Friday, July 23, 2021

Girl Fridays - Zatanna!

Once upon a time comic books were isolated islands in a vast ocean. Once in a great while the hero of this comic would cross over into the the title of another and even create teams, but for the most part the heroes battled their own villains in worlds remarkably similar but rarely connected. Marvel changed all that when they created the singular "Marvel Universe" in which the sum was far grander than the sum of its parts. DC trying to catch a sniff of that struggled mightily to find a way forward. "Zatanna's Search" is one such experiment.

Zatanna is the daughter of Zatara the Magician, one of DC's most venerable heroes from the heady Golden Age and the pages of Action Comics. Modeled on Lee Falk's Mandrake the Magician (as were dozens of others) Zatara had  the advantage of the sleek artwork of  creatorFred Guardineer to set him above his occult peers. But by the end of the Golden Age Zatara had vanished for the most part, as had nearly all the Mandrake dopplegangers.

In the early 60's DC was reviving its glorious past with hits like The Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League of America and more. And it came time eventually to dust off the stylish tuxedo of Zatara they went a different way indeed. They did it by giving him a daughter, the gorgeous Zatanna and further they made his current whereabouts a mystery his daughter was trying to solve. She had a quest and that search would take her across the landscape of Silver Age DC.

The story begins in the pages of Hawkman in a story titled "The Girl Who Split in Two!" by Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson.

Though not rating a cover appearance, there was no doubt that Zatanna with her backwards incantations and fish-netted gams was the centerpiece of this singular issue of Hawkman. As rendered by Murphy Anderson she's totally pretty, if not quite as thoroughly sexy as she will come to be. In this story we meet Zatanna for the first time as she uses some surprise museum pieces to lure Hawkman and Hawkwoman to her aide and to help her find her lost father Zatara.

The story weaves into the pages of Detective Comics as Batman fights a witch. To be honest this installment of the quest by "Bob Kane" is pretty limited and has all the earmarks of a retro-continuity patch in order to wedge the highly popular Batman into the finale adventure. Zatanna, as such does not actually appear in this story.

Her search continues some months later in The Atom by Gardner Fox and Gil Kane and inker Sid Greene. She convinces The Atom to help invade a sub-atomic world inside a book where she suspects her father might be. Instead the duo find an old enemy named The Druid.

This time Gil Kane and Sid Greene get a gorgeous go at drawing the beautiful magician in her stylish fishnets and his version becomes rather the standard for some years, at least in my mind.

Because it was Kane and Greene who also drew her in Green Lantern as her quest continued months later still in another story by Gardner Fox.

 The pattern is now established. In this story Zatanna and Green Lantern go to another dimension and confronted the scarlet-hued Warlock of Ys.

By now it was normal that very few months Zatanna would surface in some comic and we'd learn a tiny mote more about the ultimate location of the missing Zatara.

It's not in the headliner Batman story when Zatanna  makes her return to Detective Comics.

But rather in the back-up feature starring Elongated Man by Fox and artist Carmine Infantino. Ralph Didny helps the magic girl find some more magic objects which aide her search for her father.

Her saga while continuous has a weird, nearly stealth quality to it. Fans of any one comic miss out on the total yarn which spins across several titles, often unannounced.

Finally the search is concluded in the pages of the Justice League of America by Fox and artists Mike Sekowsky and Sid Greene, and the heroes who have aided her along the way join forces to finally reveal the secret which has eluded them for nearly two years. Batman gets a starring role because he always did during these "Batmania" years.

The elments of the story which have been building are brought together and finally at long last.

The quest is ended as Zatanna and the assembled Leaguers plus Elongated Man (not then a League member) finally penetrate another dimension called Kharma to combat a sorceress named Allura and release the long-lost Zatanna.

DC was kind enough to collect these rare gems together in a delicious trade over a decade ago. I heartily recommend it to any and all fans of the Silver Age of comics. You will rarely find a package which offers a heartier glimpse of the style of stories told at DC during those glorious years. The cover is outstanding (see below) with great Boland artwork and a vintage JLA logo and even those memorable DC checks. 

The editors included also a later for both Zatara and Zatanna which were produced new for one of those highly entertaining digests DC offered up in the Bronze Age. This one is in actuality a secret origin of sorts by Gerry Conway with art by Romeo Tanghal and Vinnie Colletta, which over decade later reveals how Zatanna first learned of her father's disappearance and how she began her quest. Again alas, it seems DC was always working overtime to make sure that Zatanna's story reached as limited an audience as possible.

And just because it's so lovely here's a better glimpse at Brian Bolland's evocative cover art for the trade. Not everyone can make this costume work, but Bolland has cracked the code with gusto and panache.

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  1. Who could fail to love Zatanna as drawn by Bolland? Have you seen Valerie Perez as Zatanna, RJ? Stupendous. She's on my blog somewhere.

    1. I just looked her up and she's a stunner for sure. But as Zatanna she seems just a bit too zaftig for the part (or as Zatanna might say "gitfaz"), though that's hardly something one might complain about.

    2. As long as she doesn't drop any biscuit crumbs in bed, I'll be happy.

  2. You probably know this, but "Batman's Bewtiched Nightmare" was written by Fox and drawn by Sheldon Moldoff under the "Bob Kane" billing. What I find significant about this is that Fox wrote all the segments of the Zatanna quest, just as he had done with the majority of the Golden Age Zatanna stories.

    I confess I'd never sat down and analyzed just when each part of the Zatanna quest came first, so I didn't realize that "Nightmare" came next following the heroine's intro. Yet I both agree and disagree with your verdict about "Nightmare" being just a continuity patchup. As I recall the story, Fox is uncharacteristically remiss about providing details as to the origins of the Witch serving the Outsider, and she just kind of wisps away with no sense of her being vanquished.

    Somewhere I read that editor Julie Schwartz had a habit of forcing his stable of writers to write stories based on cover-ideas he Schwartz had okayed. I also have a sense that often the writers didn't really like having such ideas forced on them, and you can often tell how little the writer cared about the cover-idea by how small a role it plays in the actual story. In "Nightmare" Batman's a scarecrow for about two pages, while "Remarkable Ruse of the Riddler" the villain's punch-bag trick isn't even given a rationalization.

    It's my unprovable opinion that Fox had the idea of a multi-issue Zatanna adventure even when he scripted "Nightmare." He probably had to do some selling on the idea of such a continuity; editors at DC were not known for wanting more than a couple of interrelated issues at a time. Not that the contemporary reader could have guessed that the Outsider-witch was Zatanna; Fox is as you say being stealthy and leaves not a single clue. I've no real evidence for my opinion beyond the fact that Fox almost always over-explains his villain's motivations, and that the lack of such exposition makes me think he's playing a deeper game. But to each his own.

    1. I cannot say I really agree with you on this, but it is fascinating to theorize about. Schwartz did indeed use covers as springboards for stories, but I've never come across anything suggesting the writers were bugged about this, though they might well have been. I think the smallness of a cover gag in a story is owing to how tough the fit was all along, and maybe they just shoehorned the cover gag into an existing plot. Thanks muchly for the thoughtful response.