is the best option. The book is bananas, compressed to Gatling gun speeds, brimming with a zany energy that’s as relentless as the story’s primary antagonist. It reintroduces and then reinvents the core concept behind it's title character, expanding on established ideas in logical but unexpected ways. Dr. Fate’s status quo changes dramatically in all four chapters, sometimes more than once an issue. Some things are left by the wayside in order to keep up the pace, but it’s ultimately worth it for the fun of the experience, particularly Giffen’s madcap visuals, which might seem out of place in a more confined story.

Giffen’s lines, inked by Dave Hunt, are elastic. And not just when he draws Typhon, Lord of Chaos (or his children). The Lords of Order are represented with far more abstract images than Typhon. Even the human characters are done in flexible and elongated shapes. Panels or pages are often overloaded, the images barely held in place by the borders imposed upon them. There’s a liquid motion to the art, and a sort of jittery energy, especially with Anthony Tollin’s daring colors. All of which snugly suits DeMatteis’ frantic story.

The best visual in the book is the result of Typhon’s powers merging with Dr. Fate’s in the body of the mentally unstable Dr. Stoner. An evil Dr. Fate is created, with a fang-filled wicked grin that takes up so much of his helmet that he has no discernable eyes. Giffen gets a lot out of this image, making the most memorable part of the series a distorted version of the title character. Appropriate, since the entire narrative is about Dr. Fate becoming distorted in various ways, and fundamentally changing in the end.

When the story begins, Kent Nelson, the original Dr. Fate, is burnt out. As explained several times in this mini-series, Kent gets his powers through his bond with an ancient wizard/god/Lord of Order named Nabu. When Kent wears the signature helm-amulet-cloak combination that is his superhero costume, Nabu can possess his body and guide/control him, also allowing him access to all of Nabu’s magic and other powers. They have been fighting crime and chaos as Dr. Fate together for decades, and it has taken it's toll on Kent physically and emotionally. Including the death of his father, which happened as a side effect of Kent meeting Nabu for the first time. Also the death of Kent’s love Inza, who stuck with him in spite of the danger and insanity of his high-powered lifestyle, and was eventually driven mad by it. Now, Kent has started to openly resent Nabu, and Nabu in return psychically shouts at Kent, saying he should be grateful and manipulating him to forcibly recruit his own replacement.

Just like he did with Kent, Nabu selects a young boy to be the new Fate, ten-year-old Eric Strauss. Magically aging Eric into adulthood, Nabu tosses him into the field immediately, going toe-to-toe with Typhon himself. A tough-love kind of coach, Nabu first screams at Eric to let him take over, to trust him for no apparent reason. Then, in the moment Eric lets go of his doubts and accepts Nabu’s control, the wizard abandons him. Typhon proceeds to effortlessly trounce Eric, and takes him captive. This is most of what happens in the first issue, and Nabu is intentionally set up as a control freak and all-around ass. What seems like a grating trait for a hero at first, Nabu’s hyper-manipulative behavior—becomes the tragic flaw that almost ruins everything. It is Nabu’s greatest weakness and the motive behind his biggest personal failure. Essentially, he’s been straining under the pressure of his own addiction to control for a while, and this series is the story of him finally reaching his breaking point. Each issue, we see more and more cracks in his personality, and the supposedly wise Lord of Order reveals himself to be a liar and narcissist with too much power.

Letting Eric get beaten turns out to have been the plan all along, a hubristic move on Nabu’s part that, surprise surprise, totally backfires. His intention is to use Eric’s capture as an opportunity to infiltrate an enemy stronghold; in this case, Arkham Asylum where Typhon’s worshipper Dr. Stoner works. But Typhon and Stoner have merged in the same manner as Kent and Nabu, and use this to set a trap and steal the power of Dr. Fate. This leads to the awesome-looking evil Fate I discussed above, so it’s a win for the reader, but it makes Nabu looks like a fool on top of everything else. It’s classic superhero fiction, with the good guys up against such insurmountable odds that even they start to admit it might be time to surrender. Kent does, anyway, while Nabu is too stubborn, and Eric escapes Arkham and gets a second wind. They all meet up at the Tower of Fate, along with Linda who is…sort of tricky.

Linda is Eric’s stepmom. We meet her and Eric at the same time, moments before Kent and Nabu kidnap him. It’s stated immediately that Eric has always been too mature to comfortably play with children his own age, and that he and Linda have a special connection or understanding between them. Which seems innocent enough at first, if perhaps a bit stiffly written, but gets much weirder after he goes missing and Linda begins to admit to herself (and the reader) that she’s in love with Eric. She acknowledges how crazy that is, but her feelings seem to overcome any sense of logic or decorum. Eric, according to her, is extremely mature, and she’s drawn to him in some inexplicable, overwhelming way. She also feels sure that he’s still alive after his sudden disappearance, and sets out to find him. Instead, she accidentally finds Kent and Nabu in the Tower, arriving shortly before Eric. Who, lucky for Linda, has been transformed a full-grown adult, and obviously reciprocates her feelings.

They never do anything inappropriate in this book, but their love is key to the plot. Seeing the passion Eric and Linda have for one another, Kent realizes that Dr. Fate was never supposed to be just one person acting as a host for Nabu. The power is too much for a lone human to handle, which is why Kent has become so worn down. It’s also why his love with Inza was so strong, why she stood by him as Dr. Fate so committedly that it stole her sanity and killed her. Inza was supposed to be Kent’s partner in the role, as Linda is supposed to be Eric’s. Nabu kept it a secret because he enjoyed having complete power over a single person, rather than splitting his influence over a pair as he was meant to. But once Kent figures it out, he tells Linda to join Eric, and the two of them are mighty enough together to take Stoner down for good and send Typhon packing.

Other than being in love with each other for vague reasons, Eric and Linda don’t have a lot of personality. They are the weakest characters in the series, with their primary role just to be any two people of opposite genders so DeMatteis can shake up the foundation of the Dr. Fate character. Eric also possesses a blind determinism when it comes to stopping Typhon, but it’s not entirely clear why that is. The title of the book is 'Dr. Fate', so the best explanation offered is that Eric and Linda are simply destined to be a superhero duo. That’s well and good, but it’d be preferable if they had some meat on their bones beyond the potential to be a couple now that Eric’s no longer a child.

I think of Eric and Linda as victims of the title’s pacing. Luckily, the rest of the cast fares a bit better, perhaps because they’re all broken, depressing figures, so DeMatteis spends more time with them. I have already talked about Nabu’s problems, and to some extent Kent’s. The two of them struggle to coexist, with Kent’s bitterness deepening every second, and Nabu’s patience lessening. Their dynamic is exhausting and sad. Kent knows he’ll die without Nabu to keep him going, but at this point that’s what he wants. Nabu just wants him to stay up long enough for Eric to take over, but the more time that passes, the less likely it seems that Kent is going to make it. The ever-worsening Kent-Nabu relationship drives the narrative, as their desire to finally separate from one another getting stronger the more hopeless things become.

The richest member of the cast by far, and the most unstable, is Dr. Stoner. Once a devoted member of the Arkham staff, caring deeply about making his patients better, he lost faith somewhere and became an agent of Typhon. Now Stoner embraces insanity, loves seeing his patients get worse, and grows steadily madder himself. To some extent, he’s a sympathetic villain, but he takes such joy in being the bad guy, and he’s so insufferably smug about it the whole time, seeing him lose in the end is highly satisfying. Plus Giffen makes him so lanky and bug-eyed and generally unsettling in shape. Both Giffen and DeMatteis put more weight on the baddies than the heroes, but I think it’s by design, and it definitely pays off.

What works best about this series is seeing the less likable characters get what they deserve. Nabu has to show some humility and confess his lies. Stoner is beaten but still alive, so there’s a sliver of hope that his mind might still be repaired. Typhon runs away, spouting desperate you've-not-seen-the-last-of-me type lines as he flees. And the Lords of Order have to live with not getting their way, when Nabu redeems himself by choosing the unpredictability of humanity over pure order. These resolutions are all a long time coming, so when the pieces rapidly fall into place at the end, there is an enormous sense of relief. In the last few pages, the book finally slows down and catches its breath, having acceptably positioned everyone in the cast. But there’s enough open-endedness for more stories to follow, as they did in an ongoing series the following year.

The other thing that makes 'Dr. Fate' such a solid read is that every member of the creative team elevates the story. Letterer Agustin Mas adds some brilliant touches, specifically the way he distinguishes Nabu, Typhon, and The Lords of Order from everyone else. These are the most powerful characters, the guys at the heart of the conflict. And they each have their own dialogue styles and borders, distinct from one another and from all the human characters. Because there are a lot of telepathic communications that move very quickly from voice to voice, having the immortal characters set apart this way is helpful and, now that I've seen it in action, feels like a necessity. Also, when Nabu is speaking with the Lords of Order on their plane, the panels are essentially just shapes and colors with speech bubbles over top, so it’s important that each piece of dialogue can be immediately and accurately attributed to the right speaker.

I gave colorist Anthony Tollin the briefest nod earlier, but he deserves more recognition than that, because his work has a lot to do with the series’ lightheartedness that helps support its speed. There’s a general pop to everything, even when the colors dim to fit the more somber or reflective moments. Dr. Fate’s bright golds and blues have to mesh with Typhon’s duller greens when they fight, and even more so when they come together later. Tollin always finds the balance, and makes smart decisions about his background choices as well. And just like with Mas’ letters, Tollin’s colors are one of the most important aspects of the scenes of Nabu and the Lords of Order. The success of those sequences depends on them being captive pieces of abstract art; by changing the colors in each panel and playing with varied hues, Tollin ensures they’ll work on their own and as a whole.

'Dr. Fate' chugs along at full steam all the way through. And while Linda and Eric are diluted because of it, in its entirety the book succeeds as a piece about the dangers of extremism in any direction. Or perhaps the dangers of obsession or addiction in their many forms, though those are basically just variations on the same thing. I’m a big fan of stories that support open-minded, middle-ground thinking, and if they can be as frenetic and entertaining as this, all the better. And Giffen, Hunt, Tollin, and Mas collaborate gracefully to create a bold final product. This is visual storytelling that forces the eye to follow it, because it’s all bizarre, fascinating, and flashy.

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