DOCTOR FATEMedium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1940
Creators: Gardner Fox (writer) and Howard Sherman (artist)
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For a magazine with such a gay, lighthearted title, DC's More Fun Comics of the late 1930s and early '40s featured
more than its share of arcane, mystical, often quite grim protagonists. Dr. Occult
and of course, this one, Doctor Fate.
Kent Nelson was a mere lad when, in 1920 or thenabouts, his father, an archaeologist, was killed while the two explored a ruin in the Valley of Ur, which was sometimes in Egypt, sometimes in Mesopotamia and sometimes just vaguely Middle-Eastern. This happened as a result of Kent's accidental re-animating of Nabu, an incredibly ancient wizard/alien/supernatural being (a lot about this story isn't 100% clear). Tho no-doubt glad to be back among the living, Nabu felt bad about his role in the old man's demise. (Did he directly murder the elder Nelson? Again, not clear.) So he took Kent in, and taught him all he knew of the occult world. When the boy had grown to manhood, thoroughly equipped not just with knowledge of the Nether Realm but also with such practical abilities as super strength, invulnerability, flying and the like, Nabu gave him a blue and yellow superhero outfit complete with full-face golden helmet, then sent him off to fight evil in the land of his birth. On the way back to America, he met Inza Cramer, who became his inevitable love interest.
This origin story did not appear in More Fun #55 (May, 1940), where Doc made his debut. It was in #67 (May, 1941). For his first year, Dr. Fate was a mystery man who operated out of a stone tower near Salem, Mass., that only he could enter because it had no door. He had no apparent associates, back-story, or human-style name.
Getting an origin, secret identity and girlfriend was actually the second step in his conversion to standard superherohood — a few months earlier, he'd become a charter member of The Justice Society of America, where he regularly hobnobbed with the likes of Green Lantern, Starman and The Flash. The conversion was completed five months later, when he traded in the helmet that covered his entire face for one that stopped at the nose, allowing the bottom half of his face to show expressions. This seems to have been done to make him more human, and less the awesome, mysterious being he'd started out as (tho an immobile face doesn't seem to have slowed down Marvel's Iron Man).
The character was created by writer Gardner Fox (who, aside from creating Hawkman, The Sandman and a host of other DC characters, was also the writer who turned The Black Pirate into something resembling a superhero). Fox, who also wrote pulp magazine stories, drew on his knowledge of the weird fiction that had appeared in that medium throughout the 1920s and '30s, written by the likes of August Derleth, Sax Rohmer, Clark Ashton Smith and especially H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories of ancient god-like beings (Nabu turned out to be one of the Lords of Order, locked in eternal struggle with the Lords of Chaos) have inspired generations of imitators. The artist was Howard Sherman, who was also responsible for the initial look of such diverse characters as Tommy Tomorrow, Congorilla and Space Cabby. Fox and Sherman wrote and drew most of the Dr. Fate stories that appeared during the 1940s.
Doctor Fate started out with a half-dozen pages in the less prominent parts of More Fun Comics, but made an appearance on the cover, fighting his arch-enemy, Wotan, as early as his second outing. He made another tentative cover appearance in #61, then permanently ousted The Spectre from that position with #68. It didn't last, tho, as a newer character, Green Arrow, took the cover from him in #77, and Fate was never seen there again. His final story in that title was #98 (July-August, 1944). He also dropped out of the Justice Society right about then.
He was next seen in 1963, when the Justice Society made the first of its annual crossovers with its later counterpart, The Justice League of America. In '65, he was teamed with Hourman, another old JSA guy, in a couple of issues of Showcase. Since then, he's appeared in guest shots, specials and whatnot, just like most DC characters whose trademarks are worth maintaining even if they aren't strong enough to hold down comics of their own. For a brief period in the 1980s, he had a series in the back pages of The Flash.
Retcons have come thick and fast since Doctor Fate came out of retirement, to where it's not easy to keep track of them. For example, it was established that the reason he switched to the half-mask was because he felt Nabu displacing the Kent Nelson personality. He's since gone back to the full helmet, and simply let Nabu take over. He is no longer the only person who has acted as Dr. Fate for Nabu — the past has been tinkered with to insert others before him. His persona has merged with Inza's, on the pretext that to be all that Doctor Fate can be requires female as well as male attributes. Eventually, Kent and Inza were written out, and others have assumed the role. He's been played as a standard superhero, the ancient, mysterious being he seemed to be at first, and quite a few things in between.
It's all very confusing, and no doubt more alterations are in the offing, to meet the needs of newer storylines by newer writers. It's pretty clear, tho, that Doctor Fate, in one form or another, has become a permanent fixture of the DC Universe.