Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Fate Is the Doctor

Reading the Golden Age Doctor Fate Archive a few years ago (this is another of my re-edited posts from my own blog) made me appreciate, again, how futile it is to claim any version of comics characters is the “definitive” version.

As a kid, I didn’t think about things like “is this the definitive version of Dr. Fate?” or any other character. I did, however, have a clear idea who Fate was. The JLA/JSA crossovers showed me he was a mysterious sorcerer in that cool helmet β€” seriously, having his face completely hidden like that made him stand out β€” who battled foes in the crossovers with magical lightning and presumably did the same thing in his Showcase tryout issues (I didn’t get them until years later).

From a text page about the Justice Society I learned that in his unhelmed private life Fate was Kent Nelson, archeologist, trained in the ancient wisdom of Chaldea and Sumeria by Nabu (I may have gotten some of that information later, but that was the gist).

In the 1970s I finally read some of Fate’s Golden Age stories in reprint and I loved them. Gardner Fox gave his battles against Nyarl-Amen and other foes a good Weird Tales tone and Howard Sherman’s art had an appropriately strange quality. I would probably have picked that as the definitive Dr. Fate if I’d been asked (nobody ever did. Go figure). They weren’t up to Dr. Strange’s stories from the Silver Age, but I hadn’t read them yet. And Dr. Strange never looked as good as Fate in that helmet.

I was aware from a story in the reprint book Wanted that Dr. Fate ran around with his helmet cut in half for some of the Golden Age. That puzzled me but it didn’t change my opinion of the “definitive” version. I wrote it off as an odd aberration that didn’t change things significantly.

Boy was I wrong.

Reading the archives I realized Kent Nelson wore the classic helmet for his first year in More Fun Comics, then adopted the half helmet for the remaining three years (I assume that was to make him look like a conventional cowled mysteryman). For most kids reading back then, the half-helmet version would have been the “real” Dr. Fate β€” heck miss that first year and you might not know there’d ever been another version.

The change was more than cosmetic. Despite his repeated battles with mad scientist Dr. Who, Dr. Fate spent most of the half-helm era fighting ordinary thugs. His powers were primarily great strength and invulnerability, though his lungs remained mortal (gas, drowning or hanging could take him out). He dealt with the mobsters he battled not through sorcery but fisticuffs, usually cracking jokes while he punched them. Instead of residing in his mystical tower, his secret identity was Kent Nelson, millionaire playboy, later Kent Nelson, M.D.

In short, he was little different from the Sandman, Mr. Terrific or Wildcat, a tough fighter in a costume. Presumably that sold better; Starman also relied a lot in his fists as his career progressed.

So the version I grew up with wasn’t that definitive at all. Even if it had been, it was replaced in the Bronze Age by the Martin Pasko/Walt Simonson take. It was their 1st Issue Special that established Kent Nelson doesn’t wear the helmet β€” the helmet wears Kent Nelson. Kent’s not a hero as much as a host body. That’s been the standard interpretation ever since. It was also how Roy Thomas explained the half-helmet in All-Star Squadron: Kent sensed Nabu gaining greater control so he donned a non-magical helmet to preserve his independence.

This has remained the definitive take every since. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be topped down the road, though. Like I said, “definitive” is rarely open and shut.

#SFWApro. Covers by Murphy Anderson, Anderson again, Nick Cardy and Joe Kubert. Post title is a riff on Ernest K. Gann’s memoir Fate Is the Hunter just because I love the title.


  1. Le Messor

    later Kent Nelson, M.D.
    It really surprised me the first time I figured out – very late in my comics-reading career – that the titles given to superheroes are usually real. ie: ‘Doctor Whatever’; ‘Captain Whoever’; they’re going to be a doctor or a captain, as applies.

    The one that really got to me was the Black Widow; they made her an actual widow (he got better, of course), even though she’s named for a spider. (Also, I’m picturing a weird graduation ceremony from the Red Room: “Do you?” yes. “Do you?” yes. “Okay, you’re married.” *BLAM!* shoots husband.)

      1. Filrouge

        Mar-Vell was a captain, Carol Danvers was a colonel when she left USAF, so she was a captain, Steve Rogers retroactively had the rank of Captain in WW2, and is usually considered a colonel, US Agent was a captain but was stripped of his rank, Captain Atom is a captain, and, at the top of my head, I think that’s it for real captains.

        Monica Rambeau was only a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard, Bucky was a sergeant and Genis was a private in the Kree army for a time.

        As for Brian and Betsy Braddock, Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang, all the Captains Universe, all the DC Captains Marvel, the Android Captain Marvel, Sam Wilson, Phyla-Vell, Captain Metropolis and Captain Carrot never where in any kind of army.

        1. Le Messor

          Monica Rambeau was only a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard,
          Doesn’t she have a ship, though? Making her a different type of captain?
          Though you and Fraser are both right, it appears, and I was off-base (AWOL?) about the captains.

          Professor X is a real professor: correct?

      1. JHL

        Yup, the role of captain of a vessel and the rank of captain are two distinct things. It’s kind of messy but it does mean there are circumstances where it is entirely appropriate to refer to a person as a captain despite them having a different rank.

  2. JHL, according to “Mr. Kipling’s Army” it’s because the British army at the time didn’t have standardized ranks. The core of the Army was regimental, in which officers bought their initial commissions. If they were assigned to another regiment or general army duty the army might decide their role needed a higher or lower rank. Brigadier generals, for example, were all temporary appointments for the duration of hostilities.

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