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From Ace Cooper to Zatara: the legacy of magic in comic books


Even in a medium defined by heroes who do the impossible, comic book writers continue to develop characters whose abilities surpass the boundaries of human knowledge by use of magic. More than a mere narrative cheat, this allows creators to stretch outside the even loose boundaries of science-fiction and tell stories that would otherwise be impossible. From stage performers to special effects to actual mysticism, magic has become inextricably linked to super-heroic adventures.

With theatrical showmanship and fabulous costumes, stage magicians are fertile ground for comic book heroics. A short-lived European cartoon called The Magician even had a stint on the Fox network in 1999, sporting a look similar to the popular Batman and Superman animated series. The hero, Ace Cooper, was a stage magician and superhero flanked by his sidekick and assistant Cosmo. And just in case that wasn’t enough zaniness, this all took place in the year 3000.

The most famous stage magician in superhero continuity, though, is DC’s Zatanna–a member of the Justice League and childhood friend to Bruce Wayne, aka Batman. Though she has powerful innate magical abilities, she steadfastly abstains from using them during her shows. In fact, she often uses mastery of sleight-of-hand tricks as a meditation and practice for using her actual powers. Her secret identity is not-so-secret, as her crime-fighting outfit is often portrayed as the same stocking-clad tops-and-tails tuxedo as she uses during performances.

Zatanna first appeared in 1964, but even at the time she was essentially a new, female version of an already-existing character. It was a soft reboot, of sorts, making her the daughter of Giovanni Zatara, who preceded her by almost 30 years. Despite his relative obscurity, Zatara shared a debut with the one of most famous characters of all time. Action Comics #1, widely known as the first appearance of Superman, was an anthology of 11 different superhero stories. Superman was the showpiece and claimed the most pages of the book, but Zatara was actually a close second.

Zatara was just one of many comic book characters who struck an uncanny resemblance to Mandrake the Magician, a popular comic strip introduced just four years before Zatara. Mandrake was more known for his hypnosis techniques, hailing from a time when hypnotic suggestion was more associated with mysticism than psychology, but he was known to adopt other powers as needed. Mandrake and Zatara were both stage magicians who also had magical powers and fought criminals, but the similarities even extended to oddly specific aspects–each of them had a hulking bodyguard from a foreign land.

What differentiated Zatara from other characters of his day was a stylistic flourish introduced by artist Fred Guardineer. Zatara controlled his powers through backwards-speech, casting any spell by describing its effect in reverse. Fire, for example, could be summoned by uttering the word “iref.” It was a small touch, but one that invited kids to imitate the gimmick. Years later his daughter, Zatanna, uses the same gimmick to express her own superpowers most of the time.

DC Comics attempted to make lightning strike twice a few years after Zatara’s first appearance, with another wizard named Sargon. He’s been a minor character and bit player in stories revolving around the magical heritage of some in the DC universe, but never caught on the way Zatara did. Instead, he’s often used to expand the universe of magicians.

Magic does carry one more special application within the DC universe, however, and it appropriately ties Zatara together with the much more famous Action Comics hero who shared his debut issue. Superman, often criticized as too powerful for his own good, is actually vulnerable to sorcery. This doesn’t mean that the presence of magic itself weakens him, as in the case of kryptonite. It simply means he is not invulnerable to magical attacks in the same way that he is to most physical attacks. Superman can stand in a raging inferno without feeling the slightest tickle, but a magical fire will hurt and burn him just as much as anyone else. Given Superman’s wide range of abilities and near-invincibility, this is one rare gap in his armor.

That may be why Superman’s first super-powered nemesis wasn’t a rogue Kryptonian or hulking alien, but rather, a magical imp from the 5th Dimension known as Mister Mxyzptlk. The character is often portrayed as silly and mischievous, not malicious, but his disregard for the inhabitants of our dimension can cause some real chaos. In the classic tradition of Rumpelstiltskin, he is traditionally only defeated when his own name is used against him. In a touch borrowed from Zatara, though, Mxyzptlk has to be tricked into saying or spelling his own vowel-barren name backwards. The plot contrivances needed to force a character to say “Kltpzyxm” can only be repeated so often, so more recent comics have found other ways to banish the little imp.

In contrast to DC, Marvel has made its name on being tethered to the real world. Events in the Marvel universe take place in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles instead of stand-ins like Metropolis, Gotham, and Coast City. Real events like national elections and 9/11 have been incorporated directly into Marvel books.

With that added layer of realism comes the ability to host real-life cameos, as a Spider-Man and Deadpool book did last year. That issue featured an appearance from magic duo Penn and Teller, written by Penn Jillette himself, while the book’s usual writers took the extra time to work ahead on the next issue. Among the shenanigans, the always-silent Teller disguised himself Deadpool, a wink-nudge joke for those familiar with Deadpool’s persona as an obnoxiously chatty anti-hero. The two take on a super villain and ultimately defeat him with, what else, a card trick.

Of course, the world of magic is innately about deception and trickery, which naturally lends itself to occasional villainy. Mysterio, a B-tier Spider-Man villain and member of the collective Sinister Six, was a special effects producer who realized he could create illusions to mask his crimes. His schemes often revolve around trickery, but comic storylines are nothing without some escalation, so he’s occasionally turned to hypnosis, deals with demons, and actual magic. A minor Marvel villain known as the Magician is similarly a trickster without any supernatural powers. His name, Lee Guardineer, is a hat-tip to the creator of DC’s Zatara.

Much more pervasive in Marvel continuity is the existence of real magic and mysticism. Marvel has a wide array of categories for its super-powered characters, from mutants to aliens to actual magic, and most famous among the latter is Doctor Strange. Having earned his own film and a spot on the Avengers, Strange was an accomplished surgeon who lost the use of his hands following an accident. Turning to mysticism for a cure, he discovered a cabal of magic users led by the Ancient One, and ultimately became the Sorcerer Supreme protector of earth–a title given the most powerful magic-user of any given world. Though he has learned to control magic with a great degree of innate skill, he relies heavily on the use of magical artifacts.

On some level, all comic book superheroes are fantastical in some way. There doesn’t seem to be much difference, narratively, between the super-science of Iron Man or Wonder Woman’s near-invulnerability and a character like Doctor Strange who taps into a supernatural force to draw upon his abilities. The power of magic in comic books and super heroics goes beyond a mere extra avenue for larger-than-life stories, by providing writers and readers with the power of the unknown. Science-fiction is constrained by its own narrative limitations and has to work within the rules it sets for itself. In the hands of a good writer, magic can be limitless.