Monday, March 14, 2011

Chronic Review: Zatanna # 10!

Zatanna # 10
DC Comics
Script:     Paul Dini
Pencils:   Cliff Chiang
20 pages (plus five preview pages of a Batwoman comic that will never see the light of day) for $2.99

Zatanna is one of the comics that prevailing wisdom says everybody wants.  "They" say they want comics that are not steeped in oceans of conflicting continuity baggage.  "They" want comics that are rich in characterization and reasonably sophisticated, but they're tired of grim tones and overt sex and violence.  "They" want something that doesn't treat them like an idiot, but suitable for the whole family, as it were.  From its inception, Zatanna has been exactly that kind of book.

What Dini has built is a growing world of her own for Zatanna to work and play in.  He set the table with a worthy, creepy adversary in Brother Night, and added a dash of Det. Dale Colton for romance.  Zatanna is a strong, competent central figure, but she's still vulnerable to the memory of her father and the wild antics of her cousin Zachary.

In fact it was during the whole "how will I control Zach in Las Vegas" section around issue 4-5 that I considered dropping the book.  It felt more like an episode of "Three's Company" than a narrative about a sorceress, too fluffy.  I'm glad I stuck around, though, because Zatanna has certainly taken a turn away from the safety blanket with issue # 10.

Puppets.  They suck.
This is the final installment of "Pupaphobia", in which a deadbeat puppeteer cursed by her father comes at Zatanna to make things right.  This is without question the deepest, darkest, and best arc in the series to date.

First of all, that puppet and it's continuous smile are unnerving.  Zatanna has a phobia of puppets as well, hence the title of the arc.  That might be enough to carry tension by itself, but "Stringleshanks" is selling her a martyr story about her father.  He claims to be an innocent victim, and tries to guilt the magician into fixing him.

To get to the bottom of things and find a solution, Zatanna takes the creepy bastard to John Zatara's inner sanctum, complete with the finest in mystical artifacts, doors that open with the help of golems, and talking stuffed animals played for comedic effect.

Using one of her father's crystals, Zatanna learns that in fact Oscar Hampel is the worst piece of garbage imaginable, and then the wheels come off.  He sets her back on her heels by breaking contact with the crystal and banging it off her skull, and then grabs an assortment of items beyond the capacity of mortal ken to understand and wishes himself human again.

The thing that sells it all for me is that Dini has foreshadowed all of this so well.  One of the issues I've had with the series to this point is that it feels a bit too "safe", and Zatanna never really seems to be in any great peril.  Whatever the situation, ultimately it gets resolved with a little personal fortitude and some quick backwardsy spell casting.

All well and good, but not exactly a recipe for high drama.  At the beginning of this issue, Dini sets the stage by having Zatanna announce the perils of magic.  Use it selfishly or carelessly, and you get burnt.  She means it as a morality lesson for Stringleshanks, but in actuality it's an unheeded warning to herself.

This is not a "ready for action" posture
She's become too comfortable.  She doesn't take Hampel seriously enough.  Her posture is too relaxed, she had no contingency plan for the puppet to break contact with that crystal, and then allowed it access to relics of unspeakable power.  She was undone by a fastball from a puppet, and that's just sad.  She also comes to realize that her father read this man's character blind in an instant, but her tuning fork has been confused from the start.  In short, Zatanna has been lacking and a bit overconfident....and those flaws are paying dues in the worst kind of way at the end of this issue.

I won't give away the consequences here, I'd rather you enjoy at least some of the issue without me ruining the surprise.  But suffice to say that the book just took a very satisfying dark turn.  Shit just got real!  And this isn't even touching on the equally dark and dangerous return of Brother Night.  Detective Colton is in at least as much trouble as Zatanna, and that's a lot.

Long story longer, Zatanna made a decisive turn here in # 10.  It stopped throwing jabs and just threw two massive haymakers.  I don't know if it's the book "they" want any more, but it's absolutely becoming the book that I wanted.

- Ryan

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