Thursday, May 11, 2017

Stealing from the Best: Dr. Fate and The Ship of Ishtar

I just finished reading A. Merritt's The Ship of Ishtar, and while there's going to be a review for it soon, I stumbled onto something fascinating about it.

The Ship of Ishtar was first serialized in Argosy starting in 1924. Among the most important facets of the story is Babylonian mythology. Indeed, the main character, John Kenton, is described as being able to read cuneiform as well as English. This is impressive, because cuneiform had only really been reliably deciphered by modern scholars in the 1800s. Roughly less than a hundred years before Ishtar was published. Mesopotamian history and culture was new and fresh in the Western world because scholars were now able to actually study more than architecture, pottery, and what their neighbors said about them.

Kenton's most significant mystical ally is the Mesopotamian god of wisdom and truth, Nabu. In the book, Nabu's color is blue, and Kenton makes good use of a sword blessed by the god once the archaeologist returns to the ship to rescue the red haired priestess of Ishtar, Sharane, from an evil priest of Nergal.

In 1940, DC comics published More Fun Comics #55, in which a blue-clad archaeologist named Kent Nelson, who is a champion of Nabu (revealed in issue 67) equipped with his magical items, rescues an initially red haired woman named Inza (who would eventually become his wife) from an ancient sorcerer. 

That can't be coincidence.

Kent Nelson became Dr. Fate, a prominent 40s super hero, one of the first tights-clad “Super Wizards” (as opposed to mystics like Zatara from 1938 who fought crime in their stage regalia). Fate's crimefighting career expanded greatly from his origins, encountering numerous ancient magical threats, being a founding member of the Justice Society and passing down the Helmet of Nabu first to his wife and then a succession of less memorable pupils. There were even a few times when Nabu himself acted as little more than a cape, gloves, and helmet. The Babylonian heritage of Nabu is eventually lost, instead tying him to ancient Egypt to better synergize with the likes of Hawkman and Black Adam.

Unlike Kenton, who is a two-fisted man of action, all incarnations of Dr. Fate are dedicated magicians who sit among the highest spellcasters of the DC universe. Though Kent Nelson was just as happy to throw some punches around in the 40s as he was to cast spells.

Still, the similarities between the two characters can't be ignored. I don't even think that they're a coincidence, since Dr. Fate's creator, the insanely prolific Gardner Fox (1911-1986) said that he particularly liked Merritt in an early 70s interview. There's your smoking gun. A fan of Merritt couldn't have been ignorant of The Ship of Ishtar. Not with it being Merritt's most popular work.

Fox himself would go on to write for pulp magazines in the 40s and 50s and then novels, though his largest body of work was in comics. Like Merritt, Fox himself would serve as an influence on Dungeons & Dragons, appearing in the Appendix N list of the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide in 1979.

Does this cheapen Dr. Fate? I don't think so. For starters, Fate's initial design by Howard Sherman is outstanding, and in the visual medium of comics, that matters a great deal. The two characters also diverge considerably, with Fate getting into some truly weird (not necessarily good) adventures in the 80s and 90s. Its derivative in a good way, taking a nugget of an idea (Nabu, god of wisdom selecting a mortal champion) and running with it in a vastly different direction intended for ongoing adventures.

I actually appreciate Dr. Fate a little more now than just as magical powerhouse who makes cool guest appearances, knowing what kind of a literary heritage he has.

1 comment:

John Boyle said...

Wow! I didn't know anything about Dr. Fate except for his name; now, I think I need to know more. Interesting that Merritt's influence had this effect.

Thanks for the post!