Jan 28, 2016

Chasing the Starting Line

Chasing the Starting Line: Five Sequels
Travis Hedge Coke

With a Frank Miller and Klaus Janson (and a load of other folks) following up on The Dark Knight Returns (serializing now! buy!), and Alan Moore’s tin-eared Glory reinvention refreshed in my head by a student who wanted to know if an issue thereof is worth any real money, sequels and catchup comics, nostalgia and re-indulgence comics are thick in my head and storming.

In terms of serial characters and perpetuated universes, “sequel,” loses much of its meaning. Is every Batman comic after DKR a sequel to it? Is the next Frank Miller Batman comic a sequel to DKR? For most, neither is true, but they do, certainly, follow up on it. Year One, which was the next comic Miller did that featured Batman is incredibly affected by DKR, as are non-Miller bat-comics coming on the heels of DKR and even Bat-comics published today today. But, no; Batman is a serial character, by invention. There is a slipstream of stories with Batman in them of which all of those are a part, but some are sequels, some are just the next comic in the sequence, and some are neither one nor the other but still connected. “Sequel,” in terms of comics, is a matter of intent and marketing, and of expectation.

The Dark Knight Strikes Again

While Year One was definitely a followup to DKR, the sequel was The Dark Knight Strikes Again or DK2. You can tell, in part, because the covers don’t say that. The same way DKR is properly titled The Dark Knight, this one’s covers say DK2. It’s branded. They want to make it clear.

But, DK2 (or DKSA, if you prefer) was not what anyone expected. I still don’t want to accept that Frank Miller’s post-DC audience isn’t his DC audience, because he’s goddamn Frank Miller, but the way the rush of vocal critics came forward with DK2, talking as if Miller had done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties (just as, right now, many a message board poster is talking as if Miller has done nothing since his bat-comics of the Eighties, except other bat-comics), means that, yes, for these people, that really is the only Frank Miller. He wrote a few years of Daredevil, did a handful of Batman comics, and the rest of the time, they keep him in a fridge somewhere, to be thawed out like a cyborg warrior after a long spaceflight.

DK2 was a sequel to DKR, not a sequel to what people remembered of DKR, or what they’d gotten used to. Miller is weird. Frank Miller does not get near enough credit for making flat out weird comics, but he does, and does it beautifully. But, given fifteen years, people had gotten used to DKR’s weirdness, they’d actually forgotten most of it. Remembered was Batman punching Superman. Forgotten was Superman absorbing energy from flowers and the earth. Remembered was Batman with a tank. That the tank fired rubber bullets was forgotten. Batman breaking bones was remembered. Ronald Reagan wandering off his train of thought onto jellybeans and then worrying about Batman’s affect on the national consciousness, forgotten.

DK2 was cartooned loud, deliberately garish, openly political and there was humor on every page. A lot of people had forgotten how funny DKR was, or they’d never got the jokes (or never read it, just seen posters and knew it was “important”). To be fair, sometimes it’s hard to genuinely read a comic like DKR, post-fame, because what you’re reading, instead, is the fame. DK2 was everything DKR was, turned up to eleven. Operatic, freewheeling, silly, dramatic, brutal and big and unrelenting and wild. But, it seems that a very vocal section of the readership did not want that; they wanted nostalgia. They didn’t want a comic that made them feel like a kid again, they wanted a comic that talked down to them, a paternalistic pat on the head. They saw Batman tell concertgoers to put on masks and help him dismantle the American government and its brute squad.

The Kingdom

Mark Waid’s followup to Kingdom Come, the hit he had with Alex Ross, reads to me like he had a list of amendments and corrections, and I love it for that and many other reasons. The Kingdom is a fantastically, fiercely comic-booky comic. A miniseries comprising a two-part framing story and a handful of stories focusing on characters and occurrences usually only tangentially connected to the wraparound plot, it can be read as a novella in stories or any of the comics can stand on their own (and stand strong).

The framing story concerns the Kingdom Come Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman going back in time to stop a killer who is murdering Superman then going back in time to the previous day, to kill him then, and the day before that to kill him, and so on, so that there’s still another for him to kill (until Superman’s birthdate). The pudding held by this crust range from a daughter feeling unappreciated by everyone, including her famous and famously distant father to a waitress in the big city for the first time and the heir of Batman and Talia al Ghul finding his feet in a world that doesn’t necessarily like a conquering bastard.

Kingdom Come was in Ross’ then-mind-blowing style, cleanly painted, everyone realistically aged, allusions and visual references peppered throughout without much regard to thematic unity, held together by his semi-realist naturalism. The Kingdom was done in a variety of styles, often much thematically tighter, with no bid towards realism or naturalism. Even nostalgia is treated un-nostalgically, in The Kingdom. While Kingdom Come positioned the younger generation as brutes and idiots, The Kingdom gave us an array of social positions and types in every generation. Some of the youth were thugs or dopes, but some were heroes, some were just folks. Like any real generation, they couldn’t be boxed up neatly to justify nerd rage at how the new stuff sucks and is all bad and unheroic and where are the true heroes?

And, as if to make it worse, The Kingdom introduced us to Hypertime. And, once Hypertime, always Hypertime. (“Eat it, granddad!”)

Hypertime is why someone can go back in time, a day at a time, and kill Superman each time. It’s why we can read about a Superman whose secret identity isn’t secret and a Superman whose married to Lois, one married to Wonder Woman, one who is blue and electric, one who is graying at the temples and one who’ll never gray at all. It’s why DC Comics cannot, ultimately, own and regulate Superman, because someone out there is doing fanart, someone is doing satire, SNL skits, or thinking Superman in their head. If I pitch a story, in this article, wherein Clark Kent debates supporting his union to affect change in ways Superman cannot, that story will continue to live in someone’s head, in some small way, even if DC’s legal department contacts the Comics Cube at has Duy take it out of this column.

Hypertime, at its simplest, is the condition of reading and remembering. Sometimes stories stand in opposition and you can say, clearly, “this is version X, this is version Y.” Sometimes you didn’t read the stories between story X and story Y and so they feel like sdifferent worlds completely, even though there is a smooth causal transition. Sometimes you love stuff from one version so much, you apply it, in your head, to the other version, even though the authors did not. Sometimes they do, even though the continuity in which they are working doesn’t make that reasonable. It all counts. It all happens. There is what you like, what you don’t like, but there is no “it doesn’t count.”

Hypertime was so anti-nostalgia people are still pissed off. If Kingdom Come was a handshake and a pat on the back, The Kingdom was the “down low, too slow” that, if you can’t laugh about it, might stick in a grump’s craw.

Revolutionary War

And, then there are followups that come way later as a nostalgia bid and are unafraid to be just that (and hopefully more). Andy Lanning and Alan Cowsill put together a cool selection of talent, most of whom had worked on the earlier comics, to revisit the Marvel UK imprint decades after it had stopped being published, to wrap up some outstanding plot concerns and blow up some buildings and wreck some worlds while at it. Following the The Kingdom model of two-parter for framing and interrelated one-offs between, Revolutionary War put the focus on 90s imprint stars like Dark Angel and Motormouth, peppered with appearances by British-centric characters from the normal Marvel Universe like Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom, and the occasional Wolverine namecheck, because, hey kids, it’s Wolverine!

Unlike The Kingdom, this comic was not following shortly after, and unlike DK2, it wasn’t following something widely acclaimed and hugely successful. The Marvel UK imprint was canned with most of the ongoing titles not finishing and many plot threads had been unaddressed in any form for a couple decades. What it had was love, gumption, and talent. The people working on Revolutionary War wanted to be there. It was a big, silly thank you to an era and a celebration of what made Marvel UK different from normal Marvel. Even the people who looked like superheroes, really weren’t; they were soldiers, kids, the unlucky, the enslaved, and the damned. It was an era of sneers and smiles, a generation of big jackets, magic shoes, and guns so big gods might weep to see them.

They were silly children’s comics, often with a child’s cartooned understanding, yes, but what became highlighted in Revolutionary War, too, is that sense of maturity that came from being outside the slipstream of Superhero Americana. Having superpowers and headlining a title didn’t make you a hero, but killing didn’t make you a bad guy, either. Motormouth tells the kids she’s raising, “Once upon time, there were two happy friends called Motormouth and Killpower… Killpower was brilliant at shooting people and Motormouth had a scream that could explode heads. Your Uncle Killpower had only just been created in a lab by some bad people called Mys-Tech, so he was just a big baby then, really. Isn’t that nice? Plus, Motormouth had magic shoes that could get them out of any trouble. Their evil foes Mys-Tech wanted the sneakers but could never catch them… it was brilliant, hilarious fun.”

She’s telling that fairytale while holding her legs up to her chest, on the floor beside a child’s bed, Killpower dead, everyone wrecked. Their lives, including the children, scarred irrevocably. It’s a bitter scene, and a goofy one. But she’s not whiny about it.

If Revolutionary War let something really shine it’s that these folks were, unlike their normal Marvel counterparts, not whiny. They suffered, they grieved, they laughed, drank, fought and saved, but they weren’t angsty about it.

The Authority

The first twelve issues of The Authority, Warren Ellis, Bryan Hitch, and Laura Martin made sure everything stayed loudly angst-free. While most superhero comics had become melodramatic soaps full of trauma where heroes would spend issues fighting each other in training exercises or over lovers and worry about villains or dangers that rarely presented themselves as anything beatable, the Authority beat up all the villains. The Authority didn’t sweat anything. They just won. And, looked good doing it.

The Authority put a tired old woman in charge and never had her tolerate anyone’s bullshit, and the Engineer - a young, geeky woman - was probably the most powerful person in the room, no matter what room, or who was in it, and she smiled broadly to fly, under her own power, to the Moon, on a mission to save the Earth. The Authority was such an aggressively carefree comic it didn’t even bother to spell out that it was a followup to Ellis’ Stormwatch run (drawn, in small part, by Hitch) that had just ended, featuring all of but two of the Authority team as extra governmental agents. Even readers who knew, or should know better, likely forget that Jenny Sparks, Jack Hawksmoor, Apollo and Midnighter weren’t just always that team, or that Ellis did not actually create Swift, for either title, but inherited the character along with the rest of an overly-large Stormwatch cast he mostly trimmed away immediately.

Stormwatch was about cynicism and consequences. The Authority charged in the face of world powers and even killed God when God was on the wrong side. The finest people in Stormwatch usually lost, but The Authority always won. Stormwatch ended with the death of the best and brightest, but The Authority gave us three women and four men, roughly half of whom had spent significant time homeless, two of which were openly gay at the time, and let them stomp all over ugliness, brutality, and stupidity every single issue. While beloved by fans and, apparently, those in charge of WildStorm at the time, Ellis’ Stormwatch was never a big seller, nor was it much of a critical darling. The best way you could follow on it is to strip it down, make it seem completely new, completely fresh.

Devil By the Deed

Matt Wagner is often an exemplar of what I call total comics. Total comics are comics that are executed at all levels with exceptional care and multilevel synchronicity. line art, colors, words, lettering, characterization, pacing and more come together like perfect cogs and weights in a godly machine. But, it wasn’t always that way.

The Grendel that we saw published in those early Comico issues had some artistic flourishes, and some interesting use of tangents to join shapes, world-building by relating incidental objects in a scene. But, like the story itself, it doesn’t come to a head. Grendel does not finish serializing and when it is revisited as Devil By the Deed, there is a uniform, distinctive sensibility. It is not told, illustrated, or paced in the fashion of any other comic that was coming out at the time. Devil By the Deed was its own thing and it was, and is, total comics.

It’s that meta-story that, I think, becomes more interesting, without ever cutting down the brilliance of the comic itself. This is a comic so good, that goes beyond the good original so exceptionally, it becomes the new standard and the earlier incarnation is virtually forgotten. Of course, it’s meant to do this. That is the goal. It isn’t a sequel or a retelling, it’s “how it really happened.” It’s the truth, while the earlier, unfinished comic is the story. The same characters, same basic story, Devil By the Deed is not a retelling of Grendel or a sequel, but somehow a sequel to the telling. The matter that is being revisited is less the characters or world and more Matt Wagner, human being and comic book author. While Grendel was just a comic, this is the reality of Hunter Rose, and the perfection and the limitations, it is, even, the strengths found and honed in limitations.

Jan 25, 2016

Karnilla: Balder to the Rescue

Karnilla The Norn Queen: An Irrational Love Story
Part 8 – Balder to the Rescue
Ben Smith

Last week, we established that Walt Simonson was like unto Eternity, enveloping and encompassing all that we know as our reality. His run as the writer and artist on Thor is rightly considered the greatest in the history of the character. For those that have been onboard for the previous seven installments of this retrospective, I am attempting to explore each and every single appearance of Karnilla the Norn Queen, one of my favorite characters in all of comics. Focused through the lens of this one minor supporting character, it was easy to see why Simonson’s Thor was such a revelatory experience for so many readers. It was apparently popular enough to release a mini-series featuring one of Thor’s frequent allies, Balder the Brave. Wherever there is Balder, Karnilla is surely nearby, and thus we continue our journey.

Unlike previous installments of Back Issue Ben, I have no desire to attempt to analyze a genius like Walt Simonson over the course of an entire mini-series, so I’ll merely be offering a few meager observations on the Balder the Brave comics below. (An ant cannot accurately evaluate the talents of DaVinci, after all. Unless he’s a really talented ant, or maybe allies with Ant-Man.) Walt handled the writing duties for the series, with Sal Buscema handling art duties. I’m on record for loving Sal’s rendition of beautiful women (ROM: Spaceknight!) so he’s a good fit for depicting my beloved Karnilla. And we all know Walt is our God, so we can only begin to try to comprehend portions of his divine word.

Bow your heads in silent prayer, and let us begin the scripture.

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder and Karnilla are enjoying getting to know each other better, when an urgent mission from Asgard pulls Balder away yet again.

The early to mid-‘80s was a wonderous time at Marvel. Not only were there many legendary creative runs all happening at once, Frank’s Daredevil, Walt’s Thor, Stern’s Spider-Man, and the continued domination of the X-Men, but the establishment of the direct market led to some pretty surprising mini-series getting the green light when they probably never would have previously. Magik, Vision and Scarlet Witch, Hercules, Cloak and Dagger, and of course Balder, just to name a few.

I liked: That Karnilla predictably tried to delay Balder’s messenger, and that Balder basically shrugged it off as her being her. This is, I believe, Karnilla’s only substantial cover appearance, and it’s a great one. I absolutely loved the exchange between Balder and Karnilla as he prepares to leave. He says, “but you would love me less if I did not ride with Thor to a splendid doom,” to which she responds:

Last but not least, I loved that despite her disappointment and anger towards Balder, she will tolerate no one attempting to harm her beloved.

Favorite panel:

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Karnilla is heartbroken over Balder leaving, and worried for his safety. Using a fake Balder as a decoy, Utgard-Loki and his Frost Giants capture Karnilla, and turn everyone in her kingdom into stone.

I liked: I continue to enjoy Karnilla’s constant emotional struggle between her love for Balder and her hatred of nearly everything else. Buscema draws the Hel out of her in these opening pages.

I disliked: If I’m being honest, it was pretty rough to see Karnilla captured and humiliated like that. Yes, she’s unrepentantly evil, but it’s still tough to see her brought low. I suppose that’s probably the point though. I feel that I should emphasize that I still love this series, and that Walt Simonson is our God, but as a Karnilla fan it’s difficult to see her in the role of damsel in distress. Then again, it is Balder’s story, and she is his love interest, so I understand the why of it.

Favorite panel:

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder is captured by the Frost Giants in his attempt to save Karnilla, and forced to fight for their amusement.

I liked: Balder’s tender moments with the sparrow he doesn’t realize to be a transmogrified (that reference should be obvious, but I wonder how much so for those under the age of 30) Karnilla. Karnilla healing his wounds, even in bird form.
Favorite panel:

Hagen’s face go Thunkk!

Written By: Walter Simonson; Illustrated By: Sal Buscema; Lettered By: John Workman, Jr.; Edited By: Ralph Macchio

Balder uses his golden glow (sho ‘nuff!) to melt the realm of Jotunheim, reducing the Frost Giants to miniature size.

Yet, his reunion with Karnilla is short-lived, when he is called back to Asgard to serve as its ruler.

I liked: Karnilla’s uncharacteristic empathy for Rattusk, who gave his wretched life so that Balder might save her.

Balder and Karnilla’s intimate talk in the forest about the cruelty of mercy, and the power of love. (I understand that her ordeal was probably intended to make her a more compassionate person, but I still don’t like to see my dear Karnilla hurt so.)

Favorite panel:

Instead of attempting to hide the Asgardian summons from Balder again, she angrily hands it right over with an air of defiance and resignation.

THOR #367
Writing and Penciling: Walter Simonson; Inking: Wiacek/Milgrom/Simonson; Lettering: John Workman, Jr.; Editing: Ralph Macchio

Karnilla’s last appearance under the stewardship of Walt Simonson is a replay of the end of the Balder series, with her and Balder saying goodbye before he returns to Asgard to take the throne.

I still have many more comics to read that feature Karnilla the Norn Queen in some capacity, but I can say with the utmost certainty that nobody has written or drawn her as well as Walt Simonson did. It’s almost singularly his fault that my irrational love for her burns so blisteringly hot (with a bit of an assist from Stan and Jack). Looking ahead at the list of her remaining appearances, it isn’t all that long (I’m sure some of you waiting for this series of retrospectives to be over will appreciate that). It’s perplexing with the status that Simonson’s Thor holds in the hearts of fandom, that more creative teams haven’t wanted to use her more. Maybe they feel like Simonson’s version can’t be topped, which I can completely understand. All I can hope is that the comics left to read make her as fun, engaging, and interesting as she was here.

Only one way to find out!

Jan 23, 2016

What's Wrong With Zatanna?

A recent rivalry with a friend made me remember my love for this one particular character, who at least one website calls "the biggest second-stringer in DC Comics."

Zatanna Zatara, daughter of John Zatara and the homo magi Sindella, descendant of Leonardo Da Vinci and Arion, Lord of Atlantis, is one of my favorite characters. Besides the obvious visual appeal, I tend to have an attachment to stage magicians (The Prestige is the best thing Christopher Nolan has ever done [making it a grand total of two things he's done that I've liked], and Carter Beats the Devil is one of my favorite novels), and Zatanna is a fun character and a rightful Justice Leaguer. Her superpower is a simple one: she speaks backwards and magic happens.

However, she's been continuously pushed since her debut in 1964, getting the full support of Justice League guest stars in her first set of appearances. She was one of the few non-Bat-related guest stars in the now-classic Batman: The Animated Series, and she's had a few series and specials here and there, even being one of the two main stars of the New 52's Justice League Dark. She was never so prominent, but she's never been completely out of the spotlight either.

So with a catchy visual, a simple hook, and a not-exactly-low profile, how come Zatanna's limited to a bunch of guest shots, specials, and the occasional short-lived series?

Let's take a look.

They can't figure out what role to give her. I love Zatanna, but I think it's safe to say that I love the idea of her more than really any version of her I've ever read, and this is mainly because Zatanna's portrayal changes so much under each different writer that her role changes significantly every time.  Here's a panel from one of her earliest appearances, where she's portrayed as a woman whose very presence brings peace.

That's, frankly, kinda weird, especially since at this point in time she's a rookie. I'm pretty sure this is her first appearance after her first storyline, entitled Zatanna's Search.

In fact, the very question of her age is all over the place. The relatively recent Black Canary and Zatanna: Bloodspell graphic novel has her just a few years younger than the Black Canary.

But then there are stories where she was childhood friends with Bruce Wayne.

So sometimes she's a senior member of the Justice League with as much experience as anyone else, and sometimes she's younger, emphasizing that she's a little green around the ears. The only thing for sure, really, about her is that she's the League's resident magic expert, which still makes her a weaker magician than characters like Dr. Fate and the Phantom Stranger, who are not traditionally Justice Leaguers.

This sometimes makes her the leader of a "magic team," such as the Sentinels of Magic or Justice League Dark, because the realm of magic is woefully underexplored in the DC Universe. Unfortunately, even with developments like these, it remains woefully underexplored, or, at best, relegated to the fringes with the occasional crossover event to remind people it's there and it exists.

There's nothing wrong with her. That "bearer of peace" role didn't stick, but what did for a long time after was that everyone just so happened to love Zatanna. Here's Superman talking about how Zatanna being sad makes him feel bad (I'm sure he feels this way in general about people, but he actually needed to vocalize this one).

Here's even Power Girl saying that something about Zatanna breaks down a man's defenses.

And here's Hawkwoman basically having no problems with her husband carrying a woman in fishnets in her arms.

Zatanna's gorgeous and the men love her, and the women don't mind. That kind of incredible lack of tension might work if you're Wonder Woman, but it's exactly what keeps someone like Zatanna on the sidelines.

When there is something wrong with her, it's boring and unsustainable as a writing device. At some point, creators realized that there was nothing wrong with Zatanna, so she was given flaws. One of the earliest ones is that she had this random rivalry with Vixen because Vixen is a woman who flirts and is good at it.

This is weird, because Zatanna was long portrayed as that woman. Here she is hitting on a married Barry Allen.

The most famous "flaw" given to Zatanna of course came from that horribly overwrought and badly written Identity Crisis, which came out in the mid-2000s and revealed that she was responsible for mindwiping a bunch of villains early in her career and changing their personalities altogether. Not much time is spent on the actual consequences of her doing this in the actual storyline. Writers just picked up on it, I guess, because it was an opportunity to write something and push a character to the forefront, instead of focusing on how bad the character dynamics and dialogue were.  This led to several stories where she asked for forgiveness and eventually had to forgive herself.

Neither development really is that much fun to read after a few initial stories.

She has no real supporting cast, and the supporting cast they give her downplays her. Over the years, Zatanna's supporting cast — meaning the people who have regularly appeared throughout her various solo stories — can be divided into three groups: love interests, proteges and assistants, and her dad. The first love interest she had was Jeff Sloan, her manager, with whom the romance was only teased for almost two decades until they finally kissed in his very last appearance in 1987 (and then he never appeared again).

And there have been a few leading men in her solo series since then, including Josh, the son of a practicing witch...

Dale Colton, detective...

And she's been shown developing feelings for with other superheroes like Barry Allen...

...and even Batman.

But probably her most substantial love interest has been John Constantine. Teased only throughout most of her career, beginning in Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, that they have a history, Zee's relationship with Constantine was arguably the centerpiece of the New 52's Justice League Dark series, in which she's still basically the same person despite the reboot. In this version, though, their romance is realized and their feelings for each other are clearly love (until a magic spell makes Constantine remember none of it).

It is the involvement with the Hellblazer that let Zatanna be one of the crossover characters between the regular DC Universe and the Vertigo Universe, in which she eventually but briefly takes on the role of mentor for Tim Hunter, destined to be the most powerful mage in history.

In Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers, she also takes on another protege: Misty Kilgore, heir to the throne of the Sheeda.

In Paul Dini's Zatanna series, she has a full crew of assistants helping her with her magic shows. Unfortunately, this series was cancelled 16 issues in. It was fun, though. One of the additional cast members, the most prominent was her cousin, Zachary Zatara, who was an attempt to give her a somewhat-protege without him being a willing one (the kid's kind of an ass).

But the most prominent supporting character in Zatanna's life is her father, John Zatara. Her first ever set of stories was her search for her dad, and then after that he was basically just around all the time, until he died.

Oh wait, no, even after he died, he was still around, because she could always talk to his ghost. And she talked to his ghost.

She talked to his ghost a lot.

Zatara's death is so important in Zatanna's history that they even remade the same exact scene from the original comic in the New 52, with updated costumes. Basically even in this new history, the exact same thing happened.

Those aren't the same characters around the table as from the original comic,
except for the Zataras and Constantine.

The problem here is that it makes her dependent on her dad and implies that she's not competent enough to stand on her own. It's the same problem I find with the Christopher Reeve Superman movies and Batman Beyond — the reliance on Jor-El and Batman drive me nuts. What is our reason to care about these characters if they're just always running to their parents? When are they going to come of age?

Magic is hard to write. Traditionally, magic-based superhero comics haven't really worked, and a part of that is that it's just hard to set rules for and write consistently. Zatanna has the power to bring up the ghost of her dead dad, for crying out loud, so how can anything really be a challenge? At times she can breach the barriers between dimensions...

...and then other times she's using a motorcycle to get around.

She can get so powerful that she can get a heavy hitter like Despero to just stop what he's doing by saying "Stop" backwards.

It's so undefined that it's just hard to set parameters. How can anyone challenge her if she can do anything? And if someone does challenge her, how can she not just say something and end it? It's so unclear that in the mid-80s they had to power her down and say she just controlled elements. This was still really unclear because she could really just use those elements to do anything she really wanted.

Another reason magic is hard to write is because the way the magic users interact. Instead of the regular superheroes who see supervillains and need to put a beatdown on them, magic heroes seem to accept that evil exists and they just have to find a way to coexist with them.

That's one of the more unsaleable things about the whole setup. Fortunately, there are other things that make magic unique, and in Zatanna's case, one of them is that the sheer visual possibilities for magic are unexplored. Seven Soldiers was one of the few instances where it's done.

Another thing with Zatanna that is unexplored is what makes her unique among all the other characters — and that she's two types of magicians.

Too much witch, not enough magician. Yes, actual "witchcraft" magic is hard to write. Stage magic shouldn't be as hard to write, and what's more, it's unique to Zatanna. It's her day job, in much the same way we get mileage out of Peter Parker being a photographer/scientist and Clark Kent being a reporter. And yeah, sure, this is my love of stage magic talking, but I do think it would be interesting to see how Zatanna does her tricks without her powers. Plus, the key element of stage magic is style, and she's not really written with much of that.
The best thing about going through these Zatanna appearances?
Discovering Gray Morrow, who was such a good artist.

It also provides good visuals for your comic because of the promotional posters. It'll make the comic pretty at the least.

But aside from a few cases, the elements of stage magic apart from her costume — style, panache, props, misdirection, and deception — aren't present in her stories, so she ends up looking like a lower-level Dr. Strange or Dr. Fate who's too reliant on the men in her life instead, really, of her own character.

Okay, this was hard. Pinpointing what's holding a character back is never easy, especially when it's really multiple things each contributing to the act of holding back. In short: quit bringing Zatara on the stage, settle on a role for her, decide how old she is, and focus on what makes her unique. Even with all this though, I think a few special comics and a serviceable series is the best we're getting, until a great creative team comes up with a truly landmark story. She's unfortunately a lot like stage magic itself: so much style, and really, at the end of it, not enough substance. Not enough, anyway, to the point where they have to go back to the usual devices of her dad and adding contrivances to give her extra dimension. I think a new creative team needs to rethink this whole thing from the ground up and come up with a fresh approach.

She's got a great concept and a great visual. I just think when a character has those two things, it's a shame when that character isn't optimized.

I'm not really sure what else to say here. Um, look, here's a picture of Serinda Swan playing Zatanna on Smallville.

You're welcome.