During his run on Detective Comics, writer Paul Dini thrilled the fans of the DC magical character Zatanna when he depicted her as a powerful woman that can stand on even footing with a hero like Batman.
The writer apparently likes the character, having also written the oversized comic Zatanna: Everyday Magic and had her guest star in his ongoing Gotham City Sirens title.
Now fans are getting even more of Dini’s Zatanna as the writer begins a new ongoing series in May with artist Stephane Roux.
Dini, well-known in the comics world for his work on TV shows like Lost and Justice League Unlimited, has been working on comic books within the Batman universe lately on titles like Batman: Streets of Gotham and Gotham City Sirens. Now he begins a new ongoing with May’s Zatanna #1, creating what he describes as a “magical crime book.”
Newsarama talked with the writer about why he likes Zatanna so much and what he plans for the new ongoing comic.
Newsarama: Paul, why did Zatanna seem like a good subject for an ongoing series for you? What is it about this character that makes her so interesting to you that you thought she’d make a good lead in your next project?
Paul Dini: I felt the character was very interesting because she’s a superheroine, a magician, a mystic, a celebrity – she’s kind of a unique amalgam of a lot of things and is unique in the DC Universe, despite the fact that she’s been a part of that world for over 45 years and a recurring character in a lot of series.
Nrama: What’s the premise of the series?
Dini: It’s a book where she takes center stage, obviously. It’s a magic book primarily, but it also is a crime book. I’m experimenting with a kind of new role for her in that she’s taken it upon herself to be the guardian of people who would be victimized by evil magic users.
One of the ideas I’m playing with in the series is that there are criminals everywhere. There are criminals who prey upon ordinary people, but there are also criminals who are wizards and witches and magicians who also prey upon ordinary or innocent people because they realize there’s really no law enforcement for them. You can’t take a witch or a wizard and put them in ordinary jail. You can’t punish them the same way you can a regular lawbreaker.
Zatanna is the only person who kind of assumes that role. And so it’s going to be, in a weird way, almost like a crime book.
Nrama: So it’s got that in common with Batman.
Dini: Yeah, it’s like Batman in that it’s about someone who’s dedicated his life to finding people who victimize other people.
Nrama: Is she going to have a supporting cast?
Dini: Yes, she is. I’m kind of working on who that is and finalizing to what degree they’re going to show up. But she has a group of friends who are from all over the place. There are people she’s kind of collected to her, because a lot of times performers will have a group of people… it’s not really an entourage so much, but in Zatanna’s case, it’s almost like an extended family of people who have worked with her, from her stage manager to her assistants to various people who organize her schedule to her allies in the superhero world to her relationship with her cousin, Zachary Zatara.
Nrama: Is he a regular player in the comic? He’s the kid from Teen Titans, right?
Dini: Yeah, he’s playing a large part of the book. Geoff Johns created the character originally, and I had a few meetings with him where I said, “I’d kind of like to do this with him, if you don’t mind.” He said he was all for it, because he liked the idea of broadening the scope of the character a little bit. Among the Zatara family, it’s pretty splintered, and Zach and Zatanna really only have each other.
Nrama: What’s their relationship like? Did they know each other when they were younger?
Dini: When they were younger, she was a teenager and Zach was a kid, and Zatanna was working on her abilities as Zach was just becoming aware of his. So she was the one he looked up to. And then her career both as a performer and a heroine took off. So he kind of got left behind; he was left at a difficult age to figure things out for himself. So there’s a familial bond between them, but there’s also this competition and resentment and some hurt feelings there, even when they get together and try to work things out. It’s a fairly contentious relationship. But it’s a fun relationship because it’s fun writing a family of all-powerful wizards who struggle with the same problems other families have.
Nrama: So are we going to see her “day job” of being a stage magician?
Dini: It’s does play into it, and some stories just lend themselves to her being on the road. It puts her into interesting locations. It broadens the scope of her adventures. I really didn’t want to always be doing stories where she’s at home. She does have a home – she has several homes, actually – and she spends her time between the places, or else being on call with organizations like the Justice League. She leads a fairly harried and scattered life, and that kind of wears her down after awhile.
Nrama: What’s the first issue about?
Dini: Stephane and I created this new character we like a lot called Brother Night, who is going to be a recurring villain in the series. And he is sort of like a cult leader, like a religious cult leader who, in our minds, rose to prominence in the ‘60s. He gathered a lot of followers during the hippie days and slaughtered those followers in order to gain years on his life. He’s got a very weird look because he’s not exactly old, but he’s been trafficking in souls for years and it’s made him into this ghoulish figure who still has the charisma of a gang leader and someone who is kind of a self-styled polling man.
And Brother Night has set his sights to be the big man as far as the mystical underworld and the human underworld go. Sort of a magic-enhanced lord of crime. The first arc deals with him and the various allies he calls into service. Zatanna finds out about it and puts herself directly in his path and says, “Nope, you’re not doing this.” And that starts a gang war between the human world and the magic world, with the San Francisco Police force caught in the middle of it all.
It’s fun in a weird way. It’s sort of like Dick Tracy with magicians.
Nrama: You mentioned that she’s traveling in the series, yet if it’s magic-based, will there be other dimensions involved?
Dini: Oh yeah. You’re going to see other dimensions, other worlds, parallel universes, nightmares, dreamscapes, just about everything. The second issue is all set in a nightmare world, with a villain that exists primarily in nightmares.
Nrama: What’s her home base? She has the mansion in Gotham, doesn’t she?
Dini: Yeah, she has a house in Gotham and she has one in San Francisco. And the house in Gotham is sort of her dad’s estate, and it’s a repository for all sorts of magical items and everything. And her place in San Francisco is kind of hers, and that’s where she goes between tours. She has her own set of friends there. The Gotham place is more like, when she’s in town, she goes there, or when she mystically travels from one realm or place to another. But I think the Gotham place is more like going to a library or a museum. For her, it’s almost like Zatanna’s own “Fortress of Solitude,” so she can go in there when she needs to study up on something. She can consult her father’s library or his vast trophy room of mystical treasures. When she wants to be by herself or with her friends, or just rest up, she’s got her townhouse in San Francisco and she likes that a lot.
Nrama: Is Zatanna still active in the JLA while she’s in the series?
Dini: Yeah, off and on. I don’t anticipate doing a lot of Justice League episodes, although the second issue, we do see her being called into service to help some of her friends solve a problem, and that certainly could be a springboard for stories. But what’s happening in the Justice League is kind of off in its own world right now, and if she appears over there, that’s great; if she’s in an ongoing epic over there, that’s fine. The stories that I’m doing are more about her day-to-day stories and what happens when she’s not working in the team setting.
Nrama: You mentioned that she’ll be fighting against criminals who are wielding magic. Does that mean most of the villains in the series will be magical in nature?
Dini: Yes and no. I think you’re going to see primarily villains with some kind of edge mystically, or that are sort of magic-based. But I’m looking at putting in some more human-type, regular villains. In some cases some familiar faces. In Issue #4, we have her going up against the Royal Flush Gang. Kind of a newer version of the Royal Flush Gang, but still recognizable.
I mostly want to create new villains and use old favorites when I can. But for the most part, I want to make her world interesting and colorful and give her a very colorful supporting cast, and a rogue’s gallery of villains that are pretty much hers alone.
Nrama: There was always a romance underlying her friendship with Bruce Wayne, as you explored it in Detective Comics. Now that we’ve been told Bruce Wayne is returning, is there any chance we’ll see her as part of his return somehow?
Dini: I’m probably not going to go back to that anytime soon. When I originally did it, I had a very specific story to tell and had some fun with it. And then it was one of those things where it’s like, “Hey, everybody likes these characters together! You want to put her in regularly?” I was like, “No.” But I did flesh out the relationship a little bit. But at that point, I had said everything I wanted to say about their relationship. If anyone else wants to pick it up and add to it, that’s fine. But you know, I don’t think Zatanna and Bruce would be a particularly good thing. I think there’s a bit of a friendship there and a regard for each other, but I don’t see it as an ongoing thing.
Nrama: Then will we see romance elsewhere in this series for Zatanna?
Dini: Oh yeah. I plan to have her get involved. She’s a single girl, so there will be a few people who pop up in her life before she settles down, if in fact she ever does. But that’s something I want to explore with her, and that’s probably another reason I’m not going to go back to the Bruce Wayne-Zatanna relationship right away. I sort of want to take her into different areas, as far as that goes.
Nrama: There are a lot of things in Zatanna’s past stories that have been explored – some to a greater degree than others. For example, we’ve all seen the mindwipe explored, and there were the events of the Grant Morrison-penned Zatanna series, and she just recently fought a Black Lantern version of her father. Will any of these be referred to in your stories, or are you trying to make a fresh start?
Dini: I’m going to look at everything in her history and I may revisit some things that worked well and were defining as far as the character goes. Maybe not everything, but one of the things I’ve been doing is reading the past appearances of the character to see where she’s been and what I feel would work as something to bring up again in her ongoing book.
Nrama: We saw some of the pages from Stephane Roux. Did he come up with the new look for her costume?
Dini: Yep. My wife and I actually just had dinner with him last night, and he came up with a few amazing twists on her outfit. He was very enthusiastic about taking little elements that she’s always had then just tweaking them and putting his own spin on it. He even went out and had an entire costume made that looks like his version of the costume. And one of the things we had discussed was giving her a cape at some point, because it’s always dramatic when a magician makes an entrance wearing a cape. And he came up with this great cape that kind of flows around her and it interacts with the tails of her jacket. And it gives it this look almost like a butterfly when she appears, giving her almost an angelic look. And he really rethought the costume and how it would work as a superhero costume and as a stage outfit. And if you go to his website [editor’s note: His website can be found here], it shows in detail how he’s having the costume made and everything.
It’s funny, last night we were going through my wife’s collection of top hats. My wife, Misty, is a magician also. And she was showing, well this hat is for this performance and this one is for that performance. And this is the one that pops up. And the hat is easier to make work in a comic. The hat works great if you’re making an appearance, or if you’re being dramatic. But usually, she’s going to lose the hat when she’s on stage. In real life, it tends to get in the way; it hides what you’re doing. It was funny that Stephane said he was sort of having the same problem when he was drawing it, because he put in stage level lighting and shading and you couldn’t see her face. So it was like, “Yep, lose the hat.” But you can draw it any way you want in comics, really.
Nrama: What do you think he brings to this series?
Dini: Oh, he just does a killer job on the art. Every time I see pages from him, I just sit there and go, “Man, this is so good.” Not only does he draw the Zatanna character really well, but the worlds are just terrific. And he’s very collaborative, like he’ll say, “I like what’s in the script, but how about we go a little more Steve Ditko with it?” And I’ll say, “What are you thinking?” And he’ll tell me, and I’ll say, “Sure! That sounds cool!” And we’ll rework it and it’ll just be incredible. So it’s really coming from our mutual passion for that sort of storytelling.
Nrama: It seems like you’ve used Zatanna quite a bit, so it’s interesting to hear your wife is a magician. Do you think this is a special character, and are you drawn to her?
Dini: Yeah, and I think one of the reasons is that she’s sort of tabula rasa. There hasn’t been a lot done with her. With Wonder Woman, I did one story with Alex Ross and I had a lot of fun doing it, but I don’t think I could do a Wonder Woman book on a regular basis, because there’s so much history there, and so much mythology and everything. And certainly Zatanna, like I said, has had 45 years of history. She’s had Grant’s series and she had the Zatanna: Come Together series. But really, there weren’t a lot of alternate versions of her and conflicting histories or anything.
So I felt that with Zatanna, I had a chance to do a story about a strong, driven woman.
It’s also fun to do a book that’s set in the modern world of celebrity; kind of a backstage book in the world of show business and the paparazzi. I thought it would interesting to look at how someone like Zatanna would deal with it. It’s a life that I find more interesting than a lot of the superhero stories where it’s pretty much a hero or heroine who deals with a regular job or family or something like that. Zatanna’s world is very hectic, both onstage and off, and that kind of energy is very fun to capture.