Young Justice Zatanna was the best Zatanna
Because of the campaign to bring the Young Justice cartoon back with Netflix there’s no better time to talk about that wonderful cartoon. The show treated all of its characters well, but recently I’ve been thinking about one of them in particular. Zatanna the maiden of magic, the stage magician who can perform real magic by saying spells backwards, and the wife of Paul Dini. She’s certainly been around in the comic and animation world, with guest appearances in Batman the Animated Series, Justice League Unlimited, Batman the Brave and the Bold, even a small recurring role on Smallville, along with several video games. But by far her best incarnation was on the Young Justice cartoon series, where she was allowed to be more than a simple special guest star.
Many were introduced to her in those guest appearances, thanks in no small part to Paul Dini. Zatanna is one of his favourite characters and as such he wrote her into an episode of Batman TAS where she was a love interest for Batman. That was something carried over into her appearance on Justice League, also written by Dini. She is one of the characters he likes to push for in his works, it seems. He even married real life magician Misty Lee, who contacted DC after being pointed to a Zatanna comic Dini wrote because of their shared likeness. She was probably convinced not to try and sue after someone pointed out the character was created in 1964, and her costume hasn’t drastically altered since then. But Dini wasn’t going to let his comic book love made flesh get away, and they eventually got married. So it is surprising that for all of Dini’s love of the character Zatanna doesn’t get much out of his cartoons. She shows off her powers and is Batman’s ex-girlfriend, but pretty much nothing else and that’s a little disappointing.
In the comics she hasn’t fared much better in recent years, being a major part of the 2004 Identity Crisis story had terrible effects for most of the major characters. In that story she was retconned into mindwiping heroes and villains to make for lots of stupid story drama. She wiped villains minds who had discovered heroes identities, and then messed around with Dr Light’s personality after he raped Sue Dibney, wife of Elongated Man. When Batman showed up in the middle of this she wiped his mind too, and it was revealed later that she messed around with Catwoman’s mind to turn her from a villain to a hero. Afterwards writers did their best to move the character past that, but that’s hard when Identity Crisis is the highest profile comic she’s been in. Though thankfully for her the DC universe has been rebooted since then, and also cartoons are a lot more higher profile than comics.
The Young Justice cartoon works so much better than her other versions because it remembers where she came from and uses that in its adaptation. She’s the daughter of a Golden Age hero called Zatara, a magician who also used backwards magic spells. Created in 1938 he even debuted in the same issue as Superman’s debut, Action Comics #1. He was pretty much a male version of Zatanna, or more accurately she’s a female version of him, even with almost identical costumes. Though Zatara never wore fishnet stockings in his magic acts, which is a big shame. In 1964 Zatanna first appeared in a storyline threaded through several DC comics of the time, in it she was searching for her missing father. She was a bit younger than her modern self, and definitely younger than the contemporary heroes she enlisted aid from, like Batman, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, the Atom, Elongated Man, and Green Lantern. She eventually freed her father from his curse with the help of the Justice League.
While Young Justice doesn’t adapt any of that the show does remember that Zatara was a hero, Zatanna was younger when she was introduced, and that she lost him for a time and that her driving motivation was to get him back. Since the show is about the younger heroes growing up and taking on more responsibility it makes sense that Zatanna be introduced as a teenager just like the main characters. Zatara is on the Justice League and while it wasn’t entirely clear if his daughter was a hero like himself he still took her to meet the Team so she could make friends with her peer group, ones that also have weird hero lives.
She becomes friends with them and even joins them on a few missions, without her father’s consent and he grounds her for it. When your father’s a powerful magician then grounding is a little bit harder than a regular one, I would assume. We even hear that Zatanna has spells prepared for when she needs to sneak out of the house. Zatara is presented as a loving single father who may seem strict and over protective, but is just honestly worried something might happen to his daughter given what he deals with on a regular basis. We don’t learn what happened to Zatanna’s mother, but given it’s something Zatara couldn’t save her from it’s safe to assume that’s where his over protectiveness comes from.
Then in episode 19 Misplaced, one of the best episodes of the show, the worst comes to pass. Klarion, a Lord of Chaos, splits the world in two. A world of adults and a world of children. It takes the combined efforts of the Justice League and the Team to stop them on both worlds, but even that’s not enough. Zatanna has to don the helmet of Fate to stop them, whoever wears the helmet is possessed by Nabu, a Lord of Order, and Nabu has been looking for a new host with magical adeptness. When the crisis is over and the worlds whole again Nabu refuses to release Zatanna because the world clearly needs his protection after these events. Zatara steps in and makes the ultimate sacrifice for his daughter, offering to take her place as the host for Nabu. They get a few seconds to say goodbye before Zatara is gone forever.
It is such a heart wrenching moment, then afterwards we see her moving her things into Mount Justice, the Team’s headquarters, to live with Superboy and Miss Martian since she has no other home to go to. The Team is there for her, and she puts on a brave face, but when she’s all alone in her room she breaks down and cries. Her father’s not dead, but it certainly feels like it. In fact it’s far worse because his body is still there, still a member of the Justice League, but that’s not her father anymore. When they meet again she can still see her father’s eyes, but know it’s someone else behind those eyes. He can’t comfort her anymore, can’t scold her, can’t be her father anymore. A fate worse than death.
Just like the original comics she’s lost her father to magic and we see her dealing with it. Though unlike the comics there wasn’t a quest storyline to try and bring him back. We see her try and fail to remove the helmet in the season one final, but that was her trying to take advantage of another situation. I’d imagine Zatanna would end up studying magic a lot more as well as reading up on Nabu and the helmet, becoming more adept at magic in order to free her father. Though it is never directly mentioned we do see that five years later he is still possessed by Nabu. In an even more awkward twist she joins the Justice League so she’ll be constantly reminded of her lose whenever they see each other in League meetings or out saving the world.
She has such tragedy and lose as part of her character in this series, and she’s not even introduced until over halfway through the first season. We also only get three episodes with her before she loses her father, and that’s counting the episode that happens in. So it’s not like there’s a lot of time needed to do this kind of storyline, but Young Justice was the only series to do anything like this with her. Any of the other series could’ve easily done a “Zatanna’s Search” story for an episode to adapt her search for her lost father, but none of them used her in a way other than a fun magician character who had a previous relationship with Batman. And she was great in Batman TAS and Justice League Unlimited, but all she was there was a fun magical hero. She didn’t really have that much depth to her in those series, she was a foil for Batman rather than being something all on her own. Young Justice provided that for her, and I hope that her next appearance will do that for her too. Go watch Young Justice on Netflix so we can get a third season and see if Zatanna ever gets to reunite with her father.