Saturday, February 24, 2007

Double Articulation Digest #3: The Helmet of Fate

DC’s Helmet of Fate event has been really quite good so far. The premise of this series of loosely linked one-shots is that Fate’s helmet is flying through the magical quadrant of the DC universe looking for a suitable candidate to serve as the new Doctor Fate, a format that allows each writer/artist team to explore a different magic-based character for a single issue before the helmet moves on to its next stop on the magical mystery tour. There are lots of ways this kind of thing could flop, but so far the quality of both the stories and the art has been top-notch, and the reintroduction of DC’s obscure magicians and sorcerers has been a truly delightful journey.

What I’m especially enjoying about the series is its tone. Unlike the more comedic superhero/sorcery hybrid Shadowpact (which went from great to so-so as it leapt from miniseries to monthly), these stories treat their subjects with a touch of gravity and wonder that recalls Vertigo’s Books of Magic and that I hope the upcoming Dr. Fate series will run with. This pitch-perfect tone is particularly evident in the two strongest issues of the event to date: Ibis the Invincible #1 and Sargon the Sorcerer #1. In the former, Tad Williams and Phil Winslade chronicle an Egyptian-American boy’s Captain Marvel-like transformation into an ancient Egyptian sorcerer; in the latter, Steve Niles and Scott Hampton tell a wonderfully gloomy story of inheritance and revenge as down-and-out drifter, David Sargent is tricked into assuming his grandfather’s identity as the sorcerer Sargon. Both books are blessed with the kind of dark, creepy artwork that I wish we saw more of in contemporary comics.

Of the two stories, Ibis is somewhat lighter and jauntier, but Winslade’s art keeps the mood sinister and foreboding, particularly in his pulp-style rendering of the Egyptian tombs, sarcophagi, and ancient gods. Scott Hampton’s work on the attics and alcoves of Sargon’s gothic mansion is equally strong; here too, he is clearly drawing on an older pulp tradition of gothic interiors, complete with suits of armor and grim family portraits. These two issues are in a completely different class than DC’s other current mainstream magic offerings, Tales of the Unexpected and Shadowpact, and I would gladly buy either Ibis or Sargon as monthlies with these creative teams at work on them. The opening chapter starring Willingham’s somewhat too precious Detective Chimp (art by Dr. Fate alum Shawn McManus) and the most recent issue featuring Gail Simone’s Black Alice (Duncan Rouleau on pencils) are not as much to my taste, but both are respectable entries.

Of course, what the classic-creepy goodness of Ibis and Sargon is really arousing in me is my old desire for a rapprochement between the horror titles that ended up in the Vertigo line—Swamp Thing and Hellblazer—and the mainstream DC universe. Since this is unlikely to happen, let me once again register my plea for a reintegration of horror comics more generally into the DCU. A better Spectre series would be a good start (how I miss the old Moench/Colan Spectre with Madame Xanadu and her tarot readings!), but the two other obvious contenders for revival are I…Vampire (once Lord Andrew Bennett decamps from the high camp back-up in Tales of the Unexpected) and Night Force (the Wolfman/Colan version, of course). Either one of these dusty concepts could serve as the basis for a Swamp Thing-style injection of horror into the DCU—in the right hands. That is, provided that they are not played for laughs. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping my eye on Dr. Fate.

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