Paul Levitz knows it's hard to launch a non-major-franchise hero these days. But with Doctor Fate, the new DC series about a young Egyptian-American hero, Levitz and artist Sonny Liew are innovating a new take on becoming an American hero. Featuring an distinct art style by Liew and a surprisingly youthful narrative from 40+ year veteran writer, Doctor Fate was part of DC's June launch of several new titles that fit loosely within its continuity. Starring a young medical student named Khalid, the series has dropped the new Doctor Fate into the middle of an attack by Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead.
In December's Doctor Fate #7, it's advertised in solicitations that Anubis will defeat Fate and take his body and soul into the afterlife – and his demise will take readers on a surreal journey into the afterlife of Egyptian mythology.
Newsarama talked to Levitz and Liew to find out more about their creative process, the approach to the book's ethnic characters and what's coming up next in Doctor Fate.
Newsarama: Paul, why did a character like Khalid appeal to you, and what was your thought process as you developed his identity?
Paul Levitz: In teaching undergrads and grad students for the past few years, I've had a chance to see how overwhelming the world looks from where they sit, a much more daunting sense of the challenges ahead than when I was their age. It seemed like a fun idea to throw the whole process of unexpectedly becoming a superhero at a moment of world crisis on top of those challenges, and there'd be lots of moments to help define Khalid's character.
I also like the idea of his being a first generation American – as I am, though with a very different set of identity issues. Taking a character who was pulled between his father's religion and culture and his mother's, and his own definition of American identity, is full of story potential.
Nrama: That's something that makes this series unique. Sonny, how much of a role does the ethnicity of the lead characters play in the way you're approaching this comic visually?
Sonny Liew: One thing I tried to do was to have the characters look like they were of a given ethnicity — too often in comics we tend to draw people in a generic way, so you wouldn't be able to tell one person from another, aside from the way their skin tone or hair was colored.
I also suggested a change in the physical appearance of one of the minor characters — Akila, who was originally supposed to be something of a seductive bombshell. I worried that that characterization of her would be tricky, since she's also the one character who is politically engaged with events in the Middle East in the story. I think we're treading quite lightly on real-world concerns in the book, but where there are interactions, I think some caution is necessary, given how much of a minefield these things can be.
Nrama: Paul, you used the word "overwhelmed" to describe the college students you see, and that's a perfect description of what Khalid has been feeling. He seems to be getting used to the idea of the helmet now, although he's been reluctant to believe these powers. How would you describe his thoughts toward the helmet now, and how have they evolved?
Levitz: Hmm... Maybe it's the journey from "am I dreaming/tripping" to "what the heck have I gotten into, and how do I cope?" The journey continues with new aspects: from #4's moments where he's trying to figure out how to use the powers to fight Anubis, to #7's climactic battles "In The House of the Dead" (and Sonny's wonderful cover is not metaphorical), and on to the next arc where he moves from being in the middle of a divine mess to a very human one and has to figure out where his responsibilities really lie.
Nrama: The stresses of this discovery have been really getting to Khalid. How much of his reaction can be credited to his youth, and his already stressful situation as a college student?
Levitz: Youth is a two-edged sword: On the one hand, he doesn't have the life experience/philosophical balance that we aspire to gain as we age, but on the other hand, he has the resilience and fearlessness of youth (why do you think we send the kids into war?).
Nrama: You mentioned his fight against Anubis. How would you describe the villain? What does he represent as an adversary for Khalid and his family?
Levitz: Anubis is a god of the dead in the Egyptian pantheon, seemingly specifically charged with embalming the corpses and preparing them to have their souls weighed and judged. In Doctor Fate, it seems as though the Egyptian pantheon is attempting to reassert itself: Anubis by flooding out our machine-dependent civilization to restore a more classically agrarian one, Bastet offering an opposing view, and the rest of the gang to be heard from.
I don't know if Anubis is truly evil, though he's certainly got a mean streak. Gods (or seemingly immortal supernatural creatures, if you prefer) just see the world differently.
Nrama: Sonny, last time we talked, you mentioned that you're utilizing digital for the first time. How has that process gone?
Liew: It's definitely helped! Penciling digitally — bit of an oxymoron, I know — means it's much easier to integrate other tools like Google Sketchup or images you find online into the process. And of course you can rescale things without having to erase and start from scratch. So things do go faster. You lose the feel and touch of actual pencil on paper, but I guess that's the tradeoff for now, until the next leap in technology.
Nrama: What tools do you use? A tablet? Can you describe the process?
Liew: A Wacom Cintiq. It's maybe four or five years old. It would be great if anyone would be willing to sponsor a newer model!
All it really involves is color adjusting the pencils after they're done so they're blue, then printing it out on A3 sheets, and inking those using traditional tools. I'm hopeless at drawing lines perpendicular consistently, so generating the panel frames digitally helps as well. Just about everything is done in Photoshop — I've bought a copy of Manga Studio, but there never quite seems to be the time to try it out.
Nrama: Nabu was featured in this month's Doctor Fate #4, and he explained that although Khalid bears Thoth's helm, he doesn't have the wisdom yet to use it well. However, we did see Khalid play the part of hero this week at a car accident, and use his knowledge to put out a fire. Is this book about becoming a hero, about becoming wise…or both?
Levitz: It's about his mission to 'heal the world' and learning what that means, and what he can do about it.
Nrama: You've been teasing a "confrontation" in upcoming issues, and the cover of Doctor Fate #7 doesn't look good. Is the "confrontation" between Anubis and Khalid?
Levitz: There's an escalating confrontation between the two of them, and #7 takes place in the afterlife. That's about as confrontational as you can get. (Like I said, the cover's no metaphor).
Nrama: Paul, how much has Sonny been part of the storytelling — how much does his art come into play as you're scripting the story?
Levitz: Sonny is wonderful. He's a smart, talented artist, and an excellent writer on his own projects. Knowing his strengths (or some of them, at least), I can throw him visual situations and leave it open to his collaboration. He's been massively effective on helping humanize the characters with his sense of expression and acting, and in several cases he's re-carved the panels to give himself the best canvas to do that.
He's also just a good second voice, and while he works from full scripts that I provide, he's comfortable (and encouraged) to shoot me the odd e-mail of alternative suggestions.
We're having great fun, and I think it shows.
Nrama: Anything else you want to tell readers about what's coming up in Doctor Fate?
Levitz: Much more, I hope, including some world politics, a bit of perspective on religion (how exactly does a self-proclaimed but obviously powerful Egyptian 'god' fit in a religion like Islam, for example), and so much more if we get the chance.
The book's gotten good reviews and critical buzz – I hope your readers will help spread the word, and push the title to where it can sustain a fairly long run. It's hard to launch a non-major-franchise hero these days, and we can use all the magic your powers can provide.