Review: Doctor Fate Vol. 3: Fateful Threads trade paperback (DC Comics)

Sunday, February 07, 2021

I don’t at all think it’s writer Paul Levitz’s fault that Doctor Fate Vol. 3: Fateful Threads ends unsatisfactorily, as there’s too much set up that’s left undone for cancellation not to have been sudden. That said, this series has struggled since its auspicious beginnings and this final volume is a nadir, with not much difference in the storylines to distinguish from similar plots almost a dozen issues ago. That series artist Sonny Liew couldn’t make the final two issues is also a disappointment. Levitz created a great character here, but I’m not sure he ever figured out what to do with him.

[Review contains spoilers]

What would seem to be the driving change in this new chapter of young Fate Khalid Nassour’s life is the arrival of his uncle, one Kent Nelson, former owner of the Fate helmet. Levitz either doesn’t have the time or the go-ahead to get into the details, but apparently Kent was the classic Fate as we remember it (at least within the confines of this book), even mentioning at one point the Justice Society. It’s possible there’s some connection to the contemporaneous Earth 2 series of the time that I’m just misremembering, but I think the answer is simpler. Not unlike the DC You Bizarro series, continuity wasn’t meant to be so devout among DC You titles, and I’d venture it was altogether more contingent on what Levitz envisioned and what he wanted to write than whether the Justice Society was said to exist at that moment or not.

In Fateful Threads' first two chapters, Levitz portrays Kent as something of a demanding uncle. While Khalid and Kent’s reunion is initially warm, when working together as Fates we find Kent becoming rather stern, even a bit exasperated at Khalid’s mistakes and the need to fix them. While it seems early on that Khalid may have found himself a mentor, Kent becomes a somewhat antagonistic presence, nor does he seem willing to show Khalid the ropes without making Khalid work for it. It’s not much longer after that until Kent leaves the narrative entirely, and Levitz never even gets a “final say” with him (other writers would pick up Kent later); this is perhaps first among the places where Doctor Fate feels unfinished.

Second, though there’s a momentous meeting here between Khalid’s Lois Lane and Lana Lang — girlfriend Shaya and girl-next-door Akila — this love triangle is never resolved either. It had seemed Levitz was setting up a conflict both social and spiritual, in that Khalid was dating the secular Shaya but that their relationship was rocky, while meanwhile the religious Akila held a torch for him, even as his superheroing as the mystic Fate was making Khalid more religious. Threads' late conflicts have to do with each woman individually — Khalid-as-Fate saves Shaya from rampaging mummies, but she’s less than thankful, and then later he embarks on a galaxy quest to stop interdimensional aliens from draining Akila’s life force. But that’s all we get, with the book’s end cutting short wherever Levitz was going with this or whatever he might have wanted to say.

Among the conflicts in this volume, Khalid rounds up some minor minions of the god Anubis that escaped during their conflict in Doctor Fate Vol. 1: The Blood Price; another Egyptian god, Osiris, comes hunting Khalid before he decides Khalid is worthy of the Fate mantle, and then there’s the battle with interdimensional bugs. A lot of this reflects or hearkens back to this book’s earlier storylines, which is to say there’s not much that feels new or fresh, nor do the conflicts have much more nuance than good Fate versus bad (or misguided) villains.

Possibly again that’s what we were coming to with Shaya and Akila — Khalid having to make personal or superheroic choices that demonstrates who he was as a character, rather than just punching out Alien extras. A backup tale of Khalid versus anti-Muslim protestors is about the closest we get. Ultimately this is where I think Levitz’s Doctor Fate falters, and it’s a problem not that so far removed from the difficulties with his Worlds' Finest series too, that the premise is good but the stories aren’t much more than a collection of action sequences.

The final “Fateful Threads” two-parter reflects the stronger and weaker pulls of this series. Again, it’s a lot of Khalid getting cryptic advice from various sources, all of which encourages him to look inside himself and suddenly in the last pages he has the power to defeat the alien Clothorus; it is too simplistic, and too untethered, for my taste. At the same time, though Sonny Liew’s absence is felt, Brendan McCarthy provides wonderfully trippy art, snakes and bugs and Khalid getting stretched through mystical dimensions. The team even manages a cameo by Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, if that gives you a sense of the aesthetic this title was going for.

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2.25

Rating

It is my long experience that comics always begin better than they end: beginnings are filled with set-ups and new possibilities, and endings have the rush of cancelled comics and events to coincide with and team members dropping off. Such is the case with how Doctor Fate Vol. 3: Fateful Threads has ended, a series which ultimately exceeded my expectations of what a Paul Levitz-written modern Doctor Fate series would deliver, but only by a little, and as I’ve said before I think artist Sonny Liew had no small hand in that. But I know now where Khalid Nassour came from, and that makes me all the more eager to see his appearances in other books.

[Includes original covers, cover concepts, character sketches, and layouts]

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