I find it interesting that while most superhero comics are and have always been science-fictional in nature (think about the origins of Superman, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four, for example – all grounded in scientific speculation), characters who are magical and often operate in mystical realms have always been part of the mainstream Marvel and DC universes as well. Going all the way back to the beginning of the Golden Age, Zatara the Magician was one of the characters featured in ACTION COMICS #1 (which also introduced Superman), and not long after that, The Spectre and Dr. Fate showed up in the DC universe.
I first encountered Dr. Fate in the Sixties, in a pair of stories in SHOWCASE that teamed him with another Golden Age hero, Hourman. I liked those issues quite a bit. I’ve read other Dr. Fate stories over the years, most of them with different characters wearing the golden helmet that’s possessed by the spirit of the ancient Egyptian sorcerer Nabu. (Trust me, it makes sense in the comics.) In the most recent version of the character, the helmet returns to Earth after being flung across the cosmos by Captain Marvel and winds up in the possession of Kent Nelson, the grandnephew of the original Dr. Fate from the Golden Age. This Nelson is a former psychiatrist who has fallen on hard times because of a malpractice suit that bankrupted him, cost him his family, and left him a drunken, homeless bum. Just the kind of guy you’d want to entrust with almost limitless sorcerous power.
These stories originally appeared in a limited-run comic called COUNTDOWN TO MYSTERY and have now been collected in a trade paperback of the same name. They were written mostly by Steve Gerber, who was one of my favorite comics writers during the Seventies for his work on MAN-THING and HOWARD THE DUCK. Gerber was ill while working on this series and in fact passed away after writing seven of the eight issues. I hadn’t read any of his stories in years but was pleasantly surprised to find that his prose was as smooth as ever, and his plots, while not reaching the heights of his earlier work, were still imaginative and thought-provoking. These stories are set in Las Vegas, and Gerber and the various artists who worked on the series do a fine job of capturing both the seediness and the glamour of the setting. For the eighth and final issue, four friends of Gerber’s provide short, alternate endings for the series. These don’t work as well as what came before and seem a little rushed to me, but they’re good tries, and several of them incorporate tributes to Gerber’s earlier work, which I appreciated.
If you’re not familiar with Dr. Fate and the DC universe, I don’t know that I’d recommend COUNTDOWN TO MYSTERY. Some of it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense. But if you’ve read Dr. Fate stories before, even just the ones from the Golden Age or the Sixties, you can jump right in and enjoy this collection. I certainly did.
Pulp Gallery: SECRET AGENT X
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