DC Infinite’s Hidden Gems – Doctor Fate

There are a lot of trade paperbacks out there. Some collect stories considered classic, and never go out of print – Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Sandman. Others gather more recent storylines with more limited time appeal, think ‘Event of the Quarter’.

Others exist only in my imagination. Favourite runs that – at least so far as I can see – were never considered commercial enough to be collected in a volume or two. Such as the Dr Fate series written by William Messner-Loebs and drawn by Vince Giarrano and Peter Gross, which kicked off in 1991 and spanned issues #25-41 of the DC book.

The previous couple of years had featured a version of Dr Fate very different from the traditional Kent Nelson version, though the Golden Ager was still around. Its conclusion left Kent and wife Inza in newly youthful bodies and ready to start again after 50 years of the life superheroic. Inza’s priority is to get out of the doorless tower in which she lived for decades, with no friends, no job, nothing to do but wait for Kent to come home from ending the latest universal threat.

As it turns out, hubby had neglected to tell Inza he’s owned a building in New York since the Forties. Merging it mystically with the tower – which exists in a spiritual plane centred on Salem – means they can try for some kind of normal life. A new status quo means they now merge to make Dr Fate, but it proves to be a short-lived status quo. Almost as soon as the new quarters are sorted, Kent finds he’s no longer part of the equation – the Doctor is Inza alone.

In any other series, this would be cause for angst, and a long quest to fix the problem. Not here, though. Kent is actually up for the prospect of a break from fighting gods and monsters, while the revivified Inza is thrilled to get a taste of the life her husband’s had while she grew old, alone.

But does she go looking for supervillains? Nope, her first heroic deed of choice – there’s the small matter of a vengeful Lord of Order, Shat-Ru, to deal with – is to fix the stoplight down the street. It may seem small potatoes but it makes a big difference to the neighbours she and Kent are getting to know.

Bit by bit, Inza fixes up the neighbourhood, making small improvements to everyday life so that the people missing out while yuppies get rich have a little more to smile about each day. Where’s the harm?

Well, 17 issues of a superheroic home improvement saga might be a little much, but Bill Loebs was a man with a plan. We see that while Inza’s good intentions aren’t paving the way to hell, they’re not necessarily the great idea they seem. Things start small but the emotions and challenges get bigger, leading Inza – and Kent – to learn just who Dr Fate should be. Loebs populates the book with engaging side characters such as struggling couple Tooley and Tilda, elderly Mary, loathsome property developer Thomas Bridge, rookie cop Debbie, and more. Sorting out a cursed building adds a few new folk to the locale – pirates, Dutch settlers, that sort of thing. The standout supporting artist, though, is Shat-Ru who, rather than banishment, finds himself trapped in Kent Nelson’s original body. And he’s not happy.

And of course, there are fearsome foes aplenty, with Loebs such a good writer he even makes a War of the Gods crossover – guest starring Wonder Woman – work for his series.

But the heart of the run is the wonderful relationship between Inza and Kent. Sure, they have their off-moments, but their love is never in doubt. Loebs’ skill with warm, witty dialogue makes it obvious in their every interaction. Doctor Fate isn’t about being a superhero, it’s about partnership and marriage, with near-infinite magical power serving to throw the Inza/Kent relationship into sharp relief.

The relaunch begins with Vincent Giarrano penciling and Peter Gross inking, Scot Eaton takes over the pencils, later Gross does double duty as penciller and inker, and there’s the occasional guest creator. And the book doesn’t miss a beat, with Gross lending artistic continuity, whether we’re on the streets of New York or in some lunatic mystic dimension. Colourist Lovern Kindzierski and letterer Todd Klein are with the book throughout, adding more consistency, while editor Stuart Moore wrangles his talents with real intelligence.

The book ended when other assignments saw Loebs bow out, and rather than assign a new writer, DC decided to tie a bow on his run with a retool planned. What came of that is just too horrible for a jolly wee article such as this – suffice to say, Kent and Inza get a happy ending here.

I still hope that one day DC will collect this wonderful, woefully neglected run into a trade or two and let today’s readers see how a massive dash of humanity can make a series featuring a hero with the powers of a god not just work, but fly. In the meantime, it’s all there on the DC Infinite app, along with the JM DeMatteis/Shawn McManus run that preceded it. But that’s another, differently brilliant, story…

11 thoughts on “DC Infinite’s Hidden Gems – Doctor Fate

  1. Considering the well reported problems Messier-Loebs has endured in recent years, I’ve never understood why DC have never reprinted this run or his equally good (and similarly themed) Flash run, as I’m sure the the royalty payments would have helped immensely. Totally agree with your review- definitely a hidden gem.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. This was the first run I read once I subscribed to DCUI! The world needs more William Messner-Loebs comics.

    The time-traveling pirates in the neighborhood reminds me of Peter Gross’s first comic, an indie called Empire Lanes about a bunch of fantasy D&D-style characters that come to the present and start living in a bowling alley. I remember really digging it.

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      1. Definitely do look around for it. The first four issues were published by Northern Lights in 1986-87. I’m rereading them now, and they’re honestly terrific! There are a few sequences where it’s a little tough to tell what’s going on, but Gross is so inventive in his layouts and his character design that it’s really a thrill to read.

        Comico published those 4 issues in a trade paperback called Empire Lanes: Arrival, in 1990. Comico also released two new squarebound issues under its “Keyline Books” imprint in 1990 and 1991. I’ve got those, too, and will be rereading them shortly.

        These are some fantastic comics, by a really talented creator at the beginning of his journey.

        (Plus, in issue 2, there’s a fan letter from Mark Waid! Apparently he was sent issue 1 to review for Amazing Heroes, but he’d just left the magazine so he didn’t get a chance to do it.)


  3. Cool review, Martin. May check this out. I find myself looking less and less forward to DC’s new comics and re-reading or discovery for the first time some of their late 80s/90s/2000s titles. It just seems like they were more able and/or willing to experiment back then. This run seems to be a good example of what I’m talking about.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You can follow the adventures of William Messner-Loebs on his Facebook Group, “Fans of William Messner-Loebs”. Bill continues to draw and write.

    Liked by 1 person

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