JLA: Zatanna’s Search

By Gardner Fox & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-0188-3

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Timeless and Magical… 8/10

With Julius Schwartz and John Broome, writer extraordinaire Gardner Fox built the Silver Age of comics and laid the foundations of the modern DC universe. He was also a canny innovator and one of the earliest proponents of extended storylines which have since become so familiar to us as “braided crossovers.”

A qualified lawyer, Fox began his comics career in the Golden Age on major and minor features, working in every genre and for most companies. One of the B-list strips he scripted was Zatara; a magician-hero in the Mandrake mould who had fought evil and astounded audiences in the pages of Action and World’s Finest Comics for over a decade, beginning with the very first issues (to be completely accurate the latter’s premiere performance was entitled World’s Best Comics #1, but whatever the book’s name, the top-hatted and suavely tailed and tailored trickster was there…)

Zatara fell from favour at the end of the 1940s, fading from memory like so many other outlandish crime-crushers. In 1956 Editor Schwartz reinvented the superhero genre and reintroduced costumed characters based on the company’s past pantheon. Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman and The Atom were refitted for the sleek, scientific atomic age, and later their legendary predecessors were reincarnated and returned as denizens of an alternate Earth.

As the experiment became a trend and then inexorable policy, surviving heroes such as Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Aquaman and Wonder Woman were retrofitted to match the new world order. The Superhero was back and the public appetite seemed inexhaustible.

For their next trick Fox & Schwartz turned to the magician and presumably found him wanting. Rather than condemn him to Earth-2 they created the first “legacy hero” by having Zatara vanish from sight and introduced his daughter, set on a far-reaching quest to find him. Zatanna debuted in Hawkman #4 (October-November 1964) illustrated by the great Murphy Anderson in a tale entitled ‘The Girl who Split in Two’.

Following a mystical trail and wearing a variation of Zatara’s garb the plucky but impatient lass had divided her body and travelled simultaneously to Ireland and China, but lapsed into paralysis until Hawkman and Hawkgirl answered her distress call.

Although nobody knew it at the time she appeared next as a villain in Detective Comics #336 (February 1965). ‘Batman’s Bewitched Nightmare’ found a broom-riding old crone attacking the Dynamic Duo at the command of mutant super-threat The Outsider in a stirring yarn drawn by Bob Kane and Joe Giella.

Current opinion is that this wasn’t originally intended as part of the epic, but when the quest was resolved in Justice League of America #51 at the height of TV inspired “Batmania”, a very slick piece of back-writing was necessary to bring the high-profile Caped Crusader into the storyline.

Gil Kane & Sid Greene illustrated the next two chapters in the saga; firstly in ‘World of the Magic Atom’ (Atom #19, June-July 1965), wherein Mystic Maid and Tiny Titan battle Zatara’s old nemesis the Druid in the microcosmic world of Catamoore, and then later with the Emerald Gladiator in an extra-dimensional realm on ‘The Other Side of the World!’ (Green Lantern #42, January 1966).

Here the malevolently marauding, potentially Earth-dominating Warlock of Ys is eventually overcome after a mighty struggle and compelled to reveal further clues in the trail.

The Elongated Man starred in a long-running back-up feature in Detective Comics, and from #355 (September 1966, pencilled and inked by Carmine Infantino) ‘The Tantalizing Trouble of the Tripod Thieves!’ revealed how the search for a stolen eldritch artefact brought the young sorceress closer to her goal, and the search concluded in spectacular and fabulously satisfying fashion with the aforementioned JLA tale ‘Z – As in Zatanna – and Zero Hour!’ (#51, February 1967).

With art from the incomparable team of Mike Sekowsky & Sid Greene, all the heroes who aided her are transported to another mystical plane to fight in a classic battle of good versus evil, with plenty of cunning surprises for all and a happy ending at the end.

Collected here is a triumphant early and long-running experiment in continuity that remains one of the very best adventures of the Silver Age, featuring some of the period’s greatest creators at the peak of their powers.

This slim volume also has an enticing encore in store: following the mandatory cover gallery is a never before reprinted 10-page tale. ‘The Secret Spell!’ – by Gerry Conway, Romeo Tanghal & Vince Colletta – was originally seen in DC Blue Ribbon Digest #5 (November-December 1980) which revealed ‘Secret Origins of Super-Heroes’ and explores the hidden history of both father and daughter in a snappy, informative and inclusive manner.

Although a little hard to find now – and a top candidate to be arcanely transmogrified into an eBook – this is a superlative volume for fans of costumed heroes and would also make a wonderful tome to introduce newcomers to the genre.

© 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1980, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.