Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Witchcraft: Zatanna!

In October of 1954, the Comics Magazine Association of America, a collective of comics publishers, distributors, and printers, held a press conference to announce the creation of what would be known as the Comics Code, a set of self-imposed guidelines aimed at cleaning up the comics and salvaging the business as it faced the death knell of government censorship. Amongst the codes' original 41 requirements were such stipulations as:

-Scenes dealing with ... walking dead, torture, ... ghouls, ... and werewolfism are prohibited.
-Suggestive and salacious illustration or suggestive posture is unacceptable.
-Females shall be drawn realistically without exaggeration of any physical qualities.

Hmm.... No ghouls and ghosties? No walking dead or demons, nor devils and minions of the netherworld? No suggestive and elongated posturing or embellishment of the female form? All this considered, it's a very good thing for Paul Dini and Stephane Roux, and DC Comics, that we find ourselves not in the repressed and closed-minded world of 1950's America, for what would be left of Zatanna? Pulped down to a mere pamphlet one would think. Good for us, too, for this is a top-notch comic and a welcome addition to the DCU landscape.

Now, now, prudes and watchdogs, before one gets the impression that this fine monthly title brings with it only the salacious, the lurid, the dark and murky, dressed up in curvaceous fishnets and black patent-leather, let's be clear; it's all those things, but with STORY! and CHARACTERIZATION! and even a little bit of HEART! thrown in. Dammit if this comic doesn't make you care.

Zatanna is a most intriguing character, one who has so often been merely a bit of window-dressing on the fringe of the Justice League, brought in when a spell or some quick teleportation is needed, or just to add some sexual spice to the mix. She is, after all, a walking gallery of fetish from head to toe. Thigh-high patent-leather boots glistening wet and glossy encasing her strong calves; fishnet stockings forming a lattice wrapping up to her hips; tight brocade waistcoat cinching in her waist, pushing up her ample bosom that is nestled in the crisp clean cotton of tuxedo shirt topped with bow-tie; the masculine energy of the fitted tuxedo jacket with tales adds the element of playful androgyny, as do the fitted white gloves and tall top hat that finish off the look. Add the flowing cape and one has all the elements to fuel the fires of endless sexual fantasy. Just putting her in a panel, in a group scene, immediately adds a sensual energy to the dynamic. She almost requires no dialogue, no real characterization. This is her curse.

It is a sad curse, too, because there is an undeniable charm, grace, and devilish mystery to the character of Zatanna that is brought out by the best writers (and sometimes worst) that touches on how much more she could be, if given the space. Say, like her own 22 pages of space every month. Oh, look, like magic, here it is!

Writer Paul Dini, best known for his work in Warner Bros. animation and on a long run on Detective Comics, has been tasked with bringing the great magician to life and making us care about her as more than just fetish. He does so with seeming ease. Three issues in and Zatanna has struck out as a strong and credible character and formidable superhero, with deft humor and cleverness. She is fearless in battle, ready to step into the lair of a villain without breaking a sweat, and when faced with attack both mystical and physical, shows her skill not just with the casting of spells, but also with the throwing of a punch when the need arises.

Dini has given her a base of operations in the beautiful, fog-drenched hills of San Francisco, and given her a sense of purpose, to aid law-enforcement with her expertise in the dark arts of sorcery and magic. When San Francisco's finest stumble upon a gangland killing in a nightclub, and discover the bodies of the human victims have been transformed into toads and pigs, they call in Zee. She swoops in like a plainclothes detective in (stylish) trench coat and lays down the supernatural CSI routine without batting a long Maybelline eyelash. She takes care of business, see, no fishnets required. Dini writes Zee with an element of noir-ish "dame", a gal-Friday for our Modern Times; it fits perfectly with the setting and tone of the book. Don't be fooled by the abracadabra and hocus-pocus, this is West Coast crime fiction; Sunshine Noir without the sunshine.

But this is comics, kids. These are the picture books, the funnies the younger generation is going mad for. We want those salacious and lurid drawings of the exaggerated female form that spits in the eyes of your Comics Code. We want hell-spawn demons and dream-stealing imps, brought to oozing and dripping life in vivid color. We want comics in all their glory, and here, thanks to the wonderful work of artist Stephane Roux, we get it, and we get it so good. There is more to his art, though, than mere cheesecake and gore, and in actuality, those terms seem dirty when describing Roux's art, for it transcends those crude descriptors by leaps. His Zatanna is no helium-filled inked up sexual marker; she is a full-bloodied woman of strong emotion and power of expression. Roux animates her face with such ferocity in certain panels that one feels Zee's face may burst off the page. Zee doesn't just merely say her dialogue and cast her spells, she feels it all naturally, experiences every line as if it is being brought forth from deep inside her. Her laughter, her tears, her veracity, her compassion are all real and honest. And when there are moments where we are afforded a sly glimpse of protruding hip or décolletage, it doesn't seem exploitative in the least; she is an attractive, sexual woman, and is empowered enough to be allowed to be all of herself, all the time. Roux presents her as a work of art; she exists already, he is only drawing her essence.

The real remarkable magic with Zatanna is in the span of three issues, it has managed to give a often misused character a strong foundation for a long and healthy run into A-list relevancy. The ghouls and walking dead, the suggestive illustration are all part and parcel to what makes this magic work. It's not simply about the ingredients, however, but how those ingredients are used. Dini and Roux prove to be fine artisans crafting together a strong work of comics art. Spellbinding stuff, indeed.

Oh, that little Comics Code? It's still around, by the by. You can still catch the seal of the CMAA on an ever-dwindling random assortment of titles. (There it is, under the #54, on this months Supergirl.) The original administrator of the Comics Code was a man by the name of Charles F. Murphy, and he enforced the code with an unflinching ruthlessness. He's gone now, as is the real power and meaning of the Code. Now, we are left with all the full-color zombies, bloody murder, gratuitous mayhem and unbridled sex we could possibly choke down. Have we won the fight for freedom of speech? Mostly. The battle for good taste? Always questionable.

Zatanna #3, written by Paul Dini with art by Stephane Roux, was released on 21 July, 2010, by DC Comics.

Further reading on the Comics Code: "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Change America" by David Hajdu, published by Picador, New York.

1 comment:

  1. Love the Comics Code history lesson!

    It's true, what Dini has managed to accomplish in only three issues is awesome. I care about a character I've never cared about before. I even got teary-eyed during the "Daddy" moments.

    I love that Dini started with such a bang, and made this arc short. I half expected the Brother Night problem to drag out, but it didn't. Thus the story was extremely satisfying. The art has been a pleasure too. Roux's style is perfect for a magical character.