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.


Anonymous said...

Good article! I really like Zee and I agree that there are some inherent problems to her character. Mostly I think that she just needs one really good creative run that defines her as a character, gives her a memorable supporting cast, and memorable villains with real staying power. Her powers are a bit of a problem and could use some limiting, but then the fun of comic books is that magic can do anything. From my understanding, Dr. Strange is more or less the same, right? I think it takes a talented author to make you forget that a character like Zatanna can do anything and write the character in such a way that there's real tension, making you wonder if she'll make it out of the danger okay or not. Or better yet, a really good writer will write her as being able to do anything, yet still write a captivating story around her, with her as a captivating character anyway. It was suggested in Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers that at full power, Zatanna was powerful enough to defeat a rogue angel and have awareness that she was in a comic book (although she did spend the majority of her miniseries then powerless), and that one was probably my favorite Zee story ever written, it, along with the rest of that book, was so good.

Otherwise, I think it's really interesting that Zatanna debuted as practically a Mary Sue. Makes you think about Paul Dini's attachment to the character, huh?

piper909 said...

You could say Green Lantern has the same problem. He's basically got a magic ring that can do anything he thinks of. But that character isn't criticized the same way. Zatanna -- my personal fave DC super-heroine -- suffers the same neglect and patronization and, well, sexism that plagues almost all comic book femmes: lack of interest from the public the publishers and creators. In this she's no different from Wonder Woman or Supergirl, to pick two. Now, Paul Dini *gets* the character and has written terrific stories centered on her, in her own short-lived series, the Batman animated series, and in DC comics like Batman, detective, Gotham City Sirens, etc. Someone like that could make Zatanna soar again. The recent Mystik U mini-series -- only three issues!! -- wasn't a bad attempt, either, for all it was another Harry Potter imitation. But it didn't get much time to do anything. Boo. There's been nothing else since 2011 worth reading, apart from the Zatanna/Black Canary graphic novel "Bloodspell" (also by Dini; which is fantastic).

Lukitas said...

He talked a lot of bullshit. Zatanna is no inferior compared to Fate or Doctor Strange. She saved the multiverse several times. Pralaya (the void) recognized that Zatanna is ingenious. DC (screenwriter) classified Zatanna as the Supreme Sorceress. Zatanna uses strategy to solve his problems other than Fate, which uses brute force (magic) because he has as a condition a magical artifact which makes it easy in a battle. Zatanna is versatile she is good at battles, curses, artifacts, knowledge and strategy. Reread the Hqs and understand the concept of the character. She is a human with relationship problems, addiction, insecurities and several other problems. Magic is not just about raw power. Research on esotericism and realized that Zatanna is an extraordinary sorcery.

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