Doctor Fate

Doctor Fate unmasking

I’m really digging the Doctor Fate part of the eight issue Countdown to Mystery series. Steve Gerber’s writing and Justiniano’s art are my favorite comic book read right now. It reminds me of my enthusiasm in the early issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

I came in with almost no familiarity with the helmet of fate. In this series Kent V. Nelson is a disgraced, divorced psychiatrist living in Las Vegas, NV. (Yeah, not Gotham, Metropolis, Central City, etc.) He’s homeless and pulling in money from bum fights. After losing a fight he’s thrown into a dumpster and discovers the helmet of fate. From that point the series has explored Nelson’s past, through multiple planes of existence. The helmet allows him to alter his perception.

Doctor Fate homecoming

In issue three Nelson visits what appears to be an occult bookstore in the mundane world but is a stygian wasteland when the helmet alters his perception. Physically he never leaves the bookstore, he’s only viewing it through a different set of symbols. The lady at the occult bookstore offers him a book to teach him how to use the helmet. The book is written in this Visual Basic like pseudocode. I really liked the explanation the lady at the occult bookstore offers about why that works for him:

Every era, every culture develops its own incantatory idiom, its own language for establishing contact with the unseen world. To anyone with any sensitiviy, it’s obvious something has changed in the domain of magic, and the idiom is changing with it. The book I pulled for you proposes a programmatic paradigm for accessing the beyond — and the within.

I like the comparison between programmers working with an unseen world inside the computer to alchemists and magicians. Culturally Gerber is right on here. The old term Unix wizard fits this notion perfectly.

After he reads one of the subroutines, chosen by fate, he finds himself in the stygian wasteland. It’s nothing but gray sludge as far as the eye can see, with a lazy river ambling by. (There is a viscious but funny commentary on consumerism as well) He sees a boy on a raft floating down the river.

Doctor Fate meets what Huck Finn symbolizes

The boys vernacular recalls Huck Finn. Nelson even addresses him as such, but also realizes that he’s not a literal Huck Finn. He’s really just a symbolic representation of Nelson’s own guilty conscience about a patient of his that died. In fact it turns out this plane of existence is a symbolic representation of Nelson’s conscience. The fact that Huck Finn is just a symbol is driven home by the artwork depicting Huck as an empty shell.

They float down river and Nelson struggles with the meaning of it all. In the midst of dreary grey spires they reach a crystalline complex that is built with perfect, clean angles and no curves. It’s a bulwark of rationality against the dreary, crumbling spires everywhere else. Naturally it’s where they are headed.

Doctor Fate meets the King and Queen

Inside he meets the King and Queen. Most likely they represent Nelson’s anima and animus since Jung is explicitly mentioned earlier. They’re dressed in clothes that look like Louis XIV meets Japanese Noh masks. The fact that everyone is wearing a mask or has no face isn’t lost on me. The King introduces himself to Nelson:

We are the King. This is our Queen. That is our whipping boy. You will address us as “Your majesties.” You will not address that at all, for that possesses no identity — no persona, no self-concept. That exists to be broken.

The whipping boy is a groveling lump of flesh on the floor that is vaguely human who jumps up and rips Nelson’s face off. Nelson comes to the realization that the whipping boy is him. The King and Queen also represent him (his anima/animus). The gloomy underworld is his own creation because he’s been beating himself up for mistakes he made. In lesser hands this whole sequence would have been pretentious but it’s handled with a directness and a sincerity that makes it work.

You just don’t find stuff like this in any other DC/Marvel comic books right now. For me this is a lot of what comic books are all about. They reflect our own world back at us with the symbols changed around. This gives us a new way of looking at ourselves and our society. Grant Morrison is particularly adept at doing this but this is different. Gerber is doing his own thing and it’s excellent. I’m a little worried though. Gerber is ill and waiting for an organ transplant. I can’t believe he’s writing through that. I have to wonder if his writing for Doctor Fate is somehow informed by his illness. It can’t be just coincidence that both of them live in Las Vegas, NV.

Last modified on 2007-11-25