Dr. Fate | Dr. Fate and Hourman: Super-Heroes of Earth-2
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These best stories of the comic books are preceded by their issue number.
The early Dr. Fate tales are probably inspired by the success of Siegel's Spectre stories, in the same magazine, More Fun Comics. Fox tries to differentiate his hero, by making him the possessor of ancient magical secrets, and by bringing it a lot of historical magic lore to the tales. None of this is present in the Spectre tales - and none of it is very good.
The best part of this story is the splash panel, and some succeeding panels (p1). These show a large group of well suited men, kneeling in worship along with Wotan in front of a huge, sinister looking idol. There are suggestions here that they are rich, and that they owe their wealth and social position to the evil cult they support. This is a genuinely creepy image. It also has elements of social commentary. It suggests that many rich people have obtained their wealth through immoral means. It also suggests that rich people have few moral scruples, and will do anything, no matter how sinister, to get ahead. Fox does not pick up on any of these implications in his plot, however. Such ideas were prevalent in the Depression. It is also relevant today, when rich people and the Republican Party have done everything possible to get ahead, at the expense of the poor. There is something deeply immoral going on among this class of society, which has completely lost any moral underpinnings.
Sherman has the worshippers arranged in regular, repeating patterns, using the rhythmic skill so typical of his art. The men have their arms folded; the suggestion is that this is a means of prayer to the idol in the rituals of the cult. This is a sinister gesture; the folded arms also look aggressive and belligerent.
The Leopard Woman (#66, April 1941). Dr. Fate and Inez help a woman who is developing a leopard's spots. This story is mainly notable for its finale, which is unrelated to the rest of the tale. Dr. Fate unmasks for the first time, showing his face to Inez. There are hints of romance between Dr. Fate and Inza, too. It is something of a surprise: Dr. Fate turns out to be both human, and a handsome leading man. This is a start of a complete change of pace for the Dr. Fate series. In future stories, his adventures will be much closer to a typical Golden Age super-hero, with Inza and his secret identity Kent Nelson having a regular existence in the real world.
Murders in Baranga Marshes (1941). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. Dr. Fate investigates a series of mysterious, apparently causeless deaths.
This tale is most notable for Howard Sherman's beautiful art. The old stone house shown on the splash panel has a whole series of gables and peaked roofs. They are often oriented in different directions, which produces a 3D quality. They give a most pleasing feel of visual rhythm. Such gentle but firm and vivid visual pulses are a Sherman hallmark. The landscape also has an arched bridge over water - the house is in the marshes, like a house in a fairy tale - and there are arched doors in the house which echo this effect.
Also notable are the skyscraper apartment buildings later in the story. They too employ repeated visual forms.
The last panel shows Dr. Fate unmasked, but still wearing the rest of his costume. The yellow hair of Dr. Kent Nelson blends interestingly with the yellow and blue costume of Dr. Fate. His flying yellow cape is especially vivid in this good portrait. Such half and half depictions of super-heroes would be common in the Silver Age, but are a bit less typical in the Golden Age here. Often, they make the hero seem intelligent - he is often thinking out his moves in the case, planning out his strategies and the use of his powers. They are often some of the most interesting portraits in the comics. The combine the hero's face, representing thought and ideas, with his super hero role, represented by his costume. They also show the emotions and inner emotional life experienced by the hero, as he lives out his super-hero role. They are among the most intimate and personal portraits in the comics, showing the true portrait of their hero's life and thought.
Mr. Who (1941). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. Dr. Fate goes after Mr. Who, a criminal scientist with a gang of art thieves. Mr. Who was created decades before Dr. Who and the rock band Who, and Fox gets in some clever jokes on his name. The plot of this tale is strictly minor. Its best features are some of Howard Sherman's art. Howard Sherman is already experimenting with the architectural features that will later make his science fiction stories so rich. One scene in a criminal's lair shows shadows from a window grid falling over a door and its ornate frame. The grid is tilted at an angle, and makes a beautiful composition. In 1941, Hollywood was just starting to use such elaborate shadows regularly for film noir. Sherman includes three different views of the door and shadow grid, each taken from a different distance and slightly different angle.
The opening scenes in the museum include two level gallery rooms, with mezzanines. These too are elaborate and complex. Sherman also includes two exterior shots of the villain's mansion. All of these scenes delight the eye. They are more complex than anything required by the plot.
Sherman also does a good job with a millionaire's elaborate houseboat. The windows on the boat are covered with striped awnings. Sherman loved striped patterns. They set up vibrating Op Art effects, decades before anyone in the art world had heard of Op Art in the 1960's. The awnings, and the regularly placed windows and corners of the boat, make all the exteriors on the boat pleasingly complex.
The King of Crime (1942). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. Based on a cover by: Howard Sherman. Dr. Fate foils a jewel robbery at a society party, then later takes part in a chess game in which humans take the roles of chess pieces on a huge board. This is one of the most entertaining of the Dr. Fate stories. Like several of Fox's Adam Strange tales, it falls into two parts, which are only loosely linked to each other.
Like "The Man Who Wanted No Medals" (1942), this story links family relationships with an intricate mystery or crime plot. Both stories come to a moving finale.
The story anticipates later comic book tales, in which humans serve as chess pieces on a giant board. These include the Captain Comet tale, "The Cosmic Chessboard" (Strange Adventures #35, August 1953), and the Green Arrow story "The Human Chess Game" (Adventure #219, December 1955). Such stories have strong visual values. The chess game is present on Howard Sherman's cover.
Kent Nelson looks spectacular in his white tie and tails. He seems hugely muscular. Both Fox and Sherman clearly enjoy the elegant party in this tale, with everyone dressed up in evening clothes.
Art for Crime's Sake (#77, March 1942). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. A magical Chinese painting lets people step into its canvas, and into another world. In the Silver Age, Fox did some outstanding stories about people who visit magical realms: see "World Within the Power Ring" (Green Lantern #26, January 1964). This story can be considered as a precursor to them. It is much less creative than the best Silver Age tales, but it is pointing in their direction. Its central idea derives from Jerry Siegel's Spectre tale, "The World Within the Painting" (More Fun Comics #66, April 1941); it also reminds one a bit of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1871).
Fox lets inanimate objects enter the canvas, before allowing humans to travel through it. This reminds one of the "Change of protagonist" approach in his stories, where similar events are experienced by different protagonists in the course of a tale. It also reminds one of Fox's Time Pool stories in The Atom, in which both small objects and later the Atom travel in time by passing through the Time Pool.
The Man Who Changed Faces (More Fun #85, November 1942). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. Kent Nelson gets a medical degree, so he is now Dr. Nelson in his personal life, as well as being the mystical Dr. Fate. This is a complete change of pace for Nelson, who had always been a good natured but frivolous playboy in previous tales. Gardner Fox usually wanted his heroes to be dignified, successful professional men in their secret identities: Adam Strange is an archaeologist, the Atom is a physicist, Hawkman and Hawkgirl are museum curators and so on. So this drastic retooling of the character is in tune with Fox's personal traditions. The new Dr. Nelson is practicing at Wetherby Free Clinic, run by the sophisticated Frenchman Dr. Roland. Free clinics were a big deal in books and movies of the period - they were one of the few ways that poor people could get medical treatment. Idealistic doctors were always joining them. The whole change to a doctor is motivated by Kent Nelson's desire to do something worthwhile with his life.
I like the doctor plot here very much. But the crime plot that takes up the rest of the tale is strictly routine.
The Man Who Wanted No Medals (More Fun #86, December 1942). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Howard Sherman. Dr. Fate tries to solve the mystery of why a gifted doctor-inventor would want to practice quietly in the country with his father, also a country doctor. Fox wasted no time, taking advantage of Dr. Fate's new medical degree to get him involved in a medical mystery. This story is pleasant, but not overflowing with creativity.
It shares some plot ideas with later Fox mysteries, such as the Adam Strange tale "World War on Earth and Rann" (Mystery in Space #82, March 1963). There are a lot of new scientific inventions here; new inventions also turn up in "World War on Earth and Rann". In both stories these inventions are associated with a mysterious character. In both, the relationship between human and inventions is a little different than it first seems to the detective and the reader.
The finale shows a ceremony, with Kent Nelson in white tie and tails. Sherman does a great job with this. Back in the days when Kent was a society playboy, he virtually lived in tails. But here the formal dress signifies public recognition of the doctors in the story, a serious and worthwhile purpose.
Both of the tales are indifferently plotted. They just consist of a series of battles between the good guys and the bad guys. This makes the stories extremely ordinary. These tales are best considered as curiosities, rather than classics. Most of what interest the tales have is concentrated on their heroes, Dr. Fate and Hourman. During the 1940's, both had been members of the Justice Society of America.
Normally, when the Schwartz magazines revived a Golden Age hero, they created a new version of him. He'd keep some of the same powers or characteristics, but would otherwise have a new name, secret identity, costume and science fiction background. As we've seen, the new heroes are said to live on our world, Earth-One, whereas the 1940's heroes existed on Earth-Two. This revival of Dr. Fate and Hourman is unusual in that it takes place entirely on Earth-Two, and concerns the original versions of the characters. Fox simply brought them forward into modern times. The Green Lantern of this story is also Earth-Two's Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott. Fox points out that he used to be a radio announcer in the 1940's; now he is President of the Gotham City Broadcasting Company. It is pleasant to see this sort of development. Solomon Grundy had been a Golden Age villain as well; the tale is a direct continuation of his previous appearance, in "The Revenge of Solomon Grundy" (All Star Comics #33, February-March 1944).
At least in this revival, Dr. Fate seems like the more interesting character. He is a magician with seemingly limitless powers. In this he recalls Green Lantern, who also can do almost anything he imagines. By contrast, Hourman is limited to brute force: he specializes in punching people out. In fact, Hourman seems little more than a costumed thug. His gimmick is that his superpowers only last one hour after he takes his Miraclo pill, then he has to wait another hour after that to take another pill; this is similar the timing problems of Batman's nemesis Clayface. The duo of Dr. Fate and Hourman is therefore as mismatched in terms of power as are Superman and Batman, or the frequent pairing of Green Lantern and the Flash. Oddly enough, Hourman seems far more civilized in his secret identity: he is Rex Tyler, owner of the Tyler Chemical Company, and a leading businessman and chemist. Rex Tyler sounds like a fascinating person, and a series about his adventures would be a lot more interesting then anything I could imagine Hourman doing.
Dr. Fate is archaeologist Kent Nelson in his secret identity; his profession reminds one of Adam Strange. He is married to the former Inez Cramer. Her partnership with her husband reminds one of Hawkman and Hawkgirl, Fox's series of married super-heroes. Dr. Fate now possesses the noble magical secrets of the "ancient Chaldeans". There is no sign that Fox is aware that there are modern Chaldeans, as well. Many of them have emigrated from the Middle East to Detroit, Michigan, USA, the city where I live. They are a prominent part of our community, and one can hear their beautiful language Aramaic frequently spoken here. Aramaic is the language Jesus spoke.
Perils of the Psycho-Pirate (Showcase #56, May-June 1965). Writer: Gardner Fox. Art: Murphy Anderson. The Psycho-Pirate, a villain who can control other people's emotions, goes after a series of rare masks. He recalls the Adam Strange villain "The Emotion-Master of Space" (Mystery in Space #83, May 1963). Once again, this is a sequel to the appearance of the Psycho-Pirate in Golden Age comics, such as All Star Comics #23 and #32. The revived character is actually a new villain, who learned the secrets of the original Psycho-Pirate in prison. He has the same powers, but is a different person from the original.
This story introduces Rex Tyler's girl friend, actress Wendi Harris. She learns Hourman's secret identity at the end of the story, in a moving finale. Not many Silver Age girl friends ever get this far.
Murphy Anderson's art is far more recognizably in his own style here. The first tale, "Solomon Grundy", largely took place in a graveyard by night, and the art was highly Gothic. Here we see Anderson's personal combination of realism and glamour. The black tie party that opens the tale is particularly elegant.