Friday, August 19, 2016

The Duality of Khalid Nassour, Doctor Fate

Doctor Fate isn’t a game-changing, must-read monthly title (like DC positions a number of its ongoings), the name ‘Doctor Fate’ isn’t incredibly well-known, and the boy under the helmet is all-new character Khalid Nassour. All that said, Doctor Fate is a fun series that presents the superhero paradigm in a refreshing way. Last spring’s DCYou initiative aimed to rebrand or re-haul existing IPs to promote diversity, innovation, and experimentation – Superman was de-powered and put back in his jeans and t-shirt, Jim Gordon donned the cowl when Batman died fighting the Joker, Hal Jordan went on the run from the Green Lantern Corps, while Wonder Woman sported updated armor and new villain Donna Troy. Aside from re-working major heroes, DC also looked at lesser-known characters, which is how this new volume of Doctor Fate came to be.

** General spoilers for Doctor Fate follow **

While others found themselves frustrated with early issues, I see Paul Levitz and Sonny Liew’s take on this classic franchise as a welcome breath of fresh air in a modern superhero aesthetic that often promotes story over character development (see most of Scott Lobdell’s post-2010 DC work), which makes it all the more disappointing that the series is set to end next month with Doctor Fate #16 (UPDATE: Doctor Fate #17 is out in October and is not solicited as the final issue). Levitz’s heavy decompression through this series is both to its credit and detriment; on a month-to-month basis Doctor Fate feels long in the tooth, like Levitz is searching for a definitive direction through Khalid’s own crippling indecision and self-doubt. Without considering who Khalid Nassour is as a person, reading an ongoing series that takes at least ten issues for the protagonist to get onboard with the whole ‘hero thing’ can be mildly annoying at best and unacceptably boring at worst.

Khalid doesn’t know what he wants – Levitz and Liew have made that very clear throughout these fifteen issues – and his journey reflects this indecisiveness. Here, Khalid has a life plan that doesn’t necessarily meld with his new status as Doctor Fate. University is an investment, and Khalid’s academic track means his classes are all the more important for eventually enrolling in med school. He also feels compelled to learn the mystical arts and grow into the hero he is supposed to be, to take what’s been given to him and rise to the occasion even though he resists the pull of Fate at nearly every turn, juxtaposing his earnest desire to help people.

In effect, Khalid wants to graduate from university, have a meaningful relationship with his beautiful girlfriend, honor his parents and their sacrifices, and use the power he’s been gifted as Doctor Fate to be a superhero and help save the world – Khalid wants everything to go as planned even though he believes it will all fall apart. In his overly-analytical mind (a plus for a future doctor), Khalid shouldn’t possibly be able to stretch himself so thin and thus he can’t; it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that only begins to wane in later issues of the series when the reality of his situation begins to truly set in, and more noticeably when Khalid’s great-uncle Kent Nelson arrives to share some wisdom.

With the re-introduction of Kent Nelson into the ‘prime’ mythos (after he was absent in the ‘New 52’), Levitz and Liew made Doctor Fate a more integral part of DC’s lineup, a title that goes beyond the purview of “shaking things up” and finds a way to reconcile the present with the past in a purposeful way without rewriting history. Kent comes onto the scene when Khalid is at a crossroads – the young student wants to take responsibility for the power he now wields, but still doesn’t think he can or should even after saving the world once already. Call it emotional dysfunction, self-absorbed egoism, or existential dread – whatever it is, Khalid can’t get over a sense of self-loathing that translates into reserved behavior that only results in more indecision and doubt.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting good things for yourself, and Khalid’s inability to justify his own life goals against his new fate become overwhelming. This seems to be part of Levitz and Liew’s underlying message, that perhaps “fate” isn’t locked in stone the way we typically perceive it to be. In the real world, “fate” and “destiny” are concepts created to explain talent or industriousness or passion – nothing is certain, and to say some things are absolute belies the inherent chaos of the universe we humans try so diligently to force into order. Khalid is no more shackled to the helmet of Fate as I am to my job or my life as it is right now – I can leave and disappear and start all over if I so desire. The effects of my actions are, of course, reliant on how much effort I put into making them a reality, and this is where Khalid struggles. Khalid wants to put all of himself into whatever he does because he doesn’t want to fail, but nothing is that simple and Khalid learns that he almost has to disconnect his two lives and approach each with a different perspective even though they constantly intertwine.

Doctor Fate represents a more realistic approach to the genre in which the protagonist isn’t an archetypal hero and mitigating factors have real consequences because the duality of being a superhero bears difficult costs. Paul Levitz and Sonny Liew’s decompressed narrative style is admirable in turning Khalid Nassour into one of the most relatable and introspective characters in DC’s roster. It’s fun having a pre-Flashpoint Superman back in the mix, and I love the buddy cop take on Green Lanterns, but Doctor Fate has a tenacity and subtlety rarely seen in modern superhero comics, an almost Chekhovian take on what it means to be a hero and the trials it takes to get there. The present makes way for the past to define a new future for Khalid Nassour and Doctor Fate. Here’s hoping DC doesn’t let Khalid disappear into the aether after this series wraps up.

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