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, and the like. Others gather more recent storylines for a limited print run, such as DC’s New 52 collections.
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. Runs such as the Dr Fate story written by William Messner-Loebs and drawn by Vince Giarrano, Scot Eaton and Peter Gross, which began in 1991 and spanned issues #25-41 of the DC series.
The previous couple of years had featured a version of Dr Fate very different from the Kent Nelson original, though the Golden Ager was still around. Its conclusion left Kent and wife Inza with newly youthful bodies and a chance to start again after 50 years of the life superheroic. Kent assumes he’ll resume his Dr Fate gig with everything as before, but Inza’s priority is to get out and see the world after literally decades stuck in a tower without even the benefit of lovely corn-coloured hair.
As it turns out, Inza’s hubby had neglected to tell her he’s owned a building in New York since the 40s. 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, with more than mystical tumbleweed for company. A new status quo means they now merge as Dr Fate, but it’s not a long-lived status quo because as soon as the new quarters are sorted, Kent finds he’s no longer part of the equation – Inza alone is Dr Fate.
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 idea 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 after sorting out vengeful Lord of Order Shat-Ru is to fix the stoplight down the street. It may seem trivial, but it makes a big difference to the neighbors she and Kent are getting to know.
Bit by bit, Inza begins to fix up the neighborhood, 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, the 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 is vanquished Lord of Order Shat-Ru, who finds himself trapped in Kent Nelson’s original, dead body. And he’s not happy.
And of course, there are fearsome foes aplenty, with Loebs such a good writer that he even makes a War of the Gods crossover – guest starring Wonder Woman – work for his series.
But the heart of the narrative is the wonderful relationship between Inza and Kent. Sure, they have their off-moments, but their love for one another is never in doubt. And Loebs’ skill with warm, witty dialogue makes it obvious in their every interaction. Dr Fate isn’t about being a superhero, it’s about partnership and marriage, with godlike powers the spotlight that throws the Inza/Kent relationship into relief.
The relaunch begins with Vincent Giarrano drawing and Peter Gross inking. Scot Eaton takes over the pencils, Gross occasionally 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 adrift in some lunatic magical dimension. Colorist Lovern Kindzierski and letterer Todd Klein are with the book throughout, adding more consistency, while editor Stuart Moore wrangles his talents with real style.
The book ended when other assignments meant Loebs decided to bow out, and rather than assign a new writer, DC chose to end the 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 and I prefer to pretend that’s where they are today.
DC’s June relaunch is bringing a new Dr Fate series, making now the perfect time to 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.
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