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Countdown to Mystery #5

A comic review article by: Jason Sacks
Steve Gerber has been my favorite comic book writer virtually since the day I started buying comic books. His comics have always been complex, unique works that are full of unpredictable and often quirky men (almost always men) who dress or look like heroes but who don’t act like heroes. There was Gerber’s take on the Defenders as a bunch of misfits who happened to hang out together; his Omega who didn’t care at all about crime; and his Man-Thing, a brainless mass of swamp slime that was driven by a compulsive, animalistic need to be part of intense human emotions.

To that pantheon of great achievements add Gerber’s version of Doctor Fate.

Or, more to the point, his portrait of Dr. Kent Nelson as a decrepit homeless man, mysteriously gifted with a golden helmet that causes Kent to do precisely nothing to improve his lot in life. Kent Nelson is an absolute loser, a man who has thrown away his life as a well-respected psychologist due to problems in his personal life. Despite the presence of mystic threats and his ability to understand some of the magic energy that his helmet provides, Kent is as far away from being an action hero as my cat is.

It’s subversive, a bit unexpected, and a bit of bait and switch for readers. On the cover for Countdown to Mystery #5, the old-style Doctor Fate is shown, in full-face mask and looking mysterious. But absolutely nothing of the sort lurks inside this comic. Kent has a half-face mask, which he wears constantly whether scavenging in dumpsters, buying a bottle of cheap fortified wine or attempting ineptly to battle bizarre demons. Kent has no costume with flowing cape and amulet. Heck, he doesn’t even own a razor. Kent Nelson is a complete and total mess as a human being.

Will we see Dr. Nelson redeem himself in the pages of CtM? Based on the evidence of these first five issues, it’s hard to imagine Kent turning himself around. Nelson had a brief moment of hope in the first two issues of this series, but he seems to have fallen right back into his world of self-pity and alcoholism more recently, especially since a seemingly innocent woman was killed by a nasty demon merely because she was close to him.

But maybe this fifth issue represents the nadir of Kent’s life. Maybe he’s like an alcoholic hitting bottom. As the narrator says, “What destroyed Inza was his frailty, his ignorance. He’d love to believe otherwise, but his mind keeps looping back to the disagreeable truth. He caved in to self-pity. He succumbed to the booze. He went walking on air and stumbled out of the sky into Inza’s life – and apparently, her death. If there’s any way to help Inza (unlikely) or just redeem himself, that’s where he has to start.”

So perhaps there is some hope. Kent has begun to see the need within himself to rise to the occasion, to start to live up to the legacy of the World War II-era Doctor Fate that will be explored in the next issue. And perhaps Kent will learn, as did the demon in his friend Inza’s comic, to begin to transcend the horrible forces that shaped him.

Shawn McManus delivers some wonderful art in his depiction of Inza’s comic. He draws the demon Killhead as a massively complex and bizarre sensitive soul, full of complex emotion and a deep darkness. I really enjoyed the unique way he brought the story to life. Tom Derenick and Wayne Faucher deliver art for the main story that works well. More importantly, I didn’t find myself missing Justiano, who has drawn the previous four issues. It’s a smooth transition between artists for this issue.

Matthew Sturges’s version of Eclipso is the second feature in the comic. The previous four installments of this series were a bit flat, but issue #5 takes a left turn and becomes interesting and different-feeling from most other hero comics on the stands. Where previously the Jean Loring version of Eclipso had possession of the magic gem, suddenly Bruce Gordon has it back. Jean only cared about world conquest, but Bruce’s motivations are very different. As the first page states, “Here’s why Bruce Gordon is a Nobel-nominated physicist and you aren’t: Bruce Gordon’s worst nightmare has just come true. … All of this is happening to him, and do you know what he’s thinking about? Physics.”

Bruce finds himself on the planet Mercury and the edge of a black hole in this issue, and in each scene really reveals a lot of his character. He may be stressed, depressed and literally battling a demon inside himself, but at his core Bruce knows exactly who he is. He’s a world-class physicist, a man who sees the universe in a very different way than anyone else in the world sees it, and that shapes his personality in a fundamental way. This clever and simple bit of characterization seems wonderfully appropriate – he’s the classic example of a man so consumed in his career that it shapes the way he sees everything in the world.

The scenes with Bruce are a real pleasure, as are the scenes with mutant Communist creatures. It’s so wacky and oddly nostalgic to stumble over Communists, even bizarre mutant Communists, that it really brought a smile to my face. “Death to the bourgeois pigs!” one mutant screams. When was the last time you read that on a comics page?

It’s only when the story became more of a standard hero comic that I felt bored with it. The battle in the land of Commie mutants ends with a simple punch in the face, which felt like a real anticlimax. And there’s a dull subplot about Plastic Man, Dove and Creeper being possessed by Eclipso and committing crimes that felt awfully routine.

Accompanying this issue’s story transition is a transition in art. Stephen Jorge Segovia has left this series and Chad Hardin has taken over the art chores. Segovia’s layouts were hard for me to follow, and I found his linework overly busy. Hardin, on the other hand, has a much more straightforward super-hero style. Perhaps due in part to the slick inking of Dan Green, this issue has a much more straightforward feel to it. No longer is the artwork distracting from the story; instead, the art is a nice, solid counterpart to the story.

Eclipso and Doctor Fate aren’t the ideal companions for a comic, but as long as we’re getting them both together, it’s nice to have both stories be interesting and quirky.

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