Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Seven Soldiers of Victory - Part 4 (Zatanna)

Zatanna is probably one of the more well known characters to get a series in Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory - but she's a character that, while everyone likes her, is a hard character to write an on-going series around. The basic thing about Zatanna is that she can say anything backwards - and it will happen. It's like a fun game, trying to figure out what spell she's casting, mentally reading the words backwards. Zatanna is the daughter of Zatara - a backwards spell casting magician from comics during the 1940s. The concept was re-invented with a daughter, trying to carry on the legacy of her father. Zatanna has enjoyed membership in the Justice League of America for a long time - but being able to simply say something backwards (and it happening) instantly becomes an over-powering ability -- she's essentially the most powerful sorceress in the DC Universe, which makes it hard for writers to put her in difficult situations. Still, everyone likes her - probably in large part because of the sex appeal - but Grant Morrison took the character intending to do something more with her, and make her personality different and appealing.

Before the Seven Soldiers series Zatanna was featured prominently in the mini-series Identity Crisis, where it was revealed that certain members of the Justice League of America had secretly chosen to wipe the memories of villains, whenever their identities where compromised. Yet that action went a step further when a villain, Doctor Light, was able to break into the JLA Watchtower and rape the wife of the Elongated Man. Capturing Doctor Light after this heinous act called for something more severe, as these members of the JLA voted to have Zatanna not just wipe Doctor Light's memories - but to re-write his entire personality. To make him less dangerous; which worked - for years Doctor Light went from a formidable foe of the JLA, to a buffoon the Teen Titans where able to handily defeat time and time again. If this breach of morals wasn't enough for Zatanna - what happened when she was wiping Doctor Light's memories was worse - because Batman walked in on this - was outraged and was intent on stopping them. The group was able to stop Batman, and voted for Zatanna to wipe his memories of what he had seen. This secret violation of Batman's mind fueled a suspicion of his friends and colleagues for years to come - even thought he didn't entirely know why. All of this was made public to the rest of the Justice League during the Identity Crisis mini-series, and it shook the team to it's core.


"You want guilt? My name is Zatanna Zatara. I'm a Spellaholic."

Grant Morrison took the now guilt-filled Zatanna from Identity Crisis and expounded on that - opening with Zatanna at a Super Hero Self Help Meeting. Surrounded by some of the most obscure comic characters possible, Zatanna was talking about her problems - to try and get help for her messed up life.

While at this meeting she talked about a seance she and a group of other magic-wielding super heroes participated in. Each and every one of them where having mysterious dreams of little people, an army -- all allusions to the Sheeda, but not specific enough to know what danger they where being subconsciously warned of. They decided on a course of action - figuring that this could be the biggest potential threat they had ever faced - they would need the absolute best in magic. Zatanna told them about 4 books her father had written, of all the magic he had accumulated over the years. The books where lost - but they knew a place where the information could be retrieved - a perilous journey into the mystic realms, to a tree that supposedly contains all the written knowledge of the world; which would still contain Zatanna's father's writings.

Ryan Sook, the artist on this book, gave incredible warmth and character to all the people he drew - but he took his art in challenging new directions, showing MC Escher-like labyrinths - using each page, the panels of the comic book itself, to portray the kaleidoscopic weirdness of each different realm they traveled through.

At the meeting Zatanna recounted something she had done before going to the seance - instead of mentally preparing herself the night before, she was lonely and said the following...

"Gnirb em eht nam fo ym smaerd."

Which spoken in reverse says "Bring me the man of my dreams."

This loose slip of the tongue that late night was not thought through - because whatever Zatanna speaks backwards - always comes true. Flashing back to her seance, in the mystical realms, Zatanna is horrified to find a face protruding out of the tree of knowledge - and a being burning everything away. The seance suddenly and violently ended - with Zatanna opening her eyes to find that all her colleagues and companions had been burned to death -- nothing but charred skeletons remains.

Zatanna's spell was coming true - bringing her the man of her dreams: a foe equal in power to herself for her to content with. Essentially - the wording of what she had wished for was very open to interpretation. Zatanna feels like she always makes the mistake of falling for losers - imagining a great wizard, or fellow super-hero on par with herself - someone who could keep up with her. Someone crazy and cleaver -- and she was getting her exact wish, but in the form of a villain.

The death of all her colleagues that night was what prompted her to be at that Self Help Meeting. Zatanna hates herself more than ever right now - and feels lost, not knowing what to do - having awakened something terrible. To make matters worse - ever since the seance Zatanna has found that she no longer can perform magic. Her powers are gone!

After the meeting a young girl approaches her, asking if she's perhaps sign her book. Being a famous member of the JLA, this is typical, so Zatanna signs it for the young girl named Misty Kilgore. Misty says she is studying magic and wants Zatanna to teach her. Zatanna, annoyed, says the only thing she could teach anyone right now was how to turn soaring success into abject failure. Plus, like she explained in the meeting, she had lost her powers. Misty replies that she doesn't have to do any spells, and says "Ixat raeppa." - a Taxi magically appears before them. Misty says Zatanna now has her - that she can be her sorcerer's apprentice.

Riding the taxi into San Francisco it becomes obvious that a formless presence is following Zatanna. Even if she no longer has her abilities, Zatanna still knows magic - and intends to arm herself with magical protection, as whatever her spell has released will be soon to catch up with them. On the way Misty shows Zatanna the source of her powers - a six sided die, which when she speaks anything backwards to it - it happens; just like Zatanna's abilities. Zatanna also begins teaching Misty the basic of magic - very generalized advice at first.

The two reach a store front and find the place locked. Using Misty's die, the doors are unlocked and they go in.

This store is owned by Cassandra Craft - a blind woman with magical know how, and a terrific resource of rare mystical artifacts. Startled by the intruders in the store Cassandra confronts Zatanna and Misty - but Zee is able calm her down and explain the situation. Cassandra senses the entity outside, telling Zatanna that they where followed.

Rummaging around the shop, all manner of magical items are discussed or explained to Misty. In the background the shapeless entity continues to jump around - taking one form after another - until Misty finally see the words inside her book suddenly take the shape of a face. She drops the book and a letter "g" falls out and flies Cassandra's cat's ear. Zatanna thinks she's caught the creature inside the book, but finds that it has moved on. Soon it becomes obvious that there are suddenly two cats in the room. A duel against this shape-shifter is had, with Zatanna using all her non magical know how to subdue the creature. It turns to fire, so Zatanna uses a fire extinguisher. It turns to smoke, so Zatanna uses her top hat to grab the smoke. This entire affair was complete existential, and I'm still a bit confused how it got trapped in a magic mirror, then a sealed off magic cabinet - and then eventually reduced to it's most harmless and neutral form - that of a nude little homunculus, which Zee traps in a jar. Supposedly this foe is suppose to be Zee's perfect man - so she keeps the guy in the jar.

The little guy in the jar is very important, though - as during the battle it was explained as being known by many names: Gwydion, Shapeless One, and Merlin. It's the personification of human words taking shape - and is another of the 7 imperishable items.

Supposedly the world is saved - at least for a few minutes. While Gwydion being released from the tree of knowledge might have been initiated by Zatanna's original spell - I'm unsure wether that was the end of the spell - because there where more events to come that seemed to indicate that it was continuing. (I might be mistaken, though. It's confusing sometimes.)

Zatanna continues to teach Misty what she knows, and has a small adventure stopping a creature called the Tempter, who managed to tempt and entire weight watcher group into eating themselves to death. This foe in ancient, but simple to defeat, and is quickly sent packing.

While driving along the road Zee and Misty are suddenly stopped by an old man their car suddenly runs into. Thankfully this old man is already dead - a wandering ghost, and well known sorcerer in his time - Ali-ka-zoom. He's dressed like a vagrant with a top hat. I've only been hinting at this character so far in these posts - because he's quite significant to other parts of the Seven Soldier series. The ghostly Ali-ka-zoom is the elderly man the Shining Knight had helped protect on the streets of LA, and was the one who had magically given Justin the modern-day cloths that had she mysteriously was suddenly wearing. As a young child Ali-ka-zoom was also a member of the Newsboy Army -- remember, his fate being he'd become a homeless schizophrenic -- which came true; but he still managed to be magician - known on the streets as the Merlin of the Ghetto. Ali-ka-zoom has some advice for Zee, pointing her in the right direction - and warning her that so far she's been mislead about the real danger.

Upon the old man's advice Zatanna and Misty travel to a closed off estate, which they find in ruins, having recently been under assault. This is the residence of Vincenzo the Undying Don, shortly after the Sheeda had assaulted his compound. Misty sees the gigantic spider that had been killed during the battle and becomes strangely upset over it's death.

Misty and Zee then come upon a group of Sheeda soldiers who are trying to subdue an unruly winged horse - Pegasus. Misty is panicked and calls on them to stop, which all the Sheeda soldiers surprisingly sudden do.

Inside the mansion residence Misty and Zatanna discover Neh-Buh-Loh, holding the Cauldron of Rebirth - having just retrieved it. Neh-Buh-Loh is shocked - and suddenly everything comes flooding back to Misty. Misty suddenly realizes who she really is - she's Princess Rhinnon of the Sheeda, but had forgotten her old life. Neh-Buh-Loh explains how the Queen had ordered the Princess' death - since the Queen had obtaining immortality with the Cauldron of Rebirth, an heir wasn't needed. Neh-Buh-Loh, the celestial huntsman, cries out that he couldn't go through with it - that the Princess' beauty had stayed his hand, and allowed her to escape. Rhiannon had lost her memories - but her desire to gain power to protect herself against her mother is what had put her on course to meet Zatanna in the first place.

Neh-Buh-Loh screams that he cannot disobey his orders a second time, feeling that it is his one great flaw, and tells her to run. Zatanna and Misty get on Pegasus and fly away - and Zatanna suddenly discovers that her ability to cast magic has returned.

Zatanna and Misty are able to retreat to Zee's home for a moment to prepare for where they are going next. Zatanna explains that she believes it was simply a lack of confidence that was preventing her from being able to cast spells until now.

Misty is able to tell Zatanna everything about her past, and is able to tell Zatanna about the Gold Place in Slaughter Swamp - to find the Seven Unknown men. Misty tells her about what will happen if her mother, the Queen, is able to win - that all of humanity's achievements and accomplishments will be stripped away - and that someday, like in Slaughter Swamp, black flowers would cover the entire Earth. Pegasus has suggested a place called Gorias, a city in the mountains of Tibet, where Misty should be able to hide from the Queen until Zatanna in done with her mission.

After Misty and Pegasus have left, Zatanna approaches the old shack in the swamp - and is shocked when the doors open and the silhouette of man in a top hat and cape can be seen. For a moment Zatanna believes that perhaps this is her father - who dressed like that - but is horrified when it's someone else - a person declaring himself as Zor!

A huge mystical confrontation erupts - with the entirety of reality and the cosmos used as the back-drop of Zatanna and Zor battling.

Like Gwydion, and the Temper earlier in this adventure, both of those figures had been depicted or had pointy beards - and Zor is no exception. Zatanna's father had a bread just like this - so the father/daughter dynamic of all these villains doesn't seem to be a coincidence. Zor's beard is mentioned and he has a hilarious line about it, which you can read in the image above.

This battle is cosmic, and fitting for the climatic showdown - but it was also confusing as heck. Zatanna eventually is able to defeat Zor - and finds herself able reach outside of reality and come into a space where she meets the Seven Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp. They take custody of Zor, but before having to leave Zatanna given a rare gift -- a meeting with her father. He steps out of the shadows and is able to hug her daughter. (If Zatanna's spell was continuing, I think this is where it ended - her fathering being the perfect man in her eyes.)

With the world saved and everything seemingly wrapped up Zatanna uses her powers again, asking for another adventure. Suddenly Misty appears riding Pegasus - with an army of winged horses flying behind her. It's time to for Misty to finally confront her mother. This story is concluded in the final issue of the Seven Soldiers of Victory.

After the Seven Soldiers...

Zatanna was probably the biggest winner at the end of Seven Soldiers. She didn't get her own series right away - but she was featured prominently in a number of DCU events. Meanwhile Zatanna was even able to repair her damaged relationship with Batman - and eventually was given an on-going series written by Paul Dini. It lasted over a year, which is somewhat successful for a series these days.

One of the objectives of the Seven Soldiers series was to give old characters a face-lift, and throughout the series there where attempts to have Zatanna wear different outfits than her usual magician's outfit, top hat, and stockings. Her appearance really didn't change afterwords - but, heck, Zatanna is a magician -- and the magician's outfit works. Though DC actually recently went ahead with a costume change in the new series Justice League Dark.

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