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Zatara, Master Magician (Early Golden Age)


Zatara continues to fight crime in sartorial splendour throughout this period.  For a while, his stories carry the Guardineer art credit, though this is blatantly untrue.  At least three different artists work on Zatara in this era, none as skilled as Guardineer.  This really is a shame, because the stories are often quite good, but seem less so due to the poor art.

Zatara’s powers are largely confined to his backwards speaking spell-casting, though he is able to read minds in one story.  He uses his magic to render himself invisible frequently, but also sometimes takes on a “shadowy form,” and in a number of stories sends out his astral form while his body stays behind.  Oddly, the invisibility, shadowy form and astral form are all drawn exactly the same way, as a silhouette.

Zatara frequently brings inanimate objects to life.  Many times they will give him information about the criminal, but he will also have them attack the bad guys, and twice has them manifest in human-style bodies, once with a brick wall, and another time he creates a coat-hangar man.

Zatara will also use a kind of short form for complex spells, stating what all he wants to happen, and then proclaiming “Eb Os Ti!”, which certainly saves the reader the time of working out a long backwards spell.

Tong’s appearances become sporadic, with World’s Finest 5 being his final appearance. The Tigress returns in a handful of stories, often working with other thieves.  Zatara admits that he is reluctant to see her behind bars, but still sends her to prison on occasion.

In these stories, he is often shown performing, and participates in many USO tours and bond drives.

His appearance in the 1940 New York World’s Fair is one of his best tales.  Because many pickpockets are working the Fair, Zatara creates his own exhibit, the Magic Mansion.  His audience is treated to a magic show, a battle with the pickpockets, a journey to the apex of the Trylon, a hunt for stolen jewels, even a trip to Mars as part of the show.

In most of his stories Zatara is pitted against thieves, murderers, gamblers, and con men, but he does get a bit more of a challenge in some cases.  He faces a scientist with a tornado making machine in World’s Finest 2, some renegade Atlanteans in Action 47, a musician who puts people under his control in Action 49, a human magnet in World’s Finest 7, and faces off against a hood who duplicates Zatara’s backward spell-casting in Action 61.

In Action Comics 46 some children encourage Zatara to help out in Europe, and he crosses the ocean and takes on the Nazi army, even making it to Berlin and forcing Hitler to surrender.  One can only assume Hitler went back on his word immediately after Zatara left.

Action 69, “East Meets West” has a curious element of racism, as Zatara and other magicians deal with the practitioners of Eastern magic, which they consider black magic.  The story shows the western magicians as noble and heroic and the eastern ones as liars, thieves and murderers, and dismisses their skills as “black magic.”

Action Comics 65, “The Riddle of the Tired Thespians,” may be the first appearance of the Medusa Masks, employed later by the Psycho-Pirate.  A university professor is using the masks to drain his students of emotions.  The masks are not used the way Psycho-Pirate would use them, but the long row of emotion masks certainly appears identical.

Zatara continues in the Late Golden Age

Zatara:  Action Comics 20 – 74 (Jan 40 – July 44)

New York World’s Fair 1940

World’s Best Comics 1  (Spring 41)

World’s Finest Comics  2 – 14  (Summer 41 – Summer 44)

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Zatara, Master Magician


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

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