Zatanna Zatara sits in a metal folding chair anxiously holding onto her keys, a lucky rabbit’s foot dangles between her legs. She’s hunched over with an invisible weight resting on her shoulders. The perspective of the panel places the audience in a higher position than Zatanna, we look down on her. Artist Ryan Sook signals to the audience the power they possess. Vulnerable and dejected, Zatanna invites us in with a question: You want guilt?
It’s an awkward scene. Group therapy for superheroes with low self-esteem? The concept of superheroes reflecting on their past traumas seems so foreign we end up laughing. Joining the group mid-therapy session is somewhat disorienting. The reader doesn’t know how long they’ve been meeting for, how they found one another or what has already been shared. The reader relies on Zatanna to usher us into this new universe. As a well-known character she represents safety, we trust her to tell us what’s happening.
Zatanna begins to explain. It’s simple: she’s a spellaholic. This is why she has the lowest self-esteem of any of them. The group explodes with anger. Even in this therapy setting, which should presumably be supportive, superheroes are in competition with one another. It is easy to see the comics industry reflected here, Morrison wants us to question why trauma is so often used to determine and depict a character’s worth. Zatanna appears exasperated with the group’s predictable response, she wants something more. It is a gesture that she longs for change, even if she isn’t sure what that change might look like.
Unlike her peers, Zatanna is not in costume. This is another way she has chosen to isolate herself from a group she isn’t sure she wants to be a part of. Zatanna is purposefully projecting herself as an individual without power. She is uncomfortable with the very nature of her who she is, what she has done or where she’s come from. With a reluctance to accept the past she cannot see a place for her powers or herself in the future. That weight on her shoulders? It’s the legacy of her father and the pressure she’s placed on herself to live up to his standards.
Giovanni Zatara was a warrior who died saving others. He was just like that. It’s a simple statement of fact. Comics writing rarely asks readers to confront the relaxed attitude with which characters subject themselves to violence and death. As Zatanna acknowledges her father’s death the panel orientation once again changes. The ghost of Giovanni hovers over Zatanna, his presence fills the panel. Zatanna appears engulfed in his ghost. The reader, however, is now positioned below Zatanna, we now look up to her.
Zatanna has not yet dealt with the legacy of her father or the pressure it places on her to be perfect. Giovanni’s ghost has, like the rest of Morrison’s work in SSoV, multiple interpretations. This ghost can also be read as the legacy of comics past, the burden we place on creators and the one we place on ourselves. However read, the ghost informs the reader of the incredible power history has on our perception of our present and future selves. As Zatanna has this realization with the reader it syncs our fates together, our fates are intertwined.
Superhero comics rarely allow characters the time to reflect on their concussive traumas. Zatanna’s recent experience with the Justice League in Infinite Crisis and the deaths of her friends are traumatic events she feels responsible for. Morrison wants people to confront the repetitive nature of grief, violence and death both characters are readers are subjected to. It is trauma without end and Morrison believes this is deserving of examination.
Zatanna defines herself by how she imagines she is seen by her father or by the men around her. When she accidentally conjures up Gwydion (aka Merlin, aka the Herald of the Apocalypse) all she had truly hoped for was creating the man of her dreams. Gwydion is guilt, is shame, is a convenient plot device? Zatanna lives in the shadow of men large and small, even one as tiny as an imp. It’s not the size of the man in her life, it is the power associated with them. It’s a power she feels diminished and controlled by.
Gwydion isn’t meant to exist. Zatanna was meant to be clearing her head in preparation for the ritual to locate her father’s lost books of knowledge. She believes these books are essential to preventing the unknown malevolent force on its way. These books represent her Zatanna’s belief that she needs power equivalent to that of her father’s in order to be useful. Instead of charging her own path, Zatanna futiely attempts to chart one someone else has laid before her. These books of knowledge can easily be interpreted another way, as the continuity of comics. Continuity is both a wonderful resource and a chain that binds readers and creators to the past, to convention and the status quo. Ultimately, neither Zatanna nor the comics reader benefits from being so tightly bound to those who came before us.
When Zatanna senses something is amiss in the Never-Be Found her instinct is to run. She teleports her group to another plane. These characters begin to become aware of their own existence within the panels themselves. Reality, time and consciousness bend and fold until no one can tell which way is up or down. Zatanna does not pause, she pushes everyone forward trying to avoid the force chasing her. Despite her intention of doing good, her actions once again have turned out to have the opposite impact. Zatanna is stuck in the pattern of either living for some future version of herself or obsessed with the mistakes of her past. It is a past she is too afraid to face so she tries to outrun it. None of these behaviors prevent her from feeling trapped and helpless. This is ultimately why Zatanna has lost her powers.
Misty Kilgore’s introduction at the end of Zatanna #1 represents the unknown. We know little about her apart from her eagerness to be near Zatanna. Misty clings to Zatanna’s story, wide-eyed and eager for more. Misty’s desire to have Zatanna teach her how to perform magic, knowing she is unable to, delivers a message about knowledge and power. So often, power is associated with those who take bold action. Action without forethought, however, is how Zatanna ended up here. Misty understands there’s more to Zatanna than her ability to perform magic. There’s also her vulnerability, knowledge, empathy, and compassion.
Misty stands before Zatanna, asking her for help, asking her for guidance, asking for mothering. It becomes clear to the reader that Misty and Zatanna see themselves in one another and the moment we realize this, is the moment all of our fates become entwined as we embark into the unknown.
Zatanna has lived her life interested in the solid, in the knowable and observable. These have served as the guardrails she has falsely accused of keeping her safe and providing comfort. In Zatanna #1, we meet a woman who has often defined herself by men and all they epitomize in a patriarchal society. These men embody structure, conformity, and the status quo. To become unstuck, to create her own legacy, Zatanna must forge a new path.
Seven Soldiers of Victory: Zatanna #1
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Ryan Sook
Inker: Mick Gray
Colorist: Nathan Eyring
Letterer: Jared K. Fletcher