As Dr. Fate gets a fresh, new direction in June, series writer Paul Levitz said he's not only having "more fun" with the series than anything he's recently written, but he's pulling from his long-time relationship with legendary creator Steve Ditko.
Featuring a color palette and style that's a break from the usual superhero look (as shown in the sketches DC shared for this story), Dr. Fate features artwork by Sonny Liew. The comic is one of 24 new titles DC is launching in June, a month when the publisher's regular line returns after a two-month break for Convergence.
The new Dr. Fate is Khalid Nassour, a Brooklyn med student with an Egyptian-American heritage that makes sense for the the Dr. Fate mantle's ties to Egyptian mythology. He's the latest in a growing list of characters to don the helmet of Fate, which gives its wearer supernatural powers.
Levitz is best known for being the publisher and president of DC Comics from 2002 to 2009, but has served in a wide variety of creative, editorial and executive roles in the comics industry. With this latest project, Levitz is trying to utilize what he learned from his frequent collaborator Steve Ditko — not only does Khalid have a little in common with Ditko's Spider-Man, as a young person facing the challenges of gaining great powers, but the new Dr. Fate also pulls from the same kind of supernatural world as Doctor Strange, another Ditko creation.
Newsarama talked to Levitz about the new character, what he thinks of DC's move toward loose continuity, and what readers can expect from Dr. Fate.
Newsarama: Paul, your Dr. Fate series looks very different than what we'd expect from a comic about the hero. Was that part of the idea, to approach it from a different direction?
Paul Levitz: Absolutely. Part of it was what DC Co-Publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee said they were looking for, in terms of wanting a different feel for things than they'd had running in the line. Part of it was to try to say, all right, let's brew Dr. Fate down to what the original essentials were, back when Gardner [Fox] created him 75 years ago, something like that.
And really, the Egyptian aspect of it was always something that interested me.
So looking at the kinds of diversity we have today, and remembering a bunch of my conversations with Egyptian Americans, I just thought, what if a person who gets the helmet this time, in this world, is an Egyptian American young man?
And next was, OK, where would they live? We have a community in Brooklyn, in Bay Ridge, a neighborhood I know reasonably well, as an old Brooklyn boy. And what does Brooklyn have in it? Oh right, remember the Brooklyn Museum has one of the biggest world-class collections of Egyptology in the world. OK, we have a bunch of ingredients here.
And for a visual look, the guys really wanted something fresh - not the standard superhero approach that's been going on for the last few years. I liked Sonny Liew's work years ago on My Faith in Frankie, and ran into him in Singapore a few years ago when I got the chance to be the guest of honor at a convention there. And I've watched his work and stayed aware of it in the years since.
He's a really smart, thinking artist. And he has a very interesting, esoteric flair for doing the supernatural, and a great flair for doing people. So I thought, you know, this could work. I suggested him.
Nrama: Do you usually suggest artists?
Levitz: I very rarely have suggested artists in my current tenure as a writer, because I don't know that many of the new crowd well. But this is a case where I knew somebody who I thought could work well. And they got excited about him and were able to make the deal work.
Nrama: Let's talk about the lead character, Khalid Nassour. The solicitation indicated that he's a college student. Was the decision to go with someone young?
Levitz: A med student. Not a college student.
Nrama: Ah, so not that young.
Levitz: Yeah. But he's working to become "Doctor" Fate, in a sense.
Nrama: Ah, very clever. And the first issue is kind of an origin story for Khalid as Dr. Fate?
Levitz: The eight-pager that they're doing as a preview sets up forces at work.
You guys think it's Global Warming that's causing all this flooding, but really, Anubis just thinks it's time to wash the world clean and start afresh. Bast isn't so happy with that idea.
We meet Anubis as a feral dog on Shore Parkway in Brooklyn, with his pack, as the city's getting flooded. And Bast happens to either be living as a cat in the house of the young man who will become Dr. Fate, or she possesses it for the moment - not quite clear.
And she plays a role in inviting him into the museum after hours to present him with the helmet. And then he's got to figure out what the hell to do with it.
Nrama: I assume that, as a New Yorker yourself, you're putting some flavor of the city into this?
Levitz: I'm an old Brooklyn boy, so I'm having a lot of fun going back and forth with Sonny about specific streets and spots, and moments. In the first issue, with some of the powers of Fate and no idea what to do with them, when he takes us to the museum, flying through the roof magically and kind of wobbly goes crashing into the monument that's about a block away - the Grand Army Plaza monument, which has a big sort of Arc de Triumph look and a triumphant chariot at the top of it - and he lands on top of this monument as he thinks, now what the hell do I do? That's certainly a lot easier when you know the neighborhood.
Nrama: What's the supporting cast like for Khalid?
Levitz: In the first eight pages, you meet his parents, his cat, his girlfriend. You don't get a chance to meet his good friend who's trying to talk him into going back to Egypt and get involved in the Arab Spring and Arab revolt issues. But you'll meet her in a few issues. You meet Anubis. You meet Bast. There's a fair number of characters to meet in the first eight pages.
Nrama: We've heard a bit about this "loose continuity" that's happening at DC in the future. So does this Dr. Fate comic kind of exist in its own corner, or does it build on stories that have been told before somehow?
Levitz: You know, the essence of the Dr. Fate concept was always, you discover a magic helmet and you become connected to the magic. That's the heart of what was there from 75 years ago. So I can't tell you whether these stories are taking place before Kent Nelson found it, instead of Kent Nelson finding it, or in an alternate world to where Kent Nelson might have found it - I'll leave that to the people who understand the Multiverse a little better than I do.
But I think it's very complementary to the historic material. And in many ways, I'd like to think it's what the original creator might have done if he was alive and writing today, within the dynamics of what comics are now.
Nrama: Can you explain that? How is this modern in a way that Dr. Fate wasn't then?
Levitz: Well, when Gardner wrote this in the first place, you couldn't deal with ethnicity, you couldn't deal with religion - they just didn't exist in comics 75 years ago in America.
So here you have an Egyptian-American kid whose father was a doctor in Egypt, but is working as a cab driver in America, because he can't be re-certified. I have known cab drivers in America who were Egyptians who had issues like that, with incredibly educated professions in their own country, who couldn't practice them here. That's not something you could have done 75 years ago.
I think, over the course of it, we'll certainly touch on elements about how he's integrating or not into American population. We'll certainly, over time, touch upon his reaction to what's going on in Egypt politically. You could never have done that years ago.
I'm not sure you could have done a scene set in the Brooklyn Museum or the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens years ago. You would have had some bowdlerized equivalent of it. That wasn't terrible, but there's a whole lot of things available now that weren't then.
Nrama: Paul, you obviously have a lot of experience with DC Comics and continuity, and alternate worlds, and what the purpose of the various publishing lines are. I'm wondering what your thoughts are about DC's main superhero line having several books that don't really exist in the same universe as the others, or even in any universe in particular - this idea of a "loose" continuity that DC is trying out in June.
Levitz: One piece of it is, I think we've emerged into an era where the readership - and maybe people in general - are very comfortable with what I describe as a folklore, or folk tale, approach to our characters. Smallville isn't exactly the Superman story as I saw it in the movies an hour ago, it's not exactly as I read it in the comics an hour ago, but it's Superman. It fits.
And that's kind of the way we've reacted over the years to things like Cinderella and Grimm's fairy tales, or classic folklore, that they were different re-tellings. And as long as the teller got the essence of it right, however you define that essence - heroics, basic concepts - there was a comfort level with that.
My generation of comics fan, certainly myself as an individual, loved playing the game of continuity, of how do we make all the pieces fit as precisely as we can. They reprinted, to my shock, a piece I had done - God knows how many years ago, 40? - years ago in the Amazing World of DC Comics in one of the collected editions, where I tried to put together the history of various characters and comics. First of all, I never would have imagined that anybody would look at that 40 years later, but guys like Mark Gruenwald, myself, Nelson Bridwell, had enormous fun fitting everything together like pieces of a picture puzzle.
That doesn't seem to be the game for this generation. And that's fine. You know, there's nothing intrinsically better or worse about one approach or the other, as long as you're telling good stories that are entertaining people.
If the audience is happy with some level of ambiguity in the process greater than it was before, let's take advantage of that.
Nrama: And also an interest in establishing a new, young hero in this role. I think last time we talked about bringing new heroes into the DCU, you were introducing an African-American Power Girl. What does the experience of writing this new character, within the context we're discussing, offer you as a writer?
Levitz: I'm having more fun with this, I think, than anything I've written in the last several years. Some of it is because it's a journey of self-discovery, which is always a cool thing to look at, as a writer. Some of it is because I'm getting to play with the Egyptian mythology, which is a mythology I haven't ever had a chance to dive deeply into, and is rich, ill-understood, somewhat ambiguous, certainly new to the DC Universe in any significant fashion, so I can shape it a little bit there.
And hopefully, it's simultaneously a very human story and a very supernatural story. I like to think I'm channeling a little bit of my experience collaborating with Steve Ditko over the years and some of the worldviews he expressed, both in his Spider-Man work, in terms of the challenges of a young person finding himself with great powers, and some of it in terms of the magic Steve crafted in stories like his Dr. Strange or the work we did together in Mike Friedrich's Imagine many, many years ago, with his ability to envision other worlds. We'll see what I managed to learn from him.