Over the course of the past couple of months, DC has released a number of specials to tee-up next month’s launch a new, ongoing Doctor Fate series from DC Comics. Given the prominence of the Helmet of Fate in DC’s weekly series, 52, it made sense to see these one-shots as spinoffs of that title as well, but events have recently shown that the mystical artifact has really had nothing to do with the Ralph Dibny subplot in 52. In terms of generating interest and excitement about the new ongoing title, these specials fall short of their goal, as they tell us nothing of what to expect, nor do the scripts endeavor to do so at all. Where these one-shots do succeed, though, are with efforts to offer up some fun stories that tap into a lighter, more traditional approach to comics storytelling and with some more grounded, characterization-oriented scripting.
The Helmet of Fate: Detective Chimp #1
by Bill Willingham & Shawn McManus
The Helmet of Fate: Sargon the Sorcerer #1
by Steve Niles & Scott Hampton
The Helmet of Fate: Black Alice #1
by Gail Simone & Duncan Rouleau
The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel #1
by Steve Gerber & Peter Snejbjerg
Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN per issue
Detective Chimp is definitely more popular today than he ever was when he was introduced even before the Silver Age of comics got underway. The concept itself is inherently campy and cute, and Bill (Shadowpact, Day of Vengeance) Willingham’s adaptation of the character as combination of a hard-boiled, hard-drinking private eye and an arrogant intellect among mystics just adds to the fun. His incorporation into the Helmet of Fate line of books makes sense, given that he was the one who decided that the helmet needed to decide on its own or at random who its new master would be.
The Helmet of Fate: Detective Chimp #1 was the first of the one-shots to be released, and it set the stage clearly, providing some background information on the larger plotline running through each of the five specials. Ultimately, the point of Willingham’s story is that the Fate artifact won’t fare well with an intellectual owner, as logic and magic are mutually exclusive concepts. The point is made rather weakly, but the notion that Detective Chimp is overwhelmed by the power and knowledge of the helmet works to rescue the plot. What’s much more fun is Willingham’s depiction of the title character as something of a Sherlock Holmes of the DC Universe. I’d love to see more stories such as this one. Willingham’s script is so light and fun, it reminds me of the story of Silver Age tribute one would normally associate with writers such as Mark (52) Waid and Kurt (Superman) Busiek.
McManus’s art is a good fit for both the goofiness of Detective Chimp and the magic surrealism of Doctor Fate. Of course, those who recall that McManus was the series artist on Dr. Fate during the gender-bending incarnation of the property back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. McManus’s most important contribution to the art here is the expressiveness he brings to the title character. Ultimately, this one-shot is a comedy, and more exaggerated reactions help to enhance the humor.
Whereas the Chimp book was a comedy, The Helmet of Fate: Sargon the Sorcerer #1 takes the theme in a different direction: horror. The real goal of this one-shot is to reinvent and rebrand the Sargon property, but writer Steve Niles takes the Golden Age super-hero concept and brings a darker edge to it. Niles’s script reads a little like one of the old EC horror stories of the 1950s. The story is almost ridiculously simple and transparent, but that darker, old-school vibe is appealing. Furthermore, Niles’s take on the new Sargon is in keeping with the harsher tone that Alan Moore brought to the obscure character in Swamp Thing years ago.
Reinforcing those impressions is the artwork by Scott Hampton. There’s a gritty tone to the linework that enhances the horror overtones of the storytelling as well as the EC influence. Hampton’s redesign for Sargon is also a smart move. The turban and stage-magician look is cast aside. There’s a somewhat traditional super-hero look at play in the new design, but Hampton’s black costume isn’t garish or too traditional in appearance. the dark look brings more of an air of mystery and menace to the character.
The Sargon one-shot really doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the Helmet of Fate concept all that much it feels forced into the story. The plot doesn’t hinge on the helmet’s presence in the story. I wouldn’t be surprised if Niles penned this story long before the Helmet of Fate schtick was ever called for from DC.
Black Alice is a minor character from Gail Simone’s Birds of Prey series, and to be honest, the premise of a single, isolated character having the power to rob any magical hero or villain of his or her powers temporarily has always struck me as a rather limiting yet too-powerful concept. However, as an avenue for telling stories of teen angst, the character is full of potential, as Simone proves with this one-shot. In The Helmet of Fate: Black Alice #1, the Fate artifact serves as a wish-fulfillment catalyst for the title character, who longs for a normal life, acceptance at school and the beautiful boy of her choice. The plot is about ultimately discovering the emptiness of those desires, and the moral — about appreciating oneself and one’s life for what it is — is far from subtle but definitely satisfying.
Rouleau’s normally loose and surreal style is a bit more restrained and focused here, and it makes for an easier-to-appreciate storyline. I’m reminded of Chris Bachalo’s style a great deal here; in fact, the title character’s goth look and the Bachalo-esque art put me in mind (pleasantly) of Death: The High Cost of Living. Rouleau’s cover is also the most striking of the whole line of one-shots, basically because this particular design doesn’t rely on a character name logo like the others do.
The final one-shot in the Helmet of Fate reintroduces a character from Grant Morrison’s run on JLA in the 1990s as well as a Silver Age villain from Justice League of America v.1. Steve Gerber’s script for The Helmet of Fate: Zauriel #1 is surprisingly playful. He acknowledges that a super-hero that’s inextricably linked to God and Heaven brings a lot of baggage, and rather than run from it, he has some fun with it the impossible questions to which Zauriel’s “existence” gives rise. The oddball mix of a hero of earthly faith and the space-faring adventure is rather charming as well (though I doubt we’ll ever see Zauriel’s divine spaceship ever again). Gerber’s script is thoroughly accessible, not only when it comes to filling readers in on who the characters are but how the Helmet of Fate storyline has unfolded as a whole.
Snejbjerg’s art is a perfect fit for the bizarre array of characters that turns up in this story. Zauriel boasts an odd, alien look, with his alabaster skin and tattoos/brands, and Hyathis and the other plant-people in deep space boast a Silver Age, surreal quality with which Snejbjerg is clearly comfortable. Then again, the artist also conveys more grounded ideas adeptly as well, notably the wide-eyed, innocent curiosity of the schoolchildren with which the title character interacts at the story’s outset.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this “event” or themed line is the lack of consistency in the plotting. The Helmet of Fate is supposed to be a common thread, but it never manifests the same way in any of the stories. It’s used very loosely, which is a bit frustrating when one views the series of books as a whole. The one-shots stand up as entertaining on their own and representing a nicely diverse array of stories, but they’re ultimately inconsequential and unfulfilling. 6/10
Another one-shot in the series — The Helmet of Fate: Ibis the Invincible #1 — was released but is not discussed here.