It’s A Snack! With Sara Century: Zatanna’s First Appearance is a Spooky Romp

Zatanna Zatara is one of DC’s most successful legacy characters, having all but completely replaced her Golden Age era superhero father John Zatara in the public consciousness. Though it’s true that she hasn’t gotten enough page-time by half over the years, her stories have been mostly delightful, and she has long reigned as DC’s underrated queen of the guest appearance.

Case in point, her first appearance occurred in Hawkman #4 (1964), but it quickly sprawled into one of DC’s earliest crossover events as her search for her father spanned The Atom #19, Detective Comics #355, Green Lantern #49, and finally drawing to a close in Justice League of America #51. Though she’s reeling from the loss of her father and taking DC’s often-terrifying mystical world on all alone in these stories, she’s smart, level-headed, endearing, and fun. Zatanna’s Search is an underrated Halloween-adjacent story that spans several titles, and it’s a great place to start if you want to see what’s so great about Zatanna.

Zatanna’s father John Zatara showed up for the first time in Action Comics #1, also the first appearance of another rather obscure character who goes by the name of Superman. In its early days, Action Comics served as more of an anthology that told the story of various pulp heroes before ultimately focusing on, what’s his name again? Ah, yes – Superman. Zatara made many appearances throughout the Golden Age, starring in the first one hundred and thirty-two or so issues of Action Comics and the first fifty-one issues of World’s Finest, but by the time of the Silver Age’s superhero resurgence, he hadn’t appeared in a comic in sixteen years and had all but been forgotten. This was not the first superhero crossover by a longshot, but it was still the first story of its kind in DC continuity, introducing a saga that winded its way through no less than four different series over three years before seeing its conclusion in Justice League #51 in 1967.

Our saga kicks off in Hawkman #4 with the truly bizarre “The Girl Who Split In Two.” Archeologist power couple Carter and Shiera Hall, otherwise known as Hawkman and Hawkgirl, discover that two mysterious artifacts have appeared at the Midway City Museum unexplained. The two decide to split up to figure it out, one flying to China and the other to Ireland in hopes of discovering the origins of these pieces. They each find a Zatanna, speaking in sentence fragments and unable to move under her own power. Ultimately, they push the two Zatannas together, and she’s able to explain that she was looking for her father and one of her spells went awry. When they ask why she approached them, two lowly museum workers with no alternate identities of any kind they assure you, she winks, throws out a quick “sure, Jan,” and zaps her way right out of there to continue her search over in The Atom #19.

In The Atom #19 and Green Lantern #42, she continues her tour through the DC Universe. Scientist Ray Palmer sits brooding in his apartment when he gets a phone call from a girl announcing that she’d somewhat meddled in his affairs earlier that day and when he doesn’t believe her she pops right into his living room in a cloud of smoke. She explains that she needs his help to search for a sub-atomic dimension in which she believes her father may be trapped. Ray agrees to help, but they don’t have much luck locating Zatara. Instead, they come face to face with a villain known as the Druid, who almost gets the drop on them before Zatanna defeats with a card trick. Like the Hawks, The Atom can’t do much at the end besides give a hearty wave and wish her luck on her continuing journey.

Next, she pops up in Green Lantern, accidentally opening up the portal to the mysterious Land of Y’s. Green Lantern helps her resolve this and again waves at her and wishes her luck on her quest. Though Zatanna meets up with Elongated Man rather than Batman in Detective Comics #355, we discover that a witch that Batman and Robin fought in Detective Comics #336 was actually a brainwashed Zatanna, convinced that she was a standard, stereotypical Halloween witch. Batman and Robin had ultimately freed her, though they didn’t know that’s what they were doing at the moment. She and Elongated Man have a short fight with an evil pawn shop broker and then Zatanna is once more on her way.

Finally, this series of bizarre, campy adventures draws to a close in Justice League #51, though I’m always waiting for a flashback series to let us know what worlds Zatanna discovered outside of her adventures with our beloved heroes. In JL, Zatanna appears before the entire team and happily thanks them all for their help, even if Batman doesn’t actually remember helping her. Nevertheless, she asks the group for their help one last time, revealing that she’s finally discovered where her father is. Naturally, this is a trap, and a truly wild brawl breaks out between the heroes and various mythical creatures. If you have ever wanted to see Hawkman punch a Minotaur, this is your time to shine.

The entity known as Allura separates into a good and an evil version of herself, and they have a huge fight in the middle of the issue for mostly no reason other than it’s really fun to watch a person quite literally beat themselves up. Zatanna and John are reunited, though John mostly stays absent from DC after this, and the focus shifts to Zatanna as the main Zatara in DC continuity.

This story is wild, and it makes for a surprisingly fun read all these years later. As convoluted as Zatanna’s life would later become, it makes a weird kind of sense that her first appearances were this handful of spooky, weird sci-fi stories that nodded to a much longer saga that we just didn’t see that much of due to our perspective being that of the primary heroes. What other worlds Zatanna discovered in her search remain unknown, but her quirky, enigmatic presence has continued to win fans over all these decades later.

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