Zatara’s long running series debuted in Action Comics #1, derived from the Mandrake the Magician newspaper serial. Zatara wore a top hat and tails, and gained a pencil moustache in his second appearance, making him easily the best dressed crime fighter of the age.
His trademark method of magic, casting spells by speaking backwards, was used in the first few tales, but then dropped until issue 16, after which it became standard. Before issue 16, Zatara would also say magic words, like Hagga Yooth , or Aga Dan, to cast spells, or sometimes just gesture without saying a thing. He could turn invisible, control minds, cast illusions, and transform objects. Limiting his spell casting to speaking backwards placed at least some boundary to his endless powers.
He was drawn was by Fred Guardineer, an artist I have mixed feelings about. When characters are talking, or going about everyday activities, they are painfully static, almost awkward, but when the story takes us to magical realms, underwater kingdoms or ancient times, Guardineer excels.
Zatara spends his series travelling with his massive assistant of nebulous asian descent, Tong. We never see Zatara perform before an audience, so it does not appear he is on tour. He does put on a magic show for a child, but thats an impromptu, one-on-one thing.
In issue 3 he begins a round the world excursion, stopping in Egypt, South Africa, Tibet and Shanghai, before sailing back to San Franciso in issue 11, having adventures along the way.
In his first appearance Zatara foils the plans of a thief, the Tigress, who then seems to follow Zatara around, showing up in Egypt and Tibet. Zatara always lets the Tigress escape empty-handed, but they do work together in Egypt to restore the Emerald of Cheops to the Temple of Bubastis.
Once the round the world excursion begins, Zatara’s foes are more likely to be sorcerors and ancient priests, rather than common criminals, and the stories become much more interesting, both in terms of plot and in visuals.
There is a global warming story in issue 15, though it’s a mad scientist with a heat ray who is melting the icebergs causing the seas to rise. Great art on the deluged New York City.
Scientists also send Zatara to the 4th Dimension, and to Saturn. On Saturn, Zatara meets Porra, a tall, muscular, bald, green-skinned man wearing a blue cape and straps crossed over his chest. He really could not look more like the Martian Manhunter if he tried. The story itself even deals with a drought on the planet, and using canals. This soooo should have been set on Mars, then I could claim a golden age appearance for Martian Manhunter, but I can’t.
In issue 17 Zatara sets off for his “yearly vacation” in Europe. Now, he only got back to the US in issue 11, sailed down to Brazil to find the Fountain of Youth in issue 14, travelled to Mongolia and back to steal a gem for display at the New York World’s Fair (a story related in that volume), and did his trips to Saturn and the 4th Dimension, so it’s hard to see why he needs another vacation, particularly in Europe in late 1939! Zatara clearly was not keeping up with world events.
Nevertheless he goes, and after winding up in the underwater kingdom of Atlantis, overthrowing a tyrant and restoring the Queen to her youth and the throne, Zatara makes it to Africa, where he encounters the first Gorilla City that would appear in a DC comic. It was created by a mad scientist, and is destroyed at the end of the tale, but the idea would remain.
Zatara made two cover appearances in this era. In fact, he was the only feature other than Superman to get a cover of Action Comics until the 1960s.
Zatara continues in the Early Golden Age
Zatara: Action Comics 1 – 19 (June 38 – Dec 39)
New York World’s Fair 1939