Welcome to the twenty-ninth edition of Adventure(s) Time, where we look back on a beloved animated series and an issue of its tie-in comic with a similar theme. This week, Batman is reunited with a figure from his past…an established character from DC lore who, up to this moment, actually had little to do with the caped crusader.
Originally airing on February 2, 1993, “Zatanna” is the fiftieth episode of Batman: The Animated Series, written by Paul Dini as one of his earliest non-Joker stories, and directed by Dick Sebast & Dan Riba (with Riba filling in after Sebast departed the show.) The animation, provided by Dong Yang Animation, has more of an anime look than many of their previous episodes, especially during Act One’s flashback scene. While some of the character acting is awkward, for the most part, this is a good looking episode from this era of the show.
As the story begins, Bruce Wayne and Alfred are enjoying a magic performance from Zatanna, voiced by comedienne and 1980s MTV mainstay Julie Brown. Bruce thinks back to his first meeting with Zatanna, when he trained under the alias “John Smith” with her late father Zatara. It’s clear Zatanna has a crush on the mysterious stranger, and doesn’t want him to move on with his travels, but Bruce, er, “John” promises to write her after he’s arrived in Japan. It’s a sly reference to the previous episode “Night of the Ninja,” and possibly an influence on the anime feel of the flashback.
Airing deep into the show’s second season, it’s clear the producers feel more confident designing female characters, with Bruce Timm’s style becoming more evident in Zatanna’s look. The elements of the “Timm Girl” are here, right down to the shorty shorts the teenage Zatanna sports in the flashback. For good or ill, cheesecake is a characteristic of the DCAU, and it’s surprising in retrospect that the censors of the era didn’t demand the female characters cover up more often.
The flashback out of the way, the story moves ahead, as Zatanna brings onstage the manager of the Gotham Mint and notorious magic debunker, Dr. Montague Kane. (Perhaps slightly inspired by the real-life skeptic, and retired magician, The Amazing Randi.) Zatanna’s next trick to make $10 million in cash disappear and then reappear. It only does the first. At Kane’s prompting, Zatanna is immediately arrested. Is Kane the true villain here? Of course he is, but to be fair, the episode doesn’t tease this revelation for long.
Batman, looking to help his old friend, frees her from police custody and enlists her help in recovering the cash. The story even points out that Batman’s possibly not doing Zatanna any favors here, but this actually works as a character point. Batman probably wouldn’t do this for anyone else, but he still cares for Zatanna, so he’s perhaps acting a bit irrationally, or simply giving her an opportunity he wouldn’t give someone else. Over the course of their investigation, they discover that the thief is actually Montague Kane, while Zatanna discerns that Batman is none other than the John Smith from her past.
With the villains in custody and Zatanna’s name cleared, the two discuss the past. In spite of his promise, Bruce/John never wrote back to Zatanna, a telling character reveal, and Zatanna reveals that she understands, walking a lonely line herself, now that her father has passed. Both characters reassure the other that Zatara would be proud of how far they’ve come. Batman offers Zatanna a ride home, only to turn around and realize she’s disappeared, leaving behind a note…and a promise to write in the future.
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