Secret Origins #27: Zatara and Zatanna

Ryan Daly and guest Professor Alan and Emily Middleton discuss the origins of Zatara and Zatanna (and Doctor Mist) from Secret Origins #27.

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“Premonition” (Theme for Secret Origins Podcast) written and performed by Neil Daly.

Additional music: “A Night On Bald Mountain” by New Symphony Orchestra of London; “This Magic Moment” by Jay & The Americans; “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police.

Thanks for listening!

20 responses to “Secret Origins #27: Zatara and Zatanna

  1. Great to hear Professor Alan and Emily. Just a classy couple of folks who always offer some unique insight into any comic they review. And this one seems kind of …well, it’s odd. I think you can see the puppet strings. This is definitely when the bloom begins to come off Roy Thomas’ DC rose. I don’t have this issue, but I recall reading the updated entries for Zatanna, Doctor Mist and Felix Faust in Who’s Who 88 and wondering “when did THIS happen?” It sure seemed like I must have missed a giant Zatanna special, or mini-series. Nope, just this issue of SO. Reading the All-Star Companion and Alter-Ego #100 years later I learned about the editorial quagmire this issue got wrapped up in. It’s no wonder it’s kind of all over the place.

    Tom Artis’ style here reminds me a bit of a young Art Adams, particularly his JLA group shot. Fred Fredricks was an artist on the Mandrake comic strip, which is obviously who Zatara was based on. In fact, the visuals are so close, it’s a wonder King Features never sued. Fredricks also drew Zatara’s entry in Who’s Who, volume 1.

    Just a side note, but the father/daughter combo were featured in a previous Secret Origins comic. DC Special Blue Ribbon Digest #5, Nov/Dec. 1980 featured a NEW origin of Zatara and Zatanna, in amongst a bunch of cool reprints. This was the first DC digests I ever bought. Oh, and Paul Levitz came up with Hitler having the Spear of Destiny in DC Special #29, 1977, the JSA origin issue. Roy took that ball and ran with it as the reason no super heroes could just go take Hitler out.

    Great episode as always!


  2. Great episode as usual!

    Having a guest father/daughter combo to talk about Zatanna and Zatara is perfect. You have a JJ Abrams-esque keen eye for “casting.”

    It must have really killed you in the loins department that when the SO series finally gets to Zatanna, most of the time she’s in the leasy sexy outfit they ever had her in, and I’m counting the one with the giant bug on her head!

    Still, a fun issue which made for a lively discussion. And Alan’s marital advice in the stinger was sound.

  3. Emily is a chip off the old block, except for being smarter, quicker, and funnier. I do stand fully behind Zatara’s parenting advice of never letting your daughter be in the same room as John Constantine. Let that be a lesson to all Dads.

  4. Great episode as usual and wonderful ‘stunt casting’ of a father/daughter team. Great to hear the Relatively Geeky crew here.

    This issue is overall weird and I appreciate you all struggling to make some sense of it.

    I don’t know if I like the Dr. Mist side of things at all. How is Faust alive that long ago? How did he create all (and I mean all) the magical heroes? Were all of these historical figure really Homo Magi? It was odd that he would be such a key figure on the DCU and never be mentioned before. Of course all that is undone on page 37 when he says he has no powers save immortality. Does that mean the first third of the book is a lie? I don’t get it … at all …

    As for the Zatara part, since I haven’t read many of his solo stories, I was glad this had the ‘warm bath’ sensibilities of Roy Thomas stories. Nice for the recap.

    The Zatanna part was my favorite part, probably because I knew her stories the best. I am a fan of the Sindella outfit as my first encounter with Z was in JLA 161. But if I can’t go that way, the tuxedo version is my next favorite. I do think all her early meanderings, the search for Zatara, the flings with Constantine, and the famous Swamp Thing 50 scene are all shown nicely here. Hooray Warlock of Ys!

    P.Craig Russell really shines here as he does mystic stuff well. I’ll recommend ‘Dr Strange:What is it that disturbs you Steven?’ as a nice go to.

    And I have read some stuff by L’Officier. My fave stuff there were the Prestige Format Elseworlds done with Ted McKeever reimagining DC’s Trinity in German Expressionist movies.

    Again, congrats to all for a great episode.

  5. I tried to have a more positive attitude with Alan and Emily, but the fact is this issue was pretty lousy.

    I won’t be able to hold my tongue next episode when Aaron Moss and I talk about Nightshade.

  6. Emily told me she listened today, and now based on her (and others’) current obsession with a certain Broadway musical, she regrets not pointing out at the time the obvious oversight that Alexander Hamilton should have been included as a Homo Magi!

  7. I don’t know that Tom Artis had the same inspiration as Rags Morales. Artis drew several short haired female characters in his work, of this era, and they tended to look a lot alike (probably someone he kew). He did some work on Psi Judge Anderson, for the American reprints of the British stories and Anderson has a bit of that look. I also have some sketchbook pages from Artis and there are a couple of females with a similar look.

    Artis was a real case of talent that never got the right showcase. He got a few gigs on the indy scene, then got some assignments at DC. His highest profile, aside from Tailgunner Jo, was The WEB, from the DC/Archie Impact line. Unfortunately, Artis had real trouble with deadlines and it kind of killed his chances of getting work at DC and Marvel. He had a series advertised at Image (Tiger, or something like that), with Doug Rice collaborating; but, it was cancelled before it was ever drawn, when Image cut a lot of non-founder books, in the wake of threats from Diamond over Image’s publishing delays. In conversation with Doug Rice, he said he was surprised to see the ad, as they never even had a single page of art for the book, at that point.

    Artis was a fixture in the Springfield, IL comic book community, as he was one of the few artists of the area to get work at the Big Two (the other major name being Tim Conrad). He was a bit of a character and probably his own worst enemy, professionally. I met him at a convention and got the afore-mentioned sketchbook pages, as well as a sketch of the Black Terror. He had put out a Black Terror Comic, a couple of years before that started out looking great, then the quality of the art took a nosedive, as it appeared that it was rushed to get it finished and wasn’t fully inked. He came into the Barnes & Noble, where I had been a manager, on a few occasions, with some of his art students/apprentices, always carrying a big, wooden staff, like something out of a comic book. Sadly, he had health issues and passed away in 2007.

    Grant Miehm got his first notice on The American, at Dark Horse, before turning up at DC. He came in on the tail end of the Mark Shaw Manhunter, in time for John Ostrander to bring back Dumas. His best work at DC, for my money, was on the Impact line Legend of the Shield. He did some great work there.

    Zatanna I first discovered in a DC 100-Pg issue of Superman, centered on magic stories. She appears in a reprint of her meeting with Green Lantern and the Wizard of Ys, who would factor into her induction into the Justice League. I loved the character, though it helped that she was drawn by Gil Kane, who knew how to draw sexy women. Most of her appearances turned up in those 100-pg comics, in reprints and she had the benefit of several artist who drew sexy women. In that era, she was an interesting character who wasn’t fully realized. I read more of her in JLA, though I hated that costume. I was a little more favorable to the Perez costume, though nothing beat the original costume.

    Zatara was one I mostly knew as background for Zatanna, and as a past for the character of Charity, in James Robinson’s Starman.

    Nice episode, with the father and daughter hook.

    Jean-Marc Lofficier did some excellent comic work, aside from his translation work on the Epic editions of the Moebius stories. These days, he is publishing French pulp characters via Black Coat Books, where he edits the awesome Tales of the Shadowmen, where various French literary characters have new adventures, with all kinds of guest stars. for instance, in the first voulme, the cloaked avenger Judex (from the French silent serial, from director Louis Fuillade) encounters Thomas and Martha Wayne, as well as a man named Kent Allard. The story involves the apparent theft of the Gotham Girasol, from the Waynes. Another volume features a battle of wits between Hercule Poirot and Jeeves, of the PG Wodehouse stories. Another has Barabarella dump Captain James T Kirk, after a trist. Just great stories. My favorties are the stories from Xavier Maumejean (who did the Poirot and Jeeves story, as well as one about the origin of The Village, from the Prisoner) and Kim Newman, who has two stories about The Angels of Music, a trio of female adventurers, led by Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, in a twist on Charlie’s Angels.

  8. Great idea for co-hosts!

    When I look at DC’s “encyclopedic” books from 1988, I’m struck by how they were apparently used for pitching books. Basically any character that got inexplicably pushed in Secret Origins and then got a Who’s Who update based on that is suspect. Dr. Mist/Zatanna was one of these. Midnight next issue as well. Nothing really came of these “takes” so I keep wondering why all the attention.

    My origin story with Zatanna was Satellite-era JLA when she had a snake in her hair. I liked her fine, and even more when she moved to Detroit. So it took me a while to get used to the fishnets, as that costume didn’t really feel like that of a superhero. Today I feel differently. The 1993 Marrs/Maroto mini-series tried to get away from backward spells and towards true sorcery, IIRC, but nothing came of that either. So my favorite Zatanna project remains 7 Soldiers. I just like putting my hand right up to hers on the page.

    Looking forward to all her iterations on The Power of Fishnets.

  9. Great episode! Alan and Emily did a…ahem….magical job, as well as Ryan. I think this issue explains a lot. Roy Thomas is Homo Magi. For sure Stan Lee is, Elsa from Frozen as well. Probably Will Ferell

  10. I’m a huge fan of the family Zatara in the Comics. I’m a huge fan of the Family Middleton in podcast land. So this is a great combo. I remember this issue when it came out. Always felt like a failed pilot. You were all far more entertaining then the book.

  11. Great episode, great guests. This is possibly the best cover of the series by this point, but I couldn’t handle this much Roy Thomas at the time.

    Congratulations to Martin Gray for being a commentator that doesn’t make you angry.

  12. Wonderful episode, great to have Emily and the Professor for this one – I do hope they dressed alike.

    My Zee is the top hat and tails gal, all the way, though I liked the period when she had the bug-head look for superheroing and the tux for stage work; and how fantastic that even though she could do real magic, she never used it when entertaining the punters.

    Great music, but given we had Zatara and Zatanna, I’m amazed you resisted anything by ZZ Top Hat.

    I’ve never liked the idea of Zatanna with Constantine, she’s far to classy for the no-mark oik.

    Did everyone follow Dr Mist in Primal Force, an intriguing book with the worst last issue ever, talk about a story that appeared to change direction?

    For me, there are no Zatanna stories to match the Dini series, though I’ve a big soft spot for her few Adventure Comics appearances, I mean, she had Gray Morrow art!

  13. Thanks for the kind words about The Martian Manhunter 60th Anniversary Specials after my unkind words about Black Lightning (who’s no Dr. Mist, by the way.) That project was a fornicator of materfamilias, I will never attempt its like again in my lifetime, and recommend no one else should either.

    Curious if anyone else experiences the phenomenon of creative preference involving key letters in comics, music and movies. For instance, I always hit the Vs on the increasing rare instances I dig through CD bins (Suzanne Vega, Veruca Salt, Violent Femmes, etc.)

    This issue has a swell cover for all the reasons mentioned on the podcast, plus an attractive art style and the natural association of the featured parties within their choice environment. My one complaint is that you don’t debut a radical new costume design on the cover of a Secret Origins issue reliant upon immediate recognition of the subject character for purchases.

    I’ve never read any H. Rider Haggard, and only know his work through terrible adaptations like the Richard Chamberlain Allan Quartermain movies. In advance of rereading this issue of Secret Origins, I jumped down a wiki hole of the She books, never realizing the massive impact of Ayesha on fantasy literature. None of this has anything significant to do with Dr. Mist though, since allusions aside, he’s a comic book character rather than a literary one.

    Somewhere, I once read that Dr. Mist punched out Superman in a fight, but I’ve never been able to verify that. Regardless, it always stuck in my head that he should be a premier super-being if there was any truth to that at all. I like his look and his status as Africa’s mystical protector, plus I absolutely adore the concept of the Global Guardians, if not their execution (or executions, since these guys seem to die if you sneeze in their general direction, a common malady of international super teams.) His SO appearance seems to have marked the ruination of the character, but I’ve still read him in odd places like Primal Force and rooted for reclamation. Hey, maybe Nommo just plain isn’t the real Dr. Mist, and we can chuck this whole thing as a fraud?

    When a story opens with Dr. Mist barely dressed in tribal wear bound like an extra in Roots, my initial impression is “this is £^€¥ed and I want to kick the ass of any responsible parties.” I like Bob Fleming when he’s providing dialogue over Keith Giffen plots, especially on fourth wall breaking extracanonical comedy, but he never sits well with me solo (especially his execrable later issues of Eclipso.) Combined with Roy Thomas’ well documented predilections, I hate this origin story with a passion. Once again, the dark-skinned hero is given dark motivations that would be considered beneath his Caucasian contemporaries. Nommo is initially taken out like a punk without putting up a fight, and thirsty for revenge, claims all the power of the Flame of Life for himself while literally destroying an entire advanced society in his selfish pursuit? So much anger in my heart right now.

    Further, what the hell is Felix Faust doing here? Here’s an idea– let’s have a prehistorically correct non-white adversary who is supposed to be unknown to Zatanna created to vex Dr. Mist across the millennia instead of a well known modern day JLA foil previously documented to have taken his name from a 16th century legend (plus “Felix” originating in the period of the Roman Empire, besides.) Amongst a readership made up largely of European descendants, the easiest explanation for why fanboys never heard much about Dr. Mist is simply that he did his thing in Africa. But no, he’s got to be an integrationist who traveled all over the world creating a rainbow coalition of magic users that was lost to history because it was all part of a self-centered profile while he waited for winks in seclusion. Cue my aneurysm.

    It’s so frustrating that Tom Artis & P. Craig Russell render Dr. Mist so well, and that as much as I loathe what’s done to him here (and what’s not done, like editorial back matter covering his publishing history,) at least it’s in service to elevating a worthy heroine with a genuine pedigree in comics. I don’t know if this is where the idea of The Dome replacing the JSA as Earth’s defenders until the Modern Age of Heroes began, but I am all over that idea like white on… umm… anyway. That’s the sort of thing that makes Dr. Mist matter to continuity, so again, let’s just have Nommo relate the well documented good deeds of an actual hero who he is not, shall we?

  14. Haggard was one of the seminal Victorian novelists and had a massive influence on the adventure and fantasy writers that followed. Edgar Rice Burroughs borrowed heavily from him, as did most of the pulp writers, including Talbot Mundy and Robert E Howard. Allan Quatermain is the template for most adventurer-explorers, including Indiana Jones. In fact, the classic version of King Solomon’s Mines (with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr) was one of the inspirations for Raiders of the Lost Ark.There were multiple Quatermain novels and even one with Ayesha (She and Allan ), as well as at least two sequels to She(Ayesha: The Return of She and Wisdom’s Daughter). Of course, he factors heavily into Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, via both Allan Quatermain and Ayesha, who has connections to several characters in the series.

  15. My usual process with the Secret Origins Podcast is to listen to the listener feedback first since it’s tied to nothing, then the preamble at the beginning, then I read the first segment or more of the comic, then listen to the synopsis/first segment or more of the podcast, then comment on one or more segments. I’ve never read anything about the behind the scenes business in the construction of this issue, so I crossed wires in commenting on the Dr. Mist segment, since there is no such beast and you have to take the comic as a whole. Okay, so does this mean that they used Harry Houdini’s real name as an Alan Smithee for Jean-Marc Lofficier and/or Roy Thomas, and is that where the halfassed pretentious music stuff that gets mangled later on and the services of P. Craig Russell on a dumb Secret Origins came from? All those movements had me thinking about bowels rather than melodies, and Ryan bringing up Bloodwynd didn’t help (who is a separate entity from Martian Manhunter, except when he’s not, but still kind of is.) It definitely feels like one story was written and at least partially drawn, then comes an editorial reversal, and the narration then does everything it can to undermine and undo the plot as illustrated. It’s like a straight faced comic book version of What’s Up, Tiger Lily?

    I know where I first saw Zatara– a vintage ad for Action Comics in the tabloid reproduction of Superman #1 from the ’70s. Admittedly, he looked like a generic magician out of context, but at least I associated him with The Man of Steel. I’ve read one or two of his Golden Age stories in the decades since, and they were crazypants outrageous pulp fantasy scientifiction. I wish his daughter’s stories were allowed to go as far off the rails, as that would set her apart from typical super-heroines and just be a lot more fun. However, the worst part about Zatara stories in my experience is that they star Zatara, an overly powerful stuffed shirt who faithfully patrons Mandrake’s tailor. He comes off as a haughty jerk and overall drag, ironically lacking in stage presence & charm. It doesn’t seem like the cultural fascination with stage magicians survived the war, and even Lee Falk better dealed his first hit strip in favor of The Phantom.

    This is the only origin story for Zatara I’ve ever read, and it is weak. I bet most real life stage magicians have better origin stories. I’m not opposed to being good for goodness’ sake, but what thin sliver of a personality John displays doesn’t gel with such a simple, altruistic motivation. Nommo is by turns so excessively laudatory and so dismissive of Zatara that I can’t help but subscribe to the theory that nothing stated here that can’t be cross referenced elsewhere is true. With the stark change in art, more typical SO structure, and use of actual dialogue, this section sticks out like a sore thumb while still remaining disturbingly concerned with a eugenics mindset. It also frankly ticks me off how Dr. Mist makes a big deal about Zatanna slavishly following in the footsteps of her father, when most of their career similarities were retcons made by Roy Thomas in the ’80s. Then again, when I look at that panel of Zatara shaking hands with Sargon prominently at an All-Star Squadron gathering, I have to give the benefit of the doubt that this is another overture toward an unreliable narrator. We all know they only showed up at JSA headquarters on Easter and Christmas, and had tenuous ties to the super-hero community/continuity.

    My current thought experiment is how to “fix” DC Comics for all the expatriate fans who sales show are living in the dollar bin diaspora. I’d do this by way of a yearlong weekly comic starring Superman, Batman & Robin, Wonder Woman and Zatara which would follow the core DC icons from birth through their earliest super-heroic adventures. They would experience analogues for the Great Depression and WWII, but set in a timeless ambiguity of x-years ago. Zatara would be decades older than the rest, and serve as a guide through the pre-war landscape of burgeoning and aborted DC properties. His key role would be to demonstrate why he himself is not an icon, and in fact he would be an unscrupulous antagonistic presence who both benefits and curses his more famous progeny through his rise to power. That way, he establishes the importance of Zatanna in the Silver Age DC firmament and would help springboard her future adventures without getting in her way. Render as text what we intuit about his purpose in comics since Zee debuted.

  16. For a story with ambitions of being a grand unified history of DC Magic there are some odd omissions. Like Atlantis being reduced to a single off-hand mention, say. Or completely skipping over the Gemworld backstory in which the vast majority of magic users fled there during the inquisitition and never returned to the rest of society, at least not until the Legion’s timeframe. Or Merlin, for that matter. (Once again Secret Origins passes up the opportunity to mention Etrigan.)

  17. I’m a little less confident of where I first saw Zatanna, but it was probably either a house ad for 1982’s Wonder Woman #291 (beginning a three part “novel” featuring most of DC’s heroines) or the cover of 1983’s Justice League of America #217 by George Perez (the definitive image of the team in my childhood, on a comic I didn’t own or even read.) Regardless, we weren’t properly introduced until 1984’s Blue Devil #4-5, where she was pretty enough to pull off wearing a bug in her hair and a powerful sorceress besides. I loved that arc, and by rights I should have the same abiding affection for Zee that I hold for Wonder Woman and Huntress, but it was beaten out of me. With the exception of her appearances in Books of Magic, I think virtually every comic I read with Zee in it was either not to my taste (especially her solo efforts) or she didn’t do much to further embed a positive impression (JLofA.) Another complication is that while I objectively realize her Perez designed blue & white costume made her in form and function a Scarlet Witch clone (sans teh crazy,) that’s the look that resonates with me emotionally, short lived and long gone as it is.

    It’s a shame too, because I still see Zatanna as a hugely valuable and important figure in the DC firmament, as well as to comics in general. Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t she the first true legacy character, in the sense of being the actual offspring of an established hero, as opposed to simply taking on a mantle? It’s still rare and novel for a successful character to come out of a series of loosely linked guest appearances in a variety of titles over an expanse of time. Is she the only one, in fact? It makes her uniquely connected to the universe as a whole, instead of inhabiting a single pocket. As has been well documented, I’m a firm believer in differentiating comic book universes. The big super-hero revival of the Silver Age was obviously based in science fiction, for which Julie Schwartz had better credentials but from which Stan Lee most benefited by having a comparatively grounded line. However, the Golden Age was more magically inclined, especially DC, and by hewing too closely to Julie’s philosophy DC has never reclaimed their original flavor orientation. That also meant we never got proper Silver Age revivals of DC’s magical characters, with the exception of Zatanna. Ideally, Zee should be one of their most visible and powerful characters at the forefront of a more sorcerous sphere, instead of simply being on the Vertigo League.

    If you’ll forgive my being sexist for a moment, magic is woman’s work. Both Marvel and DC have spent three-quarters of a century having almost exclusively male scientists run their worlds. I understand Mark Waid hopes to inject the new Wasp into their ranks, and I don’t think DC’s intellectual hierarchy is as well defined or staffed as it once was when all their heroes had PhDs, but that’s still going to be a challenge to feminize. On the other hand, both companies have heaps of warlocks who’ve repeatedly tried and failed to make a go of it as solo showcase players. Despite my affection for Dr. Strange, none of these guys save John Constantine have had any significant cultural impact in a generation, and I quite frankly think Hellblazer’s time has passed as well. Society in general associates magic more with witches– with classical feminine notions like intuition, emotion, and spirituality. Women are still viewed in extremes, goddesses and succubi, a more empowered variation of the virgin/harlot paradigm. Women partake of the craft, read from The Book of Shadows, relieve the enchantment of once upon a time. Dudes are just goons who drive muscle cars and try to stab demons with ensorceled weapons. If DC were to embrace the dark fantasy trappings that sets them apart from the science bros at Marvel, they could find new audiences, and Zatanna could be the mayor of Magic Town.

    Most importantly, don’t tell any more stories like this Secret Origins, because it sucks all the life out of these characters. I don’t know if Dr. Mist wanted a greatest grandson or a lover or was just spewing nonsense to stall Felix Faust until he could be rescued, since he apparently has no powers, but nobody comes out of this looking good (textually. I love the Artis/Russell team.) I get excited when I look at the one panel of The Dome and the one panel of the Global Guardians and the first three panels of Sindella (not so much the last three or any of the caption boxes within those panels.) Thanks to the idiocy of having Nommo relate all the events, all of the emotional heft has to be found in the art, which is too busy being cute and quirky to shoulder the burden. We need internal monologue and true feeling, but we get half & full splash pages of action beats instead (plus all the visual representations of magic derive from Ditko at Marvel instead of DC.) At least as rendered by its designer, I think I liked this Zatanna costume better than any of her top hat & tails numbers. Here’s one good thing that could have come out of this mess intact, and it was not to be used again. Bummer.

  18. Wow. Whenever I go to comment on one of these episodes, I see how so many people came before me and brought up so many great points. And Frank writes like a novel. It makes my own opinions seem less important for some reason. That’s why I keep them so brief.

    I loved the cohosts for this one. They made for a particularly fun episode.

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