I don’t think that anyone can deny that Doctor Fate has been something of a slow burn. Four and a half issues in we’re probably about five pages in to a Silver Age origin story, less for Golden Age, and at most three issues into a modern decompressed intro arc, probably less. Despite the creeping pace, Khalid Nassour’s adventures remain intriguing, even if I wouldn’t blame some readers for jumping to trade waiting before long.
It would be believable that Paul Levitz just has a lot of story to tell before Fate is established or that he sees Khalid’s journey taking place in the process of learning his powers rather than after he’s mastered them, but the problems with decompression exist on an issue-level as well. Scenes with Khalid’s father or a tv news program help establish the stakes, rather high ones too, but ultimately feel a little unnecessary.
Despite these problems, Levitz fits a lot of good stuff into this issue. A peak at Khali- Mr. Nassour’s grad school woes, some musings on the place of dead religions in the modern world, a solid bit of superheroing. Khalid is obviously a worthy protagonist and his value enriches the narrative around him.
The sheer length of Khalid’s superhero infancy also raise the already impressive stakes. If you can overlook the fact that Swamp Thing and Superman aren’t dealing with catastrophic flooding all over the world, the idea that it falls to one untrained twenty something in Brooklyn to stop a god of death suddenly becomes quite serious indeed. The fact that the comic is aware of that disparity, the sense that there won’t be any amount of training that will make Khalid a match for Anubis, who is wisely felt only through the repercussions of his actions, grants the narrative a level of credibility and horror even as it ages up a beloved teen-lit formula.
I’ll also say that Levitz grasps the particular anxiety of being a twenty-something far better than most writers, which is especially impressive when you consider that he hired the man who had already been parsing the teenage anxiety of the last generation for eight years by the time I was born. Doctor Agrawal seems a strong addition to the story and, while it’s far from certain, the groundwork has been laid for some fresh and interesting tension between Khalid and Shaya. Nabu also comes off well, serving the familiar supernatural guide role without sounding like Yoda, a fortune cookie, or some babelfished Yoda fortune cookie.
The one thing that really doesn’t ring true is Levitz’s take on life as a young Egyptian man in 2015. Despite some valiant attempts, it is clear that this is the result of a white man trying to talk about the experience of racial bias in America. That’s in no way a comment on race and writing in a broader sense. The degree to which people of privilege can represent other experiences is one thing, but regardless of your feelings on the matter, Levitz just doesn’t achieve that suspension of disbelief. It’s interesting to see Khalid actively dealing with those fears and we probably should see more of that in the modern marketplace, but Levitz’s writing just feels hollow, surface, whenever the subject comes up. A separate but related problem comes in the form of Muhammad Nassour’s part in this issue. One appearance exists solely to set up the second and the second feels very much out of place. It’s one thing for an ancient deity to use magical language and give cryptic hints, when the lone Egyptian immigrant in the story starts as well, it feels more forced.
Sonny Liew’s art is a blessing to this series, especially when, as in this issue, Levitz lets him dive headfirst into the weird and the trippy. While Liew’s distinctive work is always appreciated, I admit that it can feel like it’s not living up to its potential when dealing with everyday mundanity. There’s nothing wrong with it doing that, per se, but something quietly feels less than it ought to be. Despite that, the diversity in the character designs and expressive artwork makes for an immediately inviting comic that definitely stands out from its peers.
When I say expressive I don’t only mean the literal expressions of the characters, which are fantastic, but their entire bodies and, in fact, the world around them. In this issue particularly, it has become clear to me how important that is for Doctor Fate. Expression covered by the Helmet of Thoth, Fate needs another way to emote and Liew is perfect for that.
Water effects are kind of hit and miss and wide shots can get a little sketchy but it’s actually pretty cute that way. The one other criticism I have is really just one of personal preference. During a vision, Khalid sees himself decked out in full Fate regalia, represented by the traditional Doctor Fate costume. This makes sense and functions as fan service for longtime fans who might be a little disappointed by the new helmet and hoodie costume, but I would have loved to see a costume inspired by ancient Kemetic traditions.
Lee Loughridge’s coloring recalls the blue and yellow of Doctor Fate’s costume, using both very well and deepening the saturation as Khalid dons the helmet. While the coloring is intentionally rather flat looking to match the lines, Loughridge’s attention to detail keeps things vibrant and interesting. One scene around a fire looks especially great.
At this stage I think we’re just going to have to accept that Doctor Fate is going to be something of a decompressed read. This month, thankfully, that just means we get some slightly unnecessary pages. Nevertheless, once you accept that I think you’ll find a unique and enjoyable comic in Doctor Fate. Paul Levitz is filling a niche that I’m not sure we even realized we needed filled and Sonny Liew’s art carves out a corner of the DCU for the series to play out in. With well defined characters and a special attention to the sacred and mundane, Doctor Fate #4 is an example of what DC is doing right with DCYou.