A look at Steve Gerber’s final writing, two years later

by
Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery
By Steve Gerber, Justiniano, Walden Wong and others
DC Comics – softcover, $17.99

Steve Gerber died two years ago today of pneumonia while hospitalized for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. At the time, he was writing the Dr. Fate half of the DC double-feature series Countdown to Mystery, and three and a half months after his death, the final issue was released. Gerber hadn’t finished writing when he died, so the sixteen-page finale was split into four four-page endings, each written by a different writer in tribute to Gerber. A paperback was released later that year, but despite the inclusion of the multiple endings by the four guest writers, the book retains the feeling of an unfinished work. It’s a rewarding and personal-feeling final piece by one of the most idiosyncratic writers ever to work in the superhero genre.

The story is set in Gerber’s home, Las Vegas, which allows Gerber to work in a running interplay between “Chance” and “Fate,” which sees Kent dubbed first an “accident of Fate” and later “Dr. Accident” by a foe. In keeping with Gerber’s tradition of featuring extreme outsiders—Howard the Duck or Void Indigo’s Jaghur, trapped in worlds they never made; Hard Time’s fifteen-year-old Ethan serving fifty-to-life in an adult prison; the robot-raised and perhaps autistic James-Michael in Omega the Unknown; alienated showgirl Nevada—the new Dr. Fate is Kent Nelson, a descendent of the original and a down on his luck former psychoanalyst—so down on his luck that he is homeless when the story begins, participating in a brawl video inspired by the real-life “Bumfights” series. When he loses the fight and is left in a dumpster, he discovers the Helmet of Fate and begins his education in sorcery.

Gerber’s mandate with the series was in part to redefine the role of magic in the DC universe in the wake of Infinite Crisis and its effects on DC’s line as a whole, and it’s tempting to connect his illness to his decision that magic essentially runs on suffering, though of course Gerber has focused on suffering throughout his writing career, notably depicting Howard the Duck going through intermittent bouts of depression.

This time, depression is the whole point, and Gerber wastes no time establishing the downward spiral that brought Kent to the point where we find him in the opening. Gerber’s also quick to introduce the series’ antagonist, Negal, the Lord of the Self-Despised. We learn we’re in the hands of an uncommon type of superhero writer when Negal attacks Kent by pelting him with “semi-digested mortal suffering,” which looks like a glob of slime in Negal’s hand, but forms itself into black birds with sharp wings and beaks to attack Kent.

When Gerber died, I wrote that his work was among the only mainstream comics I had read that sometimes felt genuinely angry, and I’ve since been unsurprised to read other appraisals of his work that credit him as one of the first, if not the first, superhero writers to imbue his work with not just the references to social issues that others were beginning to include but with a truly personal worldview, taking corporate characters and finding in them vehicles for self-expression. Like much of his work, Dr. Fate is really about deeply human issues, filtered through the iconography of superhero comics. When it comes to depression, Negal is that filter, and he is actually stripped away in a scene in which Kent asks Maddy, the magic shop owner who’s been helping him, if she’s actually faced Negal. “. . . No,” she says. “I’ve confronted the concept of Negal and struggled with it from time to time.” That is, she’s been depressed.

Kent does physically fight Negal and some of his creatures a few times, but it’s clear that what this really represents is a disgraced psychoanalyst and broken man wresting with his own depression. Kent really is fighting Negal, and the fight has real consequences, but he’s not the cause of Kent or anyone else’s pain. Late in the book, when Kent has succumbed to his feelings of powerlessness and Maddy is wearing the helmet, Gerber presents a more nuanced view of suffering when an underling of Negal’s, Ymp, shows her “the real world.” Here, “people suffer just because” and pain is “a daily fact, a condition of existence.” Justiniano provides a great transition from the outward appearance of the people Ymp is showing her and their self images, using the same angle in panels of the same size, but on the second example depicting all the people from the previous first as fat, clumsy, or terrified.When Maddy says that all their suffering is too much for her, Gerber goes a step further, positing that people are self-centered enough that what really bothers her is not their pain at all but her experience of it.

We’ll never know whether Kent was going to permanently renounce Negal and embrace his fate wearing the helmet of his ancestor or simply muddle through with more suffering to come. Given Gerber’s history, it seems likely that Kent’s journey would have originally been a much longer one, and given such a small space, the character is not as well drawn as Howard, Ethan, Nevada, and others before him. Still, Gerber gets in some good details, like Kent internally psychoanalyzing Negal as they fight (breaking into comics in the seventies, Gerber is of the generation of writers who include a lot of captions detailing internal matters, and is one of the better practitioners of the style); using the helmet to win at slots, but only enough to pay off a particular debt; being too drunk to speak his magic words; and more. His Kent is a capable man, with talents that are second nature to him, and emotionally damaged enough that he forgets them when evaluating his self-worth.

When Gerber’s plot leaves off, Kent has been transported to Negal’s realm in a cocoon-like state, while Maddy possesses the helmet but is made helpless by despair, and another character Kent has befriended, Inza, has been almost completely dissolved into the suffering-substance Negal threw at Kent earlier. It’s at this point that the guest writers take over. A text page in the paperback claims that each writer finished the story as they believed Gerber would have, but it seems unlikely that Gerber was planning to end the story with a tribute to himself, as each of the other writers do in their own way.

First up is Adam Beechen, who also scripted the second-to-last issue over Gerber’s plot. In his four pages, Beechen goes the furthest toward tying all the characters and plot threads (including the one featuring Inza and the comic book character she’s created, a rich subplot which I haven’t had space to go into in greater detail) together, feeling like a straight continuation of the story until the killer elf from Gerber’s Defenders run shows up. Mark Evanier comes next, and while his conclusion is essentially solid, it’s a fairly pat instance of Kent simply snapping out of it. Mark Waid also writes Kent coming to his senses, but more believably and more in keeping with Gerber’s style, as Kent acknowledges that it’s probably only temporary and he’ll naturally have to grapple with this depression again, but he doesn’t bring the subplots to conclusion. Waid integrates some of Gerber’s stylistic touches as well, most notably a text page that recounts one of Kent’s sessions with a patient mentioned at the book’s beginning. Finally, Gail Simone’s ending most overtly addresses the loss of Gerber, mentioning his specific ailment, lamenting all the stories that will go unwritten, and including a note Gerber had written to her. Possessing the satirical voice closest of the four to Gerber’s, Simone also provides an interesting twist to the ending.

Obviously, at four pages each, none of these endings has much room to breath, and not being psychic, none of these writers really knew how Gerber would have ended his story, so none can be truly satisfying. I think this Dr. Fate has appeared since this series ended, but I don’t know how other writers have dealt with the conflicted, potentially fascinating character Gerber created. Nonetheless, taken on its own, Dr. Fate: Countdown to Mystery is an engaging read for its clever approach to magic, thoughtful take on depression, and inevitably, the insight into the mindset of a brilliant writer who didn’t know for sure the hospital bed he was working in was his deathbed, but was keenly aware that it may be.

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