Review: Doctor Fate Vol. 2: Prisoners of the Past trade paperback (DC Comics)

Paul Levitz and Sonny Liew’s Doctor Fate Vol. 2: Prisoners of the Past is a somewhat comical self-contained story that moves the overarching plot of this nascent DC You series only by inches. That might be fine for an established book, but given that we’re already at the end of the first year and the status quo has barely changed from issue #1, it’s problematic. Not to mention, with the benefit of hindsight, we also know this book doesn’t have that many issues left to be able to waste these.

At the same time, Prisoners is loopy and weird and fun, and given some of those same factors — particularly that Doctor Fate doesn’t have that much time left — this kind of disconnected one-off adventure for young Fate Khalid Nassour is perhaps a boon. As I’m not sure how much legacy Khalid will leave necessarily, it’s nice to be able to point back and say, “this was a definitive adventure of the Doctor Fate of this era,” neither the origin nor the finale but rather something accessible in the middle that shows the hip Doctor Fate doing his Fate thing.

In a couple of ways one senses Fate beginning to slip from Levitz’s grasp here, perhaps a hurry-up signaling the book’s impending cancellation (in the same months, the Super-titles were already reintroducing the post-Crisis Superman). Overall, however, the strength of writing and art come through again in this second volume, confirming this Doctor Fate series as a worthy try even if it didn’t persevere.

[Review contains spoilers]

Levitz’s Fate is already in an unusual place going into the second volume, having taken seven issues for the opening arc, leaving just five to close out the year. Then, of these, Prisoners' main story is just three issues long, with an opening one-shot with guest art by Ibrahim Moustafa (who did variant covers for Doctor Fate Vol. 1: The Blood Price) and then a closing epilogue. A lot of writers would have gone for a five-parter (or six and six) and it’s perhaps to Levitz’s credit (and/or a testament to the way DC You shook things up) that the patterns here are less traditional. Whether that’s wholly successful or not is muddled, however, by the exceptional weirdness of the “Prisoners of the Past” story.

Essentially, a corrupt Egyptian dignitary comes to town and Khalid’s friend Akila and others protest; by virtue of some ill-explained magic, the group is arrested, with some imprisoned in a dungeon under the consulate. In trying to help the group, Khalid is faced with the magically conjured ghosts of ancient Egyptians, and then, trying to understand what’s behind it all, Khalid is whisked away to Egypt where he fights the ghosts of Julius Caesar and his Roman centurions, and the Egyptian general that’s controlling them.

It’s altogether convoluted, not in the least because it’s never quite clear why the initial dignitary even has the Egyptian ghosts with him, how he controls them since the magical dagger is over in Egypt with the other general, or why he wants the protestors as prisoners. We do come eventually to understand that the general has a plot to take over Egypt, but for about a half-dozen pages it appears Khalid has been transported to ancient and not modern Egypt (as he did indeed time travel in Blood Price), so I for one still wasn’t quite sure I understood everything correctly when it finally seemed like Khalid was in present times.

As well, in the scenes in Egypt, Liew does his best Asterix impression, imbuing all involved with the little bodies and big features of that comic. This is a cute nod, and it’s a cute effect when the pages go back and forth within the same comic from Asterix-style to the book’s regular style depending on where the scenes are set. But this change in style was another thing that made me think Khalid had gone back to ancient Egypt — the change in style reflecting a hallucination or the change in time period, not just that there are centurions in the frame so the change in style happens to be humorous. That is, it’s good, and gives the end of the three-parter a zany feel, but I’m not sure it quite holds up under scrutiny.

Levitz and Moustafa’s initial story that starts the book is perhaps the kind of “quiet” issue we might expect after a series' first big storyline. Khalid deals with natural disasters abroad and at home with various degrees of success, feeling out his new powers to control the elements and the notoriety that comes with flying around the world saving people with a golden helmet on your head. Levitz’s conceit that distinguishes the story, however, is that Khalid gets advice from a few different places during his travels, including a Judeo-Christian ghost, an imam, and a Jewish professor. The third Fate book will ultimately determine what if anything Levitz is trying to say in all of this, but we see here the continuing thread of the spirituality surrounding Fate versus Khalid’s mostly secular upbringing.

The final epilogue issue hearkens to some of the trappings of the “young hero trying to balance life and superheroics” genre, with Khalid about to be expelled from medical school for absences caused by his saving the world. Wouldn’t you know, the dean has a heart attack right in front of Khalid and he has to battle old enemy Anubis to retrieve the man’s soul. That’s fun, though the real meat of the issue is the parallel scenes of Khalid’s secular girlfriend Shaya and the love-struck, traditional Akila. Again, these two women represent the two sides pulling at Khalid, and I hope Levitz can tie a satisfactory bow on it one way or the other in the final volume.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Doctor Fate Vol. 2: Prisoners of the Past



Doctor Fate Vol. 2: Prisoners of the Past sees a couple of leaps in story, not the least being Khalid’s strange transportation to ancient/not-ancient Egypt. We’re also told by dint of narration that Khalid used to be an EMT, something that might perhaps have been interested to see in-story earlier on. And inexplicably, Khalid’s father shows up riding shotgun in an ambulance, apparently an EMT himself, when this was never discussed before and moreover, we mainly understood prior to this that Khalid’s father only worked as a cab driver. That suggests to me some truncation as Paul Levitz’s series nears its end, getting in some details that might have otherwise come out other ways; I’m glad he has six issues to wrap it up however and I’m curious to see how he does.

[Includes original covers, cover sketches and art processes by Sonny Liew]


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