More than just a top hat and fishnets, Paul Dini’s Zatanna makes for great comics

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A new book collects Paul Dini’s run on DC Comics’ Zatanna title.

Zatanna, whose first appearance was in a 1964 issue of Hawkman, comes into her own in Paul Dini’s antic, mischievous take on the character.

Zatanna Zatara doesn’t get any respect. Sure, she’s an A-lister in Vegas, where she wows the rubes with sleight-of-hand, rabbits-out-of-the-hat kind of stuff. But in the universe of DC Comics, she’s a second-tier character better known for her top hat and tails (and fishnets) than for her evil-battling exploits.

But that’s all part of her charm, at least in the Zatanna written by Paul Dini.

Dini is the writer behind several animated series based on DC characters, who occasionally slums it in the funnybooks. Along with artist Bruce Timm, he’s responsible for Harley Quinn, once simply the Joker’s moll but now a full-fledged big-screen personality (as portrayed by Margo Robbie in last year’s hit movie Suicide Squad). Last year, DC also published his Dark Night: A True Batman Story, an exceptional autobiographical graphic novel that he based on a mugging he experienced in 1993.

He’s also a fan of Zatanna, a character who dates back to a 1964 appearance in Hawkman #4 before joining the Justice League of America. Her story, according to the dc.wikia.com entry, is the following: “Zatanna Zatara is the daughter of magician Giovanni ‘John’ Zatara and Sindella, a member of the mystical Homo Magi race. Zatanna is a direct descendant of the artist and magician Leonardo da Vinci, and is related to Nostradamus; Alessandro Cagliostro; the noted alchemists Nicholas Flamel and Evan Fulcanelli; and Lord Arion of Atlantis. Her cousin, Zachary Zatara, is also a magician.”

However, you definitely don’t need to know all of that, or to even have heard of Zatanna, to enjoy this volume. (Although, be warned: to cast a spell, she has to kaeps sdrawkcab, which yes, can be kind of gniyonna.)

Published earlier this year, the simply titled Zatanna (DC, softcover, 432 pps, $53.99CDN, 2017) collects all the Dini-penned issues of a 2010-11 Zatanna comic-book series, along with a 2003 one-off special (“Everyday Magic”). Four standalone contributions, also from the 2010/11 run but written by guest scribes Adam Beechen and Derek Fridolfs, are also collected in this handsome, magic-packed volume.

These are great comics, especially the Dini issues. The stories are full of self-aware humour, fun surprises, cool ideas, and a rogues’ gallery of interesting baddies (a malevolent ventriloquist’s dummy, a dream-hopping imp, various succubi, demons and other assorted preternatural trouble-makers). The art is uniformly fine, though it tends towards what I would call conservative, modern-comics realism. I definitely preferred the more adventurous work of Rick Mays (more stylized and cartoony), Jesus Said and Cliff Chiang (both darker, rougher around the edges). The real treat for the eyes though come at the end, with a gallery of gorgeous Brian Bolland covers from the comic’s run.

If I have a quibble, it’s that readers are left with a helluva cliffhanger; not only that, but three more stories follow the cliffhanger, which is Dini’s last in the volume (three more unrelated but solid stories follow).

Dini admits as much, though, in the introduction (which perhaps I should have read more carefully to begin with!). He does say, though, that he “had a great time writing Zatanna, and hope to do so again.” This is one reader who hopes so, too.

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