31 Days of Seven Soldiers, Day 13 - <i>Zatanna</i> #3

Ah, the weird "no butt" cover.  What's up with that?  This is issue brings our heroes together even more, and our old friend Neh-buh-loh shows up.  Who doesn't love our favorite grown-up universe????

Oops.  Was that a SPOILER?  Well, even if it wasn't, there are plenty of SPOILERS ahead!  I mean, can you believe what happens to ... but that would be SPOILING!  Read on!

There it is.  Why no butt, Ryan Sook?  Has anyone ever gotten to the - forgive me - bottom of this?  This might be the most disturbing image of the entire series.

We begin at a graveyard.  A bus pulls up and drops off a bunch of ghosts.  Ghost Rider himself is driving!  He asks the guy in the back if he's getting off, and the old guy tells him he has one more stop to make.  If the bus looks familiar, it's because we saw it at the end of Shining Knight #2.  If the old guy looks familiar, it's because we saw him, too, at the end of Shining Knight #2.  We have read carefully enough to realize that it's Ali Ka-Zoom, who was named in Zatanna #2 when our heroine and Cassandra discussed his cabinet before trapping Gwydion in it.  We also know that he was a member of the Newsboy Army, so he has a connection to Ed Stargard and the Manhattan Guardian.  We don't know yet that Don Vincenzo, who is stabling Vanguard at his mansion and who has just been attacked because he possesses the cauldron, was also a member of the Newsboy Army.  Do we know that for sure yet?  I know it because I've read the whole thing, but I don't think that connection has been made yet.  It doesn't matter - Vincenzo was in the Newsboy Army.

With that prologue, we switch to Zatanna and Misty confronting the Tempter, who tempted a dieting group into eating themselves to death.  Zatanna is unimpressed, but the Tempter makes a good point that in today's society, there is very little that is forbidden, so it makes his job harder.  He does offer to tell Zatanna a secret about Misty, and although we know now, in hindsight, that it's a doozy, Zatanna scoffs at the notion that Misty could have secrets.  The Tempter tries to entice Misty, but she tells him that they are there to exorcise him, and they do.  All is well.

This is an interesting little sequence, for several reasons.  Remember, this is a fictional work, and it's written by Grant Morrison, so we should always remember that writers, and Morrison in particular, rarely waste words.  So when the Tempter says Misty has a secret, we should believe him, even though Zatanna doesn't.  Misty, remember, appeared suddenly, controls a magic die, uses Zatanna's spells, and is named "Misty," which is a nice, ethereal kind of name.  The Tempter, meanwhile, is simply an embodiment of what everyone goes through - and something heroes are supposed to overcome, but occasionally fail to do.  I keep coming back to Zatanna's biggest sin - erasing the memories of DC's heroes and villains, including the Big Nocturnal Dude.  She succumbed to temptation and took the easy way out.  This is her penance.  We also get some meta-commentary from Morrison - the Tempter is an old DC villain, but has become obsolete.  Zatanna isn't there to fight him, but "remove him from the continuity," so to speak, something that has obsessed Morrison since Animal Man.  It's interesting that Morrison is doing this with the Tempter, because of his obvious love for characters precisely like him.  So why get rid of the Tempter?  Well, Zatanna, as I mentioned, is doing this for selfish reasons.  She as much says so on the next page.  Zatanna is falling into the trap that the other Seven Soldiers are falling into - namely, searching for something outside of themselves to give them absolution.  Zatanna can't exorcise the guilt in her heart, so she searches for a symbol of that guilt - the temptation that pushed her into mindwiping Dr. Light and Batman, among others - and "defeats" it in the same way she would any other supervillain.  But she still hasn't learned a thing.  This issue, I'm pretty sure, came out chronologically before Will Pfeifer had Zatanna show up in Catwoman, where Selina used that old bugaboo, guilt, to get Zatanna to mindwipe people again.  That was a decent story, but if Zatanna had grown up at all, she would have refused Selina's request.  That would have been the act of an adult.  Zatanna, even after this series, is still a child.  I understand that in the corporate world of DC, character growth is a complete afterthought when there's a story to be told, but with talented writers such as Morrison and Pfeifer (who isn't as good as Morrison on many levels, but is doing a very good job examining Selina psychologically) failing to move Zatanna forward, what hope does anyone have?

Misty intuitively grasps the Fourth Rule of Magic: Preparation - always keep at least one card up your sleeve, which she gets probably because she herself has a doozy of a card up her sleeve.  That gives us: 1. Nothing is what it seems; 2. Learn to fool the experts; 3. If you can't keep it down, don't bring it up; 4. Be prepared.  Misty asks her if this is what she does, for no money.  Zatanna is trying to be maternal and give Misty a chance, because - and here she slips into self-pity, the refuge of the loser - as far as she's concerned, she (Zatanna) can't suffer enough.  Jeez, Zatanna, would you like a few nails to take up on that cross with you?  Before Zatanna can whine a bit more, she runs into - literally - Ali Ka-Zoom, who is luckily incorporeal and so doesn't get hurt.  That was nice.

Ali drags his cabinet out of the back of Zatanna's station wagon and tells them a bit about it.  A dozen cops went in there (actually, "about" a dozen - might it have been 13?), including a "metanormal investigator," but none ever came back out.  Agent Helligan is a metanormal investigator, as is Cameron Chase - maybe she's in Ali Ka-Zoom's cabinet (oh, fret not - I know she's alive and well in the DCU).  Ali tells Zatanna he needs to burn it to release its energy, which upsets our heroine - Cassandra paid $20,000 for it.  Ali says she can make a better one for three dollars (the cost of a comic book?) and that there's nothing in it - just a "big deep hole, where we dropped a poor, foolish boy" because "he did something the rest of us decided was wrong."  Ali is speaking of the Newsboy Army, and Captain 7, whose sad fate we'll see in The Manhattan Guardian #4.  So fret not!  All will be revealed!

While they burn the cabinet, Ali continues to reminisce: "There were seven of us, just kids.  Oh, and I musn't forget the dog.  Richest dog in the world: that's what the Guinness Book of Records called him."  Ali tells her that their last adventure took them to Slaughter Swamp, where they met the Fairy Queen and the Terrible Time Tailor.  This is the first time we have heard of the Terrible Time Tailor, but not the last, as he will remain a force in the saga from now on.  It reminds us of the big sewing machine in Seven Soldiers #0, and the Seven Unknown Men, and the fact that there were only six of them.  Is the Terrible Time Tailor the seventh?  Did he go rogue, as apparently each iteration of teams of seven must have a traitor among them?  We'll see.  Ali asks Zatanna if she thinks it's a coincidence they ran into each other, and mentions that it feels like a "mystery string" is holding everything together.  Morrison is indulging in some meta-commentary once again.  This won't be the last time Ali mentions things being held together.

The next page takes us to a familiar mansion, belonging to one Vincenzo, the Undying Don.  Zatanna is a bit put off by the fact that Ali is taking her and Misty off on his own agenda, but Ali ignores her.  We get some more good information - Ali tells her about the cauldron of rebirth and plenty (until now, we had known it only as the one of rebirth) and how it ended up in the hands of "a kid called Scarface, from the Lower East Side."  Scarface grew up and forgot his friends.  Ali doesn't state it explicitly, but we can infer that Scarface was another member of the Newsboy Army - we get confirmation of this later.  They drive onto the estate and see corpses all around, pierced by many arrows.  They also see a giant spider that has been ripped apart, which Misty approaches.  She whispers that it's still breathing, which confused me.  Are those things that Neh-buh-loh rides living or not?  Does he switch from robots to actual giant spiders?  This also is the first clue that this issue, although released before Shining Knight #4, actually takes place chronologically after it.  When last we saw this spider, Neh-buh-loh sat confidently upon it, riding into the estate to lay waste to it.  There was a great battle here, but we missed it.  Not to worry - we will see it in good time.  Zatanna freaks out when Misty gets close to the spider, saying, "You don't know where it's been!"  Misty says she does know: "It's been all the way from the dawn of time to the last days and back ..."  She then says it's like they killed one of her favorite toys.  If we weren't suspicious of Misty before now, we should be when she makes this speech.  She knows, for instance, that the spider has traveled through time - from the dawn of time - Justin's period - to the last days - where the Sheeda come from.  She also thinks of it as a toy.  Considering that her "evil stepmother" - Gloriana Tenebrae - made her spin, just like the good princesses of fairy tales, this must mean that the spider, or one like it, was a companion of hers, or maybe she just felt a kinship to it.  Remember the myth of Arachne, who claimed to spin as well as Athena and was turned into a spider for her arrogance.  Morrison spills the beans about Misty later in the issue, so it's not like we don't get confirmation of our suspicions, but it's interesting language that she uses right here.

Zatanna doesn't have time to ask her what she means, because Ali spots Vanguard (and calls him "Horsefeathers," which is what Vincenzo called him - I haven't been able to figure out why both men use that term), who is being menaced by Sheeda soldiers.  Note the spear in the chest of Vanguard - very Christ-like.  Misty tells the Sheeda to stop, and they do.  Zatanna isn't sure why, although Misty wonders if they are afraid of her die.  Vanguard talks in the language of Avalon, but switches to English and brings Zatanna up to speed (off-panel).  Vanguard also mentions that "two nights" ago, Ali Ka-Zoom saw Justin alive, so he has to go look for him.  While Misty wonders why a halo of flying knights is familiar, Zatanna seeks Ali's advice.  Ali, however, ignores her in order to administer to Vincenzo.  It turns out he really is dead (which we could guess, since he was on the bus in the beginning) and he's there to take Vincenzo with him.   He calls him "little soldier," further strengthening the link between the Newsboy Army and the Seven Soldiers.  He takes Vincenzo's soul, then tells Zatanna that the Seven Unknown Men of Slaughter Swamp are her best hope now.  Is this a reference to the Seven Unknown Men we know about, or is he referring to the so far unknown Seven Soldiers, implying they are the new Unknown Men of the swamp?  He leaves by telling Zatanna to make sure she tells Misty the last rule of magic: The magician has to vanish along with his trick, leaving the audience and his beautiful assistants to carry on without him.  This seems to imply that Zatanna will die or at least vanish at the end of the saga, but we find out that's not true.  He could be telling this to Misty, who has another trick to play.  He could also be referring to Giovanni, who did this very thing.

Ali takes Vincenzo onto the bus of souls, where the Tempter sits, complaining about his fate.  He sees Vincenzo and mentions that they met in the Haunted Hall of Mirrors when Vincenzo was eleven.  He tries to sit down and talk, but Ali shoves him out of the way.  He implies to the driver that something unpleasant is going to happen to the Tempter.  Poor guy!  Notice that Vincenzo doesn't speak throughout this entire scene.  Presumably it's because he can't, because he's dead.  But Ali says that he himself is dead, so why can he speak?

Zatanna and Misty, meanwhile, are still at Vincenzo's mansion.  Zatanna steps over Crazyface's corpse as the cloud of Strato floats by.  I assume it's Strato, because Misty says it "has a face like a dead Japanese guy."  Zatanna gives us a bit of a summary, then wonders what happened to her day.  Misty reminds her to always be prepared, and asks if they can call in the Justice League.  I'm glad someone thought of that!  Zatanna, however, is not prepared to do that, because of her actions.  She says, "I was a really bad superhero, Misty.  I did lots of stuff superheroes shouldn't do and what's worse, I got caught."  Let's revisit that below.  Suddenly they see Neh-buh-loh carrying the cauldron.  Zatanna wants Misty to run, but Misty says she knows him.  Neh-buh-loh asks, "Princess?" and Misty knows his name.  Zatanna realizes that there's a lot more to Misty than we all thought, and Misty flashes back to a scene where she's at her loom and the Queen tells Neh-buh-loh to cut out her heart, as she plans to live forever and therefore has no need for an heir.  In anguish, Neh-buh-loh takes her on his spider out to the forest, but, as he explains, her "symmetry," "grace and laughter" touched his heart, and in a moment of weakness, he couldn't do it.  He brought back the brain of a 31st-century telepathic savant and she told the empire you had died.  Some at the annotations speculate about which Legion of Super-Heroes member this is.  If, at some point, Neh-buh-loh shows up in that book, that would be the coolest thing ever.  Anyway, he tells them that mourning continued, significantly, for 13 months, and then, without the cauldron, Gloriana and the empire withered.  Misty, her memories coming back, says they made her sit in Castle Revolving and spin a cobweb dress, and the more she spun, the less she remembered.  Neh-buh-loh says he must take the cauldron back, and that he sees no beauty in Misty now, only "guilt made flesh."  There it is again.  Misty says that her stepmother rules Summer's End, and if she gets the cauldron she'll live forever.  Neh-buh-loh, meanwhile, is about to go nuclear, telling Misty, in a last attempt at decency, to run for her life.  Zatanna summons Vanguard (apparently her powers are back - does it have something to do with Misty regaining her memories and therefore transferring Zatanna's powers back to her) and the three of them flee the scene.

This is a fascinating scene, because it ties into so many archetypal fairy tales.  The annotations (link below!) offer many interpretations, and there's a link to an article about weaving in mythology, if you're so inclined.  Of course, weaving is creation, like any artistic venture, so there's that, but we also use the metaphor in speaking of writing a story, and Morrison is being self-referential here again.  Misty is at the loom of stories, and Gloriana Tenebrae is trying to stop her. Given that Morrison is trying to create his own version of the DCU, could Gloriana Tenebrae be the old comics guard, stifling creative thought and lopping it off whenever it gets too high?  Could this be a grand metaphor of the comics industry in general?

Well, sure, why the hell not, but I'm not going there, no sir!  I'll stick to more literal interpretations, and the idea of the older generation trying to stifle the younger generation, which is a theme that runs through fairy tales, is as far as I'm willing to go.  There is also a return to the idea of control, as the Queen of Terror wants to control every aspect of life, to the point where she defies the natural order to live forever.  However, the scene with Neh-buh-loh returns to our grand theme of guilt, guilt made flesh, which is of course what the Mood 7 Mind Destroyer is.  Neh-buh-loh does the right thing, but he has been bred to destroy, so he lives with the guilt of doing the right thing, and it almost drives him mad.  We will see what destroys him in the end: the presence, deep inside him, of superheroes - specifically, the Ultramarines.  They "infect" him with just the smallest nugget of goodness, and this, perhaps, is why he spares Misty in the first place.  He struggles against his "programming" and succeeds for a moment, giving Misty the chance to escape.  So even the villains deal with guilt, and cannot overcome it.

We see Zatanna still struggling with it, and this ties back into the idea that these "soldiers" need to learn how to be heroes.  Jake and Zatanna are, so far, the most "superheroic" of the soldiers, but Zatanna is coming at it from being an insider - she's a JLA member, after all.  She has lost that heroic ideal, and is struggling to regain it.  But she's in danger of sinking more and more into self-pity - whenever she gets any time to reflect, she comes off like a whining martyr - she's in her Jesus Christ pose, you might say.  She really reaches her nadir when Misty asks her about contacting the Justice League.  She has taken the burden of mind-wiping Dr. Light and the others solely on herself - sure, she did the actual "surgery," but it was goddamned Oliver Queen (hmmm ... Queen ...) who rubber-stamped the actions.  Zatanna is guilty of being susceptible to peer pressure, sure, but the idea that the JLA will have nothing to do with her after what she did demeans them.  They're heroes, right?  They were all in it together, right?  Batman has used plenty of people, and many of them have died.  You don't see him losing any sleep over it.  Suck it up, Z!

But she can't.  The guilt has gotten deep inside her, and it's inhibiting her from rediscovering her heroic roots.  Again, you'll notice that Morrison is not allowing his heroes to deal with these emotions, instead throwing obstacles in their way that allows them to ignore the emotions.  I reiterate that it's a superhero epic, but it remains interesting that Morrison is actually addressing these issues (which many superhero epics do only superficially) while still not dealing with them.  It continues to be a problem throughout.

So that's issue #3 of Zatanna.  A pretty good issue, even though it doesn't do much to advance the plot.  In fact, as we read through these, it's becoming increasingly clear that there aren't plots as such as factors moving the entire plot forward.  Zatanna, after all, has stopped Gwydion pretty easily, and in this issue she simply gets a lot of information.  But it's good information to know!

You can check out the annotations here.  As I mentioned, there are some interesting thoughts about Misty and her various fairy tale connections.  Occasionally I skip Jog's reviews, because he doesn't have much to say, but his review of this issue is really good.

Another one bites the dust!  Next: Melmoth does nasty things to Klarion!  Oh, Grant, how could you?

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