Today saw the mass market release of the “Doctor Fate Volume 1: The Blood Price” trade paperback from DC Comics. The collection contains issues #1-7 of the ongoing series plus the “Doctor Fate” preview story. The book was written by Paul Levitz (“Legion of Super-Heroes”), art by Sonny Liew (“The Shadow Hero”) with color by Lee Loughridge and Liew.
Let’s just start off by saying that this series showed a lot of potential early on. Part of the “DC You” initiative to bring more diversity to DC Comics’s line up of titles, Dr. Fate, a character with multiple bearers over the years that has struggled to find a solo series audience for decades, was a prime candidate for such an effort. “The Blood Price” introduces Khalid Nassour, an Egyptian American Brooklynite about to begin medical school, as the latest to don the mantle of Dr. Fate. Liew, a Singaporean artist, is known, primarily, for “The Shadow Hero,” a series that revitalized the Golden Age’s The Green Turtle as the first Asian-American super-hero. Therefore, he is a suitable artist to establish Khalid as a prominent Egyptian American super-hero in the DC Universe. Levitz, a long-time comic book writer and former Publisher of DC Comics, has introduced more than his fair share of new characters.
With the introduction of Nassour, Levitz and Liew more firmly tie the Dr. Fate mantle to its source as the character’s origins have always been based in Ancient Egypt. The connection becomes even more direct with the early revelation that Khalid is a descendant of the Egyptian pharaohs. The main source of Fate’s powers was historically referred to as the Helm of Nabu, but is now the Helm of Thoth, connecting it to actual Egyptian mythology, rather than a fictional DC character or the Babylonian diety. Nabu still plays a role, as a priest of Thoth, and is clearly Egyptian in appearance, unlike some of his previous DCU looks.
Levitz and Liew established a supporting cast early on with Khalid’s parents and girlfriend, Shaya, and continued to build it throughout the opening arc. Nassour was born to an Egyptian-born father and a white American mother. The latter of which will, presumably, be revealed as a relative of Kent Nelson, the Golden Age Dr. Fate, as Khalid mentions that the name “Kent” has significance to his family.
So, the creators have the makings of a promising new series, but, unfortunately, the progress stalls at this point. “The Blood Price,” a tale of the Egyptian god Anubis attempting to cleanse the world with a great flood, should have only taken 3 issues to tell, rather than seven. The issues between the first and last are repetitious to the point that even Levitz and editorial lost track of the days. Nassour was starting med school “tomorrow” two days in a row at one point. Further, Levitz had to force in the introduction of more supporting characters and the start of med school in the midst of this supposed great flood that was encompassing the world and killing thousands. Med school, especially, stood out as there was one day of school days into this massive storm with tremendous flooding and then classes for the next day canceled just hours later. A shorter arc would have allowed for the introduction of med school at a more logical point.
Frankly, a flood and talking dog are just not compelling enough for an extended arc. The rain is a passive antagonist. It does not take an active role in trying to thwart the hero and, therefore, makes it easy to ignore when convenient. Anubis took the form of a dog here and, again, only played an active role against Fate in a few short instances prior to the end. This left a lot of space for Khalid to complain about not knowing or believing his new abilities, despite taking little effort to learn anything about them or himself, even with Nabu’s spirit as a guide. That brings up another point. Nabu was not fully forthcoming about how the Fate mantle worked as this was meant to “test” Khalid’s suitability for taking over the role. Uhhh. The end of civilization does not make appropriate testing grounds. Oh, shucks. Our choice for the Fate mantle did not pass his test, well, time to choose another to defeat Anubis. Oh, wait, everyone’s already dead!
Due to the extended length of the arc, Khalid’s disbelief about his new role quickly became tiresome. Levitz and Liew were going for the “everyman” approach with Nassour, so he questioned the reality of his experiences even into the final part of the story. For seven issues, Khalid questioned whether the helmet was causing him to hallucinate or if he was just having a really long, really bad dream. If one was on the ground prior to putting on the helmet and then atop a huge tower when one takes it off, flying up there could not have been a hallucination. And here is another tip, if one is wondering if one is currently dreaming, then one is not currently dreaming.
And, while a blue hooded sweatshirt worked well as part of Scarlet Spider’s original costume, it did not give the new Dr. Fate an iconic look. Not to mention the fact that several days in a row of wearing that out in the pouring rain would make it quite funky. It was revealed in the sketchbook section that the original plan was to gradually introduce the other elements of Fate’s costume, but then editorial opted to go with the “casual” look after initial response to it was favorable. This was a tremendous misstep as building up the costume would have demonstrated some actual story progression and, in the end, Dr. Fate would have had a look that put him on the same level as DC’s other heroes. Then, DC’s new Egyptian American super-hero would have appeared as an equal to DC’s icons, which should have been the point of “DC You” to begin with.
Additionally, this kept “Doctor Fate” for being more closely tied to the traditional character. Fate’s amulet just appeared on his chest with no explanation when Khalid would don the helmet. In fact, there was only a single reference to it at the end as Thoth’s “heart amulet.” This amulet used to be called the “Amulet of Anubis,” which would have been rather fitting for this story as Anubis, himself, was the antagonist. This also caused the climax of the story to come a bit out of nowhere. Which just makes the fact that it took seven issues to get there all the more frustrating.
While one of the goals of the “DC You” initiative was to give creators more freedom and be less hampered by continuity, “Doctor Fate” takes it a little far. Not only is there not a single reference to any other super-heroes during the course of this worldwide event, characters in the story did not even seem familiar with the prospect of super-heroes. When Dr. Fate bumps into a helicopter in the air, they chalk it up to him wearing some kind of jet pack. As if there is not endless footage of Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, etc. flying around.
Liew’s style excels at the everyman characters, but it would have been nice to see him showcase some more traditional super-hero fare. It seemed as if Liew would have liked to have gotten more of a chance to present the traditional Dr. Fate costume, as well. From the brief glimpses we got in one panel of the story and in Liew’s sketchbook, it looked like it would have been good too. While the artist may not use a lot of defined lines in his art, he incorporates a great deal of detail and emotion onto the page. This story was no enviable task with constant rainfall and flooding throughout the entirety of it, but Liew came through and delivered.
In the end, “Doctor Fate: The Blood Price” could have fit 2-3 stories in the same amount of pages and it would have progressed the new Dr. Fate more quickly without sacrificing any of the development, as those character moments could have been woven through multiple stories. Readers do not want to sit through more than half a year of issues for the title character to finally come into his or her new role. In an age where titles do not get a prolonged chance to establish an audience, it is best to hit the ground running and show readers what the long term direction of the book would look like as early as possible. Instead, “Doctor Fate,” almost literally, tread water for much of its first arc, letting readers know they could miss out on several issues without missing out on any progression.
“Doctor Fate Volume 1: The Blood Price” is available now at mass market bookstores, as well as comic book retailers and digitally. To find a comic shop near you, go to www.comicshoplocator.com.