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Sunday Slugfest - Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna #1

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Michael Deeley, Egg Embry, Shawn Hill, James Redington, Jason Sacks, Ray Tate, Olivia Woodward
"GniklaT sdrawkcaB"

Michael Deeley

To be honest, I don’t have very strong feelings for “Zatanna.” (The character is another story, nudge nudge.) I don’t believe in magic. So any comic or story based on magic’s existence is, from my point of view, already working at a disadvantage. I’m like Dr. Thirteen in this story: I’m skeptical, even when I see it for myself.

This story takes place before Seven Soldiers #0. Zatanna is in a superhero support group where she tells of a recent magical excursion gone horribly wrong. Zatanna, Ibis, his wife, Tim Ravenwind, and Dr. 13 take a mystical journey from Baron Winter’s house. They’re looking for four books of magic written by Zatara, Zatanna’s father. Unfortunately, they encounter a horrible creature Zatanna accidentally conjured up several days before. Only she survives. Now she’s bereft of her powers and responsible for a world-threatening villain. As luck would have it, a young girl in the support group has the same powers Zatanna did. Or maybe it’s not luck after all.

There are four pages of characters walking in, out, and around panels that challenges conventional notions of perspective. They’re not breaking the fourth wall; they’re breaking the walls they just made up. Ryan Sook and Mick Gray do a terrific job on the art. Very easy on the eyes, great figures, and that’s just Zatanna. (Ba-boom boom). Seriously, great job.

And yet, I can’t help feeling this is a watered-down version of Promethea. From what I’ve read of that series, it really twisted the reader’s perceptions of reality and its relationship with fantasy. Promethea also had some truly original and bizarre artwork and storytelling devices. Zatanna feels like Promethea without the genius.

may seem generous with a review that harsh. But the art is still better than average, the story’s only just getting started, there’s some dimensional theory (always love the hard science), and the séance is an homage to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing #50. Which leads me to ask: Isn’t Ibis supposed to be dead?




Egg Embry

This issue was really good despite my rating of .

I bought this issue more for Ryan Sook’s art than Grant Morrison’s writing. I like Grant’s work, but I really dig Sook’s pencils! His interpretation of the human face up-close and at a distance is every imaginative. His camera work is nice, nice, nice! So, I dug every one of his people and his white rabbits! And just for him I’ll get the whole series.

Where the book lost points with me was all the magic babble. During the adventure, four-and-a-half pages are spent jumping from square dimension to square dimension while talking about how interestingly weird and unpredictable magic is… it was so dull that I drifted away. Now, I know Zatanna is a magician and that it would be odd to avoid magic just because I find gibberish about the “science” of magic as interesting as tachyon fields on Star Trek. I can accept some, but four plus pages worth is too much. Still, I came back when they (Zatanna and crew) reached the Tree of Knowledge – which was a clever touch that is never mentioned overtly.

So, with that out of the way, I liked the three twists within the story (that’s a LOT for a first issue, and each was better than the last). I like the fact that Zatanna has had several character altering events and is forced to take the world from a new angle. I like the effort that is put into that! Overall, I can say without a doubt that I’ll be buying the next three issues magic-speak and all!




Shawn Hill

Plot: Experiencing some setbacks relating to her powers and her life, Zatanna seeks some help in dealing with them. However, she’s a dangerous girl to know.

Comments: The nice thing about Morrison’s interlocking geodesic dome of mini-series this spring is how individual each one is turning out to be. The Seven Soldiers are focal characters, relatively untried fields in which Grant can turn out seven different types of comics over the next several months.

For Zatanna’s spotlight, he’s chosen a familiar moment to look into a B-list heroine; the moment her powers are fading, usually a symbol for some personal crisis in her life. The second Spider-Man movie actually did this for Peter Parker; until he got his feelings of self-worth and confidence under control, his powers were unreliable and spasmodic.

Here Zatanna comically identifies herself as a “spellaholic” (something’s up these days with super-heroes and support groups), and relates some very convincing evidence to her anonymous friends (enough to impress Gimmick Girl, at any rate, popping in before the brilliant Seven Soldiers #0).

What’s interesting: Rather than isolate Zatanna from the regular DCU, as has happened to her uber-powerful, hard-to-pin-down character in the past, Morrison takes off directly from a signature moment in Swamp Thing, the moment when her father died in her stead during a séance. That horrific trial by fire seems to have imprinted on her life; let’s just say that entering into a séance with Zatanna these days is a risky province.

Somewhat interesting: Sook’s art is serviceable, if not really distinctive. While he handles the dimension hopping of Morrison’s script well, none of his characters is that striking. Best are some of the oddballs at Zatanna’s self-help group, where Sook has a field day with defensive and aggressive body postures.

At the end, as Zatanna picks up an unwanted sidekick, it seems Morrison has fit her into a fairly Constantine-like role, which is a fair, if not groundbreaking, direction to take with the character. The problem remains, at the center of it all, how to define this beautiful young woman with more power than she knows how to use, and who remains much less naughty than nice.




James Redington

What DC Says: The sorceress attempts to boost her profile by taking part in a reality TV show that sees her undergoing a rigorous detox on a lush island near Themyscira! Here, Zatanna tries to get her head together and figure out what to do with her life. She’s come to an emotional impasse as her magical powers are waning, resulting in an obsession with finding her father’s lost magical journals hoping they contain the secrets she needs of his black art.

What I say: Grant Morrison’s work is a breath of fresh air. I don’t think I have ever read something bad that he has written. Sure, certain things have been better than others, but that’s the nature of the world. This issue…, well to be honest, I am torn because Zatanna is a character I am not too familiar with. I have seen her in various DC Comics over the years and also she was great in an episode of Batman: TAS where Bruce Wayne had trained with her father to be an escape artist and they had a bit of a fling together. Apart from that, I knew nothing… oh yeah, she was in Identity Crisis and pulled the whammy on Doctor Light and Batman as well, so she is quite a powerful magician I guess. In this issue, Zatanna is a “spellaholic” according to GM, and she admits to having “low self-esteem” – now I am not really sure where this has come from, but as usual with Morrison I am interested in finding out. Morrison sets up an interesting story, or at least introduces us to an interesting story. It will be fun to see where this all fits in with the other Seven Soldier stories.

Ryan Sook is an interesting artist and definitely one to watch out for. I think he makes Zatanna seem very powerful, attractive and vulnerable at the same time. Also her new costume is like her old costume. It’s just been Morrison-ized; it’s a little too sexy, with her suspenders showing just a bit too much… and I tell you one thing, I would pay to watch her perform in that outfit! Ryan’s layouts and pencils shine in this issue, some of the wacky angles he used in the mystic scenes are great, and the audience who were turned into rabbits… great stuff! Also I loved the cover, great fun, eye catching for a number of reasons.

My only complaint is that I had to read the comic twice, which may be down to a few things: Grant Morrison blows my mind is one, another could be the art, and how imaginative it is, and last I might just be tired.

All in all, a good comic. Not great, but solid. I’m definitely buying the next issue, and now looking forward to the Witch-boy which I think is the next release from this series.




Jason Sacks

Sometimes it seems like there are two Grant Morrisons. One is the fairly straightforward comics writer who brought us comics like JLA and the Seven Soldiers of Victory: Guardian comic. Then there is the mystical Grant Morrison, who brought us Vimanarama and the new Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna comic. The straightforward Morrison plays the traditional comics game beautifully, but the mystical Morrison can sometimes get a bit obscure. That's definitely the case with Zatanna #1. The earth-bound scenes in this comic are wonderful, but the mystical scenes are much harder to follow.

It starts out beautifully. Page one shows Zatanna slouching, in ordinary clothes, in a crappy chair at a meeting of a twelve step group. She looks down on her luck, as if the weight of the world is on her shoulders. It’s a stunningly ordinary scene. Every writer is told to grab their reader with a mystery on the first page, and in comics that often amounts to starting with a fight scene or dilemma for the hero. Here, though, Morrison is counting on a vague feeling of uncomfortableness among the readers to bring us along. Nice touch.

The comic then moves into a flashback. We see Zatanna helping her dad at a magic show. He’s in control at the show while her father is a master at his art. In that short scene we learn all about the connection between the father and daughter, and get an idea about why Zatanna wants to pursue magic as a big part of her life. We then go back to the self-help group and learn a little about who they are, in a cute scene (they are all super-heroes who suffer from low self-esteem). I was completely caught up in these first few pages. I was hooked. The straightforward Morrison was in control, spinning a wonderful yarn. Then the mystical Morrison takes over.

A group of magicians gather together to celebrate a mystical holiday at the home of the mysterious Baron Winters, who lives forever. Logically enough, the group undertakes a mystical endeavor, and odd and bizarre things happen to them. The problem for me as a reader is that it all seems cool and weird but doesn’t seem to make a lick of sense. Who or what is the fire demon, and why do the other magicians seem to have such a bad end come to them? I'm sure this all makes sense to Morrison, but as a reader, I just found myself confused. And right there much of the goodwill he had built up evaporated for me. I realize that Zatanna is a magician, but I was hoping that her magical life could be explored without a ton of mystical mumbo-jumbo. The mystical Morrison just loves to be obscure. But when he does that, I feel my grip on the reality of his stories slip away.

I don’t think I’ve seen Ryan Sook’s art before, but he’s really talented. I love the way he draws characters’ faces, and how he uses body language to show moods and emotions. He does a great job here.

Overall, this comic is a mix of the two sides of Grant Morrison: when it’s based in real life, it’s wonderful. When it’s based on mystical magical realms, it’s very hard to follow.




Ray Tate

Zatanna has largely been untouched since the Crisis on Infinite Earths. Every author who has brought Zatanna back to life in the pages of DC comic books has pretty much respected what went before. Maybe it was the fishnets. Identity Crisis, of course, changes that streak of sanity, but by and large, Zatanna wasn’t broken. She did not need fixed.

Grant Morrison repairs characters by returning to them their hearts which forever seemed damaged. For instance, he made Batman “the world’s greatest detective” again as well as “the most dangerous man on the planet.” He gave back Wonder Woman’s much older history complete with the Purple Ray. Morrison had to do absolutely nothing to Zatanna. All he essentially had to do was wind her up and watch her go.

A lesser writer would have let his ego stand in the way of a good character whose personality essentially has stayed the same since she was introduced back in the Silver Age. That writer would try to fix what wasn’t in the first place broken. Grant Morrison is not such a writer.

What Morrison does for Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna is reintroduce readers to the Mistress of Magic. Nothing has really changed. She still wears fishnets for her act as well as a decidedly British sauced up newer costume, but Morrison also displays the taste to make her a normal individual. On her off hours, she wears casual clothing. Of course, there’s more to Zee than her ensemble.

We meet Zatanna in a self-esteem clinic for super-powered or super-cursed individuals, and her problems while indicative to the character per se are really the character’s interpretation of a state of being with which we can all empathize. While she seems to instigate the central threat of this bloc of Seven Soldiers of Victory, it’s a mistake that anybody can make and simply reinforces the power of the magic users. Zatanna’s “calling” incidentally cleverly points out that she is in fact the most powerful mortal magic user on the planet. Her very words change physical laws.

Zatanna seems to be the most straightforward bloc of the Seven Soldiers of Victory mega-series, and yet all around Zatanna Grant Morrison’s scary intelligence reigns. The maestro brings in superstring theory, the antithesis of The Necronomicon a much more literal Tree of Knowledge and various other esoterica from fiction, fact and myth detailed in my handy appendix at the end of this review. Some of these listings are spoilers so be warned.

Morrison examines all aspects of Zatanna in one very accessible book. He moves Zee closer to her real life brethren of stage magic. She, for instance like many magicians, writes books on the subject. He shows that she is more of a celebrity than Ralph Dibney. She signs autographs and appears on television. Morrison does not ignore her JLA history, and it’s nice that Zee refers to the JLA as “her pals.” Zee originally was a friend to the League before becoming a member. It’s a shame DC has finally tarnished this bond elsewhere. The last act to kill the glow of silver.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Ryan Sook and nimble inker Mick Gray from among other titles Top Ten were perfect choices to aid Mr. Morrison in his quest for Zatarra’s four books. Both have a history in artwork to illustrate the outlandish realistically and make the realistic credible on paper. Their little girl Zatanna really is so very cute. The adult model is a stunner, as she should be. The caricature of Dave Letterman is dead-on. The ominous shadows of Baron Winter’s abode do not cast black in an over the top fashion but stem from a mood evoked by candlelight. The Castrovalva combines with Flatland, and because both worlds are drawn so understatedly, the whole looks believable. What a pity that this artwork is marred by a Matrix tie-in advertisement situated between a double page spread that’s supposed to
allude to a wide screen presentation.

Appendix I: Is it Gibberish?

Baron Winter was the de facto Dr. Strange in the pre-Crisis Nightforce.

The Beast of Ys may refer to the Beast of Le Gevaudan which was probably a huge man-killing wolf that terrorized the 18th century French countryside. Ys is a city from Christian mythology, but it may refer to an ancient real city swallowed by a flood. Paris may have been named to honor Ys. Paris translates as Similar to Is which is another name for Ys.

Ibis the Invincible was a 1940s Fawcett character DC acquired. Taia was his beloved assistant.

King Ra-Man is the artist formerly known as Prince Ra-Man, a really obscure character from The House of Secrets who is best known for being snuffed out by a Shadow Demon in The Crisis of Infinite Earths and prompting Shade, the Changing Man's remark: “They’ve got Prince Ra-Man!” One of the few hilarious moments of the best dramatic presentation in super-hero comic books.

Tahuti is another name for Thoth, the Egyptian god of magic.

Timothy Ravenwind originally an obscure pre-Crisis character in Swamp Thing gained a greater guest appearance in the creature’s later adventures.

Dr. Terrence Thirteen bugged the Phantom Stranger something fierce during the pre-Crisis. What’s ironic is that the Phantom Stranger originally was a debunker just like Dr. Thirteen.


Appendix II: How to Put it Back Together

Upon seeing the stupid Matrix advertisement, I thought to myself “no, problem. I'll just simply tear it out." DO NOT TEAR OUT THE ADVERTISEMENT! If you do so, although the Matrix advertisement appears to be self-contained, the legal page comprising the second half of the artwork of the double page spread and the following two pages will fall onto your lap.

For those of you who already did what I did, follow these simple steps to repair your comic book.

1.) With your fingernails, gently pull apart the staples until each end stands straight up.
2.) Place the missing page in proper order and align it with the rest of the book. Use the corners as your guides.
3.) Using a light pencil, mark an x where each staple end pokes at the paper.
4.) Gently work the staples through the center of each x.
5.) Gently press the staple ends toward each other.
6.) We're almost done. Find a clean, hard surface.
7.) Press the staples down on the clean plane.
8.) Pray to Cthulhu that whoever signed off on putting a Matrix advertisement in the middle of widescreen art is raped in the buttocks by a troop of baboons.

References: Encyclopedia of Monsters--Daniel Cohen (1982)




Olivia Woodward

Synopsis: Acknowledging your problem is the first step to overcoming it. That’s why we begin this story with Zatanna attending a workshop for superheroes with self-esteem problems. Though gifted with reality-altering abilities, she finds herself prone to using them as crutches. They provide an easy out from whatever trouble she faces. They shield her from discomfort and tempt her to pursue pleasure. Over time, she has become dependant on this style of living. In short, she’s become a spellaholic.

This problem has come to a crisis point. Recently, Zatanna has been experiencing bad dreams, signifying the approach of a spiritual cataclysm. But rather than seriously prepare to investigate the impending threat, she continues to use her powers indulgently. To counter her loneliness and implied sexual hunger, Zatanna recklessly summons the “man of her dreams.” Oops!

Critique:

"He knew how to use magic wisely and responsibly."

This is a multi-layered story. On the surface, it seems to be a simple “mystical adventure” of the common variety found in “magic superhero” comics. Zatanna has a bad dream. She gathers a group of mystics to investigate the problem. They engage on a spirit quest in search of lost knowledge. Because of Zatanna’s foolishness, things go bad. She must now face the imminent troubles without the benefits that she had at the beginning of the story. It’s a tried and true plot, tightly handled and compelling. But it’s deeper than that.

This story is an exploration of character. Zatanna is a character defined by a portfolio of themes that has often led to her portrayal as semi-competent and emotionally impulsive. This issue examines three of these themes: 1) her history is defined in relation to her father, the great mystic Zatara, 2) her judgment is frequently trumped by her emotions, and 3) she is incapable of controlling the great powers that she wields, oftentimes bringing great trouble to the world through their abuse. These are some hefty themes, loaded with underlying anti-feminist messages. Frequently, these character traits are utilized as critical plot elements, without regards to the subtext that they convey; most recently, this can be found in Identity Crisis or in the “Obsidian Age” story from JLA.

But Morrison addresses them head on. They aren’t simply stereotypes used to carry a weak plotline. Instead, they are portrayed as problems in an unabashed story of self-discovery and redemption. Whereas a lesser writer would just accept or reject a character’s thematic portfolio with no thought of their underlying message or potential, Morrison scrutinizes it and crafts a plot wherein they are the crux to a problem which must be resolved for the successful conclusion of the plot. This element of character exploration is further emphasized by the playful contrast with other anti-feminist stereotypes within her self-esteem workshop, such as the enterprising superheroine who was sexually abused, the woman who is treated like a “girl,” and the friendly but physically unattractive lady.

Through strong dialogue and compelling character portrayal, both textually and graphically, Zatanna is shown to be deeper than the base stereotypes would imply. She’s witty, insightful, remorseful, lonely, consoling, and brave. But, underlying all her complexities, there’s a yearning to actualize her true potential. Deprived of the crutches that her long history has assigned to her, can she emerge as a person of dignity and responsibility? Or does she need to be saved by “Daddy” again? Morrison is a writer gutsy enough to examine the anti-feminist stereotypes that shackle the character and clever enough to make a compelling story out of it.

But the story is even deeper than mere character exploration. This story is an examination of narrative technique. This depiction of time is fluid. In terms of the written narration, the extensive use of flashback in the midst of a ever-present “now” creates an immediacy to the events. As Zatanna narrates the story the events “occur” for the reader; the reality is “created” through her words. Within the context of her counseling session, the pertinent elements of her world are immediately manifest. Just as the “cube star” of her spiritual journey forms both the Platonic Solids of the cube and the icosahedron within its hexagonal profile, so too does Zatanna’s narrative encompass both those elements that spiritually imprison her and the potential to overcome them, the entropic principle and the creative principle. The Omega and the Alpha are coexistent.

The artwork is essential in conveying this exploration. It overtly addresses the fluidity of time in the “spirit quest” aspect of the plot through the use of multiple figures and continuous background. However, a similar effect is conveyed throughout the issue through panel composition and pacing. For instance, when the various mystics call to initiate the ritual, the four panels are tightly paced, with implied continuous space from Zatanna’s viewpoint, then it is followed by three slow receding-view horizontals. There is a sense of simultaneity on this page, abruptly punctuated by their absence at the bottom right corner of the page’s layout. Overall, Sook’s compositions manage the visual pace in perfect complement to Morrison’s narrative exploration.

Appraisal

"I love the way you write about magic. It's so like, down-to-earth and non-preachy."

But the story is even deeper than all of these. Morrison is making a grand example of storytelling in this title. First, he empowers a basic “mystic adventure” plot with greater significances of character and technique, creating a rejoinder to the numerous complaints that the standards of the genre are depleted or tired. Second, he utilizes a character’s dubious thematic portfolio and crafts a compelling and relevant narrative from it, as a riposte to the charge that these second-tier characters are of no value to modern storytelling (except for being a “shock value” death, which Morrison playfully utilizes within the text.) Third, he sculpts a philosophically profound exploration of the Simultaneity of Being while telling an engaging story, in contrast to the meandering metaphysical masturbation narratives in which some writers engage.

In short, this title is a refutation of all the bad habits that the modern superhero comics has come to embrace. Like Zatanna, the modern superhero comic has great potential, but too few of the creators have the aesthetic integrity to bring it to fruition. Too many are shackled by the presence of their predecessors. The thing that makes this title so exquisitely clever is that this message is being conveyed through Morrison’s version of the “much hyped mega-event.” The Seven Soldiers concept gives a swift kick in the mouth to all the pedestrian and pathetic “Infinite Identity Disassembled House of Countdown X-Crisis” event stories churned out by the marketing experts at the Big Two. Nowhere has it been as overt as in this issue. I highly recommend it.

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