Throughout the 1960’s, as their upstart rival Marvel Comics distinguished itself with the development of a complex and more-or-less consistent fictional universe that linked all of the company’s heroes, villains, and other characters into one ongoing meta-story, DC Comics resolutely continued to operate as a collection of mostly independent fiefdoms, each under the dominion of its own editor. Sure, all the A-list heroes showed up for Julius Schwartz’s Justice League of America, regardless of who was editing the heroes’ solo series, and they could also pair off in George Kashdan’s (later, Murray Boltinoff’s) The Brave and the Bold — but, by and large, DC’s editors didn’t pay much attention to continuity across the line.
Within an individual editor’s purview, however, there were occasional stabs at crossovers and other signifiers of a shared universe — especially within the books guided by Schwartz. As we’ve discussed in a previous post, one way Schwartz accomplished this was be establishing close friendships between pairs of his heroes (Flash and Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman) which provided frequent opportunities for guest-shots in one another’s books. Another way was to set up a plotline in one book that would carry over into another book — as was done in the classic “Zatanna‘s Search” story arc that ran through multiple Schwartz-edited books from 1964 through 1966, culminating in Justice League of America #51’s “Z — as in Zatanna — and Zero Hour!”.
This storyline — the brainchild of Gardner Fox, according to an interview with the writer published in Amazing Heroes #113 — began in Hawkman #4 (Oct.-Nov., 1964), with a tale written by Fox and drawn by Murphy Anderson which also served as Zatanna’s first appearance (although, as odd as it seems now, she didn’t make the issue’s cover). Who was Zatanna? She was introduced to readers as a young stage magician who also happened to have genuine magic powers, which she used to fight crime as well as to pursue an important personal matter. As she herself helpfully explained to Hawkman and Hawkgirl:
The editor’s note was doubtlessly helpful to many young fans who had never heard of Zatara the Magician, a hero who had indeed appeared in multiple issues of Action and World’s Finest, but who hadn’t been seen in those or any other comics since 1951. Zatara had in fact debuted in Action #1 (June, 1938) — a book that ultimately became rather better known for the introduction of another hero (although prior to that hero taking over the cover spot for good around issue #19, the magician actually made it to the cover a couple of times, including issue #14’s, shown at right). The creation of writer-artist Fred Guardineer, Zatara was obviously inspired by Mandrake the Magician, Lee Falk‘s popular comic-strip character who’d been appearing in newspapers since 1934. Like Mandrake, Zatara wore the classic stage magician’s attire of a tailcoat and top hat, and sported a thin black moustache — indeed, about the only thing that kept him from being a visual dead ringer for his syndicated forebear was the fact that he didn’t (usually) wear a cape. In story terms, however, Zatara was primarily distinguishable from Mandrake (if not necessarily from other comics magicians*) by his shtick of casting his spells by intoning their words backwards.
Zatanna’s costume (presumably designed by the artist on her first story, Murphy Anderson) was essentially a copy of her father’s, at least from the waist up. (From the waist down, she wore fishnet stockings and high heels, which her dad probably couldn’t have carried off nearly as well.) Also like her father, all of her spells were spoken backwards.
Having learned with the Hawks’ help that Zatara was nowhere on Earth — or, at least, that no one on Earth knew Zatara’s whereabouts — Zatanna, or “Zee” (as the enchantress would one day be more familiarly known, both to her fellow heroes and to her fans) next stepped into the pages of The Atom #19 (June-July, 1965), and into another story written by Gardner Fox (though the art this time was by Gil Kane and Sid Greene). Assisted by the Mighty Mite, Zatanna followed Zatara’s trail into the sub-atomic world of Catamoore. They discovered that an evil magician called the Druid had indeed fought Zatara there, but had banished him to yet another mystical realm. The two heroes soundly defeated the Druid and freed the people of Catamoore, but failed to learn Zatara’s whereabouts.
Zatanna’s search next brought her to Green Lantern #42 (January, 1966), another Fox-Kane-Greene collaboration. Here, GL and Zee fought the Warlock, the lord of the land of Ys, to which the Druid had banished Zatara. Once again, the good guy and gal defeated the bad ‘un, only to learn that Zatara had already escaped on his own.
Zee turned up next in the Elongated Man’s back-up feature in Detective Comics #355 (September, 1966). In yet another tale scripted by Fox (with art this time by Carmine Infantino), the Stretchable Sleuth helped Zatanna overcome some crooks in a theatrical prop shop. This allowed the young magician to acquire two mystic artifacts, the Ting Tripod and the Book of I Ching, which she hoped would help her gain access to the realm where she believed Zatara was.
And that brings us, at last, to Justice League of America #51, and the final chapter of Zatanna’s quest: “Z — as in Zatanna — and Zero Hour!”, written (of course) by Gardner Fox, with art by Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene. Before I begin delving into the story, however, I probably should note that, as a nine-year old reading this book for the first time in December, 1966, I had absolutely no knowledge of any of the background material information covered in the preceding paragraphs. As it happens, I didn’t start buying and reading comic books until August, 1965, so I didn’t have the chance to pick up Hawkman #4 and Atom #19 when they first came out. I could have bought Green Lantern #42 and/or Detective #355 off the stands, it’s true, but I’m not sure I ever actually saw either of them — as I’ve related in previous posts, I didn’t have a reliable way of getting to the Tote-Sum or any other convenience store every week — plus, my allowance only went so far. So, when I picked up JLA #51, I wasn’t particularly jazzed to see Zatanna on the cover, as I had no idea who she was. For me, it was just another issue of Justice League of America — but considering that JLA was my favorite book at the time, I’m sure I was still eager to read it.
Nevertheless, when I first read the story’s opening scene back in 1966, I would have been as clueless as Batman:
Yeah, what is Batman doing there? If my nine-year-old self had been following the Zatanna storyline through Julius Schwartz’s other books, I’d have been worried that I’d missed an issue somewhere.
Of course, here in late 1966, we’re still in the midst of the “Batmania” cultural moment. An issue of Justice League of America without Batman appearing — heck, without dominating the cover — is nigh-unthinkable. But how could Schwartz, Fox, and their collaborators provide a rationale for his appearance?
The story doesn’t provide an answer right away, as Zee decides to tell the JLAers (and us readers) her story from the beginning. (That is, after a couple of panels recapping and referencing her earlier appearances — which, incidentally, was pretty much all my nine-year-old self needed to be able to get on board with the storyline.)
(Apparently, Zatanna’s plan to use the Ting Tripod and Book of I Ching to find Dad didn’t work out so good. Or, Schwartz and Fox just forgot about them Oh, well.)
We’ll take a moment here to note that Paracelsus was, of course, a real person, his appearance here serving (like the earlier stories’ use of ding tripods, the I Ching, and the Breton legend of Ys) as testimony to Fox’s penchant for turning to his reference shelf for magical or occult story elements, rather than just making stuff up out of whole cloth. The practice continues in the following panels, with names drawn from Asian religious traditions and Judaeo-Christian demonology, respectively:
As Zatanna relates to her audience of heroes (and us readers), she proceeded to battle valiantly against the beast-men, but the odds were against her. Then she had an awesome idea:
(Note that although Zatanna only summoned Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, the face at the far left of the last panel above appears to be that of Batman. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the mystery of how Batman met Zatanna in the past — it’s just a mistake!)
Luckily, GL’s ring started working again by the next page — though, as you can probably guess, its temporary failure against the bell-ringing Minotaur will be explained before the story’s end. (And since it doesn’t spoil anything important, we’ll go ahead and reveal that it was because the bull-man’s bells were ringing at the same frequency as the color yellow. Yes, really.)
After a few pages of battle, the three JLAers had the beast-men licked:
Yes, “magical counterparts”! Which, of course, is why none of the heroes remember any part of this adventure in the “present” time of the story. Though why Fox (or Schwartz) decided to use this plot device, rather than simply have Zatanna summon the real Justice Leaguers with her magic, remains a mystery to me. (I recall that my nine-year-old self was annoyed by this revelation, which, by showing that the actual heroes were never themselves in jeopardy, made the whole adventure seem less “real” somehow.)
On the next page, Zee resumed her search for her father, with Atom, GL, and Hawkman by her side — though both she and we had a surprise in store:
Yes, for reasons not yet revealed, Zatara was secretly working to thwart his daughter’s attempts to find him! We readers were next shown how he, like Zatanna, conjured up a magical simulacrum of an old acquaintance — in his case, however, it was an old enemy, the Egyptian wizard Amen-Hotep (last seen in a Fred Guardineer tale in Action Comics #5, and possibly based on this guy) Enemy or not, Amen-Hotep was compelled by Zatara’s magic to do the latter’s bidding, and so he immediately went into action against Zatanna and her allies:
The Egyptian warriors and monsters from the scrolls came to life and began to engage the Justice Leaguers in battle. The tide slowly turned against our heroes, due to the sheer force of odds (and the fact that GL’s ring was ineffective against the yellow parchment from which their foes were formed). And then…
Oh, wow, the Outsider! Remember him?
Granted, my post of several months back didn’t go into a lot of detail about each and every one of his appearances, but trust me — there was indeed a “witch” who gave Batman and Robin a hard time back in Detective #336 (Feb., 1965), and who ultimately turned out to be a pawn of that mysterious and powerful villain. Of course, the explanation that the Outsider gave for his underling’s magical abilities at the end of that issue — involving her having innate “extra-sensory powers” that he was somehow able to release and manipulate using her broomstick as a catalyst (because, hey, everyone knows witches aren’t real)– doesn’t exactly jibe with what we know about Zatanna. (On the other hand, he was a bad guy, so how trustworthy could her be, anyway?) Nor does Zatanna’s own explanation (see right) of why she sought out the Outsider in the first place make a whole lot of sense. But considering what they had to work with, it was pretty clever of Fox (or Schwartz) to pull from their other long-running but intermittent storyline of this era for an explanation of how Bats and Zee could have met previously. When I first read this book in 1966, I knew who the Outsider was, even though I hadn’t read Detective #336 (another issue that pre-dated my comics buying) — and I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of inter-connectedness between different comics. (I probably also thought that Fox and company had intended for the witch to be Zatanna all along. Hey — I was nine.)
With both Batman and the Elongated Man now added to their ranks, Zatanna and her allies soon gained the upper hand against their scroll-spawned foes:
Yeah, poor Caped Crusader! He’s flipped his facemask! So much for Batmania, I guess. Only — what if he’s on to something?
Unfortunately, all of this conversation takes place out of Zee’s earshot, so she’s unpleasantly surprised when her allies stand aside to let the Egyptian parchment-people seize her and bring her to the giant sun-candle:
And then, it’s judo throws and karate kicks as the fair (and thus, obviously good) Allura battles the dark (and just as obviously evil) version:
Daddy’s home again! Hooray! As Zatara explained to his daughter and her friends (and to the readers), Allura had placed a curse on him so that if he ever saw Zatanna again, both of them would be doomed to death. So he’d fled Earth for other dimensions (including, presumably, those where he had the adventures readers learned about in Atom and Green Lantern), all the time looking for Allura’s “good” duplicate, whom he knew must exist, because… that’s the way the magical world works, I guess? Anyway, Daddy Z. figured that if he was able to find said twin, and convince her to battle and defeat the evil version, the curse would be lifted. So he searched and searched, and then searched some more, until…
And so, Zatara conceived his plan to exorcise Allura from Zatanna’s body by bringing her into contact with bell, book, and candle. When his daughter involved her super friends (or her magical simulacra of same, anyway), Dad was dismayed, but he regained hope once Batman caught on to what was happening. Then, once the bad Allura was expelled from his daughter’s body, Zatara sicced the nice Allura on her evil twin, as originally planned — and we all know what happened from there.
Who knows if Zatanna will ever meet the Justice League again? Well, if you’ve read many DC superhero comics at all over the last five decades, you do. JLA #51 would prove to be only the beginning of a long association between the Maid of Magic and DC’s premier team, that continues on to this day (or, at least, very recently).
For nearly a decade following JLA #51, Zee made occasional guest appearances in the book, ultimately leading to her joining the team in their 161st issue (December, 1978). Unfortunately (in the eyes of some fans, at any rate), she also made a switch to a more “traditional” (but much less distinctive) costume at the same time. A subsequent multi-part storyline written by Gerry Conway told readers more about her origins, revealing that she was a member of a secret race of magic users called the Homo magi.
Zatanna stuck around as a regular member of the League for years (picking up a better, if still not entirely satisfactory costume design by George Pérez along the way), her tenure lasting even through the team’s infamous “Detroit” phase, and terminating just one issue shy of the original series’ final installment in late 1986. Following the “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, however, while Zee would pop up occasionally in various later Justice League titles, she would never again be a regular member of the team.
Not that that meant that the character lay idle. Having sporadically appeared in her own solo back-up feature in issues of Adventure, Supergirl, Lois Lane, and World’s Finest through the ’70s and early ’80s, the post-“Crisis” era Zatanna moved on to headline a number of one-shot specials and mini-series, before finally getting an ongoing series of her own in 2010. Along the way, she returned to her old costume (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), and appeared in some memorable stories written by Paul Dini and Grant Morrison, among others.
Also during this period, her backstory was further developed in several ways, including the revelation of an early romantic involvement with John Constantine, Hellblazer. As a consequence of this plot development, during the ’90s and early ’00s Zatanna was one of a very few characters who might appear in comics from DC’s Vertigo line as readily as in the company’s mainstream “DC Universe” titles. Another bit of historical revelation, introduced somewhat later, concerned a childhood friendship between Zee and Bruce Wayne (so much for him not remembering ever having met her in JLA #51, I guess), which helped provide additional context for a rift in Zee’s relationship with the Dark Knight that occurred during the course of 2004’s Identity Crisis miniseries, in which Batman learned that Zatanna had manipulated his memories on an occasion years earlier.
Following DC’s rebooting of its continuity in 2011’s “Flashpoint” event, Zatanna’s ongoing series was cancelled (for the record, it lasted sixteen issues) along with a number of others, as part of a general housecleaning prior to the company’s relaunching its line as the “New 52”. The new continuity folded Vertigo-based characters like Constantine back into the DCU proper, and brought Zee herself back into the Justice League fold — sort of — as she became a charter member of Justice League Dark, a grouping of several of DC’s supernaturally-oriented heroes (which also included Constantine). She picked up yet another new look (which saw the fishnet motif transferred from her legs to her arms), before transitioning to still another new costume, a sort of amalgamation of the stage magician outfit and the Pérez-designed superhero ensemble, in Justice League #22 (September, 2013).
Justice League Dark came to a conclusion (temporarily, at least) in the spring of 2015, with its 40th issue; to the best of my knowledge, Zatanna hasn’t turned up since then. It’s unclear what her precise status is now that DC has embarked on its new “Rebirth” project — but since this new initiative isn’t so much a reboot of the post-“Flashpoint” continuity as a retooling of it, and since Zee’s history wasn’t very much affected by “Flashpoint” in the first place, it seems likely that she’ll continue to play much the same role in the DC Universe as she’s been doing, whenever and wherever she shows up next. I hope I’ll be forgiven, however, if I express a hope that when we next see her, she’ll be back in her classic outfit of top hat and tails (and, yes, fishnet stockings), which still beats out all others for distinctiveness and visual impact, in my own humble opinion.
That’s it, then, for the post-JLA #51 history of Zatanna. But, you may be wondering — whatever became of her long-lost father and predecessor in the backwards-spoken spells game, Zatara?
As you might imagine, despite his successful early career that shared a point of origin (publishing-wise, at least) with DC’s flagship character Superman, Giovanni (“John”) Zatara never again really stood on his own as a character following his mid-Sixties restoration. From JLA #51 on he would essentially function as a supporting player in his daughter’s storylines, only appearing in comics when she did, until finally meeting his abrupt but memorable end at the hands of writer Alan Moore (aided and abetted by artists Steve Bissette and John Totleben) in the classic Swamp Thing #50 (July, 1986). Moore’s story told how both Zatara and Zatanna participated in a séance called by John Constantine to provide magical support for a cosmic battle against an entity called the Great Evil Beast, which was attempting to assault Heaven. The Beast’s power threatened to consume Zatanna, but Zatara saved her by diverting its effects towards himself:
Of course, since this was the DC Universe — and the weirder side of the DCU, at that — Giovanni’s spectacular exit was not, in fact, the last we’d see of him. His shade would turn up sporadically over the next couple of decades, appearing in the Reign in Hell miniseries as well as in Starman, and in Zatanna’s own ongoing series; he was also briefly resurrected as an undead “Black Lantern” in the Blackest Night crossover event and miniseries. Also during this time, previously unknown details of his mortal life were revealed in such series as Detective Comics and Madame Xanadu. For my money, however, the most memorable of these glimpses into the magician’s past was his appearance in the first issue of writer Neil Gaiman’s The Books of Magic miniseries (1990), as illustrated by John Bolton:
(Twenty-six years later, and I’m still not sure what Gaiman and Bolton were trying to convey with those bloody rabbits and doves.)
Zatara’s fictional history, like Zatanna’s, appears to have come through the “New 52” reboot mostly intact, and though we haven’t yet seen him in the “Rebirth” era, one imagines that it’s only a matter of time.
In the interest of completeness, I’m obliged to note that, in keeping with DC’s penchant for heroic legacies, the Zatara family of magicians eventually added a third member — Zachary Zatara, a teenage cousin of Zatanna, who was introduced in Teen Titans (vol. 3) #34 (May, 2006). Zachary, a professional entertainer like his uncle and cousin before him, took over the “Zatara the Magician” moniker for his own stage act and superheroing career (hey, it’s not like Uncle John was using it, right?). He was portrayed (at least sometimes) as being something of an insufferable ass, with an annoying tendency to slip into backwards speech even when he wasn’t casting spells.
Zachary hasn’t yet shown up post-“Flashpoint”, as best as I can determine, so I have no idea whether he is or isn’t still in continuity. Still, it seems a sure bet that the Zatara family tradition will continue to be upheld, through its most famous (and fishnet-fancying) exemplar, if by no one else. Gnol evil Annataz!
*Fred Guardineer made “homages” to Mandrake something of a specialty during the late Thirties and Forties, ultimately becoming, in Steven Thompson’s words, “probably THE Golden Age specialist when it came to drawing guys with facial hair gesturing mystically.” After leaving DC (and Zatara) in 1940, Guardineer created Tor the Magic Master for Quality Comics in 1941, and also took over writing and drawing chores for a pre-existing (and very similar) character at that company, Merlin the Magician; not content with these, the industrious writer-artist also developed Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians for Columbia Comics at around the same time. As noted by Thompson, all of these guys sported facial hair as well as formal attire, being distinguishable from each other (and Zatara and Mandrake) primarily by the color of their tuxes and by certain other fashion choices — namely the presence or absence of a cape, and their preference in headgear (a hood for Merlin, a turban for Marvelo, bare-headed for Tor). The two Quality characters even shared Zatara’s penchant for backwards-speech spells. These days, both characters are owned by DC — so they really ought to be showing up along with Zatara (and Zatanna, of course) in an issue of Scooby-Doo Team-Up any day now. (And as Marvelo appears to have fallen into public domain, they could probably squeeze him in, too. Why not?)