Review: ‘Doctor Fate Vol. 1: The Blood Price’
It was ten years ago that DC Comics canceled their previous attempt to build an ongoing series around their Doctor Fate character, a very ’90s take that turned the golden-helmed super-magician created during the Golden Age of comics into a tattooed, knife-wielding tough guy. The latest attempt launched last year as part of the publisher’s “DCYou” initiative, an effort to bring greater diversity of characters, creators, and styles to their main superhero line.
This new Doctor Fate is Khalid Nassour, a young Egyptian-American from Brooklyn who is about to start medical school. The creators are experienced ones, and, in the case of writer Paul Levitz, one of the most experienced writers at DC. Artist Sonny Liew, who has drawn comics for DC imprints before, has a highly distinct style that made this book look nothing like anything else the publisher was producing. In terms of diversity, then, Doctor Fate accomplished its mission.
Unfortunately, the book is well intentioned but not necessarily well written. Levitz gives his young hero an interesting family and social life in the mode of Peter Parker–he spends a lot of time worrying about his parents, and is the point of a love triangle of sorts–and he is more interested in going to school and becoming an actual doctor than taking up the mantle of Doctor Fate.
But a battle of sorts between ancient Egyptian deities Anubis and Bast (who appear as mundane, but talking, dog and cat, respectively) forces him to play hero. Anubis has a very, very gradual plan to destroy humanity via a Biblical flood, and so Bast guides Khalid to the magical golden helmet of Fate, which gives him magical powers and special insight when he wears it.
The book is pretty poorly paced, with the first seven issues that comprise this collection constituting a rather long and drawn-out origin story. Khalid is so reluctant to be a superhero that he dithers about it for pages and pages, and Anubis’s plan to destroy the world via rain storm makes for a rather slow-moving apocalypse. Additionally, Khalid must learn to use his new powers, which takes seven issues before he gets any level of mastery.
Levitz was, essentially, writing for the trade, and framing his story like a superhero movie rather than a superhero comic book; it was a repetitive drag to read in single issues, spread out over seven months. In this form, however, the pacing doesn’t seem so bad at all. Yes, it’s a little repetitive and feels awfully forced at times, as if Levitz were attempting to build a successful 21st century superhero comic book from a kit, but the trade format flatters the story in the way single issues didn’t.
The book’s great strength, however, remains Liew’s inspired artwork. His Doctor Fate isn’t the imposing, caped strong man that the original (and most other versions) were, but is just a skinny young kid who wears the helmet and a medallion over a hoodie, slacks, and tennis shoes. The helm looks like it belongs in a different comic entirely, and the way it visually clashes with the looser, rounder, flatter, more cartoony world of Liew’s art gives the proceedings an interesting tension.
Given the magical content, which includes trips through time to ancient Egypt, the gods in more divine forms, and a climactic battle in the mythological afterlife, Liew gets plenty of opportunity to explode the narrative into fantastic directions. Even stronger than his interior art, however, are his covers, which are always much more elaborate (note the mosaic style cover of the collection above).
Levitz and Liew’s recreation of Doctor Fate’s secret identity as a kid of Egyptian heritage (the original was, of course, a buff blonde guy named Kent Nelson) allowed DC to add a new hero to their line that wasn’t just another white guy, but it wasn’t simple diversity for diversity’s sake–it adds a new and interesting twist to a superhero who derived his magical powers from a comic book version of ancient Egyptian mythology.
As the only superhero of Middle Eastern descent starring in a DC comic at the moment, Khalid Nassour diversifies the roster of heroes, and as the subject of Liew’s art, he diversifies the look of DC Comics. It’s just a pity Doctor Fate doesn’t have more to recommend it.
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About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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