Shiny Shelf

Countdown to Mystery #1

By Mark Clapham on 22 September 2007

WARNING! Contains spoilers!

Ignore the fact that the title uses the ‘C’ word – although there are doubtless ‘Countdown’ tie-in elements here, probably in the ‘Eclipso’ back-up story, none were noticeable enough to stand out, and I say this as someone who gave up on the weekly a couple of months back.

‘Countdown to Mystery’ is, like the recent ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, an anthology book based around two of the more mystical properties in the DC library. While ‘Tales’ featured an uninspired lead story with the new Spectre and a brilliant back-up featuring Dr 13 (out in trade paperback this week, and highly recommended), ‘Countdown to Mystery’ showcases a new Dr Fate (yes, another one already) and Eclipso (who you will doubtless recall is now in the body of the Atom’s missus), and both are pretty good reads.

The Dr Fate story, originally solicited as a separate ongoing but delayed and repurposed as part of this mini-series due to writer Steve Gerber’s ongoing health issues, is the first part of a story called ‘More Pain Comics’ (surely the best title for any comic book story this year?), and it’s got a lot of recapping to get newbies up to speed. Kent V Nelson (relative of the original Dr Fate, not that he knows it) finds the Helm of Fate, puts it on and gets an insight into the helmet’s recent history. Then he gets attacked by a demon, turns into Dr Fate, and finds himself facing off against another demonic presence.

So, quite a lot of exposition, but Gerber uses it as a vehicle to really get into the head of the new lead. Now, in my review of the last Fate solo relaunch, I complimented Chris Golden on giving Hector Hall (the Dr Fate from the Geoff Johns ‘JSA’) some characterisation, not bad going considering the weird mesh of blank slate/convoluted backstory he’d been given to work with. Gerber creates this new Kent Nelson from scratch, and he’s a much more rounded creation from the off: a talented and lucky man who got self-confident, and lazy, ruining his life in the process. When he finds the helmet, he’s at rock bottom. Magic could prove to be his salvation – providing he can actually pull himself together and not get killed. It’s an interesting premise for a series, and a strong lead character.

Gerber’s script is intriguing, and hopefully with all the set-up out of the way will have more room to breathe in subsequent issues. Justiniano’s pencils are a real asset, bringing to life the grotesque squalor of Vegas back alleys and the spectacle and weirdness of wild magic with equal verve. This is really strong work – the script features a lot of exposition, and the pencils make it all interesting, and the details of Kent’s life unravelling show a real eye for characterisation. The heavy contrasts of Walden Wong’s inking and Chris Chuckry’s sharp colours (bright tones for magic, subdued for reality) help to establish an atmosphere of the mundane invaded by the uncanny. The transformation of Kent into Fate, with liquid matter thrashing over him as the costume forms out of magic, is spectacular and vivid. A very good start.

The second story is less successful, but still interesting. ‘Occultation’ reads like one of Pete Milligan’s more deadpan and facetious works, with Mattew Sturges having a similar line in flippant weirdness. The Spectre dispatches a mancunian killer in typically ironic manner, but the guy’s ghost stubbornly refuses to go away, impertinently insisting that as he’s an atheist he has no afterlife to go off to, so he might as well tag along with the Spectre. Elsewhere, Eclipso corrupts Plastic Man, and it turns out she’s been working with Darkseid. All of this is illustrated by Stephen Jorge Segovia in a splattery, painterly style reminiscent of a high-end Vertigo mini-series. Weird and laconic, the story reads like an incredibly silly joke told very straight. Odd, but we’ll have to see how it develops.

Magic books are a tough sell, but this is one of the better ones. Worth reading for the Fate story alone, but with a back-up that could go either way, this is a very solid DC title at a time when all their output seems to be either brilliant standalones (Morrison’s ‘Batman’) or an endless dirge of ongoing continuity-focussed nonsense. Well worth a read.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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