Friday, July 20, 2007

Dr. Fate: Golden Age Greatness or the Most Amazing Comic Book Series Ever?

In my CCL interview, I talked to Chris about my preference for Silver Age stories over the Golden Age stories, which I characterized as "a lot of punching gangsters in the face." Well, this week, I received recently-published The Golden Age Doctor Fate Archives Volume 1 and I'm going to have to revise that opinion. When I read the All-Star Archives, I was always drawn to the strange Dr. Fate stories and their distinctive James Sherman artwork. Well this Doctor Fate Archives book is almost 400 pages of Gardner Fox and James Sherman stories, featuing ALL of Dr. Fate's solo stories from the Golden Age, all of which were published in the brilliantly named More Fun Comics.

Unfortunately, after the first year and a half of odd, supernatural, Lovecraftian Dr. Fate stories, the character becomes a much more generic super-hero who spends the majority of his time punching gangsters. But those first 20 stories or so are slices of unique genius. Here's a list of some of the highlights which might make the early Dr. Fate stories some of the greatest comics in the history of the universe ever (assuming you can appreciate severely odd brilliance):

1) Dr. Fate shoots lightning from his fingers. The lightning can basically do anything, although Dr. Strange describes himself as having "atomic power."

2) Dr. Fate flies around fighting supernatural evil and aliens with his girlfriend, Inza, under his arm. And for the first half dozen stories, she doesn't even know who he is because she's never seen him without his shiny helmet on.

3) Dr. Fate stops an alien invasion, leaving the aliens dead on the beach, and says stuff like, "Atomic power can be used for any purpose!" Click on the image for a closer look at the James Sherman art and funky scalloped caption boxes.

4) A flaming cloud-covered globe threatens to "break the orbital gravity of the Sun and Earth," so Dr. Fate flies back to his tower to retrieve an "atom shatterer" (a handy-to-have raygun which he says he found on "distant Uranus"--a reference to an adventure that must have happened off-panel!). He uses that gun to destroy the dangerous globe, then he traces the origin of the threat to an alien race, which he destroys by PUSHING THEIR PLANET INTO THE SUN, and THEN he finds out a scientist on Earth drew the alien menace to our planet, so he kills the scientist (between panels--all it says is, "the scientist dies for his world crime" and we see the scientist lying face down on the floor in front of Dr. Fate and Inza. This might be the greatest 6-page super-hero anti-alien vigilante story ever.

5) Dr. Fate battles the fish-men of "Nyarl-Amen" in Gardner Fox's homage to the Cthulhu stories of H. P. Lovecraft. Except, the supposedly hideous and monstrous fish-men are just dudes with carp heads, pink scales, and tridents. Either James Sherman was incapable of imagining the multi-tentacled Lovecraftian beasts or the DC editors thought they would frighten children, but the finished product is absurdly brilliant. It's great.

Notice the lack of gangster-punching!

The Golden Age Dr. Fate may be the most amazing comic book series ever or at least the greatest series published in the early 1940s. Avoid it at your peril!


Unknown said...

Tim, I imagine you would enjoy the Golden Age Spectre with its bizzare otherworldliness. Read some of the issues with Zor and it will become clear that Morrison's use of him in Seven Soldiers is not an edgy reimagining or a vamped up version of the character - he really was a crazed mentalist/stage magician that hurled the moon at the Spectre.

Very different from the Super-Palooka stuff going on in Superman of the same era.

Timothy Callahan said...

I'm sure I'll get the Spectre stuff, but that Bailey art does NOTHING for me. Give me early James Sherman any day.

ATOM-HOTEP said...

I'll concede to the point that the Bernard Baily artwork kind of looks like cave drawings compared to a lot of Golden Age stuff.