This is one of my single favorite volumes purchased so far (out of 16 total) in DC's "Archives" collection. While I might not have been as enamored by it at its original cover price of seventy-five(!) dollars, at today's rates (I picked mine up for less than twenty-two bucks, including shipping!), it's an absolute steal.
Let's face it: Doctor Fate isn't exactly a heavy-hitter by anyone's standards. My first encounter with Doctor Fate was in Bruce Timm's "Justice League" cartoons, and it was an absolute dud. He's been remastered for the new 52, but I find him to be more annoying than enjoyable. While the entertaining introduction insists that he "could have been a contender", I respectfully disagree. Mystical beings in comics generally struggle, and in DC, they are generally worse, since their human sides never make an appearance.
And so it goes for early Doctor Fate. As a human character, Doctor Fate has less personality than peanut butter (in fact, in my All-Star archive, Doctor Fate goes so far as to say he's not human at all). Then he dons a face-covering helmet, gaudy blue-and-yellow suit, and...still fails to have any personality whatsoever. He often contends with other mystical beings, and his general modus operandi is...to punch them out. I'm not even kidding. Usually, he distracts them with some boring lecture on magic, and then "kayos" them (using my favorite verb of Golden Age comics). Sure, he uses magic sometimes (often to dispose of the kayoed human), but really, that's his shtick. There may be some Lovecraft-inspired backdrop for his adventures, but it rarely comes to the forefront (and when it does, the results are disastrous - watch as Doctor Fate exterminates an entire planet of aliens!). Doctor Fate claims that a man attempting to murder his cousin cannot be properly tried in legal courts, so he banishes him to wander aimless dimensions forever. Pretty harsh ruling for attempted murder, which is generally tried quite successfully in courts.
the fact is, Doctor Fate just didn't work. At best, you could say that he was ahead of his time, but at worst? He seems like an inhuman monster that should evoke fear from every citizen of the world. Gardner Fox was no fool. He realized that it wasn't working, so in successive attempts, he tries to make Doctor Fate more human and more relevant.
First (and best), he changes the full-face helmet into a mask which covers only his hair and eyes. At this point, Doctor Fate immediately becomes more interesting. Now, there is a human aspect. Also, he gives him a weakness. If Doctor Fate has his breathing impaired even slightly, he loses his power. This has mixed results, but again, it gives Fate a human touch sorely lacking in his early adventures. Later, he makes Fate into an actual medical doctor. Again, Fate has humanity - he genuinely works physically to save the lives of humans, even as he works to save their spirits with his magic.
Fate also begins to fight more standard criminal fare. This is generally the biggest criticism of the new Fate - now, he's just another Golden Age superhero. Well, that's right. Doctor Fate is in the Golden Age, and he now acts Golden Age-y. Fisticuffs are the rule now, with puns thrown as eagerly as punches. In this sense, he's no different from, say, Batman and Robin, except that his human side does more than inhabit a big mansion. In short, I think this works. Did he lose his dignity? Possibly, but he became far more entertaining for it.
Yes, Doctor Fate loses a battle with a seltzer bottle. It's hilarious. I enjoyed it immensely, just as I enjoyed the ridiculously contrived way that he escapes poison gas in one comic (he is thrown into a horrible auto accident, but the impact on his body forces him to breath out the poisonous vapors, and because he was thrown from the car, he in turn breathed in pure air). It's ridiculous fun.
Another thing: I thought the art progressed as the volume progressed. However, I was disappointed that the incredibly odd lettering becomes more standard. I always loved the "E" letter with the super-long middle-line.