Zatara where he was seldom seen, on the cover of Action Comics. Artist: Fred Guardineer.


Medium: Comic books
Published by: DC Comics
First Appeared: 1938
Creator: Fred Guardineer
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In the late 1930s, comic books featuring new material started appearing on the scene — or sort of new, anyway. They may not have been direct reprints of newspaper comics, like …

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… their predecessors, but an awful lot of the features in them were strongly reminiscent of successful strips. Imitations of Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, etc. abounded; and superheroes dressed like stage magicians, looking and acting for all the world like Mandrake, became so common they formed a distinct sub-genre.

The most prolific creator of such characters was Fred Guardineer, the cartoonist behind Yarko the Great (Fox Feature Syndicate); Marvelo, Monarch of Magicians (Columbia Comics); Tor the Magic Master (Quality Comics, and no relation) and other tuxedo-clad super-magicians. The first and longest-lasting Guardineer creation was Zatara the Magician, who began in DC's Action Comics #1 (June, 1938), the same issue that introduced Superman.

At first, Zatara was considered a big enough draw to wrest a few covers away from the Man of Steel, but he soon settled into a comfortable niche in the back pages. He remained there until 1950, when new features and shrinking pagecounts crowded him out. He also appeared in the back pages of most 1940s issues of World's Finest Comics, where Superman and Batman shared the covers.

Like Mandrake, Zatara had a large, brawny servant, Tong, who hailed from exotic climes, to do the muscle work. Also like Mandrake, Zatara could do more than mere stage magic. By speaking backward, he could cause anything — man, beast, or inanimate object — to do his bidding. These powers were unexplained at the time, but post-series retcons involving inherited mystical tendencies, extra-dimensional sorceresses and suchlike made them as plausible as those of any other superhero. It was also in his post-series existence that readers found out he had a first name, Giovani (tho he usually went by "John").

That post-series existence began in 1964, when his hitherto-unseen daughter, Zatanna, guest-starred with Hawkman. Apparently, he'd been missing for some years, and she was on a quest to find him. Ultimately, she did, but only after milking the storyline for months, drawing Green Lantern, The Atom and various others into the quest. Once he'd returned, Zatara spent many years as an occasionally-seen background character in the DC Universe, tho he never again had a series of his own.

Eventually, unable to generate much reader interest in him, they killed him off. The act was performed in Swamp Thing #50 (July, 1986), in an incident that also whacked his fellow magician-superhero, Sargon the Sorcerer. Zatara's ghost has turned up here and there, but with Mandrake-like magicians decades out of fashion in comic books, his corporeal form has scarcely been missed.


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Text ©2002-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © DC Comics.