He recognizes also the unfulfilled potential of the character, but he takes a few tacks I would not if I had the opportunity to try to write the stories. In the first, I think he loses a key feature of the character in dropping the aspect of Kent Nelson being actually possessed by something else when he wears the Helmet of Fate. Even with that being now being gone, there could have been some version of that in an amalgam of the experiences of the previous wearers and incarnations of Fate. He also sets "mysticism" in opposition to that evil bugbear "organized religion," where I think the honest appraisal of any "organized religion" is that its mysticisms are far more powerful, developed, compelling, and potentially real (and with well-developed literary mythologies attached to them) than any of the self-absorption called spirituality today that derives its dogmatic individualism (even if an individualism with a professed global focus) more from American political philosophy than anything else. I'd mine the fertile fields of something of like Jewish apocalyptic literature (like The Book of the Watchers) for much fodder for Doctor Fate's mystical adventures.
That said, I thought that the first issue of Countdown to Mystery had a lot going for it, and am looking forward to seeing more of what he has in store.
by Zack Smith
Since the 1970s, Steve Gerber has been one of the most original and offbeat writers in comic books. Gerber’s subversive, existential works range from groundbreaking runs on The Defenders and Man-Thing to such original creations as the recent Hard Time for DC/Paradox. His work is so influential that on October 3, Marvel is scheduled to ship the first issues of new miniseries featuring his creations Howard the Duck, Foolkiller and most controversially, Omega the Unknown.
Gerber also has a new project of his own on the shelves – Countdown to Mystery, featuring his new take on DC’s classic character Doctor Fate with artist Justiniano (The Creeper, Day of Vengeance). In the first part of an extensive interview, Gerber chatted candidly about his plans for Doctor Fate, and why this incarnation of the character might avoid the pitfalls that surrounded the previous versions.
Newsarama: Steve, let’s talk about Countdown to Mystery. What’s the book about, and who is this version of Doctor Fate?
Steve Gerber: The stage was set for this new Doctor Fate as far back as the Day of Vengeance/Infinite Crisis Special. In that story, Nabu, the Lord of Order who had bestowed the golden helmet on Kent Nelson, the original Doctor Fate, met his demise.
That event signaled the start of the Tenth Age of Magic in the DC Universe. We’re currently in a period of what Bill Willingham—who wrote the Day of Vengeance stuff and currently writes Shadowpact—calls “wild magic.” The operating principles of magic, the forces that shape them, and the characters that employ them are all in a state of flux.
At the end of that Day of Vengeance Special, we had Captain Marvel take the inert Doctor Fate helmet and hurl it off into space, the idea being that fate would choose the next Doctor Fate. Since then, the helmet has been on a journey across the universe and back in search of a new owner.
In the five Helmet of Fate one-shots, it passed through the hands of a new Sargon the Sorcerer, a new Ibis the Invincible, Detective Chimp, Black Alice and the angel Zauriel. At the end of the Zauriel story, the helmet was launched on a trajectory back to Earth.
Countdown to Mystery picks up the story as the helmet finds…let’s say, a sympathetic magical entity or a sympathetic consciousness, to own it. Is that too esoteric? Is that too cuckoo?
SG: (laughs) There are probably simpler ways to put it. I should be clear here: the helmet is not a living thing itself. It doesn’t possess a consciousness of its own. It’s drawn to sympathetic vibrations, as it were, from other entities. It’s sort of seeking – more in the sense of a natural force than an intelligence – a compatible entity to bond with, and it finds such an entity in the new Kent Nelson.
NRAMA: Who is this new Kent Nelson? Is he related to the previous one?
SG: Mmm-hmm. He’s the grandnephew of the original. In fact, he’s named after the original, but he has absolutely no clue as to his forebear’s dual identity. I’m not even sure he’s heard of the original Doctor Fate.
I’m working on the premise that the first Doctor Fate, and those since, mostly have had adventures that took place on other planes of existence. And while it’s true he was a member of the Justice Society during WWII, I’m assuming that Fate wasn’t as well-known to the public as, say, Flash or Green Lantern or the original Atom. His name simply wasn’t in the papers very often.
I’ve run into fans who are skeptical of that notion, but I wonder how many of your readers under the age of 40 know who Audie Murphy was.
NRAMA: Well, I remember he starred as himself in some films…
SG: That’s right! He became an actor. But before that, he was the most decorated veteran of WWII. Even someone that famous can slip into relative obscurity with the passage of time.
NRAMA: Why were you interested in working with the character of Doctor Fate?
SG: Doctor Fate is a character that’s interested me for more than 40 years. The first time I ever heard of him – now I’m going to give you some real deep background! – was when Julie Schwartz, in a very early letters page of Justice League of America, I believe it was, published a list of all of the characters who had appeared in the Justice Society stories earlier.
This was also the first time I had heard of a Justice Society, and it was one of the first times I paid any attention to the fact that comics even existed before I was born, and that there were characters I had never heard of before. Of all the characters on the list, two names leaped out at me: The Spectre and Doctor Fate.
Around that time, I started corresponding with my fellow Missourian Roy Thomas, who was then a college student. I was in junior high -- middle school -- at the time. I asked Roy if he had any pictures of Doctor Fate and The Spectre that he could send me. I was very curious to know what they looked like.
With his next letter, Roy sent along a couple of pencil drawings. I was fascinated with the Doctor Fate costume -- especially the full-face mask -- from the moment I saw it.
There were other factors, as well, of course. “Doctor Fate” is one of the best comic book character names, ever. Three simple syllables that effortlessly evoke a sense of eeriness and mystery. That held a special fascination for me at the time, back in the early ‘60s, which was one of the least eerie, least mysterious eras in the history of comics.
Also, as silly as this may seem, there weren’t any “doctors” practicing super-heroics in comics back then. It made the name that much more exotic.
So my interest in Doctor Fate is something that’s been brewing for a number of decades.
As you probably know, I did have a brief shot at it in the late ‘70s, when I got to do a handful of [Fate] backup stories in The Flash, but there was never a chance to do anything major with the character.
I’ve basically been campaigning for another shot at the character ever since. After thirty years, DC finally said yes! (laughs) Of course, by the time I got it, the character had accumulated a continuity as convoluted as…well, I think its only serious rival is Hawkman, in terms of how many revamps, reboots, and revisionist histories it’s undergone. Nobody could really make sense of it anymore.
(Newsarama Note: Ironically, the last Doctor Fate was Hector Hall, son of…Hawkman.)
I’ve gotten a lot of comments from fans who’ve said they want to be interested in this series but are skeptical because of the number of times Doctor Fate has been tried and…not succeeded over the years. (sighs) I understand the feeling.
Many of the ideas I’d originally had for Doctor Fate weren’t going to work any more, because -- this is a terrible thing to say, but -- well, they’d been attempted and botched by various others over the years.
I don’t mean to criticize too harshly. I’m sure all the other creators who’ve worked on the character had certain limitations imposed on them, things they were told they could and couldn’t do, could and couldn’t change. After all, I wasn’t able to take the character where I might have wanted it to go, either, my first time out.
My original conception was simply to treat the character as DC’s Doctor Strange, the occult superhero, engaged in bizarre battles, against esoteric villains, in weird settings that other comics didn’t explore.
That might have been okay in 1979, but given the character’s contorted history -- to say nothing of the evolution of comics themselves since then -- it was nowhere near drastic enough a change. The time had come for a major break with the past.
So I’m adapting some elements from what I originally wanted to do, but I’m coming at it from an entirely new angle. The new Doctor Fate will be an occult superhero, uh, probably. Eventually. But he’s not yet. He’s no longer a sorcerous adept; he’s someone who’s encountering sorcery for the first time, and who frankly doesn’t believe in it. Nor is he interested in it; it’s a complication in his life, and his life is complicated enough as it is.
We’ll actually get to see a character become a sorcerer, rather than simply appearing full-blown as a master of the mystic arts.
NRAMA: The series was delayed from its initial launch. Are you willing to talk about the reasons behind that?
SG: Sure – the reason was me. I’ve been having health problems, and they’ve interfered with my writing of the book. There were a couple of other factors involved, including settling on an artistic team, but far and away, the main reason was my health.
NRAMA: Now, you’ve been very open about your health problems on your blog. How are you doing at this point?
SG: Well…(laughs) How much do you want to know? I’m in need of a lung transplant. There’s more information on the blog…
NRAMA: Steve, I’m very sorry that you’re going through this.
SG: It’s just a fact of life, it’s something I have to deal with. Naturally, I’d be very happy if there were, you know, a “cure” for this, but there isn’t. I’ve got fibrosis of the lungs, and it’s a…so far slow-but-progressive disease that, if not treated, will ultimately off me.
I’m moving toward getting on the lung transplant list at UCLA. And, hopefully, I will have a newly-refurbished pair of lungs (laughs) to breathe with in a little while. We’ll see what happens.
NRAMA: Well, all of us at Newsarama wish you the best of luck.
SG: Thank you. Thank you. It’s almost funny…I really do have a sick sense of humor about some of this stuff. (laughs) Part of me wants to go for the sympathy ploy. Put a picture of me on the cover of Countdown to Mystery with a gun to my head, or a plastic bag over it, and the caption, “Buy this magazine or this writer will never breathe again!” The old National Lampoon gag.
SG: You have to laugh about this stuff, if only at the ironies. I mean, I smoked for 35 years, and the problem I’m having with my lungs has absolutely nothing to do with smoking! It came out of nowhere. The doctors don’t even know what causes it in about 40 percent of the cases. I do have some smoking-relating problems in addition to this, but they’re not debilitating, and they’re not the condition that would “get” me, as it were.
It’s…we get used to the idea that life should have sort of an orderly pattern—comics in particular are notorious for trying to provide reasons for everything that happens in the course of the characters’ existence—but life just does not work that way.
NRAMA: Do you feel that your health issues have affected the way you see the world, or how you approach your writing? There’s always been a great deal of philosophical subtext in your work.
SG: There are a few things that I feel…more urgently about saying at this point. Other than that, no. My take on the world is just as whack as it’s ever been, and I don’t…(pause) How do I put this? My stuff has always been more than a little bit existential, and I think it may have become somewhat more so. It hasn’t changed what I think about the world, it’s just made certain things seem a little more urgent.
NRAMA: Are you willing to discuss some of these things?
SG: Yeah. Some of them are coming out in the Doctor Fate stuff. They have to do with…(pause) well, things people don’t really want to hear, about how temporary this whole existence is, and the need for each of us to try to reach some understanding of it, to assess its importance, and maybe contribute something to it while we’re still alive and still capable of affecting it.
I know that’s spectacularly non-specific, but…the Doctor Fate series has to do with the Kent Nelson character, who has completely hit the skids at the beginning of the series. He’s a financial wreck, he’s an emotional wreck, he’s living on the streets, and participating in bum-fight videos in order to make money to buy alcohol.
There are large questions about human dignity in a situation like that. There are questions about what is important in a human being’s life, and even whether a human life is particularly important. There are questions about self-image, self-perception, the way that an individual relates to the world, to other human beings.
With the character of Doctor Fate, those questions expand to cover how an individual human being relates to the universe, what a universe is, and whether or not the person can remain open to entirely new ways of looking at existence. This series has a great deal to do with matters like that.
NRAMA: You’ve incorporated real-world descriptions of magic and mystic elements into many of your past works, most recently with Ethan’s khe-chara in Hard Time. What is the appeal of magic to you as a writer, and how do you interpret it, personally?
SG: Okay, there are a number of different things. Number one is that I do think human perception is extremely limited. If we can be deceived by a game of three-card monte, imagine the tricks the universe must play on our perceptions and beliefs.
One of the reasons that I have such problems with organized religion is that I think that the depiction of God in the major monotheistic religions is way, way too small, too petty. C’mon -- does anyone really believe that the most powerful being in the universe cares what one human being eats for lunch? Aren’t such beliefs really just a way of placing the believer at the center of existence?
Part of the appeal of…call it magic, call it mysticism, is that I do think there is a universe…universes…metaverse…whatever you want to call it, far, far larger than what humans can perceive at this stage of our evolution. The use of it in stories is, for me, closer to asking questions than finding answers: “How about this as a theory of existence? Let’s throw that out there and see if it sticks to the Source Wall.”
I’m sort of testing those theories for myself. Sometimes they’re based on the ideas of various mystics and magical theorists. Some are just odd ideas of my own. And I’m curious to see how they play out to a logical ending, or an illogical ending, or an ending that that proves that logic is completely irrelevant.
(In my work) there is a…I know some people would call this a “spiritual component.” For me, it’s more of an exploration of ideas. I think the current American conception of “spirituality” is designed to shut out possibilities, not open them. It’s more concerned with control than exploration.
NRAMA: Going back to the character of Doctor Fate specifically – you’ve mentioned that you were fascinated with him since you were very young, and there have been some incarnations of the character that have gotten some acclaim, such as Keith Giffen and Walt Simonson’s stories, and the J.M. DeMatteis version of the 1980s. But to be blunt…this has not been a commercially viable character.
SG: Very true.
NRAMA: As you said yourself, there have been many, many different incarnations of this character. However, Doctor Fate has also proven to be an enduring character in the DC Universe since the 1940s, and there have even been animated and action-figure versions of him.
My question is – why, in your opinion, has the character had such a hard time holding his own book, and why, despite these setbacks, do creators keep coming back to him?
SG: Wow, okay. Well, first of all…as we discussed, it’s one of the best names ever for a comic book character. Second, I think the original version had one of the best-looking costumes of the Golden Age of comics. So you have a really compelling name and a really compelling visual, which isn’t a bad place to start.
Third, my generation of comic-book creators grew up in an age where, particularly at DC, there were no magical characters in the comics, unless you count Mr. Mxyzptlk and Bat-Mite. Virtually all reference to the supernatural was swept away in the 1950s by both the Comics Code and, I think, the editorial philosophy of guys like Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, both of whom had a strong preference for science fiction over fantasy. I think that’s part of the reason creators of my generation are drawn to Doctor Fate—the exoticism.
The reasons it has never caught on…well, they are legion.
One, frustratingly enough, has to do with the costume. That damn mask! (laughs) As gorgeous a visual as it is, it hides his face!
NRAMA: They did do the half-mask version back in the 1940s…
SG: I’m sure that was the reason for doing the half-helmet….so that you could see the expression on the character’s face. If you think about it, there are only a handful of successful characters in the history of comics who’ve been able to get away with having their faces entirely covered.
The most obvious example, of course, is Spider-Man. But with Spidey, you have such expressive body language that you almost don’t need to see the face! And you have those exclamatory spritzes coming out of his head whenever his spider-sense goes off, so you can convey emotion that way. With Doctor Fate...
NRAMA: He kind of…floats.
SG: Exactly. And points at stuff. Of necessity, you’re dealing with something more like conventional human body language. So the visual damping down of emotion has, I think, been an obstacle to the character’s popularity.
Another reason is the fact that there have been very few rules governing the character and his powers. By contrast, look at Superman. He can fly through the air, he can see through walls, he can crash through walls…but he can’t read minds. He can’t see through lead. He can’t be in two places at once. Under most conditions, he’s vulnerable to kryptonite, and if he’s suddenly immune, there has to be a specific reason why. As insanely powerful as Superman is, there are very rigid limitations on the character.
In the past, Doctor Fate fell victim to the no-rules problem that’s plagued a lot of magical characters in comics. They can just cast a spell and do whatever they want. And the readers are expected to accept that. Eventually, the character either becomes so powerful that it’s impossible to write about him, or so inconsistent that the readers just don’t know who they’re reading about anymore.
Then, there’s been a problem that’s very specific to Doctor Fate. At some point, someone decided that the Nabu entity who inhabited the helmet should govern the actions of Kent Nelson. Essentially, you had this Lord of Order, this immortal figure, as the superhero and Kent Nelson as his marionette.
Because Nabu couldn’t really interact with the world, you had a character who couldn’t be killed, couldn’t be threatened…who, in the end, couldn’t have anything to do with humanity! So Doctor Fate had become so, so far removed from any kind of human contact that readers lost interest, I think.
And, finally, the association of the character so completely with Egyptian magic and mythology was a mistake. It has historical and anthropological significance, but at the same time, it’s...
NRAMA: Hard to relate to American audiences?
SG: Yeah, there’s that, but also -- this is going to sound really strange since we’re talking about a real body of ancient mythology and magical practices -- but it’s sort of old-hat! It’s all been seen before -- on Stargate, in The Fifth Elemet or The Scorpion King, or wherever -- and it doesn’t seem terribly exotic anymore.
While it may be hard for American audiences to relate, at the same time, the source material also too accessible…which might sound like a paradox, but it really isn’t. You can go and look up all this stuff on the Internet or in a book of Egyptian mythology and find out where it came from.
That’s fine in a way, but…(sighs) when a comic book turns into a research project, it loses a certain amount of its own life and vigor and verve. Research gets substituted for imagination. There’s something a lot more mysterious about calling upon, say, “the Rings of Raggador” than “the Eye of Horus.”
Sure, you can look up Raggador on Wikipedia, but what you’ll find is a reference to Doctor Strange, and, if the article is “factual”, it won’t contain anything Marvel hasn’t chosen to let readers know. Horus has been written about by hundreds of scholars. His role in Egyptian mythology is very well-defined. Raggador, on the other hand, may still be full of surprises.
The good news is, we’ve dealt with every one of these problems in the new series.
Nabu is gone. So is the Egyptian motif. And we’re creating an entirely new system of magic for Doctor Fate, one that’s full of new mysteries and will remain consistent throughout the series. Spell X will always behave like Spell X, every time Fate uses it, and the same will apply to every other spell he uses over the course of the series. (pause) I’ve thought about this too much, haven’t I?
NRAMA: I wouldn’t worry about it. Now, Paul Gulacy was originally announced as the artist on this project – why was there the change to Justiniano?
SG: Paul was going to do it in the beginning, yeah. As I said, various things happened…there were two things, really. First, his schedule was not going to work with the original schedule of the book. And second, I don’t think he really quite understood what I had in mind for the character -- or maybe he did, and just hated it, I don’t know -- but conceptually, I think we were in two very different places about it.
So I think it was better he went and did something he was more comfortable with, and we found an artist who was more at ease with what I was planning to do. Justiniano is terrific, just terrific. It’s a very, very modern style, but it reminds me just enough of Gene Colan, in an odd way, that I feel very much at home with it.
It’s wonderful – just beautiful action sequences, and he’s also amazing at doing human emotion, which is very important for this series. He also has a very nice take on the (laughs) more hallucinogenic aspects of the series. It’s just wonderful to be working with him.
NRAMA: Now, this was originally scheduled to be an ongoing series, correct?
NRAMA: Why was it changed to a miniseries, and what’s your reaction to that?
SG: Truthfully, my reaction is gratitude that DC is allowing me to do it at all, because, again, it was my health that was the major factor in the change of format. It’s my hope that the Countdown to Mystery miniseries will do well enough in the stores that we’ll either be able to follow it up with another miniseries, or, if I’m in better shape, an ongoing series.
I definitely want to see this continue. And DC is very happy with the material so far, so I’m hoping that they feel the same way.
NRAMA: Any final thoughts?
SG: Yeah – I want everyone to know that it’s not necessary to have read the Helmet of Fate one-shots, or the Day of Vengeance special, to pick up this series and enjoy it. The elements of continuity that are involved are explained very clearly in the first couple of chapters. Even if you’ve never read anything about Doctor Fate before, you’ll be just fine.
If, on the other hand, you have read Doctor Fate before, and you’re skeptical for all the reasons we’ve talked about, I especially want you to give the new series a try. In fact, the more skeptical you are, the better. Come and take a look at the first issue of Countdown to Mystery, if you think it’s impossible to do this character successfully. Because this time, I think we’ve done it. In fact, I think this version may stick around for a good long while.