Current Reviews


Sunday Slugfest: Zatanna #1

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2010
By: Thom Young

Paul Dini
Stephane Roux (p), Karl Story (i), & John Kalisz (colors)
DC Comics
Zatanna agrees to assist a local police detective with the investigation of a supernatural-based mass murder of prominent San Francisco mob figures.

Kate Trippe:
Ross Haralson:
Christopher Power:
Chris Kiser:
Thom Young:

Kate Trippe:

Zatanna #1 gives a brief introduction to Zatanna and her exciting life as a stage-performing magician who moonlights as a Justice League consultant. She is such a cool character; I first saw her on Batman: The Animated Series and then spent three weeks in a top hat learning to write backwards--so, I’m a huge fan who has really high hopes for this series as it continues to grow.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t much to this first issue; it’s the set up for something greater. Paul Dini used this opening chapter to set up all his ducks in a row. Hopefully, we will soon get to see some content to back up the very vague beginning, as there wasn’t enough building of tension here. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it never did.

When it comes to art I am not much of an expert; I enjoy certain styles and others make me want to stop reading an issue right then and there. Zatanna has the kind of art that I expect every time I open a book published by DC Comics. I like Stephane Roux’s style; it fits with the story, but there were a few awkward incidences (Hello, mighty cleavage peep show towards the end of the issue). Overall, though, the art is very solid.

Finally, if you don’t try to actually read Zatanna’s backwards dialog aloud you are really missing out on part of the fun of the character.

Ross Haralson:

Zatanna #1 is part police procedural, part supernatural thriller, and mostly all fun. Paul Dini demonstrated his ability to write the character well during his earlier run on Detective Comics, and his script here is strong--as one should expect given his pedigree. Dini has always been adept at introducing strong, grounded characters that spur readers’ immersion into the otherwise ethereal world of comic books, and his work on Zatanna should prove to be no exception to that rule.

He wastes no time in grabbing the reader’s attention with a compelling twist on the usual “crime scene” scenario. I enjoyed the diverse and morbidly entertaining methods by which the various crime bosses (and collateral victims) were dispatched, and I was particularly amused by the contrastingly nonchalant manner in which Zatanna interacted with the scene.

Despite his remarkably pedestrian name, Detective Dale Colton shows potential for becoming a compelling supporting cast member and possible love interest for the title character. Colton’s refusal to be cowed by either Zatanna’s magical presence or the otherworldly nature of the murders suggests that his role will likely evolve into more than just the stereotypical Commissioner Gordon-esque “bookend facilitator” that he represents in this issue.

Penciller Stephane Roux, perhaps known best for his lengthy run as cover artist on the previous volume of Birds of Prey, is still relatively inexperienced with interior art--not that there is an evident lack in storytelling skills. His rendering of the Zatanna is spot-on (if a little safe), but what really stands out is his ability to depict mystical environments as well as supernatural characters and their accompanying powers.

For example, Brother Night just looks dangerous, saving Dini the trouble of having to relate in words the character’s value as this arc’s antagonist and worthy foil to Zatanna. Further, the various creatures/entities that populate Night’s den are sufficiently alien and stand in stark contrast to the cleanly penciled human characters that populate the book’s first half.

In fact, given that he clearly possesses the skills necessary to convincingly illustrate the supernatural, I’d like to see Roux illustrate a new series starring either Doctor Fate or The Spectre (if he isn’t still working on Zatanna, of course).

Karl Story and John Kalisz do an impressive job of inking and coloring, respectively, and their work goes a long way toward making Roux’s characters and magical effects pop off the page. Whether by choice or necessity, DC has lately shown an unfortunate propensity for littering single issues with an army of inkers and/or colorists; my hope is that the excellent art team assembled for this debut remains consistent for future issues.

Zatanna may not the be the absolute best comic book on the stands today, but it is a satisfyingly breath of fresh air coming from one of the “Big Two” during the launch of their respective non-event re-branding efforts; literally everything the reader needs to know in order to enjoy this book is found within its pages.

The creative freedom that Dini is afforded through the book’s independence hints at a very bright future for the title, as does the strength of the art. Publishers need to see that there is a market for efforts like Zatanna, which function as something more than “just another title starring Batman or Wolverine,” so make sure you pick this one up.

Christopher Power:

With Zatanna #1, Paul Dini returns to the world of Zatanna Zatara, the much maligned magician of the DCU. In his previous foray into the mystical realms of DC, the fun and witty miniseries Everyday Magic, Dini treated us to tales of mysticism and mischief. It was not overly serious, but it was a solid story that entertained the reader--which Dini accomplished through his own brand of clever and sardonic humour (as well as his keen feel for the Zatanna character).

With a only a few missteps, I found this latest book to be a worthy successor of that mini. Indeed, I found myself thinking about it hours after reading--something that is a rare treat for me these days. There are several things that must be part of a successful premiere issue:
  1. You must convincingly introduce the starring character.

  2. You must convincingly introduce a supporting cast for the star.

  3. You must establish a modus operandi for the main character regarding how they behave.

  4. You must provide a self-contained story that makes the readers feel that they have received something meaningful from the first issue.

  5. And you must provide the “hook” that will lead into the larger story arc for the character
Regarding point #1, Dini is one of the few people who really “gets” Zatanna as a character. He knows that she has a sense of humour and fun, and that she is an entertainer. He also knows that she is one of the most powerful people on the planet with all of the temptation, ego, and glory that goes with that aspect of her character.

Does Dini manage to capture both of these sides of “Zee” in his newest ongoing series?

I would answer with a resounding “yes!”

The scenes backstage with Zatanna’s crew after her magic show provides the giggling fun as she works out the kinks in her act as well as gives a police detective a run for his money. However, when faced with a grizzly scene of murder and mayhem, she calmly wields near-limitless power. Later, when facing the main antagonist and his crew, I could feel the gravity of her words as she speaks to him as an authority of what he will and won’t be allowed to do on the mortal plane.

These scenes were highly enjoyable presentations of both sides of Zee’s personality. The only real misstep is that I have trouble with the idea that Zee uses representations of real world villains in her act--particularly Dr. Light. I cannot figure out if Dini is trying to say something with this imagery, or if it is just a throw-away scene. Perhaps it was too subtle for me.

Regarding point #2, we have a few crew members who seem to be one-off members of the book. The character “Mikey,” seemingly a tradesperson working on Zee’s show, gets a single panel. However, that one panel makes the world around Zee seem more active. It gives her an actual world to walk in.

The last time I saw this kind of “throw away” character was in Power Girl by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray--where those characters eventually became recurring, giving the reader a sense of internal consistency. The almost sidekick character in Zatanna #1, Detective Dale Colton, gives you a possible long-running character in law enforcement that Zee can go to, which allows Dini some freedom in how he sets up various issues.

Regarding point #3, it seems that Dini wishes to establish Zatanna as the sentinel of magic in the DCU. While there may be others around, Zee presents herself at the crime scene not only as the go-to authority on magical matters, but also as one not to be trifled with--immediately going to work tracking the culprits of the brutal murders. I must admit, having Zatanna play in the waiter’s mind to find the villain was a nice way of establishing that we are not going to be throwing away history (i.e. the mindwiping incident in Identity Crisis), but we are not likely to dwell on it either.

Regarding point #4, this single issue tells the story of the first encounter with the major antagonist that is to be the first arc of Dini’s run. It is self-contained in that it ends with Zatanna establishing the ground rules on which she will be attending to the villain’s activities. She clearly states that the murders have been addressed, the shocking nature of their conduct has been concealed, and that it will not happen again on her watch.

With this issue being self-contained in this way, it is up to the villain to kick off the longer story arc of revenge on Zatanna--tapping into some of the older mythos of the DCU. As such, point #5 is addressed.

Not bad for one issue. A great deal happens to keep the story moving, and the heroes and villains all seem real, not cardboard cutouts.

On the art duties, Stephane Roux does a good job of mixing the mudane with mystical. There are some moments where some of the proportions of the characters seem off--such as when Zatanna magically changes into her “working clothes”--but, overall, the art is quite solid. Clean lines, crisp faces, and natural stances bring Amanda Conner’s art to mind.

Finally, I would like to comment about how much this issue reminds me of one of my favourite books of all time, the re-launch of The Spectre in the mid-1980s after Crisis on Infinite Earths. Mystical detective work--mundane crimes mixed with mystical elements--made for a very compelling reading. The style, pacing and feel of Zatanna #1 reminds me very much of those Spectre stories. If it continues this way, Dini has a regular reader in me.

Chris Kiser:

It’s rare these days to see a DC or Marvel Universe series debut on the racks without any kind of spin-off relationship to a recent big event or upcoming movie. Yet, here we are with Zatanna #1, the first issue a new superhero ongoing that manages to avoid having either an event banner or the words “From the pages of . . .” appear anywhere on its cover.

By all appearances, Zatanna is merely a labor of love by writer Paul Dini--a comic being published simply because its creator has a story to tell. Dini’s affinity for the JLA’s resident magician has been well documented ever since her notable guest appearance on Batman: The Animated Series up through her more recent partnership with the Dark Knight in Detective Comics.

Finally given the chance to write the adventures of Zee in her own ongoing, Dini demonstrates that he knows his pet heroine quite well. His presentation of Zatanna as she investigates the incursion of a demonic gangster into the San Francisco underworld is just as good as you would expect. She’s flirty, confident, compassionate, and supremely knowledgeable about the sector of evil against which she fights.

Dini also crafts an impressive take on Zatanna’s place in the DC Universe at large. She is an ambassador for the magical world, seeking to calm ordinary folks’ fears of the supernatural by demonstrating that its mysterious power can be harnessed for good.

Stephane Roux proves himself as more than a capable partner for Dini in this project, convincingly rendering the bizarre and horrific visuals a magic-based book like this often requires. His Zatanna closely follows previous designs of the character, mimicking the look of Ryan Sook’s work on Seven Soldiers of Victory.

There is a downside to this series’ potential, however, and it’s one that is all too common for books that feature a mystically enabled lead character. Zatanna’s abilities are too powerful, essentially only limited by which words she’s able to pronounce backwards—and, presumably, she can pronounce all words backwards.

Though the baddies in this story seem formidable, Zee dispatches them without breaking a sweat once her spell-casting dyslexia kicks into gear. I won’t put it past Paul Dini to come up with a way to tell genuinely exciting stories down the road about a heroine so capable, but he has quite the job ahead of him to consistently come up with conflicts that can’t simply be resolved by saying “Taefed snialliv!”

Still, given that the only real criticism I can launch at the book is speculative, Zatanna has to be considered a success. It must be a creator’s dream to work on a book starring one of his favorite characters--a dream that becomes all the sweeter when the finished product comes out as well as this one.

Thom Young:

I became curious about this new Zatanna series immediately after it was announced. I have been a fan of the title character ever since I first encountered her in Justice League of America (first series) #51 after I bought that historic comic as a back issue when I was probably about 13 years old or so--just the right age to truly appreciate a buxom comic book heroine dressed in fishnet stockings and a skin-tight women’s tuxedo.

Despite my fondness for the character, I have not been a huge fan of Paul Dini’s work over the years--finding minor flaws in most of his stories, but nothing major--so I wasn’t sure how much I would enjoy this series (especially after Grant Morrison’s excellent Zatanna: Seven Soldiers of Victory miniseries). I don't hate Dini's work; I find it entertaining but with minor flaws.

Thus, I expected Dini’s new series to be competently written, but with the probability of it also containing small problems that would bother me to some extent. My expectations have sort of been realized--sort of.

I certainly wasn’t bothered by anything in this first issue, but neither did it greatly impress me as a series that I need to keep spending money on. As Kate mentioned in her review, not much happens here. On the other hand, as Chris Power mentioned in his review, a lot happens here.

A paradox!

Like Kate, I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing really did.

Or did it?

If this had been a Frank Miller issue of Daredevil from 30 years ago, it would have seemed like a great issue because the plot would involve Daredevil finding out about a mass gangland execution that he then would investigate by going to Josie's Bar and confronting the up-and-coming mobster who ordered the hits on his underworld rivals.

As he has his conversation with the Mafioso, several of the villain’s henchmen would attempt to sneak up on Daredevil, but they would be dispatched through a combination of the hero’s acrobatic and martial arts moves.

Daredevil would kick ass and leave the henchmen bleeding and broken--and the readers would go away satisfied as the Man without Fear delivered his ultimatum to the mobster boss.

Then, we would feel a sense of foreboding as the up-and-coming mobster set up a meeting with Wilson Fisk--the Kingpin--to forge an uneasy alliance against their common enemy.

Essentially, that plot is what Dini has delivered here, though it doesn’t seem as satisfying as it would in that Daredevil scenario--because, as Chris Kiser pointed out, Zatanna is too omnipotent. She shows up in the villain’s lair the same way Miller might have Daredevil show up at Josie’s. However, when the henchmen attempt to sneak up on her she doesn’t beat them up to leave them bloody and broken; she simply says the equivalent of “You are defeated” (albeit backwards) and she leaves after delivering her ultimatum.

I disagree with Chris Power, though, that this issue is self-contained in that “the murders have been addressed.” Murders were committed, and the villain who committed those murders, Brother Night, has not been brought to justice in any way. Zatanna simply warns him not to do this type of thing again or she will deal with him.

Well, what about dealing with him now for the murders he has already committed?

As for the illustrations, Stephane Roux does an excellent job of depicting Zatanna in what is sort of her “house style”--an attractive woman rendered in clean lines that is somewhat reminiscent of a generic Neal Adams imitator. However, when Roux renders the villains, they look like they have been drawn by Mike Allred--or by Mark Badger during the time of his early work on “Masque” (not The Mask) for Dark Horse Comics.

My only real complaint with Roux’s character designs is that Brother Night looks like a mummified version of The Joker (albeit with gray hair at his temples).

Overall, the issue is competently written and illustrated, and there is also an attempt to appeal to the androgen levels of male readers by having Zatanna disrobe at the end by casting a spell that sends her clothes flying off her body (with a levitating towel and strategically placed arm keeping the nudity at a PG-13 level). If I were still that 13-year-old boy I was when I first encountered Zatanna, these two panels would have “excited” me greatly.

Instead, rather than stimulating my hormones, this scene appealed to me in a slightly different way. As she’s disrobing, Zatanna is explaining to Detective Dale Colton why she didn’t bring Brother Night to justice:
Like I said, Dale. There’s no human penalty that can be brought to bear against Brother Night. I’d like to think my talk with him did some good, but his kind doesn’t scare easily.
It sure seemed to me that Zatanna must be disrobing while Detective Colton is in her bedroom. I began studying the windows to see if his reflection was apparent. Then I noticed it. . . .

No, not his reflection; the levitating cell phone that is hovering about six inches from Zatanna’s head (hidden against the background of her black hair in the first panel). Oh well, at least we readers were able to watch her clothes fly off her body even if the unfortunate Colton was not.

Anyway, if someone were to give me a free copy of Zatanna every month, I certainly would find it worth my time to read it. However, based on this first issue, I don't know that it's worth squeezing three dollars out of my already tight monthly budget.

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