Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Zatanna and Zatara

There were two major stories in the DC Silver Age that crossed over into several titles. Nowadays these "events" are commonplace, but back then it was something very new.

Zatara had been a mainstay of DC comics in the Golden Age, actually appearing alongside Superman in Action Comics #1. He even made two cover appearances in Action #12 and #14. He appeared regularly in Action and World's Finest right up until 1949. His shtick was that he was a magician who could cause amazing things to happen by commanding them. But the key was that he had to speak his orders backwards:

In 1949, Zatara was eased out of his roles in Action Comics and World's Finest. In the former, it does not appear that he was removed to make way for a new character, but rather he was dropped and some of the existing features (notably Vigilante and Tommy Tomorrow) picked up some extra pages.

So things stood for almost fifteen years. Then, in Hawkman #4 (Oct-Nov 1964) we got an update. While investigating an oddball appearance of two items at the museum they run, Carter and Shayera discover a pair of women speaking very strangely:

In their spaceship, they do some detective work and:

Zatanna explains that she's looking for her missing father, Zatara. We learn that before he disappeared he was trying to capture an evil Oriental lama, and also that he battled against a "sinister being called the Druid."

Using the Absorbascon, a Thanagarian device that can learn any knowledge on Earth, Hawkman discovers that nobody on the planet knows the whereabouts of Zatara. Zatanna thanks them for their help, and continues on with her quest.

Her next encounter with a superhero went unannounced at the time. I have previously discussed Detective #336, which featured "Batman's Bewitched Nightmare". In the story Batman faces a witch who is helping some crooks with their larceny. At the end it is revealed that the Outsider was using them for his own purposes. But it turns out that the witch in the story was Zatanna, minus the fishnet stockings and good looks:

She returned in Atom #19 (June-July 1965). She believes that her father has vanished into a microscopic world inside his book of magic. Zatanna and the Atom shrink down to subatomic size and encounter the Druid mentioned in Hawkman #4. He captured Zatara by absorbing all his magical energy. Then he banished him to another realm.

At first, it appears likely that Zatanna will suffer the same fate:

But the Atom gets the brilliant idea of Zatanna tricking the Druid by using fake "magic" (i.e., a simple card trick). The Druid absorbs the fake magic and it sends him into a catatonic state. Unfortunately this means that Zatanna still can't find out where her father is.

The series continued in Green Lantern #42 (January 1966). Zatanna has discovered the secret entrance to Ys, a mirror world of Earth that is "steady-state", where nothing ever changes. A warlock on that world has tired of the lack of excitement, and decides to bring Green Lantern there so that he can steal the power ring and conquer our world. They defeat him, but he refuses to reveal where Zatara is unless GL hands over the ring. GL agrees and we learn that Zatara had been in Ys, but he had escaped by taking a crystal ball that the warlock intended to use to travel to Earth. Fortunately before GL hands over the ring, Zatanna places a hex on it, causing the warlock to freeze in place. Her quest continues.

Zatanna next appeared in Detective #355 (September 1966), this time popping into an Elongated Man adventure. She is looking for a missing tripod which was stolen from a store. She forces the thieves to come to her, not realizing that they were engaged at the time in a battle with the Elongated Man. The pair of them team up against the crooks and the storeowner (who turns out to be a criminal as well). At long last, Zatanna is ready for the final battle:

The saga ended in Justice League of America #51 (February 1967). Zatanna summons Batman, Green Lantern, Atom and Hawkman to their JLA headquarters, along with the non-member Elongated Man.

We learn that she wants to thank them for helping her rescue her father. This creates a complex plotline as the story shifts back and forth from the present to the past. And of course it sorta gives away the ending, which makes it an odd plot design.

We learn at last that Zatanna was actually the Witch in Detective #336, thus tying her into the Outsider series in Batman. She got into trouble here:

It's a classic "Don't do it!" moment if ever there was one, but driven by her desire to find her father, Zatanna does. The spirit delivers Zatanna to "the land of Kharma", where she is beset by magically created creatures. She summons duplicates of the five heroes of the story to help her defeat them. But still the hordes come, and Batman figures it out:

Wow, pretty risky maneuver there, but we know he's right, and even if he isn't he's just a duplicate of Batman. With the spirit banished from Zatanna, we discover that the magic user fighting her was her own father. You see, Allura had cursed Zatara for imprisoning her in that sword, with a spell that would have destroyed both father and daughter should they meet. Hence Zatara's disappearance and attempts to prevent Zatanna from reaching him. But with Allura defeated, the curse no longer exists and we get the happy ending:

Obviously way ahead of its time, the series suffered from crossing over into many titles (as do all such stories) despite the continuity of editor (Julius Schwartz) and writer (Gardner Fox). The odds of a significant portion of the comic-reading cohort of the time having a complete collection approach zero, and of course at the time the idea of compiling the story into a trade paperback never occurred to anybody.

And the gimmick of saying your words backwards is annoying to readers, who have to stop and translate. The evil Oriental lama never appears in the story (after the mention in Hawkman), and although there were hints that the story will crossover into the Flash (at the end of the Atom tale), that never happened.

Still, a very entertaining saga.

Coming up next: Yet more fishnet stockings!