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Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna (Review/Retrospective)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium. We’ve got a special treat for you this week, which is “Seven Soldiers Week”, so check back each day for a review of one of the Seven Soldier miniseries that Morrison put together.

Zatanna is undoubtedly the most recognisable DC comics character among Morrison’s seven-character line-up. Sure, Frankenstein is a cultural icon and Mister Miracle is a member of Kirby’s New Gods, but Zatanna is an iconic part of the DC Universe, with her own rich and established history which has played into large events within the fictional universe repeatedly. As such, it’s no surprise that she is the only member of the Seven Soldiers ensemble to have a current on-going series – written by long-time Batman author Paul Dini. Of course, Dini mostly handles his own interpretation of the stage magician, to the point that this little four-issue series might really have never happened. Still, I’m glad it did, if only because Morrison gets to handle some pretty important character beats and acknowledge the character’s rich history at the same time.

I take my hat off to Morrison...

In fact, Morrison acknowledges the relative celebrity of this character, as one of the members of the initial Seven Soldiers assembled by the ageing Vigilante explains, “I have to cope without JLA privileges and best-selling books, sweatheart.” However, the writer goes on to clarify why – despite being a recognisable name – Zatanna might need the chance of an overhaul that a series like this would offer. In short, she’s a character recovering from a number of serious losses, most notably the death of her father and the events of Identity Crisis.

It makes this miniseries read quite strangely, at least when compared to the other six characters. While Morrison’s other six four-issue miniseries are all about setting things up (indeed, the idea was that any could serve as “pilot” for an on-going if sales took off), this miniseries is more about providing its lead with closure. The notion being that, after this limited series is over, Zatanna would be ready for any character to pick up and run with. It immediately makes Zatanna different from the other stories collected, perhaps even moreso than her relative fame.

It's a kind of magic...

For those unfamiliar with Identity Crisis, Morrison only really alludes to it, without getting too bogged down in continuity or events. Basically, the event revealed that the Justice League had been mind-wiping villains to make them less threatening. Zatanna was the person doing the mindwiping, which got lost a bit in the midst of the gigantic crossover event. Free of a large ensemble cast and a huge crisis crossover, Morrison is able to look at what those events mean to Zatanna, who has been so hurt that she’s consciously tried to distance herself from the “JLA Star Tent” (“never again,” she vows).

Instead, Morrison uses this event to suggest that Zatanna simply isn’t mature or grown up enough to be a superhero, proof that she used her powers irresponsible. “I was a really bad superhero, Misty,” Zatanna confesses to her sidekick. “I did lots of stuff superheroes shouldn’t do and what’s worse is, I got caught.” Morrison doesn’t articulate whether this is the root cause of Zatanna’s self-pitying and insecurity, or simply a symptom of something deeper, but it’s nice to see the character’s complicated history acknowledged.

Reaching out...

Recent years have seen a trend at DC, towards recognising the contributions that Alan Moore has made to their characters. The mega-crossover Blackest Night was drawn from an obscure reference in a clever short story by the author years ago, his planet-shaped Green Lantern Mogo has turned up more regularly of late, Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is an explicit tribute to his perfect Superman send-off Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?, Brightest Day seems to exist to integrate Swamp Thing (a character Moore didn’t create, but did define) into the wider DC Universe. I have to say that I like these decisions, if only because Moore’s take on these characters was great and it deserves to honoured and recognised and acknowledged.

Morrison is no stranger to Moore’s work. There have been arguments, for example, that the characters of No-Beard and All-Beard in the Guardian miniseries stand in for Morrison and Moore respectively. Batman & Robin is built around Moore’s The Killing Joke, using the same fairground that Moore did, and borrowing a few iconic images from the artwork as well. So, here, it’s nice that Morrison acknowledges the very brief work that Moore did with Zatanna and her father Zatara in Swamp Thing.

When you're looking like Zat...

In case you haven’t read Moore’s Swamp Thing (and you should… you really should), Moore wrote the death of Zatara, a stage magician who had first appeared in Action Comics #1 – where he was somewhat overshadowed by the arrival of Superman. It’s a moment Morrison acknowledges here. “He died fighting the forces of evil,” Zatanna explains of her dad – and her emotional journey throughout the four-issue series seems to be about coming to terms with that loss, which she never really has. Indeed, Morrison makes sure, in the first issue, to play out the same type of seance misadventure that killed her father – as a journey into spiritual realms leaves all those travelling with her dead. “Oh, not again, my dear,” Baron Winter remarks.

Indeed, in many ways, the series is about Zatanna growing up and maturing, in the absence of her father. Morrison gives the magician a plucky young sidekick to train, to change her from a perpetual daughter searching for a lost father (as she was in her introduction, the 1964 crossover Zatanna’s Search). Note, for instance, the way that Ryan Soot draws Zatanna through the crossover. In the first issue, she’s a mess, but – as things progress – she tidies herself up.

Slaughter Swamp indeed...

Perhaps fittingly, given that this iteration of Zatanna is perhaps the oldest member of the Seven Soldiers (with other characters representing new iterations of legacy heroes), the miniseries also allows Morrison to play with the continual cycle of comic book reinvention. When Zatanna reveals she is being stalked by “the Shapeless One”, her friend Cassandra seeks to clarify, “Is this the Golden Age Shapeless One or some guy you’ve made up?” It’s nice of Morrison to acknowledge what he’s doing with most of these miniseries.

One of my favourite sequences includes the Tempter, an old-fashioned magical supervillain who… well, you can probably guess what he does. The villain reflects on how out of touch he is, and how difficult it is to be an old-fashioned supervillian – how redundant he is in “a world where every temptation is freely available and advertised on TV.” Zatanna labels the character “an outdated concept, an obselete thought form.” Morrison’s position seems clear – comic book characters need to evolve and change, or they will grow stagnant and die. That’s why he’s taken old concepts like Klarion the Witch-Boy and Shining Knight and updated them for the twenty-first century. Ideas need to evolve and move on, or they get locked and trapped in the past.

A parenting wizard...

Indeed, much like in the superb Frankenstein miniseries, Morrison not only links Zatanna to a continual reinvention of comic book mythology, but he also cements the book as a reiteration of classical fairytale archetypes. Indeed, Misty is literally given a fairytale origin, complete with an evil queen, “No need for a princess, then. Take her into eternity’s dark woods and cut out her brain, huntsman.” It’s a plot that one recognises instantly, echoing through centuries of fairytales. Indeed, Morrison acknowledges that a lot of classical comic book character arcs are simply slightly altered variations upon classical themes passed down from generation to generation.

And it wouldn’t be a Grant Morrison comic book without some absolutely wonderful and zany high-concepts. In particular, I like Morrison’s Merlin, the creature stalking Zatanna. Rather than being a standard magical monster, the creature is living language – indeed, Morrison links the villain to his idea of the Anti-Life Equation. “Of living language was I born in the workshops of the gods,” the creature explains, “I serve the new architect of the universe.” It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing of Final Crisis and continues Morrison’s well-loved themes of sentient ideas and the power of words.

Confessions of a Spell-aholic...

Also, I love the clever self-awareness of Zatanna’s journeys into magical realms and, in particular, her final confrontation with Zor. she sees reality from “a really bizarre angle that made it all look static and fractured.” In other words, like a comic book. And she beats Zor by getting to the final panel before him. These concepts are just icing on the cake, though. The real appeal is seeing Morrison handle an established character with complete freedom.

Of course, each of these seven miniseries has their own little hook, but I will confess to finding Zatanna‘s the most interesting. It’s based around providing closure to an existing character arc, rather than sparking a new one. It isn’t Morrison at his most brilliant, or at his most surreal, but it’s an effective little character piece – which illustrates effectively that Morrison is more than just simply high concepts.

As if we ever doubted.

Check out our complete collection of reviews of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers series:

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